Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

Taking a look at the Browns roster

The Cleveland Browns set their 53-man roster over the weekend and, overall, we’re about as comfortable as we can be about a rebuilding team coming off consecutive 5-11 seasons.

The good news is the team has gotten considerably younger as general manager Tom Heckert has been able to purge the team of a larger number of its older players since arriving in town at the start of the last year.

The main drawback, as it always seems to be with the Browns, is depth, especially at running back, along the defensive line and at linebacker.

The Browns are all-in with Colt McCoy at quarterback this year, and we’re fine with that. The team needs to figure out what they have in McCoy in an attempt to finally stop the revolving door at quarterback.

If McCoy shows he can be a starting quarterback in the league, then the team can move on to bigger issues in the draft and free agency. If he craps the bed this year, the Browns have options in next year’s draft to fix the problem. If he lands somewhere in the middle, they can still figure things out.

Seneca Wallace remains a capable back up – if he has to go in for a half or a game, the team will be OK. If he has to take over as the full-time starter, then we’ll know things have taken a turn for the worse.

It’s hard to miss what you never had, but we’re worried the Browns will miss Brandon Jackson, who was supposed to take some of the pressure off of Peyton Hillis this fall. Hopefully Montario Hardesty can stay healthy and be productive because, if not, it’s easy to see Hillis wearing down again come Thanksgiving.

We like the fact that the Browns are building a beefy backfield with Hillis (240 pounds), Hardesty (225) and Owen Marecic (248); the thought of them pounding it out against Pittsburgh and Baltimore is appealing, but we’d feel a little better if Lawrence Vickers was still leading the way.

Eric Steinbach leaves a huge hole to fill at left guard, but if someone has to get hurt at least it happened early enough that rookie Jason Pinkston got plenty of reps with the first-team offense. We like the pick up of veteran lineman Artis Hicks, who has 68 career starts, 57 of them coming at the guard position. He will provide good back-up if (when?) Pinkston struggles.

The good news on Pinkston? He gets to lineup between Joe Thomas and Alex Mack – you can’t find a better situation for a rookie lineman that between those two.

The receiving group is, to be generous, a continual work in progress. Individually, there’s no real standout, but taken collectively with the tight ends and the Browns might be better than OK this year.

If McCoy does his job correctly in the West Coast offense, he will be spreading the ball around which should make up for the Browns not having a stud wide receiver. Between Josh Cribbs, Brian Robiskie, Mohamed Massaquoi, Greg Little, Ben Watson and Evan Moore, the Browns should be able to put together an average passing attack, which will make it that much easier for them to run the ball.

And if the majority of the passes are dinks and dunks, that’s OK with us. A seven-yard completion on first down is the same as a seven-yard run – both mean second-and-short, which is all good for an offense. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing what Little and Cribbs can do with the ball when McCoy hits them in stride.

Defensively, after we don’t know how many years of watching the Browns try to fit round pegs into square holes in a futile effort to build a 3-4 defense, the 4-3 has finally come back to Cleveland.

It’s going to be fun – and at times frustrating – watching rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard chasing quarterbacks this year, Ahtyba Rubin will be solid as usual, and we’re interested to see if Jayme Mitchell can reward the faith the front office has put into him.

With linebackers Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and D’Qwell Jackson, the starting front seven isn’t all that bad. The problem, again, is going to be depth. If (when?) someone goes down with an injury the drop off from the starters to the back-ups is big.

We have a feeling that if the league would have had a regular off season, the front seven would look a little bit different than it does today, but there’s nothing the Browns can do about that now. They are still one draft and one true free-agency period away from building a solid front seven.

Joe Haden and T.J. Ward should be even better in their second season, especially in defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s “play faster” defense. Hopefully Sheldon Brown can hold up at the other corner, safety Usama Young is a Kent State guy so we don’t worry about him, and Mike Adams would like you to know that you can’t stop Mike Adams, you can only hope to contain Mike Adams.

The secondary is another area where they team got younger, with rookies Buster Skrine, James Dockery and Eric Hagg joining the squad.

Much like with Steinbach, you can’t underestimate the loss of punter Reggie Hodges but, again, at least it came earlier enough in training camp that the Browns had an opportunity to get a decent replacement.

Richmond McGee looks like he’ll be OK as the punter, we never have to worry about Phil Dawson or Ryan Pontbriand, and it may not matter who handles the kickoff return duties with the new rules in place.

So is this is Browns team that will compete for the division title this year? No, the lack of depth at key positions and lack of experience at others will be too much to overcome, especially in the AFC North.

But do we expect them to be competitive and make actual progress – unlike the imaginary progress at the end of the 2009 season – this year? Most certainly.

It’s easy to see areas where the roster is better than it was at this same time last year.

And while the Browns are still a ways away from being consistently competitive, with the season-opener less than a week away, we’re OK with the direction they’re heading.

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