NFL team previews: Cleveland Browns

RB Trent Richardson

With the 2012 NFL season approaching fast, we go around the league to preview every team. Up next: the Cleveland Browns.

OUTLOOK

The Browns are banking that the team's top three draft choices from this year will improve the offense as drastically as the top draft picks in the previous two years did for the defense. Running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz are expected to become immediate starters and wide receiver Travis Benjamin is expected to contribute, as well.

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The Browns' anemic offense scored fewer points in 2011 than any team in Browns history, while the defense finished as the 10th ranked team in the NFL. If the offense can make the progress the defense has, the Browns will have a chance to dramatically improve their record. However, the Browns face the third toughest schedule in the NFL this season and six of their games are against division opponents, who all made the playoffs last year.

OFFSEASON

The Browns were not too active in free agency and signed just two defensive linemen in Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Rucker is expected to start opposite of Jabaal Sheard. The Browns continue to build through the draft and are counting on their top draft picks this year to come through.


D'Qwell Jackson is a key defensive presence for the Browns.

ROOKIES

The Browns used their top three picks on the offensive side of the ball and they are all virtual locks to open the season as starters. Trent Richardson, No. 3 overall, will be the focal point of the offense. Brandon Weeden, picked 22nd overall, is expected to start over Colt McCoy and improve the passing attack.

Mitchell Schwartz is expected to immediately start at right tackle. Travis Benjamin, taken in the fourth round, is expected to provide the speed to stretch the defense down the field. Linebacker James-Michael Johnson should push for playing time in the early going with Scott Fujita scheduled to miss the first three games due to the Saints bounty scandal.

THE SCHEDULE

The Browns have the third toughest schedule in the NFL based upon last year's performances, playing nine games against teams that went to the playoffs in 2011. Their divisional pairings are the NFC East and AFC West, but unfortunately for the Browns, it's their own division that creates the most havoc. The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all went to the playoffs a year ago, and six of Cleveland's games are against those teams. Last year, the Browns were winless in the division.

The Browns have two winnable stretches of games on paper in October and December. They play the Bengals, Colts and Chargers in October and Oakland, Kansas City and Washington in December. The Browns play on the road against the Ravens (Sept. 27) and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (Oct. 3) in back-to back weeks. Their bye week comes after nine games, and after that they play three teams that went to the playoffs down the stretch -- including on the road against Peyton Manning and the Broncos (Dec. 23) and the Steelers (Dec. 30) to close out the season.

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Trent Richardson, running back. Even though he's a rookie, the Browns lack of offensive play makers puts the burden immediately on the shoulders of Richardson. For the Browns offense to be successful, Richardson will have to be a big key in making it happen.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER

D'Qwell Jackson, linebacker. Jackson had a big season with 158 tackles and 3.5 sacks after missing back-to-back seasons with torn pectoral muscles. Jackson was all over the field making plays and even though a case could be made for Joe Haden or Ahtyba Rubin, Jackson is in the middle of it all and he needs to make plays to get the defense off the field.

WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...

The other three teams in the AFC North dramatically stumble. The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all figure to stay near their playoff-caliber form from 2011, and the Browns finished last season 0-6 in the division. In all likelihood, the Browns are at least one offseason away from pushing for a playoff berth.

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