The 2015 opening weekend of the NFL is finally upon us with the Cleveland Browns set to take the field on Sunday on the road against the New York Jets. It has been a long offseason and preseason since we last watched a meaningful NFL game. The Browns made a lot of changes over the offseason and have a lot of new faces on the team. It will be an interesting season for the Browns to see if they can catch up to the competition in the AFC North, building off of a 7-9 season a year ago.
With that, here are my ten bold predictions for the Browns 2015 NFL season.
The Browns were horrible against the run last season, giving up 141.6 rushing yards per game, which was last in the NFL. But, this offseason the Browns overhauled their defensive line to fix this problem. The rebuild started with the drafting of the centerpiece of the defensive line, Danny Shelton. Shelton is a huge run-stuffing lineman who will help clog up the interior running lanes for offenses. The Browns also added veteran Randy Starks and rookie Xavier Cooper to bolster the defensive line depth. Another factor that will help improve the run defense is that the team will be in their second year under the same Mike Pettine defensive scheme. I believe the Browns will show a huge improvement in their run defense.
The Browns running back group is a two-headed backfield after the trade of Terrance West. Isaiah Crowell is slated to be the starting running back and the back who takes the majority of the carries, but I believe Duke Johnson will end the season with more rushing yards. Johnson has great agility and speed to make defenders miss and go for big chunks of yards. The former Miami (FL) running back has the talent to be a true playmaker for the Browns offense. Crowell has an issue with fumbling, so he could be relied less upon if this problem resurfaces. The big thing for Johnson will be staying healthy through the entire NFL season. These reasons give me the opinion that Duke Johnson will out-rush Isaiah Crowell this season.
Travis Benjamin had a horrible year last season as the Browns punt returner. But, that was his first season back from a serious ACL tear. This preseason, Benjamin looked a lot more comfortable in the return game, even returning a punt for touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His speed is unmatched by most in the league. I believe he will have a comeback season in the return game and take two punts back for touchdowns.
One of the biggest moves of the offseason was the signing of receiver Brian Hartline. He is a player with sure hands and crisp route running that gives Josh McCown a safety net on the outside. In the little time in the preseason, Hartline was a frequent target of McCown. The former Buckeye has good combination of size, speed, route running and hands to be a reliable redzone target for the offense. That is why I believe Hartline will lead the Browns in receiving touchdowns this season.
The Browns have not been able to play the same starting quarterback under center for all 16 games since 2001. That will continue this season as the Browns face another year of uncertainty at the quarterback position. The Browns added former Rams quarterback Austin Davis this week because of the injury concern with Johnny Manziel. I believe the team likes Davis and that a injury or lack of production by McCown and/or Manziel will give Davis an opportunity to start a game this season.
Terrelle Pryor’s status with the team was up in the air throughout the preseason, but at the end he made the final 53-man roster. I believe Pryor will be a versatile weapon for the Browns, playing in many different positions and roles on the offense. His value will not be as a true receiver, but as a player who can make plays in many different situations. Pryor will line up wide as a receiver and also in the backfield as the wildcat quarterback. The Browns will be able to use him as mismatch for opposing defenses.
The Browns upgraded an already talented secondary by replacing Buster Skrine with veteran Tramon Williams. Williams gives the Browns a really good starting cornerback duo with Joe Haden. The starting safeties, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson, are both Pro Bowl level talents who have very complementary skillsets to each other. The starting four in the secondary can stand up with the best in the league. But to make the secondary even better, the Browns have very good depth throughout. K’Waun Williams, Pierre Desir and Justin Gilbert are three young corners who give the Browns good options as third and fourth corners. At safety, Jordan Poyer and rookie Ibraheim Campbell are also solid options as backups. The secondary is talented on top and deep throughout.
E.J. Bibbs was probably the breakout star of the preseason as an undrafted free agent. He has the athleticism and receiving skills that is unmatched by anyone else on the Browns tight end depth chart. He will soon prove to be a mismatch for defenses, making him a valuable player in the Browns passing game. Bibbs brings the best receiving skills of all the tight ends on the team, so he will gain more playing time because of this fact.
Christian Kirksey had a solid season in his rookie year, sharing time with Craig Robertson as the starting inside linebacker next to Karlos Dansby. But this season, I believe Kirksey will separate himself from Robertson and be the solo starter next to Dansby at the inside linebacker spots. Kirksey has great athleticism that allows him to quickly get to the ball and make plays in the pass and run defense. He has good coverage skills, which is important in the pass-happy NFL. His major improvement will be between his ears where he will become more comfortable with the game, pairing his football intelligence with his already impressive athleticism.
At full strength, the Browns have one of the best offensive lines in the entire NFL. This line will be the major reason for an improved Browns offense I believe we will see this season. The offensive line will give time to passing game and holes for the running game. We saw a snippet of how the offense can play behind the full strength offensive line last season, scoring 26.8 points a game in the first five games of the season with a full strength line. That would have ranked as the eighth best points per game average in the NFL last season. This gives me the belief that the Browns can return to that form this season with all five linemen of the offensive healthy.