The Cleveland Browns have an unusually, and certainly uncommon amount of eyes on them as they prepare for the 2016 NFL season. After an embarrassing 3-13 record in 2015, owner Jimmy Haslam elected to – once again – rebuild the organization by firing both the general manager and head coach, hours after the season finale against rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns agreed to terms with new head coach Hue Jackson, who is all-too familiar with Ohio as he spent the last few seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. Among others, Sashi Brown was promoted to Vice President of Player Operations and was given control over the team’s 53-man roster while Paul DePodesta, known for his analytical success in the MLB, was brought on board further the knowledge of analytics.
The 2016 NFL Draft and free agency certainly upgraded the Browns roster with additions such as Robert Griffin III and first-round pick Corey Coleman. With a new, refreshing roster the Browns have a number of intriguing players to watch for in the 2016 NFL season. Here are the Top-5 Cleveland Browns to watch for in 2016:
1) Duke Johnson Jr.
Duke Johnson is the most versatile player on this current Browns roster as he attains rare abilities out of the backfield. The combination of his elusiveness, quick footwork and pass-catching capabilities make him an instant threat at the running back position.
Splitting time with Isaiah Crowell in 2015 prevented Johnson from maximizing his potential, although in his sophomore campaign this season the workload will significantly increase due to his jaw-dropping playmaking ability. Not that Crowell won’t see action, because he will get his fair share of playing time, but when you have a weapon as lethal as Johnson you find a way to get him on the field as much as possible.
New running back coach Kirby Wilson spoke in regards to the former Miami University tailback’s ability to create plays in the NFL.
“He’s very comfortable in space, he’s got natural ability to catch the football, and he knows how to run routes. He is what you would call an ultimate weapon for us. He is a running threat, obviously, an he is a pass receiving threat.”
An effective pass-catcher out of the backfield, Johnson will have more plays drawn up for him where he can utilize his evasiveness by dodging defenders. There will be an abundance of design-plays that feature Johnson creating big plays by receiving the ball out of the backfield. Johnson finds himself in a wonderful situation under both Hue Jackson and Wilson as they’ll look to incorporate the run as the primary focus of this new Cleveland Browns offense.
2) Joe Haden
Joe Haden is perhaps the most beloved Cleveland athlete not named LeBron James for his continuous effort on the field and work within the community. Haden is quick to interact with fans whether it be on social media or in public, he simply enjoys the city of Cleveland as well as the folks who reside within it.
The 2015 season didn’t go as planned as the former Florida Gator was faced with numerous injuries including concussions, rib, finger and ankle injuries, ultimately leading to Haden appearing in only five games. It also marked the first time in his six-season career that he didn’t record an interception or a forced fumble throughout the year. The pro bowl cornerback recently underwent ankle surgery and is expected to be ready for Week 1 of the NFL season.
Haden has always been a top-tier defensive back since being drafted with the No. 7 pick in 2010 and he looks forward to entering the 2016 season healthy amid facing adversity for the first time in his career.
“I never went through any type of adversity like this playing football. It’s always been pretty good,” Haden said. “ Being able to go through something like this, it definitely brings a newfound respect, newfound love, passion and I’m missing it, not being able to be out there with my guys. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the way a little bit. I just don’t really like that feeling at all knowing I’m a leader on this team and a person that’s going to be making a big impact in terms of wins and losses. But I’m just excited to keep pushing.”
There is no doubt that the Cleveland Browns rely on Haden for much of the load defensively as he’s proven to be an elite player in the NFL. However, depending on him to play the great football fans are used to seeing him play is difficult due to the amount of injuries the two-time pro bowler faced in 2015. Although there is no doubt Haden can perform at a high level, his performance is worth watching for because of the amount of injuries he was faced with in 2015.
3) Corey Coleman
The No. 15 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft has high expectations entering his rookie season. The Cleveland Browns lacked any consistency from the wide receiver position last season and Coleman is on target to be the team’s No. 1 wideout heading into the 2016 season. Similar to Duke Johnson, Coleman attains an impressive set of skills which should translate from the collegiate level to the NFL level quite swiftly.
