With the NFL lockout finally over, it is officially appropriate to talk about the actual playing of football. Armed with new confidence, fans may finally look ahead to free agency, training camps, and the beginning of the preseason. With there being so many questions and unknowns in this shortened offseason, I feel it is much healthier to begin this league year by pointing out those players that we know we can count on to produce this season:
- Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, OL – It certainly feels good knowing that the Browns have two franchise anchors at a crucial position in the offense. Thomas is a stalwart and All-Pro talent at left tackle, and his maintaining the level of play that we’ve come to expect will be essential in order for Colt McCoy to develop. Alex Mack’s handling of Vince Wilfork last season showed he is beginning to step into his own dominant streak. If anything can be said of Eric Mangini, it’s that he really knows how to draft talented centers (Nick Mangold being his other gem, of course).
- Josh Cribbs, WR/KR – Cribbs was hampered by nagging injuries all of last season, which definitely took some of the polish off his electrifying game. However, he still played as hard as anyone, which is why he will always be one the Browns’ most valuable players. His sheer amount of effort can propel his game to above-average levels. With an extended offseason, Cribbs has had ample time to get healthy and prepare to add to his scary-good highlight reel.
- Peyton Hillis, RB – Hillis bogged down towards the end of last season, but there’s no reason for concern. With the offense struggling to effectively move through the air, defenses were able to key in on Hillis. While Montario Hardesty is no sure thing, if he can manage 10 carries a game, Hillis will be much more effective. Hillis is also stepping into an offense that can play extremely well to his talents as a pass-catcher. While I’m predicting a down season statistically for Hillis due to the presence of Hardesty and a projected uptick in passing plays, there is no reason to think he’ll be anything other than the bruising, physical back we became obsessed with last season. If he can be effective when snow starts hitting the ground, watch out.
- Joe Haden, DB – There’s a big, big year for Joe Haden coming this season. Still relatively raw last season, he nonetheless shined due to his freakish athleticism and penchant for being in the right place at the right time. I don’t expect Haden to approach Darrelle Revis/Nnamdi Asomugha-levels (…yet), but I can definitely see him getting into Jonathan Joseph-territory. As long as he keeps his head down and does not regress in the new defense, expect Haden to break out in a big way this season.
While I wish there were more, the fact of the matter is there are just too many questions right now. Ben Watson, T.J. Ward and Ahtyba Rubin were also considered, but injury history and a new defensive scheme leave these players with something to prove still. All the same, the foundation and leadership now seems to be in place, and there is a real sense of optimism emanating from this team despite the now-banished specter of the lockout.