While Josh Gordon's suspension hangs in the balances of Justice, I'm here to tell you that it's not all bad for the Brown & Orange. Actually, quite the contrary.
In all honesty, it's probably too early to tell exactly what to make of the 2014 Cleveland Browns, but I can say that I for one, am VERY excited to see what this team has to offer.
With the Browns wrapping up their OTA's the other week, the attention now turns towards official training camp at the end of July, we'll have a dead period the next few weeks, so I'll take a look at 5 things I'm excited for post-OTA/heading into Camp, and why you should be excited as well.
1. QB BATTLE
Okay, I'll concede that this is: A.) the most obvious choice, and B.) the most heated debate we can have. While there are some in the "If you have 2 QB's, you have none," camp. There are others that embrace the battle and feel it will bring out the best of both players. I find myself somewhere in the middle. While I do believe that Johnny Manziel, long term, is the better option, I certainly want to see what Hoyer brings to the table once he's fully recovered.
Heading into training camp, the most exciting thing the Browns have going for them is Johnny Manziel VS. Brian Hoyer. For Browns fans anymore it's like debating Coke or Pepsi, there's always going to be a back and forth when talking Hoyer/Manziel. But, I say that's a good thing for the Browns.
Manziel was the poster boy for college football the past few years, for better or for worse. He's coming into camp not as Johnny Football, but as Johnny Manziel...the rookie. And that's the point. He needs to go into his first official training camp in the NFL exactly what he is, a rookie. That means he needs to prove himself in camp and show that he can beat out Hoyer for the job.
HC Mike Pettine said recently that Hoyer is "securely ahead" of Johnny Manziel at this point, but the question remains who will actually win out during camp. Thus, why we can all be excited to sit back and watch the two battle it out in camp and see if we can get a better read on the QB situation.
2. ANDREW HAWKINS
While Gordon goes through his aforementioned waiting game on his potential season-long suspension, one WR is certainly giving us something to divert our attention from Gordon (if even for just a little bit).
When the Browns signed Andrew Hawkins to the offer sheet this offseason, there was a lot of excitement about what he could add to a paper-thin WR core, and specifically how he could compliment Josh Gordon. Well, that excitement didn't last long as we heard of the potential Gordon suspension.
However, after OTA's that excitement has returned tenfold (at least for me). Every beat writer in Berea has praised not only the play of Hawkins, but the way he was playing. Running routes as if it were the fourth quarter with the game on the line, but in practice. We've seen the Browns bring in veterans like Nate Burleson and Miles Austin. They brought those guys in for depth purposes and to see if they had any gas left in the tank, but also to be mentors to the Browns' incredibly young WR core. This was obviously attempted last year with Davone Bess, but that went up in smoke (ZING!).
With Hawkins you get both an exciting prospect with speed to burn, as well as a guy that has some experience in the league, specifically in the division. We'll see if the OTA excitement carries over into camp and ultimately the season, but so far there's not much to dislike about signing Andrew Hawkins.
3. RUNNING BACKS
It's been a long time since the Browns have had some depth at running back to be excited about. Reuben Droughns and William Green doesn't count. Things may finally be on the up swing for the Browns' RB's.
Trading Trent Richardson last year started the backfield overhaul (a trade that I loved at the time, and ultimately got us Manziel). The Browns then added Ben Tate in free agency, as well as Terrance West in the third round the draft. UDFA Isaiah Crowell could also get some looks at RB if he makes the roster.
However you may feel about signing an oft-injured RB like Ben Tate, there's no denying that the Browns are putting an emphasis on running the football this offseason. West recently signed with the club and is should go into camp as #2 on the depth chart, and may even battle for the starting job at some point this season. West is a small school back that put up absurd numbers in his career (2,509 yards, 41 TD's in 2013), how that translates to the NFL remains to be seen, but there's definitely reason to be excited about his prospects.
Crowell is a kid with tons of talent, but bounced around in college due to some rather troubling off-the-field issues. He has yet to make the team, but if he can keep straight, and work hard, there's no denying his talent and he should be able to make the roster. If the Browns have Tate, West, and Crowell as their primary backs, throw in Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis, and Edwin Baker as further options, running back could shape up as one of the Browns strengths.
