AFC North: Cleveland Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- How did the Cleveland Browns' quarterbacks look on their first day of competitive OTA practice on Tuesday?

Like two guys learning a new system with a new coordinator and new receivers on the first day of an offseason practice.

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Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsMike Pettine said the Browns, including Josh McCown, left, and Johnny Manziel, looked "sloppy" on Tuesday.

“Sloppy” was the word Mike Pettine used for the whole team. It certainly applied to the first two quarterbacks, as both Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel threw plenty of footballs to the ground.

McCown might be able to afford the errors better than Manziel. Teammate Donte Whitner said Manziel’s rookie season was a disaster, so Manziel has two hurdles to overcome this offseason.

He first must get his life together off the field, which is why he spent 10 weeks in a treatment facility. Then he must prove he can play in the NFL on the field -- something he did not do one year ago.

Given that it’s May and it’s a new system, immediate precision should not be expected. But it’s also clear the Browns have a long way to go.

McCown got all the reps with the first team, Manziel took all the reps with the backups. Both had moments, but neither distinguished themselves.

Manziel, as always, was the focus of attention. His arm strength was evident when he threw in one-on-one drills, but when it got to “team” work there were … well … concerns.

He underthrew a short out route in seven-on-seven that was intercepted by K’Waun Williams, a throw against no rush that leaves most NFL quarterbacks simmering.

He dropped the ball on a rollout, had another throw blocked at the line and had an underthrow to Paul Browning knocked away by Kendall James.

“I don’t want to get into grading specific plays today,” coach Mike Pettine said.
He echoed a by-now familiar theme: Manziel has been more engaged in meetings than he was a year ago.

“We’re a new group,” McCown said. “And any time you come together as a new group there’s going to be growing pains.”

He then emphasized setting a high standard to “speed up that learning curve.”

“I want to see the Cleveland Browns and the quarterback position be better than it's been,” McCown said.

BEREA, Ohio -- LeBron James’ influence spreads far and wide when it comes to Cleveland sports.

Browns safety Donte Whitner said Tuesday that James’ longtime friend and business associate, Maverick Carter, has been lending a helping hand to quarterback Johnny Manziel as he continues on the post-rehab path.

“He’s taken big responsibility on making sure that Johnny is doing all the right things, has a mentor, somebody to talk to,” Whitner said of Carter. “Certain things that he didn’t really have the ability or somebody to talk to before.

“I know that he’s taking a big responsibility in that, and it certainly seems like it’s working out so far.”

Carter also is handling Manziel’s marketing -- and had a hand in the Johnny Jamboogie Snickers commercial.

So far Manziel is getting positive reviews for the way he’s approaching his job. Manziel left a 10-week stay at a treatment facility outside Reading, Pennsylvania, in April, and teammates say they notice he’s taken a better approach than he did as a rookie.

Whitner has been one of Manziel’s more vocal supporters -- both this year and last. But even Whitner admitted that last season was “disastrous” for the Browns' two first-round picks: Manziel and Justin Gilbert.

“I’m pretty sure they don’t want to repeat that again,” Whitner said.

Whitner also recalled that at this point one year ago the talk was of floating swans and Vegas parties.

“I remember last year, they made a big fuss out of Johnny being in Vegas for Memorial Day weekend,” Whitner said. “Well, Johnny was here in Cleveland for Memorial Day weekend this year. That’s another step that he’s taken.”

It’s interesting that one year ago Whitner said if he were Manziel's age he’d have been in Vegas with Manziel … but his point is taken.

“He's taken the steps that it takes to be a good quarterback,” Whitner said.

The Cleveland Browns open their offseason “practice” to the media today. It’s the first of three Tuesdays when a workout will be open, followed by three days of open minicamp June 16-18.

The NFL mandates the open work to give the media access to the team, which in turn provides a glimpse at how certain players are doing and what changes have been made.

For the Browns, there are several points of interest to monitor, with the proviso that these practices are supposed to be “non-contact” and are nowhere near as revealing as training camp.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneJohnny Manziel is looking to continue a positive offseason with solid work at the Browns' OTAs.

All quarterbacks, for instance, should be able to take advantage of a situation where the pass rush is limited and contact is prohibited.

