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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
Vikings sign defensive end Caesar Rayford
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(9:31 pm ET) The Vikings signed defensive end Caesar Rayford on Wednesday, Rayford's representation, the Willis & Woy Sports group announced.

Rayford attended the NFL veterans combine, which gave him another look for NFL teams. Rayford was last in the CFL and the Arena League. He was last in the NFL in 2013 when he was with the Cowboys. 


Broncos LB Reggie Walker said he'll add versatility to position
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(9:19 pm ET) Linebacker Reggie Walker is all right with doing whatever the Broncos coaching staff asks of him. 

Walker, in an interview with DenverBroncos.com, said one of his biggest assets as a football player is the ability to play multiple positions as a linebacker. However, his primary position is at inside linebacker. 

"I’ve had to play in multiple positions throughout my football career; I can do a lot," Walker said. "I think I can do a lot very well. Hopefully I can come out here and show that and I’m going to be ready to compete."

Walker will earn his pay check on special teams. That was a role he played with the Chargers and one the Broncos will rely on him for as well. 

"Special teams is all a mindset," Walker said. "It’s all just about who’s willing to work harder and I’m going to work as hard as I can so I’ll be great at it."


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Coming from Miami, Starks is hoping to be an outspoken leader to the younger members on the defensive line. Starks added that he doesn't necessarily want to try and assert his authority over the whole defense. 

“I’m not trying to come here and take over the whole defense," Starks said on Sirius XM radio, via ClevelandBrowns.com. "I’m just trying to take care of the defensive line, and that will help take care of the defense itself. Because we have (Karlos) Dansby and Joe Haden to take care of their respective positions.”

Starks recorded 28 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks in 15 games in 2014. In 11 seasons, Starks has only been to the playoffs twice. He's hoping that changes with the Browns. 

“That’s the same thing I told (coach Mike Pettine): I’m trying to win games," Starks said. "I’m trying to get to the playoffs. And we’re on the same page.”


Cardinals' Kareem Martin could move from DE to OLB
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(8:49 pm ET) Cardinals pass-rusher Kareem Martin could be going from having his hand in the dirt to standing up with the intent of rushing the passer. 

Martin, who spent his rookie season at defensive end, is being considered for a move to outside linebacker, coach Bruce Arians told the team's website

"With his length, I wouldn't say he's (San Francisco’s) Aldon Smith at this point in his career, but he's got that body style and he's shown some stuff off the edge,” Arians said. “So we are going to look at him to see if he can play in space at all. That might be a spot where he can find his niche as a pass rusher.”

Martin actually spent one day during his rookie year in the outside linebackers meeting room before making the move to defensive end. When Martin worked with the scout team, he would occasionally work as an outside linebacker.

“Being on the edge won’t be so foreign to me,” Martin said. “I’m ready for it.” 


Ravens' Steve Bisciotti: Haloti Ngata could return in 2016
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(7:38 pm ET) In a conference call with PSL ticket holders, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti didn't rule out the possibility of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata returning to the organization in 2016. 

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Ngata was drafted by the Ravens in the first round in 2006. In his nine-year career, he's totaled 445 tackles and 25.5 sacks. 


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(7:22 pm ET) The Ravens are working on a contract extension with right guard Marshal Yanda, owner Steve Bisciotti said on a conference call with PSL ticket holders. 

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Jets re-sign offensive tackle Ben Ijalana
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(5:44 pm ET) The Jets announced on Wednesday that they have re-signed offensive tackle Ben Ijalana

Ijalana has been with the Jets the previous two seasons after the organization claimed him of of waivers from the Colts prior to the beginning of the 2013 regular season. The Colts selected Ijalana in the second round of the 2011 draft. 


Reports: Stefan Wisniewski visited Jaguars, Patriots
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(5:30 pm ET) The Jaguars hosted free-agent center Stefen Wisniewski on a visit on Wednesday, according to a report from the Florida Times-Union.

Wisniewski also recently visited the Patriots, according to NFL.com, with both New England and Jacksonville in need of interior offensive linemen. Wisniewski spent the past four years with the Raiders, appearing in 61 games. 


Jets sign linebacker Jamari Lattimore
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(5:24 pm ET) The Jets announced on Wednesday that they have signed unrestricted free agent linebacker Jamari Lattimore

Lattimore spent the previous four seasons with the Packers. Lattimore signed with the Packers in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State. He's played inside linebacker and special teams for Green Bay. 

In 2014, Lattimore started five games and totaled 35 tackles. 


Vikings sign backup quarterback Mike Kafka
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(5:20 pm ET) The Vikings have signed free-agent quarterback Mike Kafka , according to his agent Mike McCartney

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Kafka has also had stints with the Patriots, Jaguars and Buccaneers. 


 
 
 
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