Before we discuss the 2012 edition of the Cleveland Browns, I'd like you to take a moment to appreciate just how relentlessly awful this team's offense has been since the franchise was reborn. With the exception of that one freak season in 2007 — when Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards were briefly not terrible — the Browns have consistently delivered numbers that place them at or near the bottom of the league.
Here's a look at the past decade of offensive production in Cleveland, with the team's overall NFL rank in parentheses:
2011 — 13.6 PPG (30), 288.8 YPG (29)
2010 — 16.9 PPG (31), 289.7 YPG (29)
2009 — 15.3 PPG (30), 260.2 YPG (32)
2008 — 14.5 PPG (30), 249.1 YPG (31)
2007 — 25.1 PPG (8), 351.3 YPG (8)
2006 — 14.9 PPG (30), 264.6 YPG (31)
2005 — 14.5 PPG (32), 284.4 YPG (26)
2004 — 17.3 PPG (27), 280.1 YPG (28)
2003 — 15.9 PPG (28), 281.5 YPG (26)
2002 — 21.5 PPG (19), 314.2 YPG (23)
Just look at that lousy, steaming, horrible no-good mess. It's a protracted period of failure that has few rivals. One playoff appearance, zero playoff wins, almost no fun. In eight of the past nine seasons, the Browns have failed to average either 20 points or 300 total yards per game — and those thresholds aren't even particularly good. Twenty-three NFL teams reached both marks last year, including the 3-13 Vikings. It's bad enough when your team isn't winning, but it's especially cruel when they aren't even the least bit entertaining.
Into this miserable catbox of despair steps Trent Richardson, easily the most gifted runner in the 2012 draft class — and perhaps the most talented player, regardless of position.
No pressure, Trent (US Presswire)Richardson is a do-everything back, a three-down player who will clearly be the centerpiece of Cleveland's offense. No less an authority that Greg Cosell has referred to the Alabama rookie as "the best back to come out since Adrian Peterson in 2007" and "a foundation back." If somehow you've failed to view a Richardson highlight reel, click this one right here. You will not be disappointed. This is an inventive, determined runner who routinely sheds tacklers, dances around them, cuts wickedly, stiff-arms, catches passes, plays big on big stages ... in a nutshell, he's tremendous. This is a potential franchise back.
I realize that many of you have longstanding biases against rookie runners, and thus I'm not likely to talk you into drafting Richardson near his current ADP (14.8). That's fine with me. Please, by all means, keep your hard-and-fast inviolable rules. It just means more Richardson shares for the rest of us. I'll gladly take the rookie at the turn, as a late-first or early-second round selection. He's a legit talent in line for a huge workload, and the names behind him on the depth chart aren't too impressive: Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson, Chris Ogbonnaya. Let's remember that Peyton Hillis, a player who isn't in Richardson's class as a ball-carrier, gained over 1,600 scrimmage yards for Cleveland just two seasons ago, breaking the plane 13 times.
There is, of course, another rookie in Cleveland who will need to perform at least adequately if this team is going to keep things interesting for Pound-dwellers. First-year quarterback Brandon Weeden will have to justify his first-round draft spot. Weeden is coming off terrific back-to-back seasons at Oklahoma State, where he threw for 4,277 yards and 34 TDs as a junior, then 4,727 and 37 as a senior. He has plenty of arm strength and he completed passes at a high rate as a collegiate player (69.5 career). There's plenty to like here, but the clock is ticking. Weeden will turn 29 in October — he was a minor league pitcher from 2002 to 2006, a former Yankees second-rounder — and no team wants to still be in the development stages with a 30-something QB. Weeden directed a shotgun spread offense at OSU, and didn't necessarily excel when pressured.
Here's an unsettling blurb from the "Negatives" section of Weeden's PFW scouting report:
Struggles to handle and escape pressure and has limited mobility to escape. Can be rattled by the rush. Does not like to be hit. Wilts against the blitz.
So he'll no doubt enjoy the defenses of the AFC North.
