Barry McBride, editor of The OBR and longtime NFL insider, has agreed to join us for this week's inside look at the Patirots next opponent, the Cleveland Browns.
Q: The Browns have built a reputation for being a pushover since they've been back in the league (1999), but this year people are talking about them playing tough despite their record. Are they tougher than their record indicates?
Barry McBride: Absolutely. The Browns lost to the Chiefs and Bucs before folks started taking them more seriously, and there were a lot of folks who were pegging the Browns to start 0-9. But looking more closely at the Browns, they've been playing some very solid, unpredictable defense and have had a chance to win nearly ever game they've been in as a result. Remember that the Browns have a weapon that hasn't really been fired this year in kick returner Josh Cribbs. Put that together with a stout defense and an hard-hitting running game with Peyton Hillis, and you've got a team that has a chance to win nearly every week.
Q: Jettisoning Derek Andersen and trading Brady Quinn to acquire Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme was a bold move by this team. Some say it was a huge mistake. How has the QB play been for the Browns, and was it a mistake to completely redo the roster at that vital position?
McBride: Based on how Anderson and Quinn have done since being unloaded, it was the right move. Plus, Brady Quinn brought the Browns a draft pick and an offensive identity-defining runner in Peyton Hillis. Delhomme didn't produce, but Seneca Wallace led the team effectively as the starter and was rolling when he got hurt. Colt McCoy has played smart football and has kept the team in games. The Browns are in better shape at the position than they were last year, and now have to determine if Colt McCoy is the quarterback of the future or if they need to look at some of the top QBs available in next year's draft.
McBride: Ben Watson is the team's leading receiver, and is helping to overcome the team's roster weakness at WR. He has been excellent and represents a huge upgrade at the position for Cleveland. Billy Yates may wind up starting against the Patriots, but is likely just a placeholder for 2010 draft pick Shawn Lauvao. He was a surprise starter last week. Ray Ventrone continues to be an important special teams contributor, but Titus Adams has yet to really make an impact.
Q: The Browns record has enabled them to make their picks at the top of the Draft in recent years, yet we haven't seen many superstars on the roster. Who are the top prospects we should keep an eye on, and has the team been hampered by previous drafts gone awry?
McBride: Poor drafting has been a curse for the Browns, and has been the core of their problems in the expansion era. A series of inexperienced general managers have recorded some horrible drafts for the franchise, starting with Dwight Clark in 1999 and later with Butch Davis (who memorably overruled his scouting staff to pick Gerard Warren over Richard Seymour). Phil Savage did a better job, but players like Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow didn't fit into Eric Mangini's mold and were quickly dumped last season. Their 2009 draft from George Kokinis and Mangini was absolutely horrible outside of Mack and perhaps Mohammed Massaquoi. They've already dumped one of their three second round picks, and the another second-rounder, Brian Robiskie, has been a disappointment so far.
The Browns do have some good young talent: Alex Mack is one of the league's better centers in his second year, TJ Ward could be the bonecrushing safety the team needed, and Joe Haden looks very promising. Ahtyba Rubin may be maturing into one of the league's better nose tackles. He's come out of nowhere these last three years. Elsewhere, fans should keep an eye on Montario Hardesty next season when he returns, and TE Evan Moore is an outstanding pass catching tight end who could break out.
Q: Peyton Hillis is having a pretty good season for the Browns, but he seems like their only threat in the backfield. What is going on with the Browns running game, and is it all Hillis or nothing?
McBride: That's what it appears to be. The Browns dumped last year's star runner Jerome Harrison for RB Mike Bell, who is a between the tackles runner in the Hillis mold, but hasn't gotten any traction in his opportunities to date. The Browns had hoped Montario Hardesty would be their feature runner, but an early injury wiped out his season. They still hope he can return next year. Some of the team's moves at the running back position have been more to get rid of unhappy runners behind Hillis than to deal for players who have greater natural talent. Harrison and James Davis are both good backs, although Davis has yet to prove it at the NFL level, but weren't happy falling behind Hillis on the depth chart.
Q. What is the biggest weakness on this Browns team and how should the Patriots exploit it. Mind you, New England has the 28th ranked defense in the league.
McBride: The Browns do not have a strong deep passing game, allowing teams to load up near the line of scrimmage. There's not really a reciever on the Browns depth chart that puts fear into opponents, although Chansi Stuckey looks like a solid slot reciever, and Josh Cribbs is improved. They rely heavily on the tight ends and on an offensive line that can create running opportunities even when opponents know it's coming. A top-flight wide receiver could help the Browns reach the next level, but right now they're struggling with the lack of a true Number One WR.
PREDICTION (and Why)
McBride: Patriots 24, Browns 20: The Browns are able to hold teams close with ball control offense and tough defense. But the Patriots are ultimately more talented team on offense, and have a quarterback who has performed at the hightest level in the biggest games. They should be expected to win on Sunday.