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Browns vs. Eagles: NFL Week 1 Preview and Prediction

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This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Philadelphia Eagles to kick off the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation


Quarterback

  • When the Philadelphia Eagles made Carson Wentz the No. 2 overall pick of the draft, it didn’t seem likely that he would play right away, given the fact that Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel were also on the roster. Dealing Bradford last week changed things.
  • I was surprised that Doug Pederson opted to start Wentz over Daniel. We’re talking about a guy who only played in the first preseason game before fracturing a rib. He saw his first work with the first-team offense this past week.
  • Wentz is a big quarterback at 6-5, 235 lbs. He has the mobility factor that might make you compare him to a Ben Roethlisberger, but don't expect him to have anywhere near the same awareness in the pocket.
  • Cleveland gets the edge at quarterback this week because of how little work Wentz has had with the guys he’ll be with on Sunday. Robert Griffin III, on the other hand, has been entrenched in the Browns system all offseason. When it comes to following the script, Griffin and the Browns have a definite leg up.
  • Griffin’s strength this preseason has been throwing the deep ball, which is set up by a good running game. I feel we really only saw the Browns’ creative offense under Hue Jackson on display in the second preseason game — that is where the read-option was deployed a couple of times effectively.

Running Back

  • In my head, I always think of Ryan Mathews as a back who has underachieved in this league, but it doesn't show based on his stats. In 6 years worth of work, he has a 4.5 yards per carry average. In his first year with Philly in 2015, he had 5.1 yards per carry (although that was in a Chip Kelly offense). Mathews' Achilles heel has always been staying healthy for an entire year, but that won’t be a big factor when you’re looking at the “one game at a time” approach here.
  • 33-year-old Darren Sproles is Philadelphia’s backup running back. It’ll be interesting to see if age catches up with him one of these years, but his primary assignment should remain a receiving role. If the Eagles need another option, Kenjon Barner would get some carries.
  • I’ve talked many times about Isaiah Crowell’s “seasons in a season” last year, in which he had stretches of being OK, terrible, and then fantastic to close out the season. Much of that was based on the team’s run blocking scheme, something that it unfortunately took the team three-fourths of a season to adjust. When I evaluated Hue Jackson’s running game this preseason, I came away impressed with the offensive line, and Crowell has been finishing his runs really well.
  • I think one of the surprises this year might be that we see Crowell as more of a 65/35 back in terms of playing time, meaning Duke Johnson is truly more of a reserve rather than a 50/50 split some people anticipated. Johnson was very effective as a rookie in the receiving game, and there’s no reason to think those abilities have gone away. However, we also don’t know what the chemistry is like between he and Robert Griffin III.

Wide Receiver / Tight End

  • The Eagles’ top receiver is Jordan Matthews, now in his third year. He proved to be a 1,000-yard, 8-touchdown type of receiver in his first two years, but most of that action came from the slot. He’ll still see most of his work there, but Doug Pederson should be using him on the outside too. He missed the entire preseason due to a knee injury, which adds to the chemistry issues that might arise on offense.
  • Matthews is Philadelphia’s oldest receiver at 24 years of age. Nelson Agholor, the team’s first-round pick a year ago, has really struggled this preseason with his route running and ability to catch the ball.
  • The team recently traded for Dorial Green-Beckham of the Titans. In his second year, he’s a very big target at 6-5, 237 lbs. He beat Joe Haden last year for a 13-yard touchdown catch. Josh Huff is the team’s other receiver who should be in the mix. Right now, the Eagles aren’t tipping their hand about which of the two receivers between Agholor, Green-Beckham, and Huff will see the bulk of playing time. My bet is that Agholar is the odd man out.
  • The Eagles have a solid tight end tandem in Zach Ertz and Brent Celek. Ertz is the younger and better receiver, but Celek’s hands aren’t an issue. The veteran has been used in more of a blocking role over the past few years, but pass protection isn’t an area that either player particular excels at.
  • Technically, Terrelle Pryor started two games for the Browns at wide receiver last year. That was a completely different version of Pryor, though, in terms of confidence and comfort at the position. If I had to pick the biggest surprise of the offseason, it would be how well Pryor has transitioned to receiver. His strength so far is as a deep threat, and running comeback routes. We haven’t seen him utilized over the middle of the field yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if the club is holding that back, or if they are worried about his inexperience taking blind shots over the middle.
  • Corey Coleman will be the other starting receiver, with Andrew Hawkins in the slot. Neither player got much work in the preseason, but I’m not too concerned about Hawkins, who should be used in the standard slot role.
  • I don’t know what to expect from Coleman. Given how much time he missed in camp and some of the confusion he seemed to have in the final preseason game, I don’t know if we can expect him to play every snap like a starting receiver typically would. The team’s other options are Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, and Ricardo Louis, and really none of them have had much work with Griffin.
  • Gary Barnidge’s stunning season in 2015 wasn’t a fluke. All he needed was someone to recognize his ability and give him a shot, and now he’s going to be a factor for the long haul. Randall Telfer will see some work in two tight end sets as the blocker, but could be a sneaky big target for Griffin off of heavy playaction fakes. I wouldn’t expect to see much of Seth DeValve yet — I don’t even know if he’ll be active.

