Five on the Cleveland Browns
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The 2016 season will open for the Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in a far different fashion than expected.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the past week, however, is the opponent and here’s what you should know about the Cleveland Browns as the tortured franchise gets ready to unveil its latest reboot against Carson Wentz and Co.
BULLETIN BOARD BROWNS
Cleveland didn't think Carson Wentz was a franchise-type prospect at the quarterback position and that's why they were willing to trade out of the No. 2 spot with the Eagles.
“We have to make judgments on the individual players and we’re not always going to be right,” Browns chief strategy officer and former baseball executive Paul DePodesta told ESPN Cleveland when explaining his decision to unleash Moneyball on the NFL by acquiring a plethora of draft picks. “But in this particular case, we just didn’t feel it was necessarily the right bet to make for us at this time. Again, it comes down to individual evaluation of a player.”
Then came the money quote:
“I think the hardest part, and where we have to stay the most disciplined, as much as you want a player, you can’t invent him if he doesn’t exist,” DePodesta said. “In a given year, there may be two or three NFL-ready quarterbacks at the college level. In another year, there literally may be zero. There just may not be anybody in that year who’s good enough to be a top 20 quarterback in the NFL.
“Even though you have a desperate need for (a QB), you have to resist the temptation of taking that guy just because you have a need if you don’t believe he’s one of those 20 guys at the end of the day. I think that’s the hardest part, just maintaining your discipline because you have the need. That’s what we did this year.”
The implication was clear and not lost on the Eagles.
“We definitely had heard the comments and all that, but everybody has their opinions," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "Listen, we went to North Dakota. We worked (Wentz) out. We spent a lot of time with him like everybody that has drafted quarterbacks in the National Football League. If you don’t spend time with those guys and come away feeling comfortable about your decisions, then you should probably look somewhere else.
"We just felt so comfortable at the Eagles to make the moves to go get Carson Wentz and felt very strong about the way we evaluated. ...Everybody is going to have their opinion, obviously. That is just the way this business is but we are very comfortable with Carson and the direction he is headed.”
TIMES ARE A CHANGIN'
The Browns have 27 new players on their roster when compared to the group that ended the 2015 season, an astonishing 50.9 percent turnover. That number consists of 13 draft picks, eight free-agent signings, five players awarded via waivers and one player added through a trade. A total of 17 rookies made the opening-day roster, including 13 of 14 draft picks. In theory, that would indicate a lot of growing pains early, something the Eagles hope to take advantage of this weekend.
THE QB WHISPERER
Like the Eagles, Cleveland has a new coach but its mentor has a lot more experience than Pederson, including a prior stint in the big chair with Oakland.
Hue Jackson is a 30-year coaching veteran, who has spent the 16 of those in the NFL and is coming off a very productive stint in Cincinnati as the Bengals offensive coordinator.
Known as an inventive offensive mind, Jackson pulls out some of the most exotic formations in all of football and is known as a bit of a QB whisperer, something that is sure to help as the Browns try to start the reclamation project that is Robert Griffin III.
The Browns may have the worst roster in football as we enter the 2016 campaign and are further stymied by the latest substance-abuse suspension to imposing wideout Josh Gordon.
There is one player who could give Jim Schwartz and the Eagles' defense fits on Sunday, however, and that’s tight end Gary Barnidge. The Louisville product is coming off a career year, snaring 79 receptions for 1,043 receiving yards and nine touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl nod in 2015. That despite the troubles Cleveland was having at the QB position.
He's a handful for any linebacker and it’s unlikely either Mychal Kendricks or Jordan Hicks are likely to have much luck checking Barnidge so Schwartz would be wise to see if Rodney McLeod can use his physicality to handle the tight end.
BEST IN THE BUSINESS
Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham probably have the most difficult job descriptions on Sunday because those are the two players who figure to handle the majority of reps at right defensive end and that means they have to deal with Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, by far the best player on his team and a potential future Hall of Famer.
Thomas is nine-for-nine in Pro Bowl berths since entering the NFL as the third overall pick out of Wisconsin back in 2007. He's only the eighth player in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in his first nine seasons and the other seven are already enshrined in Canton.
973espn.com Prediction: Despite the fact that Wentz hasn’t thrown a meaningful pass in a month and had never taken a first-team rep before Monday's practice, expect the Eagles to find a way against perhaps the worst team in the entire NFL.
Just how bad are the Browns?
Former Super Bowl-winning coach and current NFL Media analyst Brian Billick recently claimed he couldn’t find a win on Cleveland’s schedule.
The Eagles will find a way in this one, maybe a defensive TD or a big play on special teams, but it will be tougher than advertised.
Eagles 23, Browns 17
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen