Tag Archives: Christian Kirksey

All I want for Christmas: Browns Edition

It’s the holiday season and children everywhere where will be making lists of all the things they want for Christmas. Some of these lists are short and others are longer than a government document. The Browns list is far more like the latter as they have many holes now and could be losing some key players to free agency. So in theme of lists (I love lists!!!!!) here’s a look at what I believe to be what the Browns and their fans what put on their Christmas list.

1. Josh Gordon to return to 2013 form. Number one for me was an easy pick with Manziel showing enough signs of being a quarterback that can turn this team around. Having Josh Gordon back and focused gives the Browns a dynamic play-maker. Plus if we retain future free agent Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge stays healthy Johnny Manziel will have an arsenal capable of putting a chill down the spine of opposing defenses.

2. Our offensive line to be fixed for next year. One of the most perplexing things about this team is figuring out how good the Browns O-Line is. Pro Football Focus has been adamant that the Browns offensive line has been good and that been issues are with the rest of the team are responsible for the offenses shortcomings. Others look at our high sack rate and sky-high rate of being stuffed and put it more on the O-line. Regardless, Mitchell Schwartz will be a free agent after the season. Schwartz is one of the best pass protecting right tackle in the NFL and could command a 7-9 million dollar a year contract. Alex Mack if he wants to can opt out of his contract and become a free agent. He could get more on the open market than the 8 million that’d he’d get if he stays with the Browns. The Browns knew this and drafted a Cameron Erving, a versatile lineman who could replace either if they left. Sadly Erving has been playing terribly lately and is not giving the fans any reason to believe that he can replace them without a significant dip in production. The offensive line has more complex parts than Santa’s workshop, and the Browns really hope they can figure it out, because a poor offensive line can hold back and otherwise competent offense.

3. A clean bill of health for Joe Haden. It’s been a tough year for Joe Haden injury wise. He started out the year with a bum hamstring and only got worse when he broke his finger and had a rib contusion. Then against the Ravens he suffered a concussion and has not seen the field since. Having Joe Haden come back healthy is the first step in making the pass defense worthy of the nickname Lock-down at the Lake.

4. Our young defensive players to continue improving. Danny Shelton started out the year a little slow but has shown more recently. Xavier Cooper is showing promise as a rotational defensive lineman. Armonty Bryant has had some really good games and has shown flashes of being a good pass rusher. And finally Christian Kirksey has shown he can do many things at the linebacker position. If these players can develop in to quality starters our defense will be greatly improved for next year.

Browns End Of Season Awards

Now that I’ve had over a week to allow the Browns’ season, and specifically the rather disappointing end to it, to sink in, I am going to go ahead and declare who would win my awards for most valuable player, most valuable rookie, least valuable player (hint: he couldn’t put a ball through the uprights to save his life), and the players and rookies who most and least impressed me – that is the player who exceeded expectations the most, or fell the furthest short. So, here goes…

Most Valuable Player…

Joe Thomas

When trying to decide who most deserved this, I considered two factors: their leadership (both on and off the field), and their performance above their replacement level on the team (that is, how much better they played than the second stringer behind them). The perfect candidate would be someone like Alex Mack, who was not only a leader at center, but tremendously better than his backup, as was evidenced by the disintegration of the Browns’ running game post-Mack-injury. However, I could not pick Mack simply because he missed so much of the season. I narrowed my list of potential candidates down to Thomas – who was the only offensive player I thought was worthy of consideration – all four starters in the secondary, Craig Robertson, and Karlos Dansby. Dansby and Tashuan Gipson were the first two I eliminated, as both missed multiple games, during which time Christian Kirksey and Jim Leonhard stepped up to play at a high level, meaning there wasn’t a large dropoff in production at the position. Similarly, when Joe Haden missed a game, Pierre Desir filled in quite admirably. Additionally, both Buster Skrine and Haden committed too many penalties at big times, and both suffered bouts of inconsistency. That left me with Thomas, Robertson, and Donte Whitner. Whitner came in and did what he was supposed to do – provide a veteran presence in the secondary while performing at a very high level (he led the team in tackles). Roberston was second on the team in tackles, and consistently made big plays in both the passing and running games. However, he only started 12 games and had weeks where he made relatively little impact. In the end, I had to choose Thomas over Whitner because he is irreplaceable to the Browns. Thomas held together a line that started to collapse in on itself after Mack went down. He played at a Pro Bowl level at one of the most important positions in the NFL. And he helped Joel Bitonio (who had a wonderful season) play at a much higher level than he would’ve had anyone else been alongside him. Thomas was the only consistently bright spot on the Browns’ offense, and for that I have to give this to him.

Most Valuable Rookie…

Christian Kirksey

A very good argument could be made for Joel Bitonio, but I decided to go with Kirksey for the way in which he stepped into Karlos Dansby’s role when he got injured. Kirksey played well enough that Dansby’s absence was scantly noticed, at least among the common viewer. Not only that, but he played in every game this season and made big plays in most of them. He tied for fifth on the team in solo tackles (with 47), and had a forced fumble to go along. He was also very serviceable against the pass, covering athletic and talented tight ends quite well. I also considered K’Waun Williams, but because he only played in 13 games, I had to give the nod to Kirksey.


Least Valuable Player…

Billy Cundiff

If you have ever read my column before, you shouldn’t be at all surprised by this choice. I hate Cundiff with a fiery passion. I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy to talk to and all, but he is a god awful kicker. Just terrible, terrible, terrible. He kicked a mere 75.9% on the season, ranking him 30th out of 33 qualifying kickers (those who attempted at least 10 field goals). He missed more field goals from between 30 and 39 yards than any other kicker in the league. And he managed to miss in close games. In the Browns’ Week 2 loss to the Ravens (you know, that one that we lost by 2 points), he missed not one, but two field goal attempts. In the one-point Week 14 loss to the Colts, he missed from 40 yards out, giving the Colts solid field position (not to mention momentum) to start a drive in which they would score and tie the game up. He consistently let the team down, and for that he wins this prestigious LVP award, which from now on will be referred to as the Cundiff award.

Most Impressive Player…

 Paul Kruger

In 2013, Kruger was one of the most disappointing players on the Browns’ squad. He signed a large contract (5 years, $40 million), and completely failed to live up to it. This year was different; Kruger racked up 11 sacks along with 4 forced fumbles. He made numerous plays at big moments, and he was one of the few consistencies in a defensive front that was demolished by injuries. His hair and beard also were impressive this past season, just reinforcing the decision to put declare him the Browns’ most impressive player of the season. (I also considered putting Buster Skrine here, but lack of facial hair cost him).

Most Impressive Rookie…

K’Waun Williams

I also heavily considered putting Taylor Gabriel here, but I had to go with Williams because he was not on my radar. Like at all. I wrote about Gabriel joining the team during the summer, and although I did not expect him to perform at this level, I nonetheless was at least aware of his existence. Williams, on the other hand, came out of nowhere. I honestly had no idea who he was when he first took the field for the first time. Additionally, he made the Browns better in a way that Gabriel didn’t and couldn’t. Williams allowed Buster Skrine to move inside to the slot, a position that he is more effective at, making the secondary better as a whole. But individually, Williams was no slouch either, amassing 29 solo tackles, 8 passes defensed, and 1 sack in 13 appearances (4 starts).

Least Impressive Player…

Josh Gordon

This one was also very difficult to decide. I almost went with Ben Tate because…well, he lost his job to two rookies and got cut. That’s pretty low. I also thought about putting Jordan Cameron here due to his plethora of injuries that prevented him from playing anywhere close to the level where he was last year. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the only Gordon could truly sit in this spot. His time on the field was limited due to his suspension, but when he finally returned, I was nothing but disappointed. Granted I had huge expectations for him, but rightfully so, seeing as he was the best receiver in the NFL in 2013. In the few games he played, he was merely average. But that isn’t what won him this spot. Despite having nearly been suspended for a whole season, he showed no growth in maturity. Quite literally zero. I mean, what kind of player misses his first ten games, comes back, and then misses a walkthrough and gets suspended by his coach for the final game of the year. Honestly, grow up Gordon. You’re not in high school anymore, and this shit doesn’t make you cool. What makes you cool is leading your team to the playoffs. Figure things out and make that happen next year.

Least Impressive Rookie…

Justin Gilbert

This was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t expect Johnny Manziel to do much of anything this year, but I expected Gilbert to start across from Haden and be in the conversation for rookie of the year. Instead his season was a story of poor decision after poor decision. There was a constant storyline regarding his lack of effort in practice, and he too missed the final game due to what amount to poor decisions. He’s real talented, and I’d really like to write this year off as him adjusting to real life. Hopefully he can come back next year and make a real impact, but we will see I guess.

And that is it. I’d love to hear where y’all agree or disagree, so feel free to tweet at me (@nicstapig) or just comment here. Cheers.

 

NOTE: It was announced earlier this morning that both OC Kyle Shanahan and QB coach Dowell Loggains have parted ways with the Browns. I will discuss this in length next week, but for information about it now, you can check out here.

Leadership at the Top Gives Browns Future Hope

Another Cleveland Browns season has come and gone without a playoff appearance. Despite an AFC North leading 6-3 start, the home team finished with a 7-9 record—good enough for last in the division while losing their final five games. Many fans are angry, myself included. However, I am choosing to focus on some positives rather than tearing down every position, as easy as that would be. I feel we have great leadership in place at the top that allows me to feel hope for the future of the Browns.

Mike PettineWe were once again dealing with a rookie Head Coach and rookie GM this year. However, Mike Pettine took this team to a 7-9 record when many national pundits predicted the Browns would with four or less games again this season. Before the season began, I know many Browns fans would have called me crazy if I said this team would win seven games.

Pettine is also establishing a no-nonsense culture in the locker room. While it is tremendously beneficial to have veteran voices like Donte Whitner and Joe Thomas in the locker room, the leadership and discipline needs to come from the Head Coach. Mike Pettine decided to sit Justin Gilbert and Josh Gordon for violating team rules. Regardless of it being a meaningless game for the Browns, the message was sent that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you were drafted, get it together or you won’t be playing for this team.

FarmerIt was also the first year for Ray Farmer to hold a General Manager position. I believe he did very well and look for him to improve in the years to come—especially in the first round of the draft. While I’m not quite ready to give up on Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel, there definitely needs to be significant improvement from these two to salvage the TWO first round picks we had in 2014. Johnny is a knucklehead that needs to grow up, but I both of these players have the talent needed to succeed in the NFL. The question is, will they apply themselves to realize their potential, or will they be names in the long list of poor Browns draft choices?

While the first round is still undetermined, the rest of the draft as well as the undrafted players that Ray Farmer brought in have already made significant contributions. Joel Bitonio (2nd round), Christian Kirksey (3rd), Terrance West (4th) and Pierre Desir (4th) all had pretty decent rookie years—especially Bitonio.

Let’s also look at the notable undrafted players that Farmer and his scout team deemed worthy to bring in this year. Isaiah Crowell, Taylor Gabriel, Connor Shaw and K’Waun Williams. That is pretty impressive, considering a few of these players arguably performed well above veterans or those that were actually drafted this year.

Add these rookies along with free agent signings Andrew Hawkins, Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, I believe Ray Farmer gets an A for this rookie year. This, as well as adding an additional first round pick in the 2015 draft, which we now know the Browns will be picking 12 and 19.

I believe a bit more praise is in order for Ray Farmer. This time, for realizing just how valuable Alex Mack was for this offense. I remember many fans and media members bemoaning the Browns matching Jacksonville’s 5-year, $42 million offer to resign the center. After Mack went down for the season, you would have to be blind to deny the impact he makes on the offensive line. It was a brilliant move to use the transition tag and allow another team do the negotiating for them.

