If and when the 2011 NFL season takes place, the Browns find themselves in a very strange predicament. The team is coming off a 5-11 record and virtually has not been able to add anything to the roster except the drafted rookies. Therefore, with the unknown of free agency, the Browns are going to have to count on some guys to come through for them in a big way.
1. Joe Thomas—He has been as advertised when he was drafted third overall in 2007. He was inserted immediately at left tackle and has played in every game and has been to the Pro Bowl four-straight times. You really can’t get much better than that and the Browns are counting on his consistency. They are hoping he picks up where Lou Groza, Dick Schafrath and Doug Dieken did after having just three left tackles from the beginning of the team until the 1980’s.
2. Peyton Hillis—Hillis burst on the scene last year when Jerome Harrison got into Eric Mangini’s dog house and Montario Hardesty blew out his knee. Hillis rushed for over 1,100 yards and caught 61 passes, including 13 touchdowns. It could’ve been argued he was the majority of the Browns offense. He seemed to wear down late in the season after toting the football 277 times. With Hardesty set to return, Hillis should fit into the West Coast offense very nicely.
3. Joe Haden—Even though he’s just heading into his second year, the Browns really need a shut down cornerback in the pass happy NFL of today. Haden should have started from the beginning of his rookie year, but still displayed very good skills and should only get better.
4. Scott Fujita—With the switch to the 4-3, it is imperative that Fujita is able to return to the level of play he was at before injuring his knee. The Browns are thin at the type of linebackers needed in the 4-3. Fujita’s absence the last seven games of the 2010 season was noticeable as the level of play dropped at linebacker and overall defensively when he went down.
5. Ahytba Rubin—The third-year defensive lineman really came on in 2010 and should continue to improve his play in 2011. The switch from nose tackle to defensive tackle shouldn’t be a big adjustment for Rubin. The addition of Phil Taylor should really help Rubin and the defense in the run game.
6. T.J. Ward—Ward started extremely fast and immediately was a starter. He seemed to back off a little of his aggressive style of play after being fined for hitting Jordan Shipley early in the season. Still, Ward led the team in tackles as a rookie with 105. The Browns are hoping he will develop into the type of safeties that are in the division with Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. He still has a lot of upside and could really be key if the Browns are to someday have a dominating defense.
7. Colt McCoy—The second-year quarterback has shown a lot of leadership since being named the starter during the lockout. McCoy should flourish in the West Coast Offense and if the Browns are to be successful, they have to have a franchise quarterback. It is unknown if McCoy will be THE guy, but the Browns seem prepared to give him every opportunity to establish himself.
8. Josh Cribbs—Cribbs is much too talented to be used in a limited way and the hope is the new coaching staff will figure out how to get him the ball in space. We’ll give him a mulligan in 2010 for playing the last half of the season with a foot injury. The first half of the season teams kept the ball out of his hands on kickoffs and punt returns because he was the only legitimate threat the Browns had. If some other weapons can be found for the offense, Cribbs’ value will improve.
9. Jabaal Sheard—The Browns have needed a pass rusher since the days of Lyle Alzado and Sheard could be the guy to get to the quarterback. He is going to get a chance as a rookie because the Browns are so thin at defensive end. If he can make the transition from college to the NFL quickly, he will be one of the most important players in Dick Jauron’s defense.
10. Phil Dawson and Reggie Hodges—No Most Valuable list would be complete if Dawson and the Browns punter were not on it. It could be argued that since the Browns returned in 1999 either Dawson or the punter has been the team’s MVP in many of the years. Chris Gardocki, Dave Zastudil and Hodges were punting many, many times during the Browns inept offensive years. Dawson is the all-time field goal kicker and should become the team’s all-time leading scorer if this season is played. The specialists have been one area the Browns haven’t had to worry about.
1. Joe Thomas - Most successful teams have a quality left tackle to protect the QB’s blindside. In the case of the Browns, Joe Thomas is one of the elite at the position. Thomas provides the comfort and confidence a young QB requires, which can equate to productivity and efficiency for a Cleveland offense that has been bordering atrocious for years.
2. Peyton Hillis – The Arkansas product figures to keep a defense honest. Hillis displayed the ability to gain tough yardage a season ago. A physical runner, Hillis has the ability to be an asset in the passing game, which is a plus in the West Coast offensive scheme.
3. Colt McCoy - In an offensive scheme that is QB driven, second-year QB McCoy lands in what may be a position tailor-made for his abilities. McCoy thrived in the short to intermediate passing game at the collegiate level and showed flashes of excellence a season ago as a rookie. McCoy isn’t ready to shoulder the entire load; the running game must effectively open the field for this team.
4. Joe Haden - Second-year CB Haden appears on the verge of becoming a lock-down type corner at the professional level. Haden helped stabilize a Cleveland defensive backfield a season ago as veteran Eric Wright struggled mightily.
5. Ahtyba Rubin - Defensive lineman Rubin has gained the consistency required to be an inside line presence at the professional level. In two seasons in the NFL, Rubin has become a top-third type nose tackle and should be a gap presence lined-up next to rookie Phil Taylor. With the depth along the defensive line in question, Rubin’s continued growth and development are key.
6. Scott Fujita - Veteran linebacker Fujita is going to be counted on to help the Browns defense adapt to the 4-3 defense incorporated by defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Fujita is experienced in the 4-3, but a bigger question may be his return to health following a knee injury which sidelined him during the second half of the 2010 season. This Browns defense needs Fujita’s solid play and leadership, as the defense slipped a season ago during his absence.
7. Jabaal Sheard - Rookie DE Sheard was drafted to rush the QB, an area of one-on-one weakness this Browns defense struggled with a season ago. Additionally, the depth chart is light along the defensive line and notably at the DE position. Sheard showed solid pass rushing skills at the collegiate level and the Browns will pencil him into this very important position in this 4-3 defense.
8. T.J. Ward - Second-year safety Ward had an up and down rookie season, but developed nicely in his first season. Ward’s speed and quickness were evident when playing with confidence and the experience of the season should prove to improve his reactionary skills. Ward could be part of the stable of the Browns defense for years to come.
9. Greg Little - The development of talent and utilization at the WR position could make this Browns team an interesting one in the 2011 season. Rookie Little is going to get an opportunity to get on the field early and often in training camp to push his development. The Cleveland WR’s have been non-descript over the past few seasons and the new offense installed (WCO) should enhance the potential of Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie and Josh Cribbs.
10. Special Teams - While not specifically a player, but rather a unit, special teams has been a staple of the Browns with PK Phil Dawson, P Reggie Hodges and Cribbs. The excellence of each has been one of the few positives for the Browns in recent seasons. Heading into 2011, this unit remains one which the team must heavily rely upon.