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Browns Mailbag: Why are the Browns in better shape now than they were last year?

Either Browns' fans are flooding the beaches of North Carolina, or the franchise's footprint is expanding within the borders of the Tar Heel State.

We'll assume the latter as we tackle multiple, North Carolina-based questions in this week's mailbag.

Let's presume that similar articles by the hometown press for the other 13 teams that finished below .500 are saying the same kind of hopeful, "reason to be optimistic" things about their franchises. Are there any reasons in your opinion why the Browns are any better off than the other cellar-dwellers? -- Doug S., Wilson, N.C.

In 2015, the Browns don't want to be better than just the other seven teams that finished in last place within their respective division. The goal, plain and simple, is to win the AFC North and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

With that in mind, there's no sense in explaining why the Browns should be better than the Raiders, Jets, Titans, etc. Instead, here are four reasons why the team is in better shape now than it was at this time last year.

  1. The WRs are deeper and have more diverse skill sets

At this time last year, the player who wound up finishing second on the team in receiving, Miles Austin, hadn't practiced. Uncertainty about Josh Gordon's status hung over the team. Because of a slew of injuries and overall depth issues, Andrew Hawkins didn't work in the slot, where he typically does the most damage, because he was spending a lot of time at outside receiver. This year, the Browns appear to have enough depth at the position to make for some very difficult decisions when it's time to cut down the roster. Recently signed free agents Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline have typically joined Hawkins with the first-team offense. Taylor Gabriel was one of the stars of the offseason workout program and has lofty goals for 2015. Travis Benjamin, Vince Mayle, Marlon Moore, Rodney Smith and more will be locked in a heavy competition for repetitions as the team's fourth or fifth options at the position. For what the Browns may lack in a big name at the position, they make up for it with a bevy of options.

  1. The O-line can survive an injury or two

The Browns had one of the NFL's best offensive lines when they were at full strength last year. When Pro Bowl center Alex Mack suffered a season-ending injury, the dropoff was even worse than initially anticipated. That's why a player such as first-round pick Cameron Erving was coveted and why Michael Bowie, a starter on Seattle's 2013 Super Bowl team, was snagged off the waiver wire. The availability of both, coupled with the return of all five starters from last season's full-strength offensive line, will allow competition to bloom at training camp. At full strength, the Browns will have a player they believe would start for most teams serving as the offensive line's sixth man.

  1. The defensive line has more talent, experience at its disposal.

Similar optimism was found at this position group last season, but injuries ultimately decimated a unit that was running on fumes by the end of the year. Injuries are a part of football and it's foolish to assume the Browns' D-line will skate through 2015 without any adversity, but there's reason to believe this area of the defense can survive a similar rash of bumps and bruises better than it did last year. And, in turn, there's reason to believe it will help the Browns be so much better than last in the NFL in rush defense. Ahtyba Rubin is the lone departure from 2014's core group, while veteran Randy Starks and first-round pick Danny Shelton were added to the mix. Like the wide receivers, this will be one of the most-watched and discussed position groups at training camp because the cuts will be hard to make.

  1. It's Year 2 for Mike Pettine and the majority of his assistants.

This is a big deal, and Pettine hasn't danced around it.

"I think back to a year ago and I don't know if I had any idea what I was doing," Pettine joked in a recent interview with Cleveland Browns Daily's Nathan Zegura. "I just feel so much more comfortable and I think we all do as a staff and as a team. I think it's just true with anything, when you go through something for the first time, it's a feeling out process. 'Oh, hey, this is new, let me log those notes down for next year.' There's just such a comfort zone now. We all know this is a people business, and as you get to know the people you work with better, hopefully those relationships improve and you become more productive."

Which member of the rookie class has shocked you the most in regards to performance during mini-camp and OTAs? -- Erin P., Strongsville

I'm going to go a little off the grid with this one. Instead of picking one of the players who was drafted, I'm going with undrafted free agent defensive back De'Ante "Pop" Saunders. He's got a tough road to make the 53 because of the Browns' depth in the secondary, but he made a number of noticeable plays throughout OTAs and mini-camp. How he performs on special teams and how capable he is of playing multiple positions will go a long way toward potentially making the team.

Once Karlos Dansby is gone, do you think we have two capable inside linebackers to step up currently on the roster? -- Jordan J., Akron

Who do you see at ILB and do you know where I can buy a Duke Johnson Browns jersey? -- Chris L., Berlin Heights

Easiest question of the week.

First off, Dansby may take offense to you already wondering what life without him will be like. Without the injury, he likely would have been Pro Bowl bound last season. He's the youngest 33 I've seen on the football field and takes immaculate care of his body. He's got a lot left in the tank.

In the event Dansby is unavailable, the Browns will do what they did last year and use Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey full-time rather than platooning/matching personnel with what the offense is running. There's also Tank Carder, who was a standout during the offseason workout program and could have an expanded role this season. Seventh-round pick Hayes Pullard and Darius Eubanks have also looked promising.

As for the Johnson jersey, there don't appear to be any for sale just yet online, but you're free to customize one to your liking.

What are the odds on seeing Connor Shaw in the mix for the starting or No. 2 quarterback position? -- Mark S., Oberlin

The Browns really like Shaw and he performed well throughout the offseason workout program, but he'll enter training camp as the No. 3 option at the position. That's how the repetitions were divided throughout OTAs and mini-camp, as Josh McCown took all of the snaps with the ones and Johnny Manziel went second. The competition never ends, though, and as offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said a couple of weeks ago, "there are 86 days or something like that until we kick off against the Jets. Eighty-six days in the NFL world is an eternity."

Terrelle Pryor brought in for WR Position only??? Sure. Rumors have it 2 pt. conversions, TE and possible emergency QB along with WR. What you got? -- Ken D., Rocky Mount, N.C.

Pryor is here to play wide receiver. He declared his position change before the Browns even made the waiver claim for him. Talking about situational plays, emergency roles, etc., will be something to discuss if he first shows he can be an asset to the team as a wide receiver.

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