2014 preview: Browns’ Pettine faces big decisions in Year 1 (VIDEO)

With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it’s the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes … even February. Goodbye, offseason!

Today, we continue the series with the Cleveland Browns.

2013 Record: 4-12, Fourth in AFC North

Head coach: Mike Pettine, First Year

Key departures: LB D’Qwell Jackson, DB T.J. Ward, WR Greg Little, QB Brandon Weeden

Key arrivals: Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby, Ben Tate, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins, Terrance West

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THREE QUESTIONS

1. Who will win the quarterback competition?

Ever since the Browns drafted Manziel in the first round, Pettine and GM Ray Farmer have said that Brian Hoyer and Manziel will compete for the starting job in training camp. Both Pettine and Farmer have said repeatedly that Hoyer was ahead of Manziel but that the lead was not insurmountable for Manziel to overcome.

Hoyer is coming off a torn ACL suffered against the Bills last season. Hoyer was impressive in his two starts before the injury, both wins, but the sample size of his play was not enough to anoint him the franchise quarterback, thus the drafting of Manziel. Hoyer has only started four games in his NFL career, having been a backup to Tom Brady for three seasons in New England. Hoyer did not participate fully in the final minicamp in June for precautionary reasons but insisted he will be full-go when training camp begins in late July.

Hoyer showed that the Browns can be competitive when they have efficient play at quarterback as evidenced by the games that Hoyer played.

Manziel is the unknown factor with regards to his skillset translating to the NFL. At Texas A&M, Manziel was an improviser who bought time with his legs and made things happen when plays broke down. The former Heisman Trophy winner said all the right things prior to the draft and wasn’t seen on TMZ until after he was selected by the Browns. His partying exploits on the weekends after being drafted by the Browns brought criticism and advice from former NFL greats like Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith and Warren Moon.

In the preseason, Manziel will get a chance to show if he can be a productive passer from the pocket or if will he revert to his college style of play.

2. Will Justin Gilbert be able to be the bookend cornerback opposite of Joe Haden?

Pettine has said his style of defense depends on cornerbacks who can play press man-to-man coverage. The Browns made two trades in the top eight picks of the NFL Draft to secure Gilbert. The hope is to plug Gilbert on the outside and let him hold down one side of the field. Buster Skrine filled the role last season but is more suited for the slot and if Gilbert can handle the responsibilities assigned him, the domino effect at cornerback will give the Browns a much stronger CB corps.

There is no question that opposing teams and quarterbacks will try to pick on Gilbert as a rookie, but the former Oklahoma State star will need to learn quickly as he is expected to be the starter by opening day. If Gilbert can speed up his learning curve, the Browns could have a very good secondary, as well as a defense.

3. Will Ben Tate or Terrance West be the answer at running back?

The Browns had one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL in 2013,  averaging just 86.4 yards a game, which was tied for 27th overall. They traded Trent Richardson after the second game and ended up signing Willis McGahee to replace him. McGahee led the team in rushing but had just 377 yards with two touchdowns. The Browns had just four rushing touchdowns all season as a team with Edwin Baker getting two late in the season.

The Browns signed Ben Tate, a long-time backup to Arian Foster, who was waiting for his starting opportunity. The Browns figure to run the ball a lot and Tate is the type of back who seems up for the challenge. The Browns also traded up into the third round to acquire Terrance West from Towson. West rushed for over 2,500 yards last season and scored 42 touchdowns. To say he was a workhorse would be an understatement as he carried the ball 413 times. Undrafted free agent rookie Isaiah Crowell is a player to keep an eye on in the preseason.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Linebacker Barkevious Mingo

T vs. REX

Mike Petttine and his defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil — when both were in  Buffalo — were very high on Mingo when he was coming out of LSU. In fact, O’Neil said his wife baked ‘Barkevious Mingo’ cupcakes in hopeful anticipation of the Bills drafting Mingo with the eighth pick (the Browns selected Mingo two picks higher at six).

Pettine’s attacking style of defense propelled the Bills to a record number of sacks in 2013, with three players hitting double digits. The Bills were second in the NFL with 57 sacks. Mingo appears to be one of the favorites to benefit from Pettine’s defense. Mingo finished second on the Browns as a rookie with five sacks. He missed most of the preseason and the first game with a blood clot in his lung. When he was active for his first game he exploded on the scene with a sack on his first play. He ended up with sacks in his first three games, but then his production level dropped off.