The most obvious person of interest for the Browns will be Johnny Manziel, who is coming off a disastrous rookie season and a 10-week stint in rehab. Manziel has had to learn a new offense, adjust back to life with teammates and grow as a player and person this offseason.

That all won’t happen in a short time, but the reviews from teammates have been positive. One year ago there were photos of floating swans and Vegas parties; this year there’s been nothing but praise.

Manziel’s challenge is not simple, and a long road awaits him. But seeing how he handles John DeFilippo’s new system, how he handles the basics of being an NFL quarterback and how he handles the pocket passing game for the first time will be interesting.

What might be more interesting is how much of Manziel is seen in practice. Does he share the second-team reps equally with Thad Lewis and Connor Shaw, or will there be a clear delineation between those three, which would indicate one of them has a leg up on the backup job.

Of course it goes without saying that Josh McCown bears a close eye, as well. The Browns have removed all pressure from the veteran by basically saying if he holds his own, he’ll start. He was given the same chance last season in Tampa Bay and lost 10 of 11 games. The Browns found a way to offer excuses for that record. Now he gets his second chance.

Running back Terrance West spent much of the offseason tweeting about his workouts and weight loss. West had maturity and consistency issues last season, at times worrying more about his playing time than anything else. He did run well, though, and finished with a good game in the finale in Baltimore. Has the offseason work paid off?

Dwayne Bowe has made lots of promises in his career, so when he promised he’d revert to his top form of 2010 (15 TDs) it should be taken with a grain of something. Bowe steps in as the Browns’ No. 1 wideout without ever truly filling that role in Kansas City, aside from that 2010 season. The Browns need him, and he should stand out in this kind of practice. The Browns probably know what to expect from Brian Hartline; what they can expect from Bowe remains to be seen.

Linebacker Barkevious Mingo deserved some sort of courage award last season. He played with a shoulder problem that meant he had to have it strapped and could not lift his arm above his shoulder. Offseason surgery addressed the issue, but the Browns still took Nate Orchard in the second round. How Mingo is moving and acting will show how far he’s come since the surgery.

Tramon Williams is another very important player for the defense. The Browns need two corners who can cover and play man-press coverage. Williams is 32, but the Browns clearly feel he has something left, and that he can complete the secondary. If Williams is healthy and capable, the secondary picture becomes much clearer -- in a hurry.

Those are the main folks to be watched. Other items of interest include:

  • Who starts at tight end?
  • Do the Browns have a fullback?
  • Where does first-round pick Cam Erving fit?
  • Who will line up with the first unit at running back?
  • Who starts at safety with Tashaun Gipson AWOL due to that contract situation?
  • How much will Phil Taylor be able to do, if anything at all?
  • How does center Alex Mack look coming off his broken ankle?

Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack appreciates Memorial Day. Mack has been on two USO tours, including a week-long trip to Afghanistan this offseason.

Mack’s father was in the Army during the Vietnam War time, and his cousin was in the Air Force. Mack was one of four NFL players on this specific tour overseas, where the group visited several different job sites and held Q&As.

“It’s fun to go out there and see what these soldiers do, and at the same time you get to tell them, ‘What you do is important. We’re here to support you. Thank you,’” Mack said.

Mack has been pleasantly surprised by how many football fans -- particularly Browns fans -- are overseas serving the U.S. Troops asked Mack about a wide variety of topics, from professional motivation to the Browns’ starting quarterback position, to which Mack said he expected a quarterback battle between Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel.

NFL coaches and players frequently visit troops. Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano recently took a few of his players on an eight-day trip overseas.

If Mack has his way, he won’t be done with USO tours any time soon.

"They have a tough job. A tough job that’s dangerous," Mack said. "It’s often kind of thankless. I think it's important to appreciate where we live and what people have to sacrifice to get what we have."

It appears the Cleveland Browns will win the day regarding "Hard Knocks."

The team did not want to appear on the NFL/HBO training camp reality show, and made its feelings known at the league meetings in March.

A report from Tony Grossi of ESPN-Cleveland states NFL Films will honor the request. According to Grossi, the league does not want "an unwilling participant."

The Browns were blunt about their feelings in March. One of their concerns was the focus of attention the series would bring to Johnny Manziel as he continues on the road back from a 10-week stay in rehab.

