Cleveland Browns cornerstone pieces
1) *Joe Haden *
If Joe Haden is somehow able to elevate his game even further, there won't be just talk about him as the best cornerback in the league – but also one of the NFL's best players. In terms of athleticism, Haden's physical tools made him a matchup nightmare for lankier receivers like A.J. Green, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace, Jordy Nelson and even Calvin Johnson last season. The nickname "Revis Island" developed for Darelle when the Pro Bowl cornerback played in Mike Pettine's scheme with the Jets. Expect Haden to earn some type of similar moniker from NFL observers.
2) *Joe Thomas*
*Maybe it's Mike Pettine's personality rubbing off. Maybe it's because he's heading into his eighth season. Maybe it's because he's made a Pro Bowl every year he's been in the NFL. Whatever the reason, Joe Thomas has legitimately developed into one of the Browns' strongest leadership voices. Thomas was one of the first players to speak out and voice displeasure with how outdated the NFL's drug testing policies are in relation to his teammate Josh Gordon's suspension. And more than any other player, Thomas has faith that Brian Hoyer is the answer for the Browns at quarterback. We've known how dominant the fire-breathing dragon left tackle is on the field. It's now the respect Thomas commands which makes his confidence in Pettine rub off on other Cleveland players.
3) Karlos Dansby
Ever hear the phrase age is just a number? Nothing could be more accurate when describing the 32-year-old Karlos Dansby. Yes, that number makes the inside linebacker the Browns' oldest starter. The real numbers that matter were Dansby's 122 tackles, 19 passes defended, four interceptions and two touchdowns for the Arizona Cardinals last season. After ballooning up to 270 pounds during the lockout, Dansby rededicated his diet and conditioning program. Dansby will help patrol tight ends while also freelancing in blitz packages. When it's all said and done this season, Dansby's knack for making big plays at the right time will have Browns fans mesmerized.
4) Jordan Cameron
Jordan Cameron knows see as many double teams as Kevin Love will come November over at Quicken Loans Arena. "It's one of those things, you can't really practice those looks, but you have to be prepared to initially get off those blitz techniques or the double coverage on the line of scrimmage. It's just a matter of me working hard and getting off the ball." But we'd still look for the Browns to get creative with their tight end, especially lining him up at wide receiver in the red zone.
5) Donte Whitner
**Nobody toned down their playing style more during the preseason than Donte Whitner. Think of the safety like a vicious hawk, whose been trapped in a gage. On Sunday, Mike Pettine and the Browns coaching staff will get to unleash their weapon on the rest of the NFL. Whitner will obviously be asked to play within the system, but he more than any other player on defense will get to roam around the first-down marker, hunting for prey. Whitner should get the freedom to play his game. Teammate Buster Skrine said Whitner's the smartest football player he's ever been around.
6) Alex Mack
**Often a forgotten fact when talking about the Cleveland Browns: they have one of the most durable and athletic centers in the entire league. Mack will get a chance to prove how versatile he is as an important glue piece in the Browns' zone running system. He'll also be able to tutor Joel Bitonio. The rookie embarks on his first NFL sandwiched in between two Pro Bowlers at left guard. Communication amongst offensive linemen is one subtle thing that can help lead to big plays.
Make-or-break part of the schedule
Weeks Five – Nine will tell what kind of team the Browns will be. All five games are winnable.
*Week Five – @Tennessee Titans *
Scoop: The Titans lack an identity on defense and star power on offense. Lots of unproven players are being given the keys in Tennessee.
*Week Six – Pittsburgh Steelers *
Scoop: The Browns were able to top the Steelers last year at FirstEnergy Stadium and will have film from week one to prepare even further.
*Week Seven – @Jacksonville Jaguars *
Scoop: It could be a rookie quarterback Blake Bortles by the time the Browns fly down to sunny and warm Florida.