Looking forward, while there are a few holes that need to be addressed (unfortunately we still don’t know who will be our starting QB), I see the Cleveland Browns future is bright. You can call me a blind, hopeless optimist. You can say I’m suffering from some morbid sports Stockholm syndrome. Call it whatever you’d like, I enjoyed watching the Browns this season and I’m positive to see how this team grows under the current leadership.

Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine are exactly what we needed in this organization. Also, the very last thing that should happen is to get rid of them, so any talk of firing either of them needs to stop. You get rid of them, who would want to come to Cleveland in a situation like that?

What Cleveland needs is continuity for multiple years. No knee-jerk reactions. Stay the course.

Go Browns.

A Cleveland Browns Thanksgiving

After years of mediocrity, it finally looks like (knock on wood) Cleveland Browns fans have a team they can be thankful for and proud of this year. It hasn’t always been pretty, but the team is currently 7-4 and right in the thick of the playoff hunt. All of this got some of the Browns writers here at More Than A Fan: Cleveland thinking, what should the Cleveland Browns be thankful for this year? Here is what we came up with.

Dave Jack

-For starters, the Browns as an organization should still be thankful for the Indianapolis Colts. While the current administration had nothing to do with executing the Trent Richardson deal, they certainly did benefit from it. It’s far too early to determine whether the trade ultimately worked out in their favor, but the added first round pick allowed the Browns flexibility to move around in that round and do what they wanted.

-To piggyback off of that, Ray Farmer and company should propose a Thanksgiving toast to Joe Banner. Banner wasn’t perfect, but he did have the foresight to stockpile draft picks for the 2014 NFL Draft (much to the detriment of the 2013 draft), one that he predicted (so far, correctly) would have much more talent. He also left the new regime in a very good position financially.

-We found out the hard way that everyone should be thankful for center Alex Mack. The offensive line as a whole took a noticeable step back in the couple games following his injury. This was no doubt partly due to chemistry, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that was it. Joe Thomas is probably the better lineman at a more integral position, but Mack was the general and possibly the best run blocker out of the bunch. Missing him shows that Mack is worth every penny of his $42 million contract.

Andy Metzger

First and foremost, the Browns should be thankful for the defensive secondary unit. If it hadn’t been for their stellar play all season, the Browns record would be much different. The secondary has collected 13 total interceptions this season, led by Tashaun Gipson with six of them. Joe Haden has played lights out this season and is earning that big contract. While he had early struggles, Justin Gilbert has shown tremendous progress the last few games and made a huge pass defense against the Falcons in a tight game. It is because of the secondary unit that Brian Hoyer has had extra opportunities per game.

Second, the Browns should be thankful for Johnny Manziel *ducks*. Now, hear me out on this. When the Browns selected Johnny Manziel in the first round in the draft, the Browns suddenly became a relevant team in the NFL in the eyes of the national media. With that, Brian Hoyer knew he needed to work his butt off to be the starting QB of the Cleveland Browns. This is just speculation, but I assume Hoyer also brought his game up on the intangibles that rookies have a hard time with. Namely, leadership. There’s no doubt that Brian Hoyer is the leader of the offense. He has command of the huddle and the respect of his peers. Sometimes it is that confidence that boosts your game to another level. The Browns should be thankful for Johnny Manziel, it lit a fire under Brian Hoyer. I just hope his inconsistent passes don’t lock us out of the playoffs *ducks*.

Last, but certainly not least, the Browns should be thankful for Ray Farmer. More specifically, Ray Farmer and his scout team. Where older regimes refused to bring in free agents because “they’re free agents for a reason,” Ray Farmer brought in Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby, Jim Dray, Ben Tate, Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins. As for the draft, they snagged Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Joel Bitonio, Christian Kirksey, Terrance West, Pierre Desir as well as gaining extra 2015 1st, 4th and a 6th round draft pics. For undrafted rookies, the Browns collected an impressive haul that are major contributors on both sides of the ball. Cleveland signed Ray Agnew, Isaiah Crowell, Taylor Gabriel and K’Waun Williams. Without the players Ray Farmer signed, this would be a very different looking team. So, not only the Browns, but I, too, am thankful for Ray Farmer and his scout team. They did a fantastic job in the first year and cannot wait to see what they can do in the years to come.

Nico Ericksen-Deriso

Local(ish) High Schools – With four players from the Youngstown and Cleveland areas, the Browns ought to be thankful for the local talent that has reached them. Brian Hoyer went to high school at local powerhouse St. Ignatius. After spending time working behind Tom Brady in New England, Hoyer has emerged in Cleveland to lead the team’s offense, racking up 2864 yards through the air on a 55.9% completion rate to go along with 11 touchdowns thus far this year. On defense, one of his counterparts is also a Cleveland native. Donte Whitner attended Glenville High School before heading to Ohio State. In his first year with the Browns, he has been instrumental so far, finding himself second on the team in tackles with 73. He also has an interception and a forced fumble to go along. Two Browns linemen hail from the Youngstown area: Ishmaa’ily Kitchen on defense, and John Greco on offense. Kitchen attended Cardinal Mooney High before pursuing a career in the NFL. After seeing little time on the field in September, Kitchen has stepped up to the tune of 23 tackles since Week 6 as injuries have slowly decimated the Browns’ defensive line. On the other hand, John Greco, who attended Boardman High in Youngstown, has started every game for the Browns this season, primarily at right guard.
A Kyle Shanahan Offense – Shanahan’s offense has created a functional unit for the Browns. Despite losing one of their best players in Alex Mack, Cleveland has still been able to produce at a greater rate than last year, often powered to victory on the backs of their duo of rookie running backs and Hoyer’s mistake-minimizing arm. However, I can’t say that this has been all good, as their have been a few games when the offense has just straight up failed. However, overall, Shanahan’s presence in Cleveland has been a blessing.
The Cincinnati Bengals – “Wait what?! The Bengals? That makes so much sense, being thankful for one of our rivals and the division leader. Except not!”…Well, if you really think about it, it does. The Browns have three big reasons to be thankful for the Bengals. First off, former Bengal Andrew Hawkins leads the team in receiving with 50 receptions for 694 yards and two touchdowns. Secondly, the Bengals were kind enough to drop a huge deuce on Thursday Night Football. And lastly, the Bengals were dumb enough to help make sure the Browns improved this year by signing Greg “Brickhand” Little, guaranteeing that Cleveland’s worst nightmare would never haunt the team again. As hard as it is to admit, the Browns owe the Bengals a polite nod at dinner this Thanksgiving.

