In the rough-and-tumble world of the NFL, sometimes a team that looked so promising, so on the verge of greatness one day, can -- on the very next day -- be stunned by a precipitous bump back to square one.
Such is the case of the Cleveland Browns, a team whom many predicted could make a run at a playoff spot in 2008, coming off a 10-6 campaign and a near-playoff spot only lost due to a tiebreaker the year before. Romeo Crennel's boys had everything going for them: a quarterback in Derek Anderson who had been so good in 2007 that he had delayed the "future" of the franchise by keeping Brady Quinn relegated to his backup role; two young Pro Bowl pass catchers in Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. who only seemed to have better things ahead in their careers; and a defense that actually had improved itself to the point of respectability, having limited opponents to 44 points in winning three of its final four games.
Then, unfortunately, came the meltdown.
As 2008 progressed, it became apparent that Anderson's prior-year performance was a mirage, Edwards caught a case of the "drop-sies," Winslow missed time with a mysterious injury and Crennel lost control of his team to the point that it was outscored 129-31 in losing each of its final six games en route to a 4-12 record.
So the Browns seemingly spent the offseason overhauling, once again, their roster, bringing in another Bill Belichick disciple, Eric Mangini, to replace Crennel, trading Winslow to Tampa Bay and spending two key draft picks on young wide receivers to complement Edwards and give their quarterbacks a wider array of weapons. The 2009 Browns are a younger bunch than their predecessors, and that might seem exciting for fantasy, but based on their talent at hand as well as their schedule and the competition in their division, it might mean yet another long season.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Front and center this summer is the quarterback battle between Anderson and Quinn, perhaps the most ballyhooed such battle at that position in the league entering training camp. Go ahead, try to argue that the Matt Cassel-Tyler Thigpen "battle" in Kansas City fits that description, because there are two critical differences: We're confident Cassel will win the job, and we're confident he will perform when he does. In Cleveland, it's entirely unclear whether Anderson, a 2007 wonder who fizzled in his follow-up campaign, or Quinn, long considered the franchise's future at QB but whose first legitimate opportunity to start in 2008 was cut short at three games, will take the first snap Sept. 13 versus the Vikings. It's even less clear whether the eventual winner will even be fantasy-worthy, meaning today there wouldn't be an owner who would take a chance on either of these guys as much higher than a No. 25-30 quarterback. But if either gunslinger fires off an August hot streak, he might rise to the status of low-level backup and sleeper. It's worth your keeping an eye on.
Among lesser positions up for grabs: Tight end, at which free-agent addition Robert Royal will challenge Steve Heiden, and to a lesser extent Martin Rucker, for the starting role. Royal might fit more of a blocker's mold with Heiden a stronger pass-catcher, but fantasy owners might root for a hot camp from Rucker, who has a chance at some sleeper potential late in the year if he can open some eyes. No. 3 running back is a battle of rookie James Davis and Noah Herron, only significant in that Davis could put himself on track to supplant Jamal Lewis in a future season if he's the winner with a standout camp. No. 2 receiver might also be a race of two rookies, Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, though veteran Mike Furrey will get a long look for the role. Fantasy owners will be looking for Robiskie to grab hold of the spot, as he's the one with the highest ceiling.
Fitting in: You might think it's the receivers, but it's the coach, Mangini, who is the most significant new face in Cleveland this season. He drew criticism for his performance in New York the past three seasons, leading the Jets to a 23-25 regular-season record, including painful losses to the Broncos, 49ers and Seahawks in the final month of 2008, after which he was often described harshly as "moody" and lampooned for what his critics termed questionable play calling. But Mangini has his strengths, as he's a disciplinarian from the Belichick school, and his approach might help with a roster that's somewhat young and in need of direction. The Browns brought in a few key Mangini parts from his Jets days, including free agents like Eric Barton and Hank Poteat, and three more in a draft-day trade. Not that any of the acquisitions are Pro Bowlers, but having familiar faces might help speed the team's adjustment to the new regime, which offers a glimmer of hope for the immediate future to a team that seemingly had abandoned said future.
The rookies Robiskie and Massaquoi are the most notable fantasy newbies among Browns players. With Joe Jurevicius released and Donte' Stallworth suspended indefinitely, each will be given an extended opportunity to play right from the start, with Robiskie the favorite to actually land a spot in the Week 1 starting lineup.
On the line: The Browns' offensive line, which rated as one of the best in the league in 2007, disappointed in 2008, hardly a surprise accounting for the struggles team-wide. Injuries to Kevin Shaffer and Ryan Tucker hurt this unit, but we'll lay some of the blame for the team's 26th-ranked 3.9 yards-per-carry average on the underwhelming year put forth by Jamal Lewis. Even with his miserable year this unit helped Lewis to a 1,000-yard season, a remarkable feat, and Cleveland did surrender the eighth-fewest sacks (24), so pass protection was not a problem. What was a problem was that the team's passers couldn't get the job done despite having a lot of time to throw, but at least the line can't be blamed if Anderson and Quinn fail to perform again this year. After all, this team did strengthen itself with the drafting of rookie Alex Mack, one of the top prospects in this year's class, and replaced the departed Shaffer with John St. Clair and Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack.
The bottom line
Mangini has quite a task at hand, and what few people appear to be pointing out as training camp dawns is that he's more of a defensive-minded coach, much like his predecessor was. This isn't a team built on defense, meaning Mangini could fall prey to the same mistakes that felled Crennel, especially if his Jets imports don't pay dividends on that side of the ball. Some cohesiveness of this team during the month of August would go a long way toward restoring fantasy owners' faith in Browns players. There's plenty of talent here, but every member of the offense comes with a great deal of questions. For example: Lewis is now 30, the quarterbacks are coming off dreadful years and Edwards just showed us the kind of miserable year he can have when the quarterbacks stink. It's a lot to overcome, and you won't see a lot of sleeper excitement surrounding these guys without a strong preseason.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.