When most NFL fans last saw Eric Mangini and Brett Favre, they were struggling through a dismal stretch at the end of the 2008 season in which they lost four of their last five games for the New York Jets. As the 2009 regular season begins, Mangini and Favre will be on the same field, but on different sidelines – as Favre plays his first official game as a member of the Minnesota Vikings and Mangini coaches his first game as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns entered the 2008 season with a lot of optimism. Coming off a 10-win season in 2007, hopes were high in Cleveland that the franchise had turned a corner and that the future would be bright. Instead, the Browns fell flat, finishing with a 4-12 record – losing their last six games, a span in which the Browns offense failed to score a touchdown. That led to the ouster of head coach Romeo Crennel and the hiring of Mangini. The first order of business is to straighten out the offensive woes, a task that wasn't made easier by a full-blown quarterback battle in the preseason.
After quarterback Brady Quinn took a tumultuous drop on draft day, Cleveland traded back into the first round of the 2007 draft to take him. The plan was that he would be the starter at some point, most likely the 2008 season. But a funny thing happened on the way to the grand plan. Derek Anderson made the Pro Bowl, leading the new Browns franchise to its best finish in its history since re-joining the NFL as an expansion team. The Browns won 10 games and Anderson was re-signed to a contract extension. His 2008 numbers, however, were awful and the Browns found themselves in a 0-3 hole to start the year that they were never able to emerge from. Quinn took over in Week 10, but lasted just into his third game before a thumb injury knocked him out of the lineup. Quinn and Anderson competed through training camp and the preseason and Quinn finally won the job, but, given the closeness of the competition, if he struggles, he has no guarantee of remaining the starter. With just three NFL starts to his credit (and only two he finished), he still has a big learning curve and the Vikings will likely show him some defensive looks he has never seen. If Quinn is forced to carry the offense, he could be in for a long day.
For the Browns to take pressure off of Quinn, it will have to come from the running game, a unit that was rumored to be in line for a major shakeup prior to the final cutdowns. Jamal Lewis, the backbone of the Browns running game the last two seasons, was said to be on the bubble to make the final roster because of his salary. He not only made the team, but will start Sunday. The Vikings of recent seasons have enjoyed a lot of success against runners like Lewis, bottling them up and making them fight for every yard they gain. The team will use Jerome Harrison as its change-of-pace back. Undersized but speedy, he can create problems in space. Look for the Browns to run him a few times around the edge as well as try to set up screens to get him in the open field. Rookie James Davis, a sixth-rounder from Clemson, is solidly built and hits the line hard. He may be the eventual replacement for Lewis at some point during the season, but has competition from recently signed Cedric Peerman, a speedy late-round pick of the Ravens who was released during the final cuts. Fullback Lawrence Vickers is a multi-talented player who can lead block, pick up blitzes, a short-yardage back and a check-down receiver. The Vikings will have to pay more attention on defensive to him than they do with most fullbacks they will face this season.
The Browns had their names mentioned during the offseason when the diva receivers around the NFL had their names pop up in trade talks, but the team didn't make any big signings or trades, despite losing former starters Donte Stallworth (suspended after striking and killing a pedestrian in Florida while driving drunk), Joe Jurevicius (released) and Kellen Winslow (traded to Tampa Bay). This is a much different looking group, but the one constant is Braylon Edwards. After a monster 2007 season in which he led all wide receivers with 16 touchdowns, Edwards had an awful 2008 season – leading the league in drops and catching just three TD passes. He has excellent speed and is adept at winning jump-ball situations with defensive backs deep down the field. He is joined in the starting lineup by Joshua Cribbs. A playmaker who spent his first four years as a return specialist, has been inserted into the starting lineup. With many of the same burst characteristics of Devin Hester, Cribbs will be another deep threat that will likely get single coverage if defenses opt to slide a safety over on Edwards. Former Lion and Ram Mike Furrey is expected to see a lot of time as the slot receiver, playing a role for the Browns similar to that Bobby Wade played with the Vikings. The Browns have a pair of rookies that they are very high on, but players that will likely need time to develop. Brian Robiskie of Ohio State reminds a lot of scouts of Anthony Gonzalez when he came out in 2007. Overshadowed by the flashier Ted Ginn, Gonzalez's selling point was his crisp route running and the ability to sell fakes and double-moves. Robiskie has many of those same traits. Robiskie went early in the second round and, just 14 picks later, the Browns traded up to take Mohamed Massaquoi. At 6-2, 210, he has the strength to beat a jam and the quickness to find a seam in the defense. He doesn't have great deep speed, but could develop into a solid weapon.
With Winslow gone at tight end, the duties will be handled by free agent-signee Robert Royal and 11-year veteran Steve Heiden. However, both are viewed as blockers much more than receiving threats, so they shouldn't pose much in the way of problems for the Vikings pass defense.
