July 25, 2014

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Browns are winless, but they’re also improving: 10 signs

We’ve reached the quarter pole of the season, and the Browns are still looking for their first win.

The headline may be 0-4, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Here are 10 takeaways after the first four games.

1. They’re better

The Browns began last season, coach Pat Shurmur’s first, with two wins in the first three games. The 2012 team is better.

I’ll take rookie Brandon Weeden over Colt McCoy at quarterback. Trent Richardson is a star-in-the-making at running back. The rest of the roster is deeper and more talented.

The defensive line is seven deep without Phil Taylor. Young linebackers Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort have been pleasant surprises. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has held his own against difficult matchups.

The team’s youth has been well-documented, and is to blame for the winless start. Just enough mistakes and missed chances have been the difference.

But the team is faster and more athletic and will continue to grow each week.

2. The answer

Weeden finally gives the Browns a chance to compete with the rest of the division at the game’s most important position. He can make the same tough throws as Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, and I like his makeup.

I know, I know, he has to start winning games. All the pretty throws in the world don’t matter without victories. But the ability and intelligence are there for him to get over the hump, and he hasn’t gotten much help from his supporting cast.

Weeden’s biggest problem has been interceptions. He’s thrown seven, including a critical pick-six Thursday night. He does a good job of making quick decisions and getting the ball out of his hand, but he needs to get a bit better going to his second and third options.

3. Wideout worries

The hot topic of the offseason hasn’t cooled. The receiving corps