Offensive Line

  • The Eagles' starting offensive line consists of LT Jason Peters, LG Allen Barbre, C Jason Kelce, RG Brandon Brooks, and RT Lane Johnson.
  • Peters and Kelce have had track records of being among the best tackles and centers in the NFL. Peters has had some injuries over the past couple of years and isn’t as dominant as he once was, though. Barbre is the team’s lower-ranked lineman, particularly in run blocking. Johnson is the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL, and is being paid left tackle money so he can take over for Peters one day.
  • The Browns lost Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz this offseason, which is enough to make anyone gasp. All is not lost, though, because Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, and John Greco are three solid pieces. Aside from some high snaps (which is my biggest concern with him), Cameron Erving’s transition to center has been...not too bad, actually. The right tackle position is the biggest sore spot, with Austin Pasztor manning the position for now.
  • Erving and Pasztor are pretty good-looking run blockers. I still worry about how well our offensive line will do once teams stunt, something they don’t do in the preseason. Spencer Drango should see action as an extra lineman in run-heavy packages.

Defensive Line

  • The Eagles run a 4-3 front with DE Brandon Graham, DT Fletcher Cox, DT Bennie Logan, and DE Connor Barwin.
  • How good is Cox? He got a 6-year, $103 million contract this offseason with $63 million guaranteed. He is a dominant pass-rushing threat from the interior — he registered 9.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles last year. Erving will have his work cut out for him. Graham is also a good pass-rushing threat.
  • Do you remember how bad the Browns’ run defense was last year? Well, get this — the Eagles were even worse, allowing 134.6 yards per game. This is very much a pass-rushing front as opposed to a run-stuffing one, which should play to what Hue Jackson wants to accomplish. Jim Schwartz has taken over Philly’s defense, though, so maybe he’ll have things improved.
  • The Browns’ starters on the defensive line are listed as Danny Shelton at nose tackle, and Xavier Cooper and John Hughes on the ends. However, I would not be surprised if we end up seeing Cleveland in a lot of 4-3 looks, with Carl Nassib on the line and Stephen Paea or Jamie Meder rotating at the tackle positions. This unit is generally unproven, and a lot of their success hinges on how well Shelton does as a sophomore. Based on his preseason, it’s going to be rough to start the season.

Linebacker

  • The Eagles' starting linebackers include OLB Nigel Bradham, MLB Jordan Hicks, and OLB Mychal Kendricks. Overall, this is Philadelphia’s weakest unit on defense, particularly because of their lack of depth after the starting three.
  • Bradham started for Schwartz in 2014 as a member of the Bills, finishing with a career-high 104 tackles. Hicks showed a lot of promise as a rookie before a season-ending injury. He’s expected to play several linebacker positions, with veteran Stephen Tulloch being rotated into the mix on the inside too.
  • The Browns could be in for a breakout season when it comes to Christian Kirksey. Even though Demario Davis is a captain on defense, in terms of play, Kirksey had an edge this preseason that many others on defense lacked. Davis’ pass coverage abilities leave a lot to be desired, and Philadelphia would be wise to try to get Darren Sproles or one of their tight ends on him.
  • Cleveland is very young at the outside linebacker position, going with two rookies, Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert, along with second-year man Nate Orchard, as their trio of primary options this year. If the Browns are in nickel defense a lot, though, collectively they may not see a ton of playing time. All three have pass-rushing potential, but still need to prove themselves against the run.

