Off Day Tuesday: Upon Further Review – Browns-Lions
In many ways, it was hard to detect the difference between the Browns' past and future. After one preseason game, the Browns are still a young team wallowing in a deep rebuilding project. Here are a few reflections from last Friday.
1. It's Not a Brandon Weeden Thing
It's impossible to do in Cleveland, but before we offer a final verdict on Weeden's worth, let's at least allow for the following:
a) Regardless of his age, he's a rookie quarterback.
b) Technical NFL issues (footwork, getting from the huddle to the line, reading defenses) take time for a QB to master.
c) He's running a more sophisticated NFL offense.
d) He's running an offense that is prohibited from taking advantage of his own skills.
Once again – for those who wanted to trade away three drafts for RG3: Do you really think Shurmur would have changed his offense to fit a specific quarterback's specific talents?
Despite Shurmur stressing that "the game was slow for him" and Weeden's own admission that he "felt in complete control", Weeden looked like a rookie quarterback operating a shaky, young offense. However, it's worth asking if in some respects Shurmur's offense actually is slower than the one Weeden ran at Oklahoma State. In this sense, Weeden has had to dramatically change his college tendencies to adjust to more traditional NFL drop backs and a narrow set of reads.
2. It's Not a Josh Gordon Thing
Josh Gordon came as advertised – at least if you kept the description to "big" and "rusty." Certainly, he's the Browns' most imposing wide receiver and clearly he's also the one that even a fantasy football fan would realize hasn't played the game for a long time. It's really difficult to tell what the Browns have in Gordon and comparisons to Greg Little from a year ago are complicated to make.
Gordon did some positive things in gaining body space from defenders and making himself a target for both Weeden and Colt McCoy. Clearly, there's enough potential in Gordon to warrant using such a high supplemental draft pick. However, like Weeden, everyone needs to remember that Gordon is a rookie wide receiver in a league where being such a thing is difficult.
3. It's a Brandon Weeden AND Josh Gordon Thing
If you're evaluating Weeden based solely on stats (and sadly, most people will), then the rookie had a rough opening night. Or, if you break down Weeden's performance based on drives, he moved the Browns into scoring position once, was chased by the Lion front line several times and threw two (or three) unfortunate passes.
On Weeden's two worst throws (one an interception by Detroit's rookie corner Bill Bentley and another near pick – also by Bentley), both he and Gordon showed why they are NFL rookies. On Weeden's second drive, Gordon looked back for the ball halfway into his route – a clear "tell" for Bentley, who jumps the route but drops what would have been a pick-six. Also, Weeden's throw had a bit of a slow Tim Couch hitch – which didn't help matters.
Weeden's interception was probably more Derek Anderson-esque as he tried to gun a pass into Greg Little, who was outmuscled by Bentley. Of course, the rest of Weeden's night consisted of two throwaways, a botched screen pass and completions to Jordan Cameron and Mohamed Massaquoi – along with a nice pass deposited over the shoulder to Travis Benjamin on the sideline.
4. What's Old is New Again
Much like a Browns' offense that relies on rookies, it's obvious that right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will struggle for a while – and at this point, his run blocking is far superior to his pass protection skills. Facing an ultra-quick Lions' defensive front was a great opening challenge for Schwartz. Schwartz struggled at times with a false start and trying to get in front of stunting defenders – but ultimately survived.
It's worth noting that both Joe Thomas and Alex Mack also stunk for several weeks of their rookie preseasons.
However, it's a bit disheartening to see the same struggles coming from now third-year pro Shawn Lauvao. While the Lions have perhaps the best interior defensive line in the league, Lauvao was repeatedly abused. The pressure was all too familiar – directed at the guards, which was a signature attack against the Browns in 2011. Far too often on Friday, the Browns' quarterbacks were pressured right up the middle of the line and chased out of the pocket.
5. Same Old Story
As for the Browns' linebackers, I am seriously concerned about this group. We all know what will eventually happen to Scott Fujita (and I'm not talking about his suspension) and Chris Gocong is already lost for the season. This collection of backups takes me back to 1999 – at least in terms of raw youth. If Dick Jauron can get anything out of this unit, he deserves another head coaching job. At the least, I can think of one place where he could be an interim coach.
Up front, the situation is a little better. While I never want to see Craig Robertson or Benjamin Jacobs starting a regular season game, at least the defensive line has evolved to the point of Brian Schafering closing out preseason games. Even with Phil Taylor's injury and Ahtyba Rubin's absence – and despite the Lions gashing the run defense – the Browns finally have some decent young depth along the D-Line. John Hughes will be solid and Billy Wynn should contribute something, along with a hopefully healed Brian Sanford.
Of course, it can't be all bad. Two fourth-round picks may be emerging in Jordan Cameron and Travis Benjamin. Cameron received playing time thanks to Ben Watson and Evan Moore's recent injuries and showed off a nice blend of size and speed – before hurting his back on an outstanding reception. In Benjamin, GM Tom Heckert may have found one of the fastest receivers in the league. Benjamin has blazing speed – and not relatively compared to the rest of the Browns' roster. The Miami rookie is legitimately fast and managed to hang on to a couple of passes – two rare skills for a Browns' receiver.
Again, Weeden needs the time any NFL rookie quarterback requires for improvement. However, he – along with McCoy, Wallace and Lewis – desperately need improved offensive line play in order to make Shurmur's offense even remotely effective. Similarly, the defensive front seven should benefit just from having key veterans Rubin and D'Qwell Jackson return. Until this events progress, it's probably a safe bet to reserve overall judgment on the coming season.