Coleman posted impressive numbers in his last season at Baylor University, enough to be honored with the 2015 Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver. He corralled 74 receptions good for 1,363 receiving yards and a nation best 20 touchdowns (. Keep in mind, the Cleveland Browns had 20 total receiving touchdowns in all of the 2015 season, seven coming from players no longer on the team.
The Baylor standout will be entering a scenario in Cleveland that will depend on him immensely to be productive. Growing up in a rough neighborhood with a father serving prison time for felony drug distribution, Coleman has overcome adversity throughout his career. However, with the guidance of his godfather Ray Crockett, a former NFL star defensive back, Coleman has thus far maximized his potential and there is no reason to assume that won’t continue with the Browns.
His blazing speed was shown off at his Pro Day as he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash. Although Coleman elected to not run the 40 at the NFL combine, his time was good for second best among wide receivers who did run, only trailing Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (4.32). Along with his speed, Coleman possesses the ability to beat nearly anyone off the snap giving him a great combination to create open space quickly into the play. This is a facet that head coach Hue Jackson salivates over due to his fast-paced, quick decision flowing offense. Especially with RGIII at the QB position with his cannon of an arm.
Corey Coleman should make an immediate impact for this Cleveland Browns offense and Hue Jackson, understanding the weapon that Coleman is, will be sure to incorporate the first-round selection early on in 2016.
4) Joe Thomas
Cleveland Browns fans might be curious as to why the nine-time pro bowl lineman is on this list, although Joe Thomas needs to be. Actually, Joe Thomas might be the biggest name to watch for in 2016 on this Browns roster, and it has nothing to do with performance.
Thomas, who now is 31 years old, has yet to see a winning season over the course of his career. Labeled as the best left tackle this past decade, the veteran who has gone above and beyond expectations may be given the opportunity to compete for a championship.
Unfortunately, that is not in Cleveland.
It was widely reported last season that the Denver Broncos offered the Browns a first-round pick in exchange for the former Wisconsin Badger. Cleveland wanted additional assets which Denver refused to deal away, hence why the potential trade deadline deal fell through in the end.
On a roster full of younger players and an organization currently in rebuild mode, it’s generally expected that a player of Thomas’ caliber could be moved for future assets. Although Thomas, amid the hiring of Hue Jackson as the head coach, is excited to play for the former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator and believes he’s the right man for the job. As a matter of fact, the Browns left tackle even admitted he might’ve requested a trade if he didn’t believe the new staff were the right fit, but the team did according to Thomas.
“I’ve known Hue casually just from playing against his team’s through the years in the NFL and always had nice words with him after the games that we played against Cincinnati this past year,” Thomas stated. “I talked to him after we hired him, when we were going through the coaching search. He was the No. 1 guy that I was hoping that we would hire.”
The Browns went out and did their part on hiring the “biggest fish,” in Thomas’ words, in the off-season. Now it’s up for the team to start winning, but if the 2016 becomes frustrating early Thomas could be a valuable trade chip on the market.
5) Robert Griffin III
RGIII is in a legitimate make-or-break season due to the uncertainty of the former Rookie Of the Year’s capabilities. After a heroic rookie campaign with the Washington Redskins in 2012, the QB found himself in enough drama to create an MTV television show. Shunning teammates in the locker room, demanding play calling, publicly embarrassing the head coach and ultimately losing the job to Kirk Cousins, whom was drafted two rounds after RGIII. The handling of the situation was even worse as teammates became frustrated with the consistent immaturity from Griffin. It was a bad situation and a scenario change was inevitable.
Griffin is poised to prove that his physical tools are still impressive at an NFL level. Although not yet named the official starter for the Browns, head coach Hue Jackson wants Griffin to earn the job during camp. However, Griffin is expected to be named the starter around the preseason, according to Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot. All Pro cornerback Joe Haden also believes that Griffin still possesses the qualities to succeed in the NFL as a starting QB.
“I’ve seen he has something to prove,” he said. “He feels people aren’t looking at him the same when he came out of college. I think he still has that talent. I know he feels like he still has that talent, that ability to be a starting quarterback in the league.”
The reality of this exuberant situation is RGIII understands he needs to be productive and successful in Cleveland if he wants to be known as the gun-slinging and fearless QB as the world once knew him as.
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