I know that sounds crazy, but I believe the Browns got absolute steals on both West and Crowell this draft. Add them to Tate/Ogbonnaya/Lewis/Baker, and I'm thrilled at the RB prospects this year.
In addition to the new RB's, the new zone-blocking scheme of OC Kyle Shanahan, should also help the Browns excel in the run game. The way Shanahan used RGIII and Alfred Morris in Washington can be somewhat of a benchmark what we can expect to see in regards to Manziel and Tate/West.
It should be an exciting backfield with loads of upside for the Browns not only this season, but for years to come.
4. JABAAL SHEARD
Former DC Ray Horton started the transition of Jabaal Sheard last year from a pure 4-3 DE, to a hybrid LB. Through the first few games it looked as though Sheard was set to have a breakout season. A sprained knee sidelined him for a few weeks and he never really got back into form.
This year, Sheard has looked great throughout OTA's. Sheard is heading into his fourth season with the Browns and faces a contract year. With all those factors compounded together, you get the feeling that he may just be set for that breakout year.
Mike Pettine has stated a few times that he has big things planned for Sheard this year, and is excited to see what he can do. I'm excited as well. The Browns added some key pieces to the D this offseason that should improve the backend. Adding Karlos Dansby should solidify the ILB role vacated by D'Qwell Jackson, and the secondary should see big improvements by way of signing Donte Whitner and drafting CB's Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir. Having Sheard relinquish some of the dropping back in pass coverage responsibilities should benefit his game immensely. Having added pieces to the backend of the defense should help all around, and allow Sheard to get after the quarterback more consistently this year.
5. OFFENSIVE LINE
Keeping with the theme of an overhauled offense, the offensive line is another group I'm excited for this fall, however there should actually be consistency to this group as opposed to others. On paper, the offensive line figures to be much improved. Plenty of people had high expectations for this OL last year (including myself), and they under-performed.
This year the Browns have added some pieces to an already fairly stable core. With Joe Thomas anchoring the left side seemingly for the rest of his life, and Alex Mack (despite a messy contract situation that was ultimately resolved) at center, the core is there for a very strong o-line. In free agency the Browns added Paul McQuistan, which may not be a sexy addition, but he's got a Super Bowl ring from the Seahawks and has proven serviceable at multiple positions. Additionally, Joel Bitonio was drafted in the second round of the draft to sure up the guard position.
Pro Football Focus rated the Browns as the 6th best pass-protecting offensive line in the NFL in 2013. Assuming the run game is improved, one can project that the offensive line should be near the top in pass-protection again this season.
Barring an injury, one could take a stab at the starting 5 being: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, John Greco, Mitchell Schwartz. With McQuistan and Jason Pinkston being the primary backups. Add in the fact that they'll be running the aforementioned zone-blocking scheme and it's easy to get excited about a good pass-protecting team improving in run blocking and making the whole system come full circle.
Danny Kelly recently ranked the best NFL offensive lines, and the Browns came in his "Contenders" category. Kelly had this to say:
Joe Thomas is a stalwart at left tackle -- one of the best in the game -- as is center Alex Mack, and the two were recognized as such as All-Pros in 2013. Mitchell Schwartz, who was solid at the right tackle position for the Browns last year, will continue to bookend Cleveland's line with Thomas, and veteran John Greco is the likely favorite at right guard. Rookie Joel Bitonio rounds out the projected starting five and his nasty demeanor and high level of athleticism makes him a nice match for Kyle Shanahan's installation of his zone blocking scheme.
While Thomas and Mack anchor the line, there are a couple questions with this bunch, but ultimately it should prove the be a strong point on the roster, not only due to the strength of the players, but also the strength of Shanahan's system as well.
Training camp officially starts in exactly one month. OTAs are over, and we've got our sights set on camp, and before we know it we'll be talking pre-season games. But in the meantime, there's a lot to be excited about being a Browns fan right now. I know we're all in a perpetual cycle of excitement and disapointment. Every year I find myself discussing the fact that "this is our year", eventually to be checking mock draft boards by week 4. This year feels different. I'll still have the same level of excitement I do each training camp, but there are genuine pieces in place to turn some heads this year. Training camp is where it'll all get started.
Clearly I'm not the only one excited, as the Browns have already sold out tickets for the first day of camp. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year that my camp excitement turns out some results on the field.
So what say you, DBN faithful. What are you all most excited about for this year's training tamp?