The Cleveland Browns have been perennial basement dwellers in the AFC North Division more or less since they came back into existence. For years the AFC North has been one of the most competitive divisions in football, which has kept the Browns far below the other three teams in the division. But with the Pittsburg Steelers and Baltimore Ravens starting to age, there could be a small window of opportunity for Cleveland to make its move out of the basement in 2013.
Offensively, the Browns will look similar this season to what they looked like on offense in 2012. Brandon Weeden will once again be leading the offense as he tries to establish himself as a viable NFL quarterback; Trent Richardson, if he can stay healthy, will be the feature back that the Browns rely; and Josh Gordon, once he’s back from suspension, and Greg Little will be the primary receivers. With the offense locked into place, Cleveland will look to a revamped defense to be the difference for them this season, as an improved defense could be what they need to compete with the rest of their division.
Cleveland had a rather underrated defensive front last season, and that unit should be even better, not to mention deeper, this year with the addition of Desmond Bryant, who came over as a free agent from Oakland. Bryant should slide over to the defensive end position, where he and nose tackle Phillip Taylor, along with the other end Ahtyba Rubin will take up epic amounts of space and clog the middle of the field, with the hopes of slowing down the running game of opposing teams. Cleveland also has a fair amount of depth along the frontline, which should allow that unit to hold its own throughout the season.
Linebacker is where the Browns made the biggest improvement this offseason, starting with the free agent signing of Paul Kruger. After accumulating 13.5 sacks as a member of the Ravens last season, including 4.5 in the playoffs, Kruger gives Cleveland a legitimate pass rushing threat on the outside. The Browns hope to complement Kruger with first round draft pick Barkevious Mingo, who will start at the other outside linebacker position along with Kruger. There are questions about Mingo like his effort, strength and transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he has got great athleticism and is a natural pass rusher because of his speed coming off the edge. Kruger and Mingo have the potential to be a dynamic pass-rushing duo for the Browns, something they have been lacking on defense in past years.
The Cleveland secondary has a little less certainty than the front seven. They are set at one cornerback spot with Joe Haden and in good shape at strong safety with T.J. Ward, but the other half of the secondary is a question mark heading into the season. Rookie Leon McFadden might be able to earn a starting spot at cornerback opposite Haden, but if not that position could become a revolving door of mediocrity. There is also concern at free safety where there are several options, but no one that makes the Browns feel comfortable right now. The Browns have to hope that Haden, Ward and their pass rush are good enough to make up for some of the deficiencies in the secondary.
Calling the shots on Cleveland’s defense this year will be new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, one of the best coordinators in the league. With Horton in charge, a change to a 3-4 scheme, and a talent upgrade in the front seven, the Browns are expecting their defense to be much improved from last season, and are hopeful that an improved defense can make them a more competitive team in 2013, but whether it will be enough to pull them out of the AFC North basement remains to be seen.