Stephen Thomas

I’m thankful that Mike Smith knows less about clock management than Andy Reid.

I’m thankful for reactionary Browns fans on Twitter, who handle each third down failure and incomplete pass with the grace and tact of a sorority girl in a zombie apocalypse movie.

I’m thankful for Joel Bitonio and Joe Thomas, who could block their way out of Nakatomi Plaza.

I’m thankful for Steelers fans, because as Judge Smails said in Caddyshack “The world needs ditch diggers, too.”

Ryan Jones

Mike Pettine – I routinely make jokes about the corpses that have roamed the sidelines for the Cleveland Browns over the past two or so decades, but know that I make those jokes in the most masochistic way imaginable. It kills me every time that I do it, but I think we might just be able to move on from all of that. Granted, Mike Pettine has had a couple time management blunders during his rookie campaign, but I get the feeling that he is an actual NFL caliber head coach. It’s a relatively small sample size but I’m absolutely loving him at the helm of my team thus far.

Josh Gordon – Quite simply the most talented football player that I have ever seen play for the Browns during my lifetime. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Josh Gordon was the singular reason that I was able to watch and enjoy the second half of last season. He is that good. And the Browns were that bad. There were quite a few local media members who advocated for his release this offseason. You most likely won’t hear them address that, but you will hear me reaffirm my love of Josh Gordon and the fact that I wrote a series of articles championing the fact that releasing him would have been a disastrous mistake. Seeing number twelve out on the field in Brown and Orange might just be the best thing in my life right now. Please don’t tell my girlfriend.

Seven and four. Seven wins and four losses. Seven wins at Thanksgiving and a team that is squarely in the mix for a playoff spot. I’m sorry, but after the putrid and depressing football that I have been subjected to my entire life, that is definitely the thing that I am most thankful for. Again, please don’t let my girlfriend or loved ones read this. Or, actually, let them read this. They know I have an irrational love for this football team. They’ll understand. All of us understand. Or, at least, should. The Browns have a huge game against Buffalo on Sunday, and they are poised to enter the month of December fighting for the division and the playoffs. How can we not be thankful for that?


 

As you can see, the Browns organization has a lot to be thankful for. One consensus among all of the writers was that the Browns should be thankful for their fans. These are fans who have stuck it out through multiple two, three and four win seasons. Fans who have begged just to have a team with a .500 record. Fans who can boast that they are some of the best fans in the NFL, as well as the most numerous.

The staff at More Than A Fan: Cleveland would like to wish all of you, our readers, a very Happy Thanksgiving. Even if you’ve only read one post or disagree with everything we say on a regular basis, we are still thankful for taking the time to do so.

Happy Thanksgiving

The Browns' Midweek Report, Week 12: The Personnel Edition

It’s Week 12, and the Browns have a very realistic chance (at least mathematically) of making it into the playoffs, something that many did not predict prior to the beginning of the season. However, to actually make the playoffs, the Browns will have to elevate their game significantly, especially considering the relative roster chaos of the past week. Since last Friday, a lot of significant changes have been made to the Browns roster and gameplan, most of which significantly affect the Browns’ winning potential in upcoming games:

– Phil Taylor – On Friday, the Browns unfortunately had to place Taylor on the season-ending IR due to a persisting knee issue. He only managed to appear in five games this season, racking up 10 tackles (6 solo, 2 for loss). However, despite what appear to be somewhat meager stats, he had a significant impact for the Browns’ defense, especially in the run game. Having a 6’3″, 335 pound frame to stuff up the middle of the field is something a squad ranked 30th in the league against the run could really use right now. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether he remains rostered or not going into next season. In 2015 he will be in the final year of his rookie contract and will carry a $5.477 million base salary. Prior to his injury he had been quite disruptive this season, especially against Cincinnati, but with a plethora of depth at defensive line, the Browns have a bit of flexibility in deciding whether to retain his services or attempt to move him this offseason.

– Ben Tate – Tate had failed to live up to expectations this season, but at the same time cutting him seemed to me to be a bit unnecessary. Granted that though, I don’t know the extent to which he was disrupting locker room cohesion. It has been apparent that he was unhappy with his role on the team and having to share time with the rookies, but to my eye it didn’t seem to be enough to warrant dropping him. Although he has been a non-factor in recent weeks, he still provided valuable depth and experience at the position, as well as a third option to turn to if the rookies struggle during a game. The Vikings were given an early Christmas present when they were able to pick up a talented player at a position of need this late in the season. I fully expect to hear his name and see him on a highlight reel again before the end of the season.

– Josh Gordon – Gordon is back! Gordon is back! Gordon is back! And I’m real excited. He will provide a much needed spark on offense, but I’m not really going to go into that too much right now. If you want to read about it, feel free to click here… Or here… Or here… Or here… Or here… Or… well you get the picture. He’s been covered a lot.

– Jabaal Sheard – Sheard suffered a foot injury last Sunday, but fortunately he is not going to require surgery. He is currently considered day-to-day, but it still appears likely that he won’t end up suiting up on Sunday. Sheard has been having his best season since his rookie year, racking up 36 tackles to go with a pair of sacks thus far. His absence from an already substantially weakened front seven will hurt this Sunday.

– Karlos Dansby – Sheard’s absence won’t hurt nearly as much as this loss though. Dansby has proven to be a major leader for the Browns’ defense, serving as their quarterback on defense. On top of that, he has 73 tackles on the year and has been dominant against the run. Combine this with the loss of Phil Taylor, and the Browns are going to be struggling against the rush in the coming weeks.

Speaking of which, if there ever were a time for the Browns to completely adopt and follow Coach Mike Pettine’s “Next Man Up” mantra, it is this week. The Browns are facing a fairly mediocre Falcons team, but one that has the talent to put together a strong game. Craig Robertson and Christian Kirksey will need to step up against the run in a way that they haven’t been able to yet this year. Barkevious Mingo will have to finally perform up to the potential that the Browns saw when they spent a first-round pick on him. And the rest of the defense will have to improve greatly upon their game last week.

Gordon should help the Browns get moving on offense against the league’s last ranked pass defense. And hopefully Shanahan will revert back to the run game that won the Browns the game against Cincinnati, not the one that was under utilized in a disappointing loss to the Texans. Overall, the Browns should bounce back from last week’s game to put forth another convincing performance:

Browns 31 – Falcons 20

Cleveland Browns: Karlos Dansby Out, Jabaal Sheard Day-to-Day

Defensively the Cleveland Browns have struggled this season. There have been some surprise bright spots here and there, like Tashaun Gipson and K’Waun Williams, but by and large the defense as a whole has struggled. The worst facet of the defense is undoubtedly the run defense. Currently the Browns run defense has allowed an average of 142.1 yards per game (30th in the league) and an average of 4.6 yards per carry (29th in the league). To make things worse, the Cleveland Browns had placed Phil Taylor on injured reserve, ending his season. As if it couldn’t get worse than that, this past Sunday the Browns lost Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard to injuries. Dansby is expected to miss a month while Sheard is currently day-to-day, although at one point it was feared he could require surgery and miss the rest of the season.

The news now that Sheard doesn’t need surgery is good for the Browns. Should Sheard have missed any significant time then Barkevious Mingo would’ve likely started in his place with Eric Martin and/or Keith Pough possibly seeing an expanded role on defense. Mingo has been solid against the run in limited action, but Sheard has been a standout for the Browns. According to Pro Football Focus he was the Browns best run defender and the third best 3-4 OLB run defender in the league. For what it’s worth Mingo is PFF’s 4th best 3-4 OLB against the run, however he may struggle in that role given increased playing time as historically Mingo has not been great against the run.

Sheard and Mingo have been good against the run.
Sheard and Mingo have been good against the run.

The loss of Karlos Dansby is of bigger concern. He is ranked as the 5th best inside linebacker this season and is a major cog in the Browns defensive wheel. He is a vocal leader and helps get guys into position on the field. Going without him is a major blow, but is now something that Mike Pettine and (defensive coordinator) Jim O’Neil will have to deal with.

While it’s impossible (as the cliché goes) to replace a guy like Dansby, it’s extremely likely that the guy who will stand in Dansby’s place on the field is rookie Christian Kirksey. Kirksey has actually seen more defensive snaps than Craig Robertson (436 and 301 snaps, respectively) this season and while he is a solid coverage linebacker he has struggled so far against the run. This year Kirksey has 50 total tackles (25 solo, 25 assisted) as well as 2 sacks, but his -6.8 grade against the run (52nd among ILBs) from Pro Football Focus tells you all you need to know when it comes to his impact on defense versus the run. While Dansby wasn’t exactly a stalwart run stopper, he was ranked number 16 on that list with a +2.3 grade. Kirksey at least has some significant game experience this season to where he isn’t totally green, but in no way will the run defense improve with him starting (alongside Craig Robertson) in place of Karlos Dansby. The Browns may also give an expanded role to special teamer Tank Carder, although he has never been given an expanded role in the past.

Karlos Dansby has been very good for the Browns this year. Replacing him will be impossible.
Karlos Dansby has been very good for the Browns this year. Replacing him will be impossible.

So, what exactly does all of this mean?

Well, for the Browns, Jabaal Sheard’s injury not being as serious as it was originally thought is a silver lining to this grim news. While Phil Taylor seemed to struggle this season, the run defense did look noticeably better when he played against the Cincinnati Bengals as opposed to the couple weeks he was sidelined with an injury. Losing him and Dansby will undoubtedly weaken a struggling rush defense. The Browns can try and patch these holes using guys like Chris Kirksey, Tank Carder (both at ILB), Sione Fua and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (both along the defensive line) will only add to the problem that is the Browns run defense. Unfortunately for the Cleveland Browns they have no other options.

The Midweek Recap/Preview: Preseason Weeks 2 and 3

Well at least Connor Shaw looked good… Or actually, compared to the other two quarterbacks, he looked great.

But honestly, that game was painful to watch. The endless string of mistakes simply served to numb my brain and make me want to go curl up in my bed and sleep for about 12 hours. And mind you, this is after I recorded and watched the game two days late after a full night’s sleep. There just wasn’t a lot of good to take away from that game in my eyes, but I’ll discuss that in a little. First, the big news from yesterday:

Brian Hoyer was announced as the Week 1 starter for the Browns on Wednesday, barring an unexpected injury. And this, I believe, was the right decision, if only because Hoyer didn’t look quite as uncomfortable as Manziel, although that point is very debatable. Hoyer seems much more familiar than Manziel with the playbook, and he didn’t have any apparent mistakes or problems calling plays in the huddles on Monday. However, he by no means played well in either of the first two preseason games. His passes were constantly low or high or behind or in front of the receiver. Or, in other words, his passes were rarely where they were supposed to be. But I think that problem should lessen by the time the season actually starts.

During the game, there was much discussion among commentators about the fact that Manziel and Hoyer were sharing snaps with the first team during practice the last couple of weeks. The theory was that because neither of them had a whole lot of time with the starters, none of the receivers could build real chemistry with either quarterback. Combine that with the fact that the two quarterbacks in question have different arm motions, and it makes it much more difficult for a receiver to run timing routes and know where to expect the ball. I’m really hoping that this is all it is. Now that Hoyer has been named the Week 1 starter, he should get close to 100% of the first-team reps in practice. This should allow him to build more chemistry and understanding with his receivers, which will hopefully be on display on Saturday at 8:00 pm against the St. Louis Rams. All going well, Hoyer will put up better numbers than the 6/14 for 92 yards and the 2/6 for 16 yards of the past two games. Otherwise, this might end up proving to be a much longer season than most Cleveland fans expected.

As to my other takeaways from Monday as well as my expectations for Saturday:

– Armonty Bryant and Marqueis Gray continue to impress me. They are both having fantastic preseasons so far and are making cases to see significant playing time once the season truly starts. Neither is going to be able to force their way into the first team, but both are proving to be very talented and capable backups.

– Mitchell Schwartz is going to need help this year. Probably the weakest piece of this offensive line when it comes to pass protection, Ryan Kerrigan ran ragged over him on Monday. Now, not every defender he will be matched up against is going to be as talented as Kerrigan, but next week I’d expect to see a slight tweaking in the gameplan to give him a bit more help when Chris Long and Robert Quinn come to town.

– Jordan Cameron looked a bit rusty as he saw his first action of the season. Although the balls being delivered to him were by no means thrown well, there were a couple of catches that we would normally see him make. Look for him to keep progressing towards last season’s form as the preseason progresses.

– Special teams and tackling were both much improved from Week 1, a trend that should continue until these areas are two of the primary strengths of this year’s team.

– Ben Tate was one of the lone bright spots last week, showing himself quite worthy of a starting role in the NFL as he racked up 51 yards on 10 carries. If he continues that form into the season, the horror that is the Browns’ QB situation should be slightly balanced out.

– The battle for the second inside-linebacker spot raged on Monday. In my eyes, Craig Robertson outplayed Christian Kirksey, if only slightly. Robertson has a knack for elevating his game when it counts, and at this point I expect to see him on the field next to Karlos Dansby for the majority of the season.

– With Buster Skrine out with a thumb injury, Justin Gilbert made the most of his opportunity to start across from Joe Haden. Although he wasn’t perfect, he played well enough to raise the question of whether or not he could win the starting job from Skrine by the beginning of the season. With Skrine possibly out again next week, Gilbert will have a golden opportunity to leap Skrine on the depth chart.

Player That Most Impressed Me This Week: OLB Barkevious Mingo

– A bit of a disappointment last year, Mingo has been quite impactful so far this preseason. He has been hustling much more than many of his teammates and has been making plays all over the field. If he can keep that energy up all season, he has the chance of having a breakout year.

Player That Left Me Shaking My Head: CB Joe Haden

– “Holding. Defense, number 23. 5 yard penalty. Automatic first down.”    “Holding. Defense, number 23. 5 yard penalty. Automatic first down.”

Those are not words I want to hearing ever in a Browns game, but on Monday we all had the pleasure of hearing that twice in the first quarter alone. I know that it will be hard for defensive backs to adjust to the new stringency when it comes to touching receivers after 5 yards, but I expected the best player on our defense to be able to adjust fairly seamlessly. So far that has not been the case. But hey, as long as he’s worked it out by the start of the regular season, everything will be forgotten. If not, well… let’s just not think about that.

The Midweek Preview: Preseason Week 2

So unfortunately folks, we have to wait all the way until Monday to see Manziel make his first NFL start. However, the good news for those of you like me who are currently outside of the Cleveland area is that the game will be nationally televised on ESPN (with kickoff scheduled for 8 pm ET), meaning that we won’t have to sit on our computers watching an extremely poor and fairly pixelated online stream of the game. So yay for that.

Anyway, here are a few little things that I will be looking for this week when Manziel and the Browns take on OC Kyle Shanahan’s old team in the Redskins:

– Johnny Manziel: While he saw significant action last week against the Lions, much of his time on the field was spent with the disgustingly porous second-team offensive line “attempting” to block for him. So, although he did put up 63 yards on 7/11 passing while also racking up 27 yards on the ground, I don’t really feel that we fans got a good feel for what he could do. Some of the things he’s been needing to work on going into this season include standing confidently in the pocket and going through his progressions before bolting, and he didn’t have as much of an opportunity to do that against the Lions as the pocket was regularly collapsing quite quickly. It will be interesting to see how Manziel reacts when he is given the time to stand in the pocket. Although I expect him to scramble early a few times during his time on the field, it will be nice to see whether he looks comfortable when he doesn’t tuck and run early.

– Terrance West: The past couple of weeks I’ve been reading about how West is going to be one of the breakout stars this year at the running back position for fantasy football. Last saturday, he didn’t live up to that expectation. Or even anywhere close to it. He ran for 22 yards on 10 carries with a long of 10 yards. Although he had a couple of nice looking runs, especially at the beginning of his time on the field, he just did not look that good to me. He threw down a couple of really nice little jukes to make defenders miss, but then he started to keep trying that. And it just wasn’t this working. This week I’m hoping to see him ground and pound a little more and put that size of his to use running through defenders, definitely against smaller corners on the outside.

– Inside Linebacker: This will be a very interesting and fun positional battle throughout the year, not only the preseason. Craig Robertson started the game and made a couple of great plays in run defense. He also looked much improved in coverage, which was something he struggled with at times last season. But then rookie Christian Kirksey came in. And he played great too. His coverage skills were phenomenal for a rookie inside linebacker, and while he didn’t make as many plays in the ground game as Robertson, he didn’t make any real big mistakes either. Look for both of them to keep putting together very respectable performances.

– Brian Hoyer: He too looked solid against the Lions, although he looked a bit shaky to start the game, especially on throws more than 10 yards or so downfield, as he consistently sent those sailing over the receiver’s head. I expect him to bounce back this week and show much better control on his longer throws, definitely as he will be seeing the field some against second-teamers.

– Special Teams: While there was good and bad in this area, it was mainly bad. The first kickoff honestly made me want to cry. That was really just not the way a team wants to start their season. Except for the Lions. They would’ve been pleased. But yeah, the Browns’ kickoff coverage did not look all that competent, neither on the first kickoff nor the second. Hopefully it will be different this week though. On the good side however, congratulations to Marlon Moore on earning himself another few days or weeks in a Browns’ uniform with that kick return to start the second half.

