Heading into the 2011 preseason, there was a tangible fear of the unknown hovering over the Browns' latest rebuilding effort. With a swirl of frenzied post-lockout activity and the tenuous rookie grip held on the team by head coach Pat Shurmur, the immediate fate of the Browns was uncertain. Considering these circumstances, after two preseason games – things could be a lot worse.
Or a lot better – depending on your level of Browns' cynicism.
Leading into the traditional third game "dress rehearsal" of the preseason, there are still many unknowns regarding the 2011 Browns. On the surface, the offense appears energized by the relative efficiency of both Shurmur's playcalling and Colt McCoy's initial preseason performances. Defensively, Dick Jauron's new scheme appears competent, yet many key veteran pieces have yet to settle into place.
Speaking of which, injuries are probably a nice place to start on our list of Browns' unknowns.
After two preseason games, Shurmur and Jauron have yet to witness the on-field presence of vital players such as Mohamed Massaquoi, Montario Hardesty, Chris Gocong and Usama Young, while veterans Eric Steinbach, Ben Watson, Peyton Hillis, T.J. Ward and Scott Fujita have seen limited action.
In the respective cases of Hillis, Watson and Fujita, the idea of veteran preservation far outweighs any temporal gains that could be received from continued preseason action. Considering that Hillis and Watson accounted for virtually all of the Browns' 2010 offensive production, such a move makes perfect sense. The same thought extends to Fujita, who will again serve as the veteran leader of the Browns' defense.
Yet, Massaquoi's continued recovery from a bone chip injury has affected the Browns' shaky depth at wide receiver. Currently, Greg Little and Evan Moore have played well out of the slot position, but other than a couple of Josh Cribbs' downfield plays, Shurmur has received little production from his outside targets. In theory, Massaquoi could help here – especially as opposing defenses will increase their complexity once the regular season commences.
However, the biggest area of need for the 2011 Browns has yet to fully reveal its implications. Currently, the Browns' secondary is beyond shaky. Free agent safety Young has yet to play in a Browns' uniform, which means that uber-backup Mike Adams has been forced into starting duty. So far during the preseason, this gap hasn't been exposed, as the Packers barely played their starters, while the Lions were missing the dynamic Calvin Johnson.
To continue with the secondary theme, hard hitting strong safety T.J. Ward is being preserved, as lurking further down the depth chart is Ray Ventrone – a career special teams player. Against the Lions, the Browns played Ventrone and Adams, with Dimitri Patterson and rookie Buster Skrine providing additional corner help behind starters Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown.
The results of such a lineup were reflected in Nate Burleson dominating the Browns for short stretches, before breaking out a LeBron James jab at the Dawg Pound. If the season began today, Patterson would likely become the team's third corner option, which is a scary proposition – at least considering the former Eagle's tattered 2010 performance.
Elsewhere on the Browns roster, the depth situation at linebacker remains terrifying. As previously advertised, Fujita is playing sparingly, while D'Qwell Jackson is working himself back into game form. However, the player considered to be the least injury-prone, Chris Gocong, has yet to actually play. Replacing Gocong is Jackson – who has shifted back inside to his former position, rather than focusing on making an important transition to an outside spot.
In the process, third-year linebacker Kaluka Maiava has gained some significant playing time at outside linebacker. Maiava has shown some decent versatility – particularly in pass coverage. However, beyond second-half wonders Titus Brown and Brian Smith, there doesn't appear to be any relevant linebacker depth. Considering the always tenuous injury history of Fujita and Jackson, this is not a soothing thought for the Browns moving forward – especially when compared to the final month of 2010, when the Browns' defense eventually cracked.
Setting The Tone
Although local media love to re-hash familiar McCoy storylines (see, "arm strength", "franchise QB?"), the more pressing question relating to the Browns' young QB is basic health. The Lion game showed the damage that a more unique defensive scheme can cause to a smaller QB like McCoy. Or, in simpler terms – until the Browns can establish a running game, protecting McCoy will become the offense's top priority.
On this point, it is becoming obvious that the potential success of Shurmur's offense will be based on first down production. Against the Packers, the Browns' offense was effective on first down, which resulted in more aggressive play calling on later downs. These scenarios were reversed on Friday night, as the offense struggled early – then became nothing more than reactionary on long second and third downs.
As such, the tone of the offense could fluctuate between a sort of passive-aggressive behavior. For the 2011 offense to succeed, McCoy and the Browns have to set an offensive tone, rather than pick through what an aggressive defense is presenting them. Otherwise, McCoy becomes less mobile, the offense proves predictable and consequently the Browns' defense will again be overextended.
Rookies Being Rookies
While some local sportswriters are salivating at the column fodder Greg Little will no doubt offer over the coming months, an important realization has to be made. For this Browns team to become successful, the play of rookies such as Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Little will have to prove extraordinary.
While Little is probably doing little more than exhuming the ghosts of a long football inactivity, Taylor and Sheard have already displayed the value of tenured veterans. After a shaky game against the Packers, Taylor proved to be a focal point for the Lions' offensive line. While Taylor occupied opposing blockers, Sheard was able to enjoy solo matchups and proved disruptive. With little depth behind both Sheard and Taylor, the Browns' top two rookie draft picks will be relied on to revitalize a long-suffering run defense.
In all three cases, the value of each rookie has to be weighed against the natural progression of an NFL novice. In most respects, the arc of an NFL rookie is completed only after a long series of bumps. For Little, his every post-punt action will now be endlessly scrutinized – especially if he becomes one of team's lone playmaking options. In Taylor and Sheard's respective cases, their endurance will prove paramount to the Browns' defensive hopes – especially as the season progresses.
Regarding the team's other rookies, it's looking like Skrine could become a weekly contributor, while Marecic looks destined for a special teams career. However, considering the season-altering fates that the third preseason game often provides – and based on the Browns' already burgeoning injury list – a new list of concerns could be easily created.