QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Brandon Weeden. Backups -- Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace, Thaddeus Lewis.
It is only a matter of time until Weeden is declared the starter - probably before the preseason opener Aug. 10 in Detroit. The coaches like Weeden's arm strength and velocity and say he is learning the offense well. He would be the 11th starting quarterback in 14 openers if he takes the first snap against the Eagles on Sept. 9. They would love to have a starter they could rely on for eight or 10 years.
The backup position will be unwieldy until McCoy or Wallace is traded. McCoy seems to be the odd man out.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Trent Richardson, FB Owen Marecic. Backups -- Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Ogbonnaya, FB Brad Smelley, FB Eddie Williams.
The Browns are counting on Richardson to carry the load in the backfield and produce quickly. Last year they scored an NFL-low four rushing touchdowns. Lack of a running game stifled the offense and made McCoy an easy target for pass rushers. Richardson scored 21 rushing touchdowns at Alabama last year, one more than the entire Browns offense scored. The battle to be Richardson's caddy should be a good one. Hardesty is finally healthy after two injury-plagued seasons and Jackson is 100 percent after missing all of 2011 with a toe injury. Smelley catches the ball well, but if the Browns keep only one fullback the edge will go to Marecic.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Benjamin Watson. Backups - Jordan Cameron, Evan Moore, Alex Smith, Dan Gronkowski.
This is a critical position for the Browns and the West Coast offense. Watson has experience on his side as he enters his ninth season, but second-year pro Cameron is closing the gap and will certainly take some playing time away from Watson if he doesn't flat out win the starting job. The key player for the Browns among tight ends is Moore. He is a tall red-zone target at 6-6, but scored only four touchdowns in 2011. The Browns want more from him this year and are hopeful Weeden can connect with him. Statistics - 14 catches last year - do not reflect Smith's value. He has a fiery attitude that is contagious.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Mohamed Massaquoi, Greg Little. Backups -- Joshua Cribbs, Jordan Norwood, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, Carlton Mitchell, Josh Cooper, Rod Windsor, Bert Reed, Jermaine Saffold.
For years, media and fans have contended the receiving corps lacks talent and a true No. 1. Coaches disagree. They believe Weeden will make the receivers better because he is a better passer than McCoy. Little lost 15 pounds so he can move more quickly. Team president Mike Holmgren says Massaquoi has shaken off the concussion he suffered on a vicious hit by James Harrison two years ago. Gordon, selected in the supplemental draft, Benjamin, Norwood and Cribbs will battle to be the third receiver. Cribbs is the best of the bunch, but Norwood finished strong last year and Benjamin can fly. He has to show he can run precise routes and can catch the ball consistently before he can get on the field. Little caught 61 passes last year but caught only two touchdown passes. As a group, the wide receivers scored nine touchdowns in 2011. That number has to improve for the Browns to make a leap in the AFC North. Gordon will have to get up to speed quickly in training camp, but has outstanding ability.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Joe Thomas, LG Jason Pinkston, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Mitchell Schwartz. Backups - G/T Ryan Miller, T Oniel Cousins, G/C John Greco, G Jeff Shugarts, T Jake Anderson.
Improving protection for the quarterback and run blocking was a critical goal of general manager Tom Heckert in the offseason. He used the 37th pick on Schwartz to make that happen. Schwartz is the only new starter on the line, but the Browns are counting on Pinkston and Lauvao to use the experience they gained in 2011 as first-year starters to improve this season. The other two positions on the line are rock solid with Thomas at left tackle and Mack at center. Thomas has been to the Pro Bowl all five years he has been in the NFL. Mack, a first-round pick in 2009, has made every offensive snap in the first three years of his career. Cousins has started and can fill in for Schwartz. Greco is versatile and can play all three interior positions. Miller also has the versatility to play the right side and left side as a guard or tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Jabaal Sheard, RDE Frostee Rucker, DT Scott Paxson, NT Ahtyba Rubin. Backups - DT Phil Taylor, DT/NT John Hughes, DE Juqua Parker, DE/DT Billy Winn, DE Marcus Benard, DE Austin English, NT Brian Schaefering, DE Brian Sanford, DE Emmanuel Stephens, DT Kiante Tripp.
The Browns ranked 30th against the run last year, used the offseason to shore up the defensive line and then lost Taylor until late October with a torn pectoral muscle. The Browns hope to absorb losing Taylor with Paxson plus rookies Hughes and Winn, but it won't be the same as having Taylor lining up next to Rubin. Rucker and Parker are the only players the Browns signed in free agency. They are counting on Rucker to anchor the right side. A motorcycle accident turned 2011 into a lost season for Benard, but the 2010 sack leader is back. He will play on passing downs and along with Sheard (8.5 sacks last year) could give the Browns a formidable pass rush. Schaefering will be part of the rotation inside.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Kaluka Maiava, MLB D'Qwell Jackson, SLB Chris Gocong. Backups - SLB Scott Fujita, SLB/MLB James-Michael Johnson, OLB Emmanuel Acho, OLB Benjamin Jacobs, OLB Quinton Spears, MLB L.J. Fort.
Everything at linebacker begins with Jackson. He calls the plays in the huddle and will likely lead the team in tackles again if he plays all 16 games as he did last year. Fujita is suspended for the first three games for his alleged involvement in the Saints bounty program when he played for New Orleans in 2009. Gocong took over on the strong side when Fujita missed the last five games of 2011 with a broken hand. He excelled and should be even better this year with a full training camp to practice the position. Maiava will begin camp as the starting weak-side linebacker but could be pushed by Johnson. Acho and Jacobs will be primarily special teams contributors. Speed has been a problem at linebacker in the past and could be again this season. The pass rush will come from the line.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Joe Haden, RCB Sheldon Brown, FS Eric Hagg, SS T.J. Ward. Backups -- CB Dimitri Patterson, CB Buster Skrine, S Usama Young, CB Trevin Wade, S Ray Ventrone, DB James Dockery.
Starting corners Haden and Brown combined for two interceptions last year - both by Brown. Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron wants Haden to cover the opponent's No. 1 receiver most of the time, so Haden will definitely get his chances. Despite the lack of picks, the Browns finished with the second-ranked pass defense last year. They have good depth with Patterson as the nickel back and Skrine as the dime back. Skrine, in his second season, should earn more playing time this season. Ward is back from a foot injury that forced him to miss the last half of 2011. Young and Hagg will battle for the starting job at free safety vacated when Mike Adams signed with the Broncos. Ventrone, a key special teams player, battled a severe hamstring injury most of last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Phil Dawson, P Reggie Hodges, LS Christian Yount, PR/KR Josh Cribbs
Special teams year in and year out is the Browns' most reliable unit. Dawson made 24 of 29 field-goal attempts last year and Cribbs was steady, if not spectacular. Like all kick returners he was neutered by the changed kickoff rule. The Browns experienced unforeseen problems last year. Hodges tore an Achilles tendon on his plant foot in training camp and missed the season. He is back and will be challenged in training camp by Spencer Lanning. If nothing else, Lanning will assure Hodges won't wear out in training camp. Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand, another steady performer since 2003, lost his job last year when bad snaps cost the Browns two games. Yount took his place and was fine. He will have an entire training camp to work with Dawson and Hodges, who doubles as the holder. Cribbs will be challenged by Skrine on kick returns and Benjamin on punt returns. He has been challenged before and always wins. This year should be no exception.