As the Browns implement a wholesale transformation of their culture and personnel, no one truly expects a sudden surge into the playoffs this season. Nonetheless, it will be a fascinating season to witness because of both the many newcomers and the renewed possibilities for those veterans surviving the massive changes.
Based on what we’ve seen of the Sashi/Hue makeover to date, let’s set some over/unders for the upcoming Browns season as we head toward the first exhibition game. For those not familiar with this gambling term, the over/under is figure at which it’s considered an even bet for the actual result to be either higher or lower. The math-minded may call it the median of all possible outcomes weighted by their probability.
Simply, these are informed guesses by which we’ll eventually be able to measure our level of surprise as the season unfolds. And if you believe strongly in the over or the under for any of these categories, please share your reasoning in the comments.
Percent of starts made by rookies
Considering the 22 positions on offense and defense over 16 games, how many times will rookies get the call? The answer for last year’s Browns was 48, or 13.6%, as only DT Danny Shelton and OLB Nate Orchard started at least half the time. Despite the influx of new blood, few rookies are likely to be full-time starters from the outset. WR Corey Coleman is a notable exception. DE/OLB Emmanuel Ogbah should see plenty of action as well. Surely a few others will step up or fill in too.
Over/under: 46 player-games, or 13.1%.
2016 draft picks who appear in Game 1
Of the 14 names called from the stage last spring, how many will suit up with the 45-man game-day squad in Philly on September 11 and participate in at least one play? Barring injury, Coleman and Ogbah are locks. Many others will make the team and participate on special teams at least, but some will be waived, hurt, inactive, or (most likely with backup offensive linemen and quarterbacks) sidelined as unnecessary. Four draftees appeared against the Jets in last year’s opener.
Wide receivers on the opening day 53-man roster
There are 12 wideouts on the 90-man roster, including Josh Gordon, scheduled to be suspended the first four games. Four of them are drafted rookies, at least one of whom I expect to be stashed on injured reserve some time before Gordon’s return. Veteran Terrelle Pryor has impressed mightily. Andrew Hawkins is an accomplished if undersized pro. Marlon Moore is a core special-teamer with speed. It’s far from unheard of for teams to go with just five WRs, but I can’t see the Browns trimming down to any fewer than six. They’ll give veteran position coach Al Saunders as much time as possible to develop this erstwhile underemphasized unit.
Robert Griffin III completions to Josh Gordon
The former Pro Bowlers and Baylor teammates are Cleveland’s major reclamation projects this season. Can they come close to the 42 catches, 714 yards, and seven TDs Gordon posted in 2010 with Griffin as his primary QB? With Gordon returning no sooner than Week 5, Griffin’s injury history, and Gordon’s off-field track record, there’s an undeniable possibility that the answer to this one will be zero. But Gordon did grab 87 passes in 14 games in 2013 from the likes of Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, and Brian Hoyer. Griffin is more accurate and athletic than any of them. It’s hard to separate the heart from the head in making this call.
Contract extensions signed by veteran players before season’s end
The best time to lock up core players is the year before their rookie deals expire. The Browns have lost all sorts of quality players to unrestricted free agency over the past three years, among them Jabaal Sheard, T.J. Ward, Buster Skrine, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, and Tashaun Gipson. Will the new front office learn its lesson and make a serious bid to retain talented producers hitting their prime? Browns entering the last year of their contracts include Pryor, G Austin Pasztor, S Jordan Poyer, CB Jamar Taylor, S Rahim Moore, OLB Barkevious Mingo, and DL/OLB Armonty Bryant. Potential restricted free agents include Gordon, RB Isaiah Crowell, and CB K’Waun Williams. These are really tough calls, because a key mission for this season is evaluation, and every one of the listed players has at least one serious question mark that precludes a multi-million dollar commitment at present. Further, the Browns will be loaded with about 11 draft picks next spring to help fill any more holes that emerge.
Touchdowns scored by pass plays of 40-plus yards
Eight of Gordon’s 14 career touchdowns are from 40 yards or longer. Pryor and Coleman have shown tantalizing promise so far as deep threats. Of RGIII‘s 40 career TD passes, ten have come from this long range, spread among six different receivers. The Steelers and Ravens both have fairly weak secondaries, and they account for a quarter of the schedule. The league average last year was right about four such plays per team. That what the Browns had too, all of them to Benjamin. Over the past decade, they’ve scored via 40+-yard pass plays 28 times.
Touchdowns allowed by pass plays of 40-plus yards
The Browns have allowed just seven such scoring plays over the last three years, including two in 2013, the last time Ray Horton was the Browns’ defensive coordinator. But the secondary seems to be the weakest link this season, particularly after losing both starting safeties. CB Joe Haden needs to prove he can return to lockdown form, and opposite him, 33-year-old Tramon Williams would be the second-oldest starting corner in the league, behind the Vikings’ Terence Newman. The Browns’ ability to pressure passers from base packages is very much a question mark as well.
How many times will the Browns go for it on fourth down? I’ll be honest: I hate punting from near midfield, and especially from plus yardage. Unless it’s tied or you’re nursing a lead late in the game, or if it’s fourth-and-15 or something, the better play is to go for it. Punting guarantees a loss of possession for the sake of a gain in field position. When that potential gain tops out at 35 yards or so, better to try to keep the ball as you approach scoring range. We’ll see whether that analytics equation filters through to Hue’s thinking. As the Raiders’ head coach in 2011, he went for it 13 times, which was middle-of-the-pack. Losing teams go for it more often, as they’re desperately in need of late points. The 2013 Browns had a league-high 31 fourth-down attempts, converting 14 of them (also first). Last year’s edition went for it 24 times, as many as anyone, and succeeded ten times.
Next: the over/under for sacks, rushing average, players to start at O-line and QB, 100-yard performances, and the most important stat of all: Browns victories.