"You just weigh everything in," coach Mike Pettine said in March. "Because being a part of 'Hard Knocks,' having been there, knowing they're going to look to cover the team's biggest current storylines, it's obvious that he would be a point of attention."

Browns owner Dee Haslam said the team would be good sports if required, but clearly did not want any part of the show.

"I think the best solution for the NFL is that somebody raises their hand and volunteers," she said in March. "You can get a better show. I think that hopefully will happen. I don't think we'll raise our hand."

Houston and Buffalo were reported to be the finalists, but the Bills are not interested and because they have a first-year head coach cannot be forced to participate, a source told ESPN's Mike Rodak.

Washington has been mentioned as well, but the Redskins are opposed to the show and do not believe they are a candidate to appear.

Uni Watch came out with its annual rankings of NFL uniforms, and the Cleveland Browns’ new look did not fare all that well.

Paul Lukas, the genius behind Uni Watch, didn’t exactly torch the Browns, either.

Lukas put the Browns at 20th overall, behind the Rams and ahead of the Seahawks and Texans.

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AP Photo/Tony DejakNew uniforms didn't give the Browns a boost in the ESPN uniform rankings.

Lukas called the new look “a downgrade,” said the jersey feels “high school-ish” and called the pants “embarrassing.” But he said how it looks on the field with different combinations will be the determining factor.

This is one man’s informed opinion, and it could be worse. The Bengals are 31st. The Steelers are first (no argument on that one). But clearly Lukas isn’t sold on the Browns' new look.

I think the look is fine, though as a traditionalist, I liked the Browns traditional look. I also get that many believed it was time for an update, and that’s fine. The Browns did a nice job in honoring the tradition while still updating the look.

What’s interesting are the top teams: Pittsburgh, Oakland, Green Bay, Chicago and San Diego. Four of the five have traditional looks that have been in use for decades with barely a tweak. In a year when the Browns made major changes to a classic look, Uni Watch’s top looks have a traditional feel.

“I think it would be fair to say that I am a classicist, and that my tastes reflect that,” Lukas said via e-mail. “So, yeah, I tend to prefer classic-looking uniforms without all the bells and whistles.”

The Cleveland Browns come in 142nd out of 333 international teams surveyed in an ESPN/SportingIntelligence report revealing the sports franchises that spend the most on their players.

The survey reveals the staggering amount of money spent around the world on sports.

The Browns' average annual player salary is $2.2 million. The team’s total player payroll of $114.2 million ranks 39th overall.

The survey details that teams are spending $17.94 billion on athletes around the world. Foreign oil contributes to the riches, and most of the biggest spenders are European soccer teams.

The survey has been compiled for ESPN by Nick Harris of every year since 2010.

One interesting tidbit: The NBA has the world’s highest average salary. Second highest: India’s IPL cricket.

Justin Gilbert’s rookie season was tumultuous — and disappointing.

The Cleveland Browns selected Gilbert eighth overall in the 2014 draft. As a rookie he was nearly a total bust, which is not supposed to happen with top-10 picks. Late in the season he received pointed barbs from teammates turned off by his attitude, sense of entitlement and lack of professionalism.

He finished the season by being late for a meeting at the team hotel on the road, then was deactivated for the finale in Baltimore. Coach Mike Pettine called it essentially a suspension.

Glbert's offseason approach was to join Joe Haden in Florida for workouts.

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AP Photo/David RichardJustin Gilbert has some work to do to move up the depth chart after a disappointing rookie season.

Who instigated the move is up for debate. Pettine said the team asked Haden to mentor Gilbert; defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said Gilbert got things rolling.

Regardless, it happened, with the team hoping Haden’s approach rubbed off.

Time will tell, and at this time of year, everyone is optimistic. Putting too much stock in an offseason practice is not wise, but with Gilbert, any step forward is a good one.

“He’s been much more engaged with players in the locker room,” O’Neil said at rookie minicamp. “I’m excited to get to OTAs and get into 11-on-11 drills and see how he’s grown.”

Grown is the key word. One of the phrases Donte Whitner used about Gilbert was that he had to stop acting like a kid.

Gilbert wasn’t thrilled with the criticism, but if he did something about it in the offseason, it’s a step.

