This is a big year for the Cleveland Browns, from players to front office personnel. The current front office has appeared to have a couple of solid drafts, culminating in changing the face of the offense in 2012 with the additions of Brandon Weeden at quarterback and Trent Richardson at running back. Will the decisions they made end up paying off? Hopefully, but what about right off the bat, in Week 1, against the Philadelphia Eagles? Our full position-by-position breakdown for the Eagles vs. Browns game, as well as my prediction, is after the jump.
Since the Browns returned to the league, Brandon Weeden will be the team's first rookie quarterback to start the team's first game of the season (if you recall, Tim Couch did not start until the second game of his season). Setting those expectations right from the get-go was a necessity for Weeden's development. His arm alone will improve Cleveland's passing game, but it will be difficult for him to avoid the Eagles' pass rush for four quarters. We already saw him react negatively to pressure in the preseason against Philadelphia.
Michael Vick missed the majority of the preseason with a bruised thumb and bruised ribs. He is reckless and is certainly not one of the league's more accurate quarterbacks. On a good day, though, he will frustrate defenses with his escapability, extend plays, and use his arm strength to make a play. The Eagles get the advantage here because Weeden has not been able to showcase his potential during the regular season yet.
Not including the times when Vick runs, LeSean McCoy is the Eagles workhorse back. In many ways, I think you can liken McCoy's abilities in running and catching the football to the expectations that Trent Richardson faces. Richardson practiced all week for the Browns after missing the preseason, and it appears as though he'll be ready for the opener.
The question still looms on how many carries Richardson will receive. You even have to wonder if the Browns will start Montario Hardesty and use Richardson as a substitute back for the first week, much like the Jaguars are doing with Maurice-Jones Drew. I expect Richardson to start and see 60 percent of the snaps, with Hardesty and Brandon Jackson seeing the other 40 percent of the snaps.
The Eagles' receivers boast a lot of speed, and DeSean Jackson is trying to get his head on straight for the 2012 season after some questionable efforts in 2011. Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek are a very capable group, but Cleveland has the depth at cornerback to cover them.
The Browns' receiving situation is interesting. Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi are expected to start. Little will shift to the slot in three-receiver sets, allowing Josh Gordon to come in on the outside. Travis Benjamin figures to play in four-receiver sets, and might be sprinkled into to a few other sets due to his ability to stretch the field. We'll see Benjamin Watson available to Weeden for the first time. Those two reportedly had good chemistry with each other during offseason programs prior to Watson missing training camp. None of that even mentions Jordan Cameron, who was the Browns' highlight of camp. Are there too many "cooks in the kitchen" as receivers? Until I see how everyone's playing time is coordinated (and if these guys hang onto the football), I can't give them the advantage.
The Browns have had some injury-issues when it comes to their depth on the offensive line, and it looks like they may only go with seven total offensive linemen on gameday. Thankfully, all of their starters are healthy, and if someone does go down, John Greco has experience at every position. The Browns' offensive line struggled against Philadelphia's front four in the preseason, but it is kind of an advantage for them to have that exposure. They've had time to rectify their mistakes for when it counts.
The Eagles have had a long time to adjust to the loss of Jason Peters at left tackle, but they are still pretty weak at the position. They have settled on King Dunlap, who has not looked very good. The trickle down effect from losing Peters will flow down to left guard Evan Mathis, and can hurt the games of McCoy and Vick.
In my scouting report from the Eagles earlier in the week, I praised their speed up front. The big match-up we have to be concerned with is Jason Babin (18 sacks in 2011) going up against Mitchell Schwartz. I thought Schwartz showed progress as the preseason progressed, but the rookie clearly still has some work to do and he's facing one of the league's best right off the bat. The scary thing with the Eagles is that they are so deep on the line.
To open the first game of the season, is Cleveland's defensive line better than it was a year ago, even without Phil Taylor? The team had a big hole at right defensive end last year (Jayme Mitchell), but they patched it in the offseason with Frostee Rucker, a guy who is supposed to really help improve the run defense and be a leader. Rucker is going up against Dunlap. Jabaal Sheard will be working against Vick's blind side, so he may have some cracks at forcing a fumble. Either Billy Winn or John Hughes will start in place of Taylor, but I think fans are intrigued to see how both guys do after having pretty good camps.
The addition of Scott Fujita in Week 1 is huge. There are reports that he might not play since he missed practice all week, but I would not understand that. Sure, maybe he shouldn't see normal starter reps, but he has only been off for one week. He'll have two days to prepare schematically for the game, and he also scouted the Eagles during the preseason.
I'm sure Fujita has worked out on his own this week, so fatigue shouldn't be an issue. Does missing a couple of practices really make it necessary to have Tank Carder in the game over Fujita? I don't think so. Fujita, D'Qwell Jackson, and Kaluka Maiava form a better trio than DeMeco Ryans, Akeem Jordan, and Mychal Kendricks of the Eagles. Ryans is not the same player he once was with the Texans, and Jordan is not a difference maker.
With the pressure that the Eagles' front four brings, it benefits the man-to-man coverage skills that cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie have. It is a reason the Eagles can get away with inferior linebackers, but with the right gameplan, there is a way to expose the Eagles. Weeden will have to trust his arm and perhaps target Asomugha. While Asomugha is good in coverage, he doesn't have the best ball skills.
Cleveland's depth at cornerback is very impressive, all the way from Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown, Dimitri Patterson, and Buster Skrine. Forget about whether Haden is an elite corner or not. The fact is that these four guys are very competent and help the front seven with their coverage abilities. This will be the first regular season game that T.J. Ward and Eric Hagg start together. Ward delivered some hard hits during the preseason, but the jury is still out on whether Hagg has a niche or not.
The Eagles are going with youth at their return positions with cornerback Brandon Boykin on kicks and wide receiver Damaris Johnson on punts. The Eagles struggled returning kicks and punts last year, so it's hard to see where they project heading into Week 1. Cleveland will go with Joshua Cribbs in both areas after resting him much of the preseason. The Browns have the edge at kicker and punter; Philadelphia held a competition at punter this camp, but incumbent Chas Henry came out victorious.
Cleveland had some concerns with the punt protection unit in the third and fourth preseason games, but I really do think both cases were anomalies. One involved a now-released wide receiver not being a good blocker, and the other involved a rare misstep by a guy who has played special teams for several years (Kaluka Maiava). If something happens again, blame Tabor.
The opening game of the NFL season. What a delight, right? Here is a statistic for sore eyes, which many of us are already aware of: since 1999, Cleveland is a putrid 1-12 in their opening game of the season. If there was ever a year in which Cleveland could break that trend, it would be 2012, when they've made major changes at two key positions: quarterback and running back.
I liked what Brandon Weeden showed with his ability to throw the ball on a rope during the preseason, but I was worried about some of the protections issues the Browns' starting line faced and how Weeden had trouble hanging onto the ball any time he was breathed on. Cleveland has to win the turnover battle against the Eagles, and unfortunately, they will fall short of that of that goal.
FINAL PREDICTION: Philadelphia Eagles 20, Cleveland Browns 17
-Game Time, TV Schedule, and Odds for Eagles vs. Browns
-Scouting the Philadelphia Eagles, Week 1
-Predict the Browns' First Offensive Play, Tackle, and Touchdown
-Pokorny's Week 1 NFL Picks
-Practice/Injury Report for Eagles/Browns