– Tackling: There were way too many missed tackles, especially among the first-teamers. A defense as talented as the Browns should be made to miss so easily. Wrapping up a player is arguably the most important part of defense, and the Browns were not able to do it. Hopefully they worked a lot on it this past week of practice so that we don’t have to experience that again against the Redskins. And speaking of missed tackles…

– Pierre Desir: Awful game. Just a terrible way to start an NFL career. Now, I still really like Desir and think he is talented, but everybody who was critical of his lack of experience playing “real” competition was proven correct. He was missing tackles all over the field as well as having problems staying with receivers in coverage. However, he has a strong work ethic, and I expect him to bounce back well this week as he showed flashes of excellence during the game against the Lions.

– Armonty Bryant: Wow. Just wow. Although solid last year, he looks like he has made big strides this offseason, and he had a hell of a game. He was consistently disrupting the quarterback, and I look forward to see him continue to that throughout the rest of the year.

– Contain: Another area the defense struggled on was containing at the line of scrimmage. There were a couple times where outside linebackers shirked their duties by overpursuing counters, leaving the running back with loads of room to run. We will need to see improvement in that area this week.

And that is more or less it. I’m really looking forward to being able to watch the game in HD this week. Anyway, I will leave you with this:

Player That Most Impressed Me This Week: TE Marqueis Gray

Should Jordan Cameron suffer a serious injury this year, it appears that the Browns will have a capable backup to step up in his place.

Player That I Am Waving Goodbye To: WR Jonathan Krause

Players who are battling for a last spot on the roster but are unaware and get hit in the knee by a very-well thrown ball while having space to run up the field don’t tend to win the battle for that spot.

Cleveland Browns Preseason Game One: Position Battles

The countdown is over, Browns football is back! Well, sort of. The Cleveland Browns travel to Detroit to take on the Lions on Saturday night at Ford Field for their first preseason game of the season. Football hungry Browns fans will get their first game action since December 29th of last year and will finally get to see the 2014 draft picks in action against another team. The perception for this game, and the preseason in general, is that it’s meaningless. And to some degree that’s true. But don’t tell that to the Browns quarterbacks who are trying to learn Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system. Don’t tell that to player number 54, the first guy on the outside looking in at the active 53 man roster. Don’t tell that to Mike Pettine, this will be his first time being a NFL Head Coach in a game. In all reality, this is a fairly meaningful game, or set of games. While it might be painful to watch “no name” players in the fourth quarter, for the Cleveland Browns these games are very meaningful. If you’re looking to find some meaning in Saturday’s game, consider the following things to watch.

The Quarterback Competition

Brian Hoyer, Johnny ManzielProbably the first thing everyone will be looking to see on Saturday is what happens with the quarterback position, specifically the battle between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. While it’s possible things could change between today and Saturday, it seems likely that Hoyer will get the starting nod for the Browns in their first preseason game. According to the preseason depth chart released by Coach Pettine, Hoyer is the guy for now. Pettine has said that the only reason he released that chart was because he had to, calling it very fluid. Despite this, we can still learn something from watching both Hoyer and Manziel play in Saturday’s game. For Hoyer, it’s his chance to come out and really put some distance between himself and Manziel. While it’s unlikely the Lions defense will throw a lot at Hoyer (or the Browns offense in general) this is still a big opportunity for Hoyer to shine with the first team offense against another team’s first team defense. For Manziel, even though he’s going to be playing with the second string, this is his first shot playing in an actual NFL game. If he can take advantage of this by showing he is more than just a run first quarterback and can play well in the pocket he could really help himself. He will also have to show he is comfortable running an offense and has knowledge of the playbook. Just last week Manziel himself said that right now it’s him versus the playbook as he tries to get all of the terminology down.

New Faces

The Browns first team offense and defense will also feature some new faces. According to the aforementioned depth chart, running back Ben Tate, wide receiver Miles Austin, left guard Joel Bitonio, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and strong safety Donte Whitner will all be getting the start on Saturday. This will be their first start as Cleveland Browns, and for Bitonio his first NFL start. It wouldn’t be surprising to see running back Terrance West, receiver Andrew Hawkins and/or receiver Nate Burleson see some time with the first team offense in some packages as well.

Positional Battles

Quarterback isn’t the only position that doesn’t have a clear starter. The Browns offense and defense will have position battles throughout preseason, battles that will be settled on the field. While offensive guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco have been given the starting nod for Saturday, Garrett Gilkey still can’t be ruled out as a potential starter on this team. There is also the question of depth along the offensive line. Martin Wallace and Reid Fragel will compete for a backup offensive tackle position and veteran Paul McQuistan is also in the mix. Staying on the offensive side of the ball, the receiver position is far from set – especially considering the uncertainty surrounding Josh Gordon. Gordon and Miles Austin are currently listed as the starters, but with a plethora of unproven receivers somebody could emerge as a big contributor. Marlon Moore, Anthony Armstrong, Charles Johnson and rookie Willie Snead will all compete not just for depth but for a roster spot. Keep an eye on these players, who will likely see time later on in the game on Saturday. Lastly on offense, keep an eye on the running back trio of Edwin Baker, Dion Lewis and rookie Isaiah Crowell. They are currently buried on the depth chart, however it’s likely at least one of these ball carriers will make the roster. They probably won’t see any (significant) action until after halftime, but all of them will be looking to take advantage of their opportunity.

