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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
X-ray comes back negative for LeSean McCoy
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(8:53 pm ET) Eagles running back LeSean McCoy underwent an X-ray on his right thumb, which came back negative, according to the team's social media account. McCoy appeared to have injured his thumb on the opening drive of Thursday's preseason game against the Steelers. He was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

He rode a stationary bike after the opening drive before returning to action on the following drive. McCoy caught a short pass from Nick Foles and turned it up field for a 22-yard touchdown. He was sent to the locker room for tests immediately after the score. He finished with four carries for 24 yards and two catches for 26 yards and a touchdown before the injury.

LeSean McCoy exits game for an X-ray on injured thumb
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(8:16 pm ET) Eagles running back LeSean McCoy entered Thursday's preseason game against the Steelers with a "mini version" of turf toe. He scored in the first quarter and was sent to the locker room for an X-ray on his right thumb, CBSSports.com reports. His return is uncertain.

McCoy took his first handoff for a 15-yard run. After the first drive, he was seen briefly getting checked out by team trainers. He returned on the second drive, caught a short pass from Nick Foles and turned it up field for a 22-yard touchdown. He was sent to the locker room for tests immediately after the score.

Lance Moore sits out preseason tuneup
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(7:30 pm ET) Steelers will keep wide receiver Lance Moore sidelined for Thursday's preseason game against the Eagles due to a undisclosed issue, the NFL Network reports. With Moore sidelined, Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant should receive more snaps.

Moore has just one reception this preseason.

Three Eagles ready to return Thursday
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(6:35 pm ET) Eagles receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin have both been cleared to play Thursday night against the Steelers in preseason action.

Cooper has been dealing with a foot injury, which caused him to miss the first two exhibition games. Maclin was working his way back from a hamstring injury.

Running back Matthew Tucker has also been cleared to play Thursday.

Brandon Boykin among the inactives for tuneup vs. Steelers
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(6:29 pm ET) Defensive back Brandon Boykin highlights the list of inactives for the Eagles' third preseason game against the Steelers on Thursday. Boykin left last week's game against New England with leg cramps. He was seen talking to a team trainer and pointing the back of his right leg, according to PhillyMag.com. The team has diagnosed him with a "slight' hamstring injury.

The rest of the inactives: Wide receiver Josh Huff (shoulder), running back Chris Polk (hamstring), linebacker Jake Knott (hamstring), defensive back Cary Williams (hamstring), and center Julian Vandervelde (back).

Nolan Carroll to make preseason debut Thursday
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(6:08 pm ET) Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll will return to action for his team's third preseason game against the Steelers, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Carroll sat out the first two games of exhibition season because of a hamstring issue.

Coach: Josh Gordon antsy about NFL suspension ruling
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(5:52 pm ET) The limbo status of Browns prolific wide receiver Josh Gordon has negatively affected him - though that opinion has only been expressed by Mike Pettine. Gordon has not spoken to the media since May.

Gordon has been waiting for weeks from the NFL about a possible drug suspension that could end his season before it started.

"It's human nature," Pettine told ESPN. "It's definitely weighing on him. He, like all of us, wants to know and wants to get on with this and move forward. Just being in limbo for so long can be draining. He made the comment the other day that the football field is where he feels most at home, so it's important to him."

Many believe he didn't treat his home with the greatest respect Monday night in Washington. Gordon was so lethargic on the field that he was criticized by Pettine the following day.


Speculation: Suspensions of Steelers not nearing
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(5:41 pm ET) The NFL could eventually suspend Steelers running backs LeGarrette Blount and Le'Veon Bell for their charges of marijuana possession, but it won't come anytime soon, according to ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton.

Clayton noted that it took the league 10 months to pass down a suspension for Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. The NFL has also yet to punish Browns wideout Josh Gordon, though that is expected soon.


Adrian Peterson gets another personal day off
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(5:25 pm ET) Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson missed his second straight practice Thursday due to personal reasons and has not played in the first two preseason games, but is expected to participate in the third one Saturday in Kansas City, per Fox Sports.

Mike Zimmer has indicated that he has not found it necessary to play Peterson extensively in the preseason.


Matt Johnson hamstring injury perplexing to Cowboys
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(5:16 pm ET) The prolonged absence of safety Matt Johnson due to hamstring issues has the Cowboys baffled, according to the Dallas News. His visit to a back specialist last week uncovered nothing new. The team had been considering that back problems might be causing his hamstring injury.

"Just trying to turn over all the rocks," Jason Garrett said.

The third-year player has yet to record any NFL statistics.


 
 
 
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