Chris Pokorny, the proprietor of Cleveland Browns SBN site Dawgs By Nature, has had a rather busy week. First the team he covers announced that they were going to start a third-string quarterback at Mall of America Field on Sunday. Then there was a little trade that you may have heard about. Even though he had to deal with the onslaught of change, he still was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about the Browns for us. My answers for his questions are available right here. Here's what Chris had to say:
1. So...anything new with the Browns lately?! The Trent Richardson trade has rocked the mid-week NFL news cycle. After trading up a spot with the Vikings in the 2012 draft, the player Cleveland took with the #3 overall pick is suddenly gone after only 17 career games in exchange for a 2014 1st round draft pick. Has the Cleveland front office already thrown in the towel on the 2013 season only two games in? Or did it simply come down to the fact that Richardson didn't fit in the new regime's plans?
This was no doubt a shocking trade in the sense that it actually happened. After a couple of days of reflecting, I think Browns fans are starting to come around and understand the value the team is picking up in this trade.
In terms of touchdowns and receiving yards in 2012, Richardson had an impressive stat sheet. Except for one game against the Bengals, though, people who actually watched him play could see that he was nowhere near an elite-level running back. Perhaps that changes as he gains more experience with the Indianapolis Colts, but what we saw in a season and a couple of games was a guy who struggled to find a hole, was not decisive, and was not known as an exceptional blocker. He averaged about 3.5 yards per carry, and rarely had gains that went for 10 to 20 yards.
Some people will say, "teams loaded the box against the Browns" or "Cleveland's run blocking was poor." Those factors did help contribute to Richardson's struggles, but what about every time Richardson caught a pass in the open field, juked in place a couple of times, and then was tackled rather easily? The fact is that Richardson was not breaking out and has had a lot of injury issues already. He's a tough guy, but fans were quietly worrying that we had nothing more than an average back on our hands -- better put, a bust, given how high he was drafted. For Indianapolis to basically give Cleveland a mulligan for that? Absolutely, we'll take it!
On top of that, we just signed Willis McGahee, who may honestly have a better stop-gap season in 2013 than Richardson would have here. The perception among a lot of fans is that the towel has been thrown in, but for this season, I don't think Richardson makes much of a difference in the win/loss column for the Browns. What will matter more is getting Josh Gordon back this week and getting our starting right guard back (probably next week, along with Brandon Weeden). We're not giving up. With a win this week, Cleveland could conceivably be tied for first place in a relatively weak AFC North.
2. The big news before the Richardson trade was that Brian Hoyer is getting the start on Sunday for the Browns since Brandon Weeden is out with the thumb sprain he suffered last week. Are you surprised that Hoyer is getting the nod over veteran Jason Campbell? Do you think new Cleveland GM Mike Lombardi's well-documented affinity for Hoyer had an influence on Rob Chudzinski naming him the starter? Here in Minnesota, the rallying cry of many fans is "We'd have a good team if it wasn't for Ponder holding us back." Is there similar sentiment with Browns fans? I know it's early in his career, but do you think Weeden will be the long-term solution in Cleveland?
First, let me address the Hoyer situation. Personally, I have no problem with him getting the start over Jason Campbell, and here is why: I am in favor of using an injury-situation as an opportunity (for a non-playoff-contender) to evaluate someone.
We already know what Campbell can do in his career, but we haven't seen Hoyer start many games. If he shows something of value, we can consider keeping him as a backup in 2014. I don't think Mike Lombardi's affinity for Hoyer plays much of a role in him getting the start this week. Cleveland's offensive line has had serious pass-protection issues to begin the season, and I think they believe Hoyer's mobility can help buy some more time compared to Campbell.
As for Weeden, I don't blame the Browns' 0-2 start on him at all. I view it as a different situation than Ponder; with good players surrounding him, Weeden has the arm to make some great throws. His lack of mobility means he can't step into the pocket when pass protection breaks down, though. Without Josh Gordon the first two weeks, Weeden's receivers have done an awful job in getting separation, or have dropped passes that were beautifully thrown on a rope down the field.