KirkseyDefensively, the Browns coaching staff will have to figure out how they want to rotate their defensive line and outside linebackers. There is also one position battle to watch unfold in the front seven, the inside linebacker position opposite of Karlos Dansby. According to the depth chart Craig Robertson will be Saturday’s starter. Despite Robertson being with the team since 2011 and making 17 starts (14 last year), this position is anything but solidified. Robertson was abysmal in pass coverage last season and wasn’t exactly a stalwart in run support either. Rookie Christian Kirksey is listed as Robertson’s backup, but could end up being the starter by the end of preseason. Kirksey is known as a coverage linebacker, at times lining up opposite of slot receivers last year for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Should Kirksey demonstrate adequate coverage skills as well as an ability to stop the run in Saturday’s game he could help turn the tide in his favor. Lastly on defense, first round pick Justin Gilbert is listed behind Buster Skrine on the depth chart at cornerback. Skrine, who was much improved last season, is probably best suited as a slot corner, however Gilbert will have to prove himself on the field to unseat Skrine. The rookie has shown flashes during training camp, now he will have a chance to prove himself in a game. Keep an eye open for rookie defensive back Pierre Desir as well. Desir probably won’t be competing for a starting job, but will try to move his way up the depth chart.

While preseason games obviously don’t count towards a team’s win/loss record, calling them meaningless isn’t completely fair. For the Browns, preseason will (once again) be a proving ground for multiple positions. One fumble, dropped pass or missed tackle can literally make or break a player’s chance of making the team.

Iowa Hawkeyes: 5 Things To Watch For

Every season there seems to be a team right on the cusp of greatness that only a few people consider until low and behold, they become a bona fide contender and are jockeying for position atop the podium. That team this year will be Iowa. I am by no means a Hawkeye fan and I will never be one but since I cover the BIG West and have analyzed all the teams, I agree that the Iowa Hawkeyes have a golden opportunity to be the team to beat in the BIG West.  Here are five things to watch for.

Are the Hawkeyes a legitimate threat in the BIG West?
Are the Hawkeyes a legitimate threat in the BIG West?

1. Defensive Retooling

Heading into the season, one of the biggest issues is how to replicate last season’s defensive production. Iowa was second in the Big Ten in overall defense, holding opponents to just under nineteen points per contest, and ranked in the top ten nationally in six major defensive categories. However, with all three former linebackers (James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens) now departed, it is imperative the young group blossoms rapidly. New middle linebacker Quinton Alston will heavily relied upon and Travis Perry takes the outside linebacker spot while the other side will be occupied by Reggie Spearman, who has been mentioned as a player to keep an eye on this season.
And although there is a lack of experience, it doesn’t mean that there is no depth or leadership. Iowa does bring back 10 of 11 players who were listed second on the depth chart and still has five starters including defensive tackle Carl Davis. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound behemoth may have registered just 41 tackles last year, but the way the veteran occupies blockers and provides leadership is priceless for the entire defense. With all that being said, if Iowa wants to be just as potent it will have to come together under defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s tutelage and buy into the blue collar defense the Hawkeyes are known for.

2. Great Schedule

In my opinion, Iowa has the most favorable schedule in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes start the season by facing four nonconference opponents, three of which are at home, and five of their first six conference games are against teams that ended with a combined nine wins in the Big Ten last season. Also, the Hawkeyes don’t play Michigan State or Ohio State and host West division rivals Nebraska and Wisconsin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Iowa start 5-1, or even 6-0, in the league. If this happens, it would mean the Hawkeyes would head into matchups against Wisconsin (Nov. 22) and Nebraska (Nov. 28) with a possible Big Ten West division title on the line. If they win both of those final matchups, or even if they manage to win one, the Hawkeyes have a strong shot of winning the Big Ten West. Given the team’s strong returning base of starters and advantageous schedule, Iowa very well could be playing for the Big Ten title in 2014.

3. Receiving Crew

This could be the deepest wide receiver corps that coach Kirk Ferentz has fielded as the Hawkeyes bring back 6 out of 8 players who had at least 10 receptions last season and lose only 48 of 213 total team receptions from last season. The club also adds Derrick Willies, the 6’4 redshirt freshman and former state champion sprinter, who was the talk of spring, totaling 5 catches for 142 yards in the spring game, and given his size and athleticism, he should be a key contributor for this offense along with veterans Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and Tevaun Smith. I expect his playing time to increase as he displays his ability to stretch the defense and make big catches. If Willies can reach his potential and everyone else produces, an already solid offense could become deadly. Also, Iowa has the a powerful offensive line. The Hawkeyes return three starters from a group that gave up only seven sacks in Big Ten play with future NFL draft pick  Brandon Scherff leading the way.

4. Quarterback Development

Hawkeyes signal-caller Jake Rudock showed glimpses of potential as he accumulated 2,838 passing yards and 18 touchdowns including the game-winning one to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime against Northwestern. He also rushed for 218 yards and five touchdowns. At the same time, he also had plenty of errors as he threw 13 interceptions on just fifty nine percent completions, seventh best in the league. It is imperative he make the jump from a first year starter to a more comfortable, knowledgeable second year player. He also needs to stay healthy as he went down with a knee injury late last season. Simply put: he was a solid quarterback but wasn’t spectacular either and with so much at stake this season, he will need to improve. Yes, he has shown tremendous poise and football intelligence but has on occasion thrown before his feet were set figuratively and literally. If Iowa wants to hang with powerhouses Nebraska and Wisconsin, Rudock needs to cut down on his mistakes and take advantage of a dominant offensive line and deep receiving corps.
 

5. Offensive Firepower

It remains to be seen if offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the coaching staff will open up the offense and if so, to what extent. Early last season, Iowa pushed the tempo with the hurry up offense and rudock seemed to be in control as the offense effectively moved the ball. Also, with the addition of Willies, there appears to be a surplus of speed and explosiveness at the receiver position to utilize. However, Kirk Ferentz is a conservative coach who prefers running the ball and relying on stout, disciplined defense. If I were a Hawkeye fan, I’d be a little anxious given the firepower Wisconsin and Nebraska have and what would happen if Iowa is in a deep hole early in the game. Are they willing to go that extra step and let Rudock loose or stick to their game plan and grind it out? Given Iowa’s penchant for low scoring games, I don’t expect many offensive shootouts but if there are, do the coaches have enough faith in Rudock? Only time will tell. All I know is if you get punched, you need to punch back somehow.
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