Still, Weeden is not Colt McCoy. That's a plus. (There's little chance that McCoy can claim the starter's job in Cleveland, by the way. Something will have gone very wrong for Weeden, and thus for the Browns, if that happens. Right now, McCoy is simply a decoration on Cleveland's trade block). Weeden will be operating under center more often in Pat Shurmur's West Coast system, playing at a different pace. There's a learning curve here, and not every quarterback can make it look easy in his first season. On draft day in your fantasy league, Weeden's name most likely won't be called — only if it's a deep and/or dynasty formats. He hasn't cracked the top-25 at his position in the Yahoo! ranks just yet.
The Browns have exactly one receiver who should interest fantasy owners, plus a collection of low-end options you might deploy as bye-week coverage. Greg Little is the guy to draft, a second-year wideout who quietly delivered a 61-catch, 709-yard season, leading Cleveland in both categories. He also led the team in drops with 14, so we can't say he's without flaws. But he and the rest of this receiving corps will get their first full off-season in Shurmur's offense, and they'll get at least a small upgrade at quarterback. Little is a talent, a player with excellent size (6-3, 220) who delivered impressive numbers at the Combine (40.5-inch vertical). It wouldn't be much of a shock if he made a value leap in his second NFL campaign. He's a low-cost player at the draft table, too, falling just outside the top 100 picks (ADP 108.7). Weeden absolutely zeroed in on Justin Blackmon at Oklahoma State last year; perhaps he'll fall into a similar habit with his new No. 1.
Keith Wright, the card that popped up in every packBeyond Little, there's not much worth drafting in this receiving corps. It's highly doubtful that this offense can support more than one pass-catcher who deserves full-season ownership in standard sized fantasy leagues. Mohamed Massaquoi is the presumptive No. 2, but he's declined steadily in fantasy value in each of his three seasons. That's not the way it's supposed to work. Browns team president Mike Holmgren has gone on record anticipating "a little bit of a breakout" from Massaquoi. But given the player's history, that could mean something like 45 catches for 550 yards and three TDs. One receiver's nightmare season is another's breakout. In any case, I doubt I'll be drafting the fourth-year pro. There's a multiple concussion history here, and not much statistical success.
Joshua Cribbs isn't expected to have as large a receiving role as he had last year (41-518-4), but he'll still be of interest to those of you who play in return yardage formats. Jordan Norwood figures to compete with undrafted Josh Cooper for slot duties, and speedy fourth-round rookie Travis Benjamin is lurking as a vertical threat (4.36 Combine 40). Cooper was a reasonably productive teammate of Weeden's at OSU, so he's got that going for him — it may not be enough, but we can't rule him out, pre-camp.
But again, Little is the only wideout here who deserves serious attention at your draft. This team may need to kick the tires on a sketchy unsigned veteran receiver, or perhaps consider making a low-level trade. Cleveland's tight ends — Benjamin Watson, Evan Moore and Jordan Cameron — aren't draft-worthy in most fantasy formats, either. Moore was a buzzy player for a minute or two last season, though he never topped 55 receiving yards or five catches in any game. I can't build a strong case for him in fantasy, given the team context. Watson is still atop the depth chart, but the 31-year-old had more concussions (3) than touchdowns (2) last year. Tight end, if you hadn't already heard, is a loaded position for fantasy purposes in 2012 — deep enough that you shouldn't need to mess with these guys.
The Browns' defense was hardly the team's biggest problem last season, as it limited opponents to the fifth-fewest points per game (19.2) and ranked 10th in total yards allowed (332.4). Sure, opposing teams piled up rushing yards on Cleveland (147.4 rush YPG), but not at an alarming per-carry rate (4.4 YPC). As a fantasy entity, however, this defense was useless. Dead-last in scoring. The Browns intercepted just nine passes, they didn't give us a defensive TD, and they ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks (32.0). LB D'Qwell Jackson remains an elite IDP, coming off a 158-tackle season. DE Jabaal Sheard (8.5 sacks as a rookie), CB Joe Haden (65 tackles) and SS TJ Ward (123 tackles in 2010) are in the discussion, too.
So, to review: Draft Richardson early (because he's great), Little in the mid-to-late rounds, D'Qwell in IDP, and ... um ... that's it. That's all I've got. Everyone else here is a deep league/dynasty special. If you disagree with this Juggernaut rank, please file an official protest in comments.
2011 team stats: 13.6 PPG (NFL rank 30), 95.7 rush YPG (28), 206.3 pass YPG (25), 26.5 yards/drive (24), 0.103 turnovers/drive (5)