“He flashes the talent,” O’Neil said. “But he did that last year, too. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

GIlbert’s path is more cluttered; essentially he’s working from the bottom up, having wasted an opportunity as a rookie.

Last summer, the starting spot opposite Haden was Gilbert’s to take.The Browns were eager to move Buster Skrine inside to the nickel spot, except Skrine performed admirably and Gilbert wallowed -- he was even beaten out for the nickel spot by undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams.

In the offseason, Skrine signed with the Jets as a free agent, but the Browns added veteran starting corner Tramon Williams in free agency.

At this point, Gilbert has to earn what he gets. With Pierre Desir playing well late last season, it’s probably fair to say Gilbert and Desir are even on the depth chart behind Haden, Williams and Williams.

Gilbert has to climb the ladder. Not only does he have to show he’s mentally engaged, he has to show he can play consistently.

“That is a hard position to play in this league, especially in our defense, where we’re going to put you out there on an island, but I would expect Justin to make a jump just because it’s Year 2 for him,” O’Neil said. “It’s not his rookie year. I do see a new focus with him coming into this season.”

Offseason focus means something, but in-season focus means so much more. The Browns know that. They have to hope Gilbert does as well.

Danny SheltonMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The cut-ups, breakdowns and offseason discussion with the defensive coaches of the Cleveland Browns centered on one main topic: Stopping the run.

Last season, the Browns were the worst in the league at containing the rush, giving up 142 yards per game and allowing opposing teams 500 carries.

"It's hard to swallow," coordinator Jim O'Neil said.

Five hundred carries equates to 31 per game. Five hundred carries also ranked as second highest in the NFL and were well above the league average of 427.

"We need to stop that," coordinator Jim O'Neil said. "We're going to stop that."

The Browns defensive numbers produce some quirky results. They were last in the league in run defense, but 11th on third downs and ninth in scoring. O'Neil listed five defensive stats that matter most: Turnovers, quarterback rating, red zone defense, third downs and points. Run defense figures to rank somewhere in the top 10.

"We want to be a bully on defense," O'Neil said. "To be a bully on defense, you have to stop the run."

O'Neil calls carries of 8 yards or more "explosive runs." ESPN Stats and Information and both determined that the Browns gave up 94 "explosive runs" in 2014 (O'Neil put the number at 87; we'll go with the consistent statistical analysis.)

That total was second highest in the league. The 1,244 yards gained on those plays was the fourth highest in the league (on explosive runs). Teams got a first down on 70 of those plays, tied for second worst in the league. And teams averaged 13.2 yards per carry on those runs.

On the other 406 carries, the Browns gave up just 2.5 yards per carry. Which shows how much the explosive runs hurt. Fifty-five percent of the rushing yards against the Browns came on 18.8 percent of the plays.

It's an ugly stat. The 94 explosive runs is the highest number on a Browns defense since 2004 -- and though the total number does not surpass the expansion era figures of 1999 and 2000 -- as a percentage of carries it does.

In 2014, the Browns gave up 8 or more yards on 18.8 percent of the carries. In 2000, that figure was 18 percent and in 1999 it was 18.7 percent. Only once since '99 has the percentage been higher -- 21 percent in 2004.

This was clearly a major problem.

The Browns believe in the scheme, but believe attention to detail and improved fundamentals will help. O'Neil said the team had issues with missed tackles, getting stuck on blocks and aligning improperly. This can be addressed in OTAs and training camp -- and goes past the defensive line.

"Usually there are three or four guys who are at fault," O'Neil said.

The front office addressed the personnel by adding first- and third-round defensive line picks Danny Shelton and Xavier Cooper, and free agent Randy Starks. The Browns also drafted 265-pound linebacker Nate Orchard in the second round.

One more year in the system also figures to help, O'Neil said.

"Stopping the run leads to a lot things," O'Neil said. "It leads to more turnovers, more sacks because you're putting offenses in more predictable situations. It leads to less plays on the field, which leads to less injuries when you're not out there as much. Then, it also leads to more possessions for our offense, which means more points. ...

"When we stop the run, now it allows us to be exotic with some of our pressure packages and get after a quarterback, but it's all built on stopping the run first."