Secondary

  • The Eagles' outside cornerbacks are Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll, with Ron Brooks playing nickelback. This is McKelvin’s and Brooks’ first year outside of Buffalo, but both have played for Jim Schwartz before, so that familiarity factor has practically been transplanted to Philly. They, along with Carroll, form a respectable, but not a shutdown, type of unit.
  • The strength of the secondary for the Eagles comes at the safety position, where Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will start. McLeod comes over from the Rams and is a player I wanted the Browns to target this past offseason when they weren’t planning on retaining Tashaun Gipson. He is a very good coverage safety and can also lay the wood, forcing seven fumbles in his young career.
  • We know that Hue Jackson and Ray Horton really believe in Jamar Taylor, but until I see him in the regular season, the jury is still out on him. We also haven’t seen much of Joe Haden this preseason; in fact, I don’t even remember him being targeted. If there is anything that can flip the script for Cleveland’s defense to go from looking super-porous to having a lot of potential, it could stem from Haden re-gaining his old form and confidence as a shutdown cornerback.
  • Of all the positions on defense, safety is my biggest concern for the Browns, again due to inexperience. Jordan Poyer and Ibraheim Campbell were basically handed the starting jobs by default. It’s hard to tell without All-22 film, but this preseason, teams had a lot of room to work with over the middle of the field. We cold also see Derrick Kindred in the mix for a few snaps.

Special Teams

  • Cleveland will have a kicker and a punter making their regular season debut in a Browns uniform on Sunday. Patrick Murray had made all of his kicks this preseason and (from what I could tell) in camp before botching a short one in the final preseason game. Britton Colquitt had a good track record in Denver, but how will his averages fare when he’s not in Mile High?
  • The Eagles’ kicker if Caleb Sturgis. He hit on 18-of-22 field goals last year and missed two extra points. His career average is at 78.5%, which isn't the greatest. Their punter is Donnie Jones. His net average came in at 41.6 yards per punt, good for 6th in the NFL last year and about 2 yards better than Colquitt.
  • On the depth chart, WR Josh Huff is listed as the kick returner with RB Darren Sproles as the punt returner. Sproles had two punt returns for touchdowns last year and is always a threat to break the big one from that spot.
  • Cleveland listed RB Duke Johnson and CB Tramon Williams as their kick and punt returners, respectively. However, don’t be surprised if it actually ends up being RB George Atkinson and WR Corey Coleman who handle the duties.
  • We’ll have to see how special teams coordinator Chris Tabor coaches the kickoff returner — if it’s deep, is a definite “do not return” so the offense can start at the 25 yard line? You might as well, even if it’s just to avoid the holding penalties that set you back.

Predictions

This year, we’re going to list predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN. If they opt to participate each week, we’ll also keep running tallies of everyone’s record in picking Browns games.


Chris Pokorny: “I’ve had to talk myself in so many different directions regarding this game. My first instinct is to say that Wentz’ inexperience will really hinder Philadelphia’s ability to sustain drives. Then, I start thinking about how poor Cleveland’s run defense looks, along with the coverage liabilities at linebacker and safety.

Philadelphia is solid at probably the three most important offensive line positions — left tackle, center, and right tackle. If they were facing a defense like Carolina or Denver, it’d be a disaster for Philadelphia. But Cleveland still seems generally slow when it comes to generating pressure, except for Carl Nassib. Can good scheming by Ray Horton overcome that? I don’t know. But isn’t it possible that Wentz just flat out makes a lot of rookie mistakes, regardless of the fact that he’s facing a below average unit?

On offense, I like Cleveland’s match-up in the running game, going against the worst run defense in the NFL last year. Philadelphia has changed things up in their system, but enough of the same personnel is there to where it won’t be a strong point for them, and I think Cleveland’s offensive line will surprise people based on the initial run push they generated this preseason. If the Eagles commit to the run, then Robert Griffin III can make the big plays with his legs or via the long ball.

This game should be a coin flip, and I’d be surprised if either team ran away with it. I’ll predict enough rookie mistakes from Wentz for Cleveland to squeak by.” Browns 20, Eagles 17


Matt Wood: “I think this comes down to the run game and the Browns inability to stop it. (P.S. I started Ryan Mathews in every FanDuel league I'm in this week). I think the Eagles will try and protect Wentz and the Browns won't be able to stop the run. On offense I think they will have some success through the air, but the OL won't be able to protect for 60 minutes leading to some late turnovers which will be the difference. Hope I'm wrong.” Eagles 31, Browns 21.


Zach Miller: “Wentz throws a pick early and the Browns take a halftime lead, but quickly give it back in the third quarter. RG3 leads a comeback attempt in the 4th, but falls short and the Browns lose. Think this one boils down to QB play. I am very interested to see how both QB's play. Given their drastically different backgrounds and situations, this is a fascinating match-up. I am guessing neither will have a particularly great day on paper. On offense, the Browns have some skill players now and it's up to RG3 to put them in a position to make plays. For Wentz, who the hell knows what will happen, but I'm excited to watch it unfold.” Eagles 27, Browns 21.


Jon Stinchcomb: “The Browns are largely young and inexperienced. I think that's going to be an area of weakness, especially in early on in the season. While I think Carson Wentz may give the Browns a couple giveaways, I think the Cleveland defense could struggle to get enough consistent pressure. On the other side of the ball, though I think the Pryor-Coleman starting WR situation is intriguing, it's very far from ideal and the Eagles' secondary should be able to keep them in check. It's been over 10 years since the Browns won a season opener and it's hard to see this team being the one to break the unfortunate streak. I hope they prove me wrong.” Eagles 24, Browns 10.


Josh Finney: “I struggled to come up with the final score here, because I ultimately think this will be a relatively low scoring game, and here's why:

1. The Eagles will run the ball effectively, but there's very little that will keep the Browns from just run blitzing the hell out of that line. The Eagles front 5 is one of the best in the league (With Peters/Lane bookending capable guards and a Pro-Bowl caliber center in Kelce) but literally anything they get from Wentz should be a bonus. Big Ben had more passing attempts in college than Wentz had TOTAL SNAPS after high school. (including his 35 second team reps in the preseason, or whatever it was) Pederson will dial up a screen heavy, dumpoff, slant-centric passing game for Wentz that will keep him around 20 attempts in low-pressure situations. Eventually, drives stutter when you're one dimensional.

2. I expect most (75%) of the Browns drives to end with either: missed blocking assignment leading to early pass pressure, missed blocking assignment leading to RB stuffed in the backfield, or wide receiver drop/bad route. Pryor and Coleman are incredibly raw, and there's no wiley vet to move the chains in the passing game. The Eagles will look for misdirections and screen passes, and force the Browns to beat them in the intermediate area of the field.

3. While Hue Jackson is (IMO) the best coach on the field in this one (and it feels great to say that) the Eagles coordinators are experienced and talented. They're better in the trenches, they'll get consistent pressure and dominate the run game and TOP. I can't imagine the Browns winning if that's the case, unless they pull a 2012 opener and force 3-4 turnovers.” Eagles 21, Browns 13.


Dan Lalich: “If you had asked me this before the Eagles traded Same Bradford, I would have picked the Eagles to run away with it. Without him, I actually think the Browns are the favorite. Neither team will score much, though both will flash at moments. At the end of the day, I think the Browns are better geared toward big plays than the Eagles, and that's how these teams will have to score.” Browns 11, Eagles 5.


Joe Ginley: “The Eagles turn the ball over on offense, especially with Carson Wentz at the helm, but run the ball enough to win. RG3 connects with Corey Coleman for a 50-yard touchdown, but turnovers and miscues on special teams prevent the Browns from winning this one.” Eagles 17, Browns 13

Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!