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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Cleveland Browns

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Yup, things are definitely changing in Northeast Ohio.

The Browns cleaned house this offseason, canning head coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff after just one year, then removing team CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi. Ray Farmer, a long-time NFL personnel man, was named their new general manager, and soon after the team hired long-time defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as head coach. Both moves have been met with some skepticism but both men have done a nice job so far.

The Browns made quite a splash in free agency, signing linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner, running back Ben Tate and receivers Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett and Miles Austin. Why all the receivers? Because last year's breakout sensation, Josh Gordon, is reportedly looking at a long suspension for a third violation of the league's substance abuse policy. After he put up 1,646 yards on 87 catches with nine scores while catching passes from a terrible collection of quarterbacks, the belief was that he would continue dominating. But who knows if he'll play? Maybe the Browns know he won't and that's why they added all those receivers.

But there's no doubt that the Browns' biggest splash of all wasn't a free agent or a receiver. It was a quarterback -- a controversial, playmaking quarterback named Johnny Manziel. The outgoing gunslinger out of Texas A&M is small in size but big in the spotlight as he gets attention wherever he goes. He also was one of the most polarizing college football players -- able to make amazing plays and produce a bumper crop of stats despite lacking in size and mechanics.

Opinions on whether or not he'll succeed in the pros range all over the map -- some people think he's a bust, others think he's a leader who could make a Super Bowl run. The Browns are hoping it's the latter.

Buckle up, Cleveland. It's going to be an interesting ride.

Long-term investment ... Johnny Manziel

The Browns are insisting that Brian Hoyer has a good chance to begin the season as their starting quarterback. That might be reason enough to not draft Manziel in a standard seasonal league. But even if Manziel gets on the field for the Browns, he'll have a wide receiving group that is void of playmakers until Gordon comes off the suspended list. If that lasts for the entire 2014 season, there won't be many good reasons to even claim Manziel off waivers during the Fantasy season. The real value for Manziel is in long-term formats like dynasty and keeper leagues. Once he's entrenched as the starter with an elite receiver like Gordon reliably on the field, the potential for Manziel will be sky-high. It seems unlikely such potential will be realized early on this season, so don't draft him.

Don't overrate him ... Ben Tate

Tate has a wonderful opportunity in Cleveland, but he's had mixed results with wonderful opportunities in the past. Take last year for instance -- he started the last six games of 2013 with the Texans and had a game way over 10 Fantasy points, another with 10, another with nine and three more with five or fewer. Maybe you could blame that on playing in an offense with a suspect passing game, but how might you classify the Browns' pass game this fall?! He also dealt with injuries then, but he's dealt with injuries throughout his career. And the Browns drafted a running back with plenty of potential in Terrance West -- there's no guarantee that he doesn't end up leading the way at some point this season. The best way to view Tate is as a back who should be able to grind his way to some nice totals assuming he stays healthy. The middle of Round 4 would be the earliest to consider taking Tate (with a ninth-round pick on West to back him up).

Sleeper ... Andrew Hawkins

2013 Touches Leaders
727 total touches
Willis McGahee 146 (138 car., 8 rec.) 20.1%
Chris Ogbonnaya 97 (49 car., 48 rec.) 13.3%
Josh Gordon 92 (87 rec., 5 car.) 12.6%
Jordan Cameron 80 rec. 11.0%
Edwin Baker 51 (43 car., 8 rec.) 7.0%
Fozzy Whittaker 49 (28 car., 21 rec.) 6.7%
All others 212 29.2%

Look, somebody's going to have to catch the ball in the Browns offense besides tight end Jordan Cameron (more on him later). Nate Burleson has a history of breaking things and is more of a wise old owl than a speeding eagle. Miles Austin has slowed down over the years and has a series of hamstring problems. Charles Johnson has interesting measurables but no experience. Earl Bennett has experience but is otherwise uninteresting. And Gordon is expected to be suspended. Here's what's cool about Hawkins: He's the guy the Browns targeted in restricted free agency, proof that they have an idea of how they want to use him. And Hawkins is speedy, a factor that always helps. It's also cool that owners can draft Hawkins with a late-round pick in standard leagues and a mid- to late-round pick in PPR leagues. He's not a big guy (5-foot-7, 180 pounds) and there's an injury history that has to be considered (he missed eight games last year) but with such a late pick, owners can overlook that for a chance at getting a highly-targeted receiver.

Schedule analysis

Being the Browns means always having a tough schedule thanks to two games each against the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. Those opposing defenses should be a challenge against the run, but against the pass they have some holes. Expect a tough start for the run game as Cleveland opens at Pittsburgh, then vs. New Orleans and Baltimore before an early Week 4 bye. The silver lining is that three of the Browns' next four games are against the Titans, Jaguars and Raiders, three defenses expected to be pretty soft. But after that it doesn't look good for the Browns, as every opponent from Week 9 on should provide a semblance of a challenge. Because of that early bye and the relatively safe matchup in Week 5, we're ballparking Manziel's first start for Oct. 5 in Nashville.

Training camp battles

Does Manziel have a chance to start in Week 1? Of course there's a chance, but it will take a major demonstration of knowing the playbook and playing better than Hoyer. We haven't seen Hoyer play at a high level for more than a couple of games, and he's coming off of a torn ACL. So it's not like he's going to be handed the starting job either. But Hoyer does have NFL experience and the Browns start the season with a tough schedule. Those factors help Hoyer have a leg up on Manziel to begin the season as Cleveland's starter.

How will the WR depth chart shake out? No one expects Gordon to be available in Week 1 because of a looming suspension. Hawkins, Burleson and Austin are all new to the Browns and learning the team's new playbook. Hawkins seems like the best fit for the slot and anywhere else on the field they can hide him. Austin and Burleson seem like the best outside receiver fits. But younger players like Charles Johnson and Travis Benjamin along with veteran Earl Bennett will push hard for playing time. This is a mess, but one worth keeping tabs on if only to have some names in mind for your late picks.

