Like any team headed into the regular season opener the Browns are no different.
It would be too easy to say that with a new offense, a new defense and new players, the early season could be challenging.
Here are five things that I believe to be the challenges heading into the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals:
1. Overall depth within the player roster concerns me greatly. Understanding that the organization is taking an approach far different from those who came before, the lack of depth at the defensive tackle spots could be a significant issue.
Rookie Phil Taylor and Ahytba Rubin start at defensive tackle and have been reasonably solid in preseason game play, although both have had moments when the opposition completely moved each player off the point. Both are talented players and are likely to improve as the season progresses.
Behind Rubin and Taylor there is inexperience and/or marginal talent. Not to say that Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxson have no business on the field, but their ability to maintain or change the complexion of a given play is remote.
If either Rubin or Taylor is lost for any significant period of time, the Browns front seven could be greatly exposed. Paxson had a nice training camp and earned his spot, but he did not face the type of talent in preseason game conditions that he will face every Sunday.
Schaefering has been in and around the Browns for the past couple seasons and has worked his way onto the active roster. Schaefering is the type of player that doesn’t stand out, but is rather consistent. Paxson and Schaefering are under the 300-pound mark. The optimum weight for defensive tackles is north of 300 pounds. The lack of bulk and top-tier type talent leaves both displaying the tendency to be pushed around at the point of attack by bigger linemen.
2. The same issues exist at the safety positions. T.J. Ward had a solid rookie campaign a season ago and will be called upon to grow as a player and leader in the defensive backfield. Usama Young was a free agent acquisition the organization expected to come to camp and win a starting spot opposite Ward.
A hamstring injury wiped out training camp for Young, thus thrusting veteran Mike Adams in a starting role. Adams was being counted on to be the backup at each safety position and play nickel and dime coverage in passing situations.
Behind those three is Ray Ventrone, Eric Hagg and James Dockery. Hagg is rehabbing following knee surgery and Dockery came to Cleveland as an undrafted free agent.
Again, the lack of depth and overall experience creating quality play issues place the Browns defense in a potentially precarious position.
3. Overall team speed is improving, but at critical areas the speed and quickness are questionable. The wide receiver and running back positions have gained speed and quickness because of offseason acquisitions, while the linebacker and safety spots remain ordinary.
The Browns defense will have to rely on scheme and experience at linebacker to be in position to make plays. If Browns linebackers get locked into one-on-one situations against opposing running backs and tight ends, it could likely be a consistent losing proposition.
Veterans Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong won’t win many foot races. Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is the most athletic of all the Browns’ linebackers.
4. From watching the Browns in camp and in preseason game conditions, there is no doubt quarterback Colt McCoy will spread the ball around.
The issue comes down to an offensive line that is in flux. Veteran left guard Eric Steinbach is lost for the season on injured reserve, and the Browns have penciled in a not-ready-for-prime-time rookie in his place.
Jason Pinkston struggled with pass protection when stepping in for Steinbach. With the Browns changing to the West Coast Offense, the passing game becomes a larger facet of the game, and McCoy will need time to drop back and follow his progressions.
Making matters worse, veteran right tackle Tony Pashos was in a walking boot just days prior to the season opener. When healthy, Pashos is a better than average at right tackle, but counting on him to remain healthy isn’t realistic.
The addition of veteran Oniel Cousins provides depth, but he is not a talent that can be counted on to be a consistent presence, especially if his days in Baltimore carry over in Cleveland.
Acquiring veteran Artis Hicks may proved to be a huge move for the Browns. Hicks is established, he has the experience to recognize what a defensive front is scheming and he can play multiple positions. Originally thought to come in and play left guard immediately, the Pashos injury may push Hicks to right tackle.
5. Running back Peyton Hills had a fantastic 2010 season. His overall season rushing and as a pass receiver coming out of the backfield was remarkable considering the Browns offense was a poorly executing and predictable unit.
As good as Hillis was a season ago, one cannot ignore the nagging injuries he dealt with throughout the last season and the early part of this season. Being the integral part of the scheme he is, injury issues could again come to light and depth on the roster behind him is unproven.
Montario Hardesty hasn’t carried the ball in a regular season game and is coming off yet another knee injury. Hardesty’s inexperience, lack of carries and pedestrian burst at the point of attack is concerning.
Rookie undrafted free agent Armond Smith is another back with no experience at the professional level and played through many highs and lows in the preseason. Smith, although he’s raw, possesses great speed and quickness, which he utilizes when hitting the hole. The rookie hasn’t danced around when getting his hands on the ball.
Again, Smith is another inexperienced running back at a critical position.
The truth will play out on the gridiron. Until then, those five concerns could make or break the 2011 season for the Browns.