Hello folks, it's time for our Five Questions series. This week's edition brings us Chris Pokorny of DawgsByNature, or sister site for the Cleveland Browns. Let's get right to it.
1. What is the deal with your quarterback situation? You guys make the New York Jets look relatively normal. As a follow-up, is Johnny Manziel the future?
Last year, Brian Hoyer won the starting job over Johnny Manziel. While neither quarterback had a great training camp, Hoyer knew the offense very well while Manziel was too busy staying out late and having a good time. Things might have worked out with Hoyer on a more long-term basis except for the fact that he did not come off as a player who was willing to mentor Manziel or concede the fact that he might have to hand the reigns over at some point. The team was able to overlook that part of Hoyer's game when the Browns got off to a 7-4 start last year, but once he hit a rough patch and started becoming a liability to the offense, it made it easier for the Browns to find an equally serviceable quarterback who didn't mind taking Manziel under his wing. Enter Josh McCown.
From Day 1, McCown has been very vocal that he understands his role on this team and that it may only be a matter of time before he passes the torch on to Manziel. We don't have any grand delusions about what McCown is going to bring to the offense, although it certainly would be nice if he could channel the type of performances he delivered when he was with the Bears two years ago. Manziel had a very encouraging offseason -- he is much more focused and in-tune with the playbook, and the off-the-field noise has come to a complete halt. I believe he is still the future, but every "quarterback of the future" for Cleveland has really only lasted a year or two before the next guy is brought in. In that sense, it's hard for me to fully buy into any quarterback in Cleveland until someone is able to buck the trend.
2. It's the return of Mike Pettine to MetLife Stadium, so I think everyone is somewhat afraid of your defense. Has his defense changed in any way or does it still look like that of Rex Ryan?
There should definitely be traces of Rex Ryan's defense in what Mike Pettine's defense looks like. Cleveland runs a 3-4 defense, but you'll often see one of our outside linebackers on the edge to make it resemble more of a 4-3 look. Pettine preaches press-man coverage with his cornerbacks and likes to dial up a fair amount of corner blitzes in key third-down situations. Based on the watching a full season of Pettine's defense last year and the subset of games I've watched of the Jets over the past few years, my impression is that Pettine isn't going to blitz as often or as crazily as Ryan did in certain games.
3. What are the best and worst units on the Cleveland Browns?
The best units are at offensive line and at cornerback. The offensive line is led by three Pro Bowl-caliber players at left tackle (Joe Thomas), left guard (Joel Bitonio), and center (Alex Mack). The right side is viewed as the "weak link" of the line, but both players still play at an average- to above-average level. The offensive line is so stable that first-round pick Cameron Erving couldn't win a job in camp. The Browns' secondary will rival the Jets' secondary for being the best group in the AFC, although I'd give the edge to the Jets right now.
I won't include quarterback in the discussion of worst units, because I assume you are prying for information you might not already know about. In that case, I'll go with wide receiver and tight end being the worst units. It pains me to say that because I love a lot of the individual talent at those positions, and I actually think the receiver position will be adequate because personnel will be rotated in with plays designed to take advantage of their strengths. However, neither position has a dominant, go-to receiver who Cleveland can lob the ball up to when they need a miracle comeback, for example.
4. Who on the Browns are you most interested in seeing play, and why?
I'm most interested in seeing nose tackle Danny Shelton, the Browns' first-round pick. As soon as I saw this guy in training camp and in one preseason game, I labeled him as the most important player to the Browns' potential for a successful season in 2015. The Browns ranked 32nd against the run last season, but Shelton has instantly brought a level of physicality and intensity that our solid offensive line and other teams in the preseason haven't been able to match, and the trickle-down effect that benefits other defenders in run support has been evident. I don't know if nose tackles would really stand out for defensive rookie of the year consideration, but Shelton doesn't look like a rookie: he looks like a player ready to be a difference-maker from Day 1.
5. Predictions for the game, and for your season?
Even though there are certainly differences between the two teams, for all intents and purposes, I think this is as even of a match-up as you can find in the NFL for Week 1. I'm anticipating a lower-scoring defensive battle, and my fandom is giving the Browns the edge. For the season, I set the ceiling at 10-6 and the floor at 5-11 for the Browns. Cleveland started at 7-4 last year before collapsing at the end of the year and they've upgraded talent. With all due respect to the Jets, the Browns must emerge with a winning record in their first three games (Jets, Titans, Raiders) if they want any shot of being a 10-6 type of team. If the defense isn't good enough to overcome the deficiencies at quarterback, that is where the 5-11 and cycle of doom type of seasons will continue for Cleveland.