Is Justin Gilbert a Week 1 starter on defense? Not every first-round cornerback comes into the NFL and plays well right away (isn't that right, Dee Milliner?). There are high hopes for Gilbert to assimilate into the Browns defense quickly, particularly because he was a Top 10 pick. But here's news for you: If Gilbert ascends to the starting lineup and plays like a veteran, this defense will be tough to poke holes in assuming it stays healthy. The cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden is one of two big question marks the Browns defense has going into camp -- far fewer questions than the franchise normally has.

Bold prediction

Gordon wasn't the only breakout pass catcher for the Browns last season -- Jordan Cameron also posted blow-away career-high numbers with 80 grabs for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. How he delivered those stats might not have been consistent (only five games with 10-plus Fantasy points including three in the first four weeks), but after being as productive as he was with a litany of mediocre quarterbacks suggests that he could deliver even more statistically. The Browns have upgraded at quarterback and if Gordon's out for a while, Cameron should be a consistent target in the passing game. Kyle Shanahan is the new offensive coordinator in Cleveland and while he doesn't have as prolific a track record with tight ends that former playcaller Norv Turner had, he still has utilized his tight ends well over his last six seasons. That should help Cameron plenty. Expect another big year for Cameron, one in which he eclipses his career-bests from a season ago. Consider him a Top 5 tight end worth a pick in Round 6 or 7.

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Player News
Pettine: RB Isaiah Crowell likely starter to open regular season
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:29 am ET) The featured back derby for the Browns has apparently been won by Isaiah Crowell - practically by default.

Mike Pettine has stated that Crowell will likely start in Week 1 against the host Jets. That became apparent when fellow competitor Terrance West played the entire first half of the final preseason game Thursday night.

The Browns had hoped that quick rookie Duke Johnson would rise up to earn the job, but a series of injuries, including a current concussion, has prevented him from playing extensively in camp or in the exhibition season.


Panthers CB Josh Norman sustains possible concussion
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) The Panthers declined to play most of their starters in the Thursday preseason finale against the Steelers. But one who did play suffered a head injury.

That was cornerback Josh Norman, who has begun concussion protocol, per ESPN.com. It remains to be seen if he can recover in time for the regular season opener.

Norman started the last nine games in 2014 and finished the year with two interceptions and 36 tackles.


Colts backup RB job complicated by injuries to Herron, Ballard
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Injuries to Colts running backs Dan Herron (shoulder) and Vick Ballard (hamstring) marred the team's preseason finale Thursday night against Cincinnati.

Ballard actually re-injured the hamstring that had kept him sidelined last week against St. Louis. He was hoping to remain healthy against the Bengals in an attempt to land the backup job to featured back Frank Gore.

The injuries to the two backs complicates that competition.


Falcons LB Brooks Reed undergoes surgery on groin
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Dan Quinn has announced that Falcons linebacker and prized free agent acquisition Brooks Reed has undergone surgery to repair a nagging groin injury. He could miss up to six weeks, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Reed sat out most of the offseason with the issue, but did play sparingly in two exhibition games.

He contributed to 41 tackles and added 3 1/2 sacks for Houston in 2014.


Buccaneers sign CB Tim Jennings
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) The Buccaneers have signed cornerback Tim Jennings, who played for Lovie Smith in Chicago, per NFL.com.

Jennings was released Sunday by the Bears despite having been a Pro Bowl defensive back as recently as 2013. He has been a full-time starter in the NFL since 2008, but had no interceptions a season ago and four in 2013 after peaking at 11 the year before.


WR Terrelle Pryor set to debut with Browns on Thursday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Browns quarterback-turned-wideout Terrelle Pryor will make his debut with the team Thursday night in the final preseason game against Chicago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has reported.

Pryor will not start, however. He is still not recovered fully from a strained hamstring.


Dolphins WR DeVante Parker ready to roll Thursday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Dolphins standout rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker is set to start Thursday in the preseason finale against Tampa Bay, per the Palm Beach Post.

The first-round pick has been out since June with a foot injury. He returned to practice this week.


Eagles LB Kiko Alonso active for Thursday game against Jets
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Eagles linebacker Kiko Alonso is active for the Thursday night preseason finale against the Jets, per NJ.com. It remains to be seen if he sees any action.

Alonso has been sidelined for the first three exhibition games with a concussion, then tendinitis in his surgically repaired left knee.


Report: DE Jason Pierre-Paul planning on joining Giants soon
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul plans to return to the team next week and to be ready to play by early in the regular season, a source has told ESPN.

An accident with fireworks caused Pierre-Paul to suffer a hand injury in which he lost at least an index finger. Both he and the team have been rather secretive about the extent of his injury, but Tom Coughlin has stated that he's been in communication with Pierre-Paul, who was eager to join the team.

Pierre-Paul has been inconsistent in his pass-rushing production since starting in the NFL, but he recorded 12 1/2 sacks in 2014, the second-highest total of his career. He also contributed to 77 tackles.


NFL suspends Broncos safety T.J. Ward for one game
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9/3/2015) Broncos safety T.J. Ward has been suspended for one game for violating the league's personal conduct policy, the NFL announced Thursday. Ward's suspension is the result of misdemeanor charges from May 2014 that were later dropped, per the Broncos' official website.

Ward will miss the Broncos' season opener (Sept. 13) against the Ravens and be eligible for reinstatement Sept. 14.

Ward is in his second year with Denver. In 2014, he earned his second Pro Bowl selection after he totaled 74 tackles (60 solo), two sacks and two interceptions.


 
 
 
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