Up front, the Browns struggled last year. But, they do have a solid unit that includes a nice mix of veterans and young players. At the tackles, Joe Thomas enters his third season after being taken No. 3 overall in the 2007 draft (in which the Vikings got Adrian Peterson at No. 7) and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He took a step backward in his second season, but that was due in large part to the struggles of the Browns offense around him. He is expected to have a rebound season. Ten-year vet John St. Clair signed as a free agent from the Bears in the offseason and provides solid run blocking from the right tackle spot. The Browns went to free agency to build their guard position, signing former Seahawk Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack to line up opposite former first-round pick Eric Steinbach as the starting guards. Steinbach is underrated and consistently grades out well from one game to the next and has exceptional toughness – he played through shoulder and rib injuries last year and missed only two games. The biggest preseason battle was at center, where former Eagles veteran Hank Fraley battled first-round rookie Alex Mack. Mack, who was taken with the 21st pick – extraordinarily high for a center – has apparently won the job and will make his first start Sunday. Getting Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will be a tall order for a player making his NFL debut. With versatile Ryan Tucker placed on injured reserve and Rex Hadnot out with an injury, depth will be stretched thin. The Browns can ill-afford any more injuries here.
Mangini likes the 3-4 defense the Patriots ran when he was there, but, replacing another Bill Belichick disciple in Crennel, the Browns already had a 3-4 front in place. Former Lion and Vikings nemesis Shaun Rogers was nothing short of dominant last year, even on a team that struggled to keep its defense off the field. Amazingly agile at 350 pounds, he's hard not to keep your eyes on, because he always seems to be around the ball. At the ends, the Browns will run a rotation with Robaire Smith, who is returning after missing all but two games last year with a torn Achilles tendon, and Kenyon Coleman, who Mangini liked in New York and made a point to bring him over. They will be spelled by former Viking C.J. Mosley and Corey Williams. Mosley was an effective situational player with the Jets and brings those same attributes that Coleman does to the Browns defense. Williams, a former starter with the Packers who was traded to Cleveland for a second-round pick in the 2008 draft, struggled with a shoulder injury last year, but the Browns brass expect him to regain his 2007 form, when he was both a strong run defender and pass rusher. While Rogers is the key, the rotation at end may be what causes Brett Favre the most trouble Sunday.
The linebacker corps is a strange mix of the young and relatively inexperienced and aging veterans who know their stuff but have lost a step. Fourth-year pro D'Qwell Jackson would get a lot more attention if Cleveland had a better team. A tackling machine, he recorded 154 tackles and three sacks last year at left inside linebacker. A very instinctive player, he is adept at picking his way through blockers and making tackles. Joining him on the inside is another Mangini Jets transplant – 11-year veteran Eric Barton. Assigned with making the line calls, what he lacks in top-end speed, he makes up for with heavy hitting, quick recognition of plays and the ability to take away passing and running lanes. He isn't flashy, but gets the job done. On the outside, 11-year veteran David Bowens has been battling second-year man Alex Hall and fourth-year man Leon Williams for playing time. Bowens will start Sunday, but expect to see plenty of Hall and some of Williams on the right side. Fourth-year man and previous top pick Kamerion Wimbley starts on the left side. The Browns have waited three years for Wimbley to become the pass rusher they envisioned he would be, but he has never consistently shown that ability. Backup help will be provided by a pair of rookies – second-round pick David Veikune and fourth-rounder Kaluka Maiava. Veikune is a converted defensive end who will be used as a third-down rush linebacker and Maiava was a backup inside ‘backer at USC whom the Browns think can develop into a starter in the long-term and play special teams in the present.
The secondary of the Browns has some questions, but cornerback Eric Wright is the player to watch. Routinely assigned to cover a team's top receiver, Wright has the ability to be a shutdown corner who takes away one side of the field. While prone to being too aggressive and biting on pump fakes, his athleticism allows him to close ground quickly and not get burned that often. On the other side, Brandon McDonald faced a stiff challenge during the preseason, but held on to his starting job. He had a couple of brutal games during the middle of the season, especially against Baltimore, and was in danger of losing his starting job, which led to his competition in training camp. He held off former Steeler and Patriot Hank Poteat and sixth-round rookie Coye Francies, but those two will see action and nickel and dime situations. At the safeties, Mangini brought yet another ex-Jet with him in Abram Elam, who will start opposite Brodney Pool. Elam can make a lot of plays, but is prone to being too aggressive and getting out of position. Pool has excellent timing and ball skills but hasn't become the kind of playmaking free safety he was envisioned to be when taken high in the 2005 draft. Nine-year veteran Nick Sorenson is known more as a special teams player than for his ability in the backfield. This is a group capable of getting burned and a veteran like Favre could make them look awfully bad.
With a new coach and a new system in place, catching the Browns early may be a benefit to the Vikings. With the team still learning how to work with one another and a lot of new players on the roster, it may take them a few games to fully hit their stride. That's just fine for the Vikings, who are looking to avoid the slow starts that have plagued them the last two seasons. All things being equal, the Browns have the look of a team still feeling its way, whereas the Vikings are looking to expand on their success from last season. That confidence may be the difference that pushes the Vikings to a win coming out of the gate.
Preview: Browns still building
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