I think Weeden could have been a longer-term starter, but with the Browns adding another first-round pick in 2014, I'm kind of resigned to the fact that he won't be "the guy" next year. It's not a crushing blow, though. The front office wants a quarterback who can elevate the level of play of the guys around him, and that'll be someone with more mobility and who can recognize the game situations a bit better.
3. How good is this Browns defense? While the Cleveland offense has struggled mightily and produced only 16 points through the first two games, the Browns have hung around in both contests thanks to the D. Yet most NFL fans don't know anyone on Cleveland's defense outside of Joe Haden. Which aspects of Cleveland's defense could give the Vikings trouble this week?
The strength of the Browns' defense is their front seven, particularly the defensive line and at outside linebacker. This is the first year since the Browns returned to the league in 1999 that it looks like we'll have a competent run defense. The pass rushing could use some more consistency, but there are bursts of success from guys like Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, and Barkevious Mingo, all at outside linebacker. The inside linebackers play pretty well too.
Outside of Joe Haden, the questionable part of the defense right now is the secondary. The play of the safeties has been mediocre, and the other cornerbacks haven't come through in the clutch enough when it comes to defending passes in the second half of games. I think the secondary is getting a little bit of an unfair rap; if the offense was putting points on the board, then the touchdowns they give up wouldn't seem as significant. But, the unit is clearly the weakness of the defense.
4. Much like the Vikings, there seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding the top pick of the Browns' 2013 draft. However, first round pick Barkevious Mingo has seen only 25 snaps so far due to injury. Wide receiver Josh Gordon, a supplemental draft pick in 2012, will make his 2013 debut on Sunday after serving a two-game suspension. How do you see both youngsters being utilized against Minnesota? What kind of impact do you think they'll have on Sunday and going forward this season?
Mingo suffered a bruised lung in the preseason and was held out of Week 1 because of that. He returned in Week 2, and was expected to be slowly worked into the mix until he gets up to game speed. Veteran outside linebacker Quentin Groves hurt his ankle during the game, though, which increased the amount of reps that Mingo was expected to see.
Mingo made the most of those reps, notching a sack on his first career snap and showing off his speed on a few other plays. With Groves out again this week, I expect him to be used in the rotation as a pass rusher again, but Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger are still clearly ahead of him as starters.
As for Gordon, he has the potential to make the rest of Cleveland's offense click. He was the best rookie receiver in 2012 and was able to catch the deep ball and get separation regularly. I could see the Vikings trying to double team him, and if they do, that will be the element we've been missing for the first two games of the year - someone who can take pressure off the other receivers, or help draw a defender away from our ground game.
5. Name one player on offense and one player on defense that Vikings fans may not have heard of but could have a big impact on the game. Finally, give us your prediction of the outcome on Sunday.
Usually, I pick a player who could have a positive impact, but since you just said big impact, how about someone who will have a negative impact? Before the start of the regular season, we had Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao competing for our starting right guard spot (both have started full seasons in the past). Neither guy is elite, but they are average enough to be adequate. Unfortunately, both guys suffered ankle injuries at pretty much the same exact time.
That's when we had to throw Oniel Cousins into the starting lineup at right guard. He looked awful as a backup right tackle in the past, so our hopes were not very high. I never expected it to be this bad. I have watched some piss-poor offensive line play since the Browns returned at 1999, but I've never seen someone play as poorly or as confused as Cousins has at right guard.
Lauvao is "close" to returning, but I fear that will be in Week 4, and we'll have to live with another week of Cousins. Our right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz, has been awful to start the 2013 season after doing very well as a rookie in 2012. I have to attribute some of Cousins' awful play as a reason why Schwartz is off his game too.
On defense, I'll go with a positive player and say Jabaal Sheard. He was a second-round pick in 2011 as a defensive end. This offseason, he transitioned to outside linebacker. I thought it would be an ugly transition for him, but it has gone way better than I ever could have imagined. He has shown an impressive pass rush, looks good against the run, and has even done a decent job in coverage. Look for him to use a variety of moves against your left tackle on Sunday to try to get to Ponder.
Thanks again to Chris for the excellent insight. Check out Dawgs By Nature for much more about the Browns.