2017 season preview: guarded heart edition

Cultivating Kizer is Job 1 for the 2017 Browns. (Getty)

The regular season kicks off in just a few hours, and the Browns are perched on a very strange fulcrum.

It’s Year Two of Hue, Sashi, and the Moneyball youth movement. Today’s battle at the Stadium features a pair of 7s from northwest Ohio. Wearing the gangrene and urine is Big Ben The Unindicted, the guy the Browns eschewed oh-so-many regimes ago. Suiting up for Cleveland is raw rookie DeShone Kizer, who’ll need a bit of the luck of the Fighting Irish (nicknames of both his high school and college teams) to do what no Browns QB has done in 16 years: start 16 games.

(Superfluous team trivia: the first Brown to sport number 7 was indeed named Luck. Not Andrew or his dad Oliver, but Terry, a mere 40 years ago. He played just that one year, starting one game, throwing one TD pass, and catching another from Greg Pruitt.)

Hopping back onto the fulcrum: hopes are heartfelt but extremely guarded about the team’s immediate prospects. They went undefeated this preseason for the first time since 1986, which became their most successful season of my lifetime.

But this is an even younger roster than the one that lost all but one game last year. Very serviceable veterans such as Joe Haden, John Greco, Gary Barnidge, and Desmond Bryant have been axed to save roster and salary cap space for players who figure to be in the longer-term plans.

On the brighter side, the front office managed to ink several incumbent younger veterans in their prime. That was a cupboard-baring deficiency over the several previous years. CB Jamar Taylor and OLBs Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey were all named team captains. Look for veteran coordinator Gregg Williams’ aggressive scheme to unleash myriad rabid pass rushes, relying on those three in particular for containment all over the field.

The main signees on offense were on the line, with productive but oft-injured Joel Bitonio extended at left guard and joined by newcomers Kevin Zeitler at right guard and center J.C. Tretter. Sophomore RT Shon Coleman may bring stability opposite stalwart Joe Thomas, who by all rights should remain a lifelong Brown and survive with his career-long consecutive snap streak intact and extended into the playoffs at some not-so-distant date.

That unit gives Kizer — the youngest starting QB in Browns history — his best hope to develop some continuity as a precocious pro. No one doubts his talent, but gaining consistency and maturity will take time, experience, and all the coaching acumen and patience Hue and old hand David Lee can muster. That’s really the season’s top task.

Because unless the wheels really fall off (again), much as it pains me to say it, 2017 is not about the record or the standings. It’s about continuing to find players who can play, teaching them to play together, learning how to win, and making that a habit. In that order. It will be rocky at times. It always is.

Just bear in mind that the braintrust is buying time and playing this thing for 2018 and beyond. They have a dozen more picks to make next spring. The worse their record, the higher they draft. The better their record, the progress becomes more palpable. It’s a win-win, if we can stand even more short-term pains in the belief they are inevitable and even instrumental to long-term growth.

So enjoy the ride, without getting too attached to outcome just yet. Kinda Zen, really. Keep your eyes pealed for which players break out as key contributors.

Will RB Matthew Dayes make Isaiah Crowell superfluous by year’s end? Will top pick Myles Garrett return from his recent ankle injury to lead the team in sacks, or will it be Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard, or Carl Nassib? Will Jabril Peppers be a difference maker at safety and as a returner? Will any of the young tight ends prove reliable as both blockers and receivers? Can Corey Coleman be a true WR1? And which fellow wideouts might emerge as the truest targets for Kizer’s field-stretching right arm?

The storylines are plentiful, and I’ll be watching every minute. May our opening day be, for only the second time this millennium, a surprisingly successful one.

As ever, I fasten my football fanaticism on the orange and brown, colors of grounded memory, colors that enliven autumn’s essential energies.