*Week Eight – Tampa Bay Buccaneers *
Scoop: Theoretically new head coach Lovie Smith and a farm of new free agents should improve chemistry. But gelling as an entire team doesn't happen at the snap of a finger. Many NFL experts are expecting some growing pains in Tampa this season.
*Week Nine – Oakland Raiders *
Scoop: The Raiders took the Browns' approach in free agency, adding key veterans () to a younger roster. Theoretically, Oakland should be much improved. But their division plays tough football and who knows how the locker room will respond to third-year head coach Dennis Allen.
Success will hinge upon
Brian Hoyer* – There's no need to overanalyze this situation: Brian Hoyer has to come in and win football games for the Cleveland Browns. Fair or not, the responsibility will ultimately fall on him. He not only knows this, but embraces it. Hoyer, 28, has waited for this chance his entire life. If the quarterback does eliminate turnovers from the equation, Hoyer's systematical approach paired with the Browns defense could actually be a recipe for wins like it was in 2013.
Ben Tate – Tate is grinder. He almost always chooses the right hole in the zone scheme and is one of the better running backs at pushing the pile forward for extra yardage. His 4.7 yards per carry in three seasons rank him fifth among active NFL running backs. The question is how well will Tate deal with defenses specifically trying to stop him? Until Hoyer and the passing game prove to be a viable threat, Tate will be running against a gaggle of defenders. The good news is his 220-pound frame is suited to win a 13-10 trench war football game.
Miles Austin – Okay, so expecting Miles Austin to post his 2009 statistics (81 catches, 1,320 yards, 11 touchdowns) may not be exactly realistic for the 30-year-old. But this season, there's no Dez Bryant to overshadow Austin, who is finally healthy and still a physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. The tough part for Austin is that opposing number one cornerbacks will be glued to his hip. Austin is best suited as a receiver owning intermediate routes 15 yards down the field. Look for his impact to be felt on third downs, too.
Paul Kruger – If the Browns get the 2012 Paul Kruger from the Baltimore Ravens, the outside linebacker will be booking a possible vacation in Arizona for the Pro Bowl. Several players shed weight during the 2014 offseason, but none more critical than Kruger. A leaner and meaner Kruger beat out Jabaal Sheard on the depth chart and he boasted a strong preseason as a pass rusher. Kruger wants to prove it to himself and the city of Cleveland he was worth the investment in free agency.
Barkevious Mingo – The Browns first round pick from 2013 blitzes quarterbacks like he's a power forward attacking the rim. The talent and athletic ability are there for Mingo. Now it's about refining his repertoire of moves and most importantly, finishing plays. Mingo often lives in opposing backfield's, but he finds himself overrunning the play. If Mingo does get his timing down, he could blossom into a sophomore sensation.
Buster Skrine – The 25-year-old out of Wyoming might end up playing two different positions more than any other player on the Browns' roster: outside cornerback and nickel cornerback. Justin Gilbert is not yet polished, but he's skilled enough to be seeing a big portion of reps. Skrine is much more suited to cover shiftier receivers in the middle of the field than Gilbert is. Now in his fourth season, Skrine showed all throughout the offseason why this could be his breakout year. The Browns are hopeful, because they'll be heavily leaning on his flexibilty.
These players will surprise other NFL teams on film
Terrance West* – The NFL is a funny league. A month ago, everyone around the league was wondering if West was going to pull the starting job from underneath Tate. Now the same people who were praising his name are saying don't draft Terrance West in fantasy football. The rookie running back from Towson has all the talent in the world to help the Browns win football games. It'll be the mental adjustment that'll be imperative for West – both in the playbook and that he doesn't need to hit home runs on every play in the NFL. We think he'll make the right corrections and the Browns coaching staff will find creative ways to implement West in the passing attack.
