Commentary

Camp Confidential: Browns don't expect to shrivel in spotlight

Coming off a near-playoff season, expectations are sky-high in Cleveland. But there also are significant questions, James Walker writes.

Updated: August 18, 2008, 9:00 AM ET
By James Walker | ESPN.com

Derek AndersonJason Miller/US PresswireDespite leading Cleveland to the cusp of the playoffs last season, QB Derek Anderson -- who signed a three-year, $24 million contract in the offseason -- faces plenty of scrutiny. And remember this: Brady Quinn is waiting in the wings.
BEREA, Ohio -- The season of great expectations is under way for the Cleveland Browns.

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Not at any point since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 has there been such buzz and national attention surrounding this once-struggling franchise. The Browns are the trendy pick to do damage in a deep and talented AFC, and the league obviously wants to showcase them by giving Cleveland five nationally televised, prime-time games. (Surprisingly finishing 10-6 in 2007 and sending seven players to the Pro Bowl will do that for a team.)

Cleveland also added key pieces on defense in free agency and looks even better on paper than it did a year ago. But questions still remain for last season's Cinderella team.

Key questions

1. Can the Browns handle lofty expectations?
There was no pressure for the Browns in 2007. Cleveland was coming off a 4-12 season and many national pundits had the team ranked No. 30 or worse in the preseason. Some had the Browns ranked last.

The low expectations created motivation and a nothing-to-lose atmosphere that served Cleveland well for most of the season. It was only toward the end, when expectations rose and the national spotlight was on when the Browns played tight. Cleveland went 2-2 during a key four-game stretch in December that left the Browns out of the playoffs.

Cleveland feels it learned how to handle the pressure and expectations of being a playoff contender and will do a better job of not losing focus in big games this season.

2. Is Derek Anderson the real deal?
If it wasn't for the quarterback soap opera in Green Bay, a case could be made that the most questioned QB in the NFL this season is Browns starter Derek Anderson.

Few QBs have received this much scrutiny coming off a Pro Bowl season. Anderson threw for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns, but he also had 19 interceptions and a 56.5 completion percentage. Does that make him a one-year wonder?

Anderson has a very loose personality and the coaching staff believes the 25-year-old only has room to get better. That's why Cleveland backed him with a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason despite having highly touted first-round pick Brady Quinn waiting for an opportunity.

Anderson is an ideal fit for this offense. The Browns want to attack defenses vertically, and Anderson has the arm strength and gunslinger mentality the team likes. Of course, taking chances is going to result in mistakes, too. But Cleveland's staff has worked extensively with Anderson on reading coverages and knowing when to throw the ball away on plays that are going nowhere.

If Anderson reduces his turnovers, he has a chance to be a good quarterback for the long term. And eventually the Browns are going to have to decide to move beyond 2008 with either Anderson or Quinn.

3. Will Cleveland's porous defense improve?
[+] EnlargeShaun Rogers
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Browns are counting on tackle Shaun Rogers to help turn around last season's 30th-ranked defense.
After finishing last season ranked No. 30 defensively, there is nowhere to go but up for this struggling unit.

The Browns fired defensive coordinator Todd Gratham in the offseason and promoted up-and-comer Mel Tucker, who did a solid job coaching the secondary for three years in Cleveland.

Tucker is doing something different with this unit. Instead of trying to confuse offenses with so many concepts and schemes, Tucker is focusing on just a handful of packages that he wants his defense to master.

This was a lesson learned from 2007, when the many changes made throughout the season confused the defense. The players were constantly thinking and in the process were unable to develop an identity.

Based on their offseason acquisitions, the Browns want their identity to be stout in the front seven. Cleveland acquired defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and defensive end Corey Williams from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, respectively.

The Browns lost depth in the secondary, trading top cornerback Leigh Bodden to the Lions in the Rogers deal and losing cornerback Daven Holly (knee) for the season during organized team activities.

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The secondary used to be a strength, but the Browns are only as good as their two second-year players, Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald. Both have shown potential and are having good camps, but it remains to be seen whether they can compete week in and week out with the talented receivers the Browns face during their brutal schedule.

Cleveland signed 12-year veteran Terry Cousin to compete at nickelback, but he hasn't stood out in training camp. Versatile safety Mike Adams also is getting a look at corner during nickel and dime situations.

Newcomer to watch

Keep an eye on veteran receiver Donte' Stallworth. Cleveland signed Stallworth to a seven-year, $35 million contract in March. He had 46 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns with the New England Patriots last season.

But with so much talent around him in 2007, Stallworth didn't feel the Patriots used him effectively. The Browns' coaching staff likes Stallworth's ability to stretch the field. They also believe Stallworth has deceptive strength and should be able to break tackles and make plays after the catch.

Observation deck

The Browns are having hard luck with their rookie class this season as top picks Martin Rucker and Beau Bell suffered knee injuries this summer. The pair of fourth-rounders were expected to provide depth at tight end and linebacker, respectively, but they will miss the first few weeks of the season after knee surgery. ... Cleveland had a quiet offseason signing guard Rex Hadnot who is already paying dividends. With recent injuries to Ryan Tucker (hip) and Seth McKinney (ankle), Hadnot earned most of the reps in training camp and the preseason with the first team. ... Outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley said he is working on several new pass-rushing moves and is expecting a big year after registering just five sacks in 2007. ... The Browns doled out a lot of money this year, but still have two Pro Bowl players in tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and return specialist Joshua Cribbs who want new contracts. Neither player has caused a stir, and it appears the Browns' preference is to wait another season.

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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