The Browns’ new coaching staff has been very high on Mingo’s potential and they plan to use him in a number of different ways to exploit his pass rushing abilities and are expected to line him up all over the field.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

There’s always optimism at this time of year for the Browns but the roster has talent. The Browns had six players in the Pro Bowl last year, despite having just four wins. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack are multiple-year Pro Bowl players and by drafting Joel Bitonio at the top of the second round, the Browns feel they have another high-caliber player on the offensive line.

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A lot of the Browns’ success will come down to the play of the quarterback and Brian Hoyer is expected to be healthy to start training camp and Johnny Manziel is expected to push him for playing time. If Hoyer wins the starting job, look for the Browns to try to utilize Manziel in some type of package to get him adjusted to the NFL game.

Jordan Cameron broke out as a Pro Bowl tight end in 2013 and will be a key component of the offense this year. Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, Travis Benjamin and Miles Austin will be counted on to carry the load at receiver with the expected loss of Gordon. If Charles Johnson or one of the other young receivers can contribute, it will be a big plus.

The running game should be much improved with the line play and the additions of Ben Tate and Terrance West. Isaiah Crowell is a dark-horse candidate to vie for playing time.

The Browns had a good defense in 2013, but couldn’t hang on to leads at the end of games. Pettine is noted for his defense and the belief is the Browns could have a very good unit.

The front seven is solid and deep with players like Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Karlos Dansby. John Hughes and Billy Winn add depth up front and rookie linebacker Christian Kirksey is expected to compete for a starting job.

By adding Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner to the secondary to go along with up-and-coming starter Tashaun Gipson, Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and first-round draft pick Justin Gilbert the Browns feel they have the pieces to be good on defense. 

REASON FOR PANIC

Josh Gordon’s impending suspension. The Browns had a chance to really fortify their offensive firepower by adding a wide receiver high in the draft to play opposite of Gordon or to add depth if/when he got suspended. They chose to add veteran Miles Austin and Nate Burleson to go with restricted free agent signing Andrew Hawkins. The Browns did not draft a wide receiver but signed several undrafted rookie free agents in Chandler Jones, Willie Snead, Kenny Shaw and Jonathan Krause. They are hoping that Charles Johnson comes back from ACL surgery after being signed off the Packers’ practice squad in 2013.

After Gordon’s breakout season year 2013, much of the talk over the offseason was to find another game-changing receiver to put opposite of Gordon. Over the offseason, the Browns parted ways with Davone Bess and Greg Little, who were the other starters in 2013. Many thought the Browns would take Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and pair him with Gordon.

Gordon was only one mistake away from being suspended for part or all of a season due to being in the NFL’s substance-abuse program, making adding another playmaker a solid move in case of another mistake by Gordon. When the Browns passed on Watkins and drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round, it was assumed by many they would use one of their high picks to select a receiver. The Browns were rumored to be high on Brandin Cooks, but he was drafted before they could select him.

Prior to the start of the second round, news broke of Gordon’s impending suspension. However, the Browns did not take a receiver in the draft.

Austin, Anthony Armstrong and Earl Bennett were signed after news of the possible Gordon suspension came up, but Bennett was released prior to the June minicamp. Austin was held out for precautionary reasons because of prior injuries. Travis Benjamin and promising young prospect Johnson are coming off of torn ACL injuries.

The Browns are counting on Austin, Burleson and Hawkins to stay healthy and carry the load. They also hope one of the young players is able to step up and contribute, whether it be Benjamin, Johnson or one of the undrafted rookies.

ALEX MARVEZ’S 2014 PREDICTION

The Browns have the makings of a dominant defense under new head coach Mike Pettine. But just like during Pettine’s three previous NFL stops as an assistant (Buffalo, Baltimore and the New York Jets), Cleveland is sorely lacking offensive firepower.  It doesn’t matter whether Johnny Manziel or Johnny Unitas in his prime is starting at quarterback. Either would be hard-pressed to produce in the passing game if wide receiver Josh Gordon has to serve a year-long drug suspension that he is reportedly appealing. Prediction: 5-11.