Joel Bitonio – Some variation of the quote "He doesn't play like a rookie," could be echoed from the likes of Pettine, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack about Joel Bitonio. Since the minute he's walked inside the Browns facility, not a bad word has been uttered about Cleveland's starting left guard. He's athletic enough to swing on running plays and versatile enough to one day make the switch out to right tackle. Thomas also raves about his rookie teammate's strength against much bigger defensive linemen. It's safe to say left guard is not a weak spot on the Browns this season.
Chris Kirksey –Two more in-depth reads about Kirksey's rapid development and his reaction the Madden glitch.
Tashaun Gipson – He shouldn't belong in this category, but because the Browns altered the rest of the their secondary so much, Gipson's name has gone underrated. It shouldn't, though. His five interceptions in 2013 were game changing. His aptitude to be the last line of defense for Cleveland is a large responsibility, and yet the coaches have all the faith in the world in the 24-year-old.
Future potential stars
Johnny Manziel* – Even if the Browns are winning with Hoyer, it'll be hard to resist seeing how NFL defenses react to a few change of pace plays from Johnny Manziel. Outside of a two-second middle finger incident, Manziel has done and said everything right since the moment training camp began. Offensive players respect his work ethic; defensive players respect his workout routine in the weight room. While Manziel should be prepping hard in case he does become the starter, he should also watch film of how Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson plays the position. Wilson never tries too hard to make a play. He naturally lets the game come to him, and then, he reacts to it. Manziel should play more like this and then occasionally unleash his big play capabilities when the moment calls for it. It's fine balancing act Wilson has mastered, but it works.
Isaiah Crowell – If the fourth preseason contest was actually a baseball game, then Isaiah Crowell would've hit a walk-off grand slam to win the World Series. A 100-yard performance and a 48-yard touchdown not only saved his job with the Cleveland Browns, it showed the franchise and the rest of the league Crowell might've been a hidden gem all those years at Alabama State. Crowell has a ton to learn about pass blocking and one-cutting in the right hole. But boy, he can truck linebackers and he's builds speed in the open field.
Taylor Gabriel – The Browns didn't technically select a wide receiver in May's NFL draft, but their walking away with a rookie they think has a bright future in the NFL. From tryout player to listed as the number three receiver on the depth chart, Taylor Gabriel's rise is without question the most unpredictable thing that happened during training camp. Some may say Gabriel will have a ceiling in terms of his NFL growth because of his 5-foot-8 frame. But who is to say Gabriel can't become an Andrew Hawkins-type later in his career?
Armonty Bryant – How did Armonty Bryant get so good, so quickly? Mention his name last April, and there was talk of him being on the roster bubble. Mention his name in September and he's an imperative pass rushing piece on the Browns' defense. We asked Jim O'Neil if 10 sacks were possible for Bryant, and the defensive coordinator didn't exactly say no.
"Armonty is a guy we liked a lot in Buffalo coming out of the draft," said O'Neil. "We were excited to coach him when we came here. [Defensive line] Coach Anthony Weaver has done a great job with him. He's a guy who has some position flexibility that we can move around, take advantage of some mismatch stuff. I would expect Armonty to have a good year in our defensive system."
Justin Gilbert – Behind quarterback, cornerback is the toughest position to learn in the NFL. One of the most difficult about playing cornerback is that any mistake you make is a glaring one. Justin Gilbert learned this the hard way in the preseason, but everyone – Pettine, Haden, Skrine, Ray Farmer – reiterate all young cornerbacks will have ups and downs. For Gilbert, like for Manziel, there is no rush for him to come in Week One and be a superstar. As the season wears on and Gilbert gets more comfortable in knowing opposing quarterbacks are going to look his way every time he's on the field, expect his playing time and performance both to skyrocket.
Robert Nelson – Joe Haden called Robert Nelson the Browns' best kept secret. He must be because the Browns elected to release several veterans in front of the undrafted free agent from Arizona State. The 2014 start of the season will be mostly special teams and watching from the sidelines for Nelson. But if struggles do continue for any of the other nickel backs (Aaron Berry, K'Waun Williams), then Nelson must be ready.