The Cleveland Browns have locked up eight of their 12 draft picks with the announcement Friday that No. 12 overall pick Danny Shelton and No. 19 pick Cam Erving have signed their rookie deals.

Both will sign four-year contracts with the option for a fifth. Erving's deal includes a signing bonus of more than $5.1 million. Shelton's should be closer to the $6-plus-million range.

Shelton recorded 208 tackles and nine sacks in 53 career games at Washington, earning first-team All-America status. The 6-foot-2, 339-pounder will aid a league-worst Browns rushing defense that gave up nearly 2,300 yards last season. Addressing questions about whether he's a three-down player, Shelton joked he could play fourth down or fifth down if necessary.

Erving is a 6-5, 313-pounder who can play all five positions on the line and played in 55 games at Florida State. Asked where his home position is, Erving says he's an offensive lineman. He's the type of person to "do what's best for the team," he says.

The Browns have signed eight of their 12 draft picks -- Shelton, Erving, second-round outside linebacker Nate Orchard, third-round defensive tackle Xavier Cooper, sixth-round tight end/H-back Malcolm Johnson, sixth-round tight end Randall Telfer, sixth-round cornerback Charles Gaines and seventh-round cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

Third-round running back Duke Johnson, seventh-round linebacker Hayes Pullard, fourth-round wide receiver Vince Mayle and fourth-round safety Ibraheim Campbell remain unsigned.

AURORA, Ohio — There seems to be a difference of opinion within the Cleveland Browns.

An understandable difference, but a difference nonetheless.

The topic: The absence of Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson from voluntary offseason work. Gipson is miffed that he was given a second-round tender by the Browns, and he has not been present for work since the offseason program started on April 20.

“He’s not going to be behind,” cornerback Joe Haden said Friday at the team’s annual charity golf tournament at Barrington Golf Club.

Then there's the opinion of defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

“Gip is going to have some catching up to do when he comes back,” O’Neil said last week at the team’s rookie minicamp.

Which sums up the difference in perspective between a coach and a player. Coaches would have players in the building 24/7 if they could. Players understand when a teammate has to take a stand.

The spat between Gipson and the team came about because the Browns gave Gipson a restricted free agent tender that would pay him $2.356 million. Gipson hoped for a first-round tender, which meant he would have earned just less than another $1 million.

That money is important, and teammates never begrudge another player getting paid.

“It’s a business and sometimes when the players do their part of it, being a business it looks a little foggy,” Haden said.

Since Gipson is not under contract, he technically does not have to be at the veteran minicamp June 16-18 and can’t be fined if he misses.

Gipson’s problem is that if he doesn’t report by June 15, the Browns on that day have the right to cut the tender offer to a minimum of 110 percent of what he made last season — a figure that would start at $627,000.

That doesn’t seem like a wise idea, but neither did it seem wise to risk angering Gipson with the lower tender — and the Browns did that.

O’Neil understands and admits there’s a line a coach should not cross about contracts. But he wants Gipson in Cleveland.

“The secondary is the one group that can take the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2, just because of how complex we are back there,” O’Neil said. ““The guys that are here are getting a lot better. We have great coaches in that room, great coaches. Those guys are growing. Jordan Poyer is growing. Donte Whitner is growing. The corners are growing.”

Haden didn’t shrug, but he could have.

“He’s going to be our free safety,” he said of Gipson.

The Browns are the only team Gipson can negotiate with, but if Gipson isn’t signed when camp starts, he can’t be fined then either.

Haden said Gipson will be at the minicamp and training camp, which implies Gipson either will accept the tender when he has to do so, or he’ll have a long-term deal worked out.

“He understands what’s going on,” Haden said.

It’s too early to judge the Cleveland Browns rookie class.

One three-day rookie minicamp provides glimpses, but not revelations. That being said, Mike Pettine addressed the one key feeling he has coming off a draft that added 12 players to the mix.

“The one thing, I think, [is] we’re very pleased [with] our depth,” Pettine said.

Especially on the offensive and defensive fronts, spots Pettine said "were problems" in 2014.

The offensive line situation was evident and well-chronicled. A group that started as one of the league’s best collapsed after center Alex Mack broke his leg. The Browns wound up using three different centers — two of whom had never snapped the ball in an NFL game before.

[+] EnlargeCleveland Browns, Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving
AP Photo/Phil LongThe Browns addressed their lines with first-round picks Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving.

Paul McQuistan was the veteran signed to provide the ability to back up at different positions, but he didn’t work out. Nor did Nick McDonald.

Four of the linemen played every snap — Joel Bitonio, Joe Thomas, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz — but one injury rippled far and wide.

To address that this season, the Browns drafted Cam Erving with the 19th overall pick. Erving played left tackle and center for Florida State last season, and he will be tested at right tackle and guard this offseason.

Clearly, investing a first-round pick for depth speaks to the need.

In March, Pettine said the defensive front was the one unit last season that did not live up to expectations — because of injury.

Armonty Bryant, Phil Taylor and John Hughes each missed 11 games to knee injuries. No lineman started all 16 games — Desmond Bryant was the highest with 15. Nine different linemen played.

In the offseason, the team made the defensive front a point of emphasis.

The Browns took nose tackle Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick and traded up to get Xavier Cooper at the end of the third round.

The team gave Hughes a contract extension and signed Randy Starks.

That’s significant commitment to that group.

“As the normal NFL season wears on, for whatever reason, you’re going to have to rely on those guys that going into the season you probably thought you weren’t going to have to,” Pettine said. “I know we’ll feel much more comfortable this year at virtually every position about our depth.”

Stingy defense has long been a hallmark of teams in the AFC North.

Last season, though, three of the division's teams were in the lower half of the league's total defensive rankings, allowing an average of 350 yards or more per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers (18th), Cincinnati Bengals (22nd) and Cleveland Browns (23rd) claimed the undesirable honors. Only the Baltimore Ravens, at eighth, ranked among the league's best defensively.

Those rankings were a sharp departure from the year before, when all four teams ranged from third (Cincinnati) to 13th (Pittsburgh) in total defense.

As nearly the entire division tries to reinvent itself defensively this season, which team (of the three subpar defenses from last year) has the best chance of seeing a turnaround in 2015 that could put it in the top 10? ESPN AFC North reporters made their picks:

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesMichael Johnson's return makes the Bengals' defense a strong candidate to return to prominence in the AFC North.

Coley Harvey, Bengals reporter: This seems like a no-brainer. Between the Steelers, Browns and Bengals, Cincinnati's defense has the best chance to make the jump back into the top 10. That's mainly because for so long the Bengals were already there. Remember, they had a top-10 defensive unit for several seasons before a change at coordinator ushered in transition last year. Under former defensive coordinator (and current Minnesota Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer, the Bengals were seventh, sixth and third in total defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013. While it's easy to pin last year's 22nd ranking on Paul Guenther, who was in his first season as a coordinator, the Bengals' drop-off was the product of a few other factors. They had injuries at key linebacker positions and had trouble replacing one of their top pass-rushers, who bolted in free agency the prior offseason. This year, they anticipate being back at full health throughout the secondary, and that pass-rusher, defensive end Michael Johnson, is back. Unlike the Browns and Steelers, who have to replace veterans at multiple positions this season, the Bengals have to fill only one spot: the left corner position vacated by 36-year-old Terence Newman. Cincinnati has the best chance to be dramatically better defensively this season.

Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter: Cleveland's defense is ready to reach new heights, and it has nothing to do with the way Danny Shelton lifted up Roger Goodell on draft day. The Browns have the potential to field one of the best secondaries in the league. Three starting defensive backs (Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson) are back after making the Pro Bowl in 2014. This secondary will be better if free agent Tramon Williams lives up to his contract ($7 million per season) and Justin Gilbert matures after being a disappointing top-10 pick. The sore spots last season were the Browns' run defense and pass rush. That's why the Browns used the No. 12 overall pick on Shelton, a nose tackle, and a second-round pick on outside linebacker Nate Orchard. The Browns produced 31 sacks last year , and Orchard and Shelton combined for 27.5 sacks last season. The improvement on defense doesn't mean the Browns will win more than a handful of games. The Browns are hamstrung by an offense that lacks a quarterback and playmakers. But the Browns wisely invested in their defense in free agency and the draft, and that will propel Cleveland back into the top 10.

Pat McManamon, Browns reporter: Being from Cleveland, it would be nice to say the Browns here. Their secondary is sound, they invested heavily in the defensive line in the draft and free agency, and they added linebacker Nate Orchard to go with Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. That's a good place to start. The problem is that the Browns ranked 32nd against the run last season with a defense that was much like this one. Until the Browns actually stop the run, they can't be considered top-10. Pittsburgh is going through transition, from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler. From Troy Polamalu to Mike Mitchell. From a stellar linebacking crew to young guys who are developing (Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones). That's a lot of change for any group. Which leaves Cincinnati as the last team standing -- and the most logical choice to improve. The Bengals re-signed Michael Johnson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. That fortifies a line that includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Vontaze Burfict is a force, and the Bengals as a unit got better as the 2014 season went on -- a natural occurrence after the departure of Mike Zimmer to become Vikings coach. In the first half of the season, the Bengals gave up 23.8 first downs, 357.4 yards and 23.4 points per game. In the second half, the numbers dropped to 18.4 first downs, 323.4 yards and 19.6 points per game. With Atkins one more year removed from ACL surgery, the addition of Johnson and the players as a whole becoming more comfortable with coordinator Paul Guenther, Cincinnati will be the team that jumps back into the top 10.

The Cleveland Browns are handling Johnny Manziel with the tenderest of kid gloves.

While being quirky in gushing over three weeks of Manziel's offseason work, they are not inflating expectations, not overselling. They say publicly they'll take “baby steps” with him, which may be appropriate for a guy not far removed from a 10-week stay in rehab.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Tony DejakJohnny Manziel has had a positive offseason, but he still needs to prove that he can compete in the NFL.

Privately, the Browns have to hope Manziel has a transformation that brings him far closer to the hyped guy they drafted than the guy who left so many questions after his rookie season.

And they have to hope Manziel shows something during training camp, because if Manziel merely leaves camp comparable with Josh McCown, it makes more sense to play Manziel than McCown.

McCown is a 35-year-old veteran who brings experience and leadership, and the right to be the No. 1 heading into camp. He brings nothing to make any team (other than the Browns) sit up and take notice that he should be a starter.

Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo admitted this past Saturday that he was very involved in McCown’s signing and said McCown had never been comfortable with a team or system that relieved pressure from him by running the ball.

Maybe that will help.

Problem is, the track record indicates otherwise.

At his age and with 12 years of experience -- he was a free agent and turns 36 on July 4 -- McCown is, as they often say in the NFL, what he is. That is, a perfect backup who can step in and hold the fort for a few games if need be.

Manziel, though, is a former first-round draft pick with the college achievements and skills that bring excitement.

If his personal situation is strong and he dedicates himself to being a professional, he brings possibility to a Browns season woefully short of it. His road will be difficult. There will be challenges and at the most basic level he has to prove he can play in the NFL -- a great uncertainty given the way the Cincinnati Bengals treated him last season.

But the possibility exists.

The praise for Manziel for simply doing what he’s supposed to be doing in the offseason program seems a bit over the top. Except Manziel is just one year removed from floating swans and Vegas bathrooms. So every step is a step. And with Manziel, every step matters more than it might with a Joe Thomas or Joe Haden. But as Thomas has pointed out, the offseason steps matter far less than the in-season ones.

Through 11 games last season, the Browns did not have a reason to play Manziel outside of impatience. After 13, they went with the decision to play a guy who was clearly not ready. A team that started 7-4 and was competing for the playoffs submarined its season with its own impatience and second-guessing.

But that’s last year.

This season, they have a quarterback heading down the back nine and another on the second hole who yanked his drive in the woods and plopped his approach in the water on the first.

The Browns can say that McCown will be the starter in OTAs and entering training camp, because he has to be. Quarterback competitions, as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has said and the Browns have proven, never work.

But the Browns have never said Manziel can’t win the job. That door is always open.

This is not a novel concept. The best guy plays. If McCown is the best guy or if Manziel still looks unprepared, then play McCown.

But if Manziel takes care of himself personally and professionally, and if he does anything at all in training camp, he should start. And the Browns should stick with him.

Another year of uncertainty is another year of delay in finding the quarterback. The Browns need to find out about Mr. Football so they can make plans for the future.

Where the Browns go with McCown is fairly certain.

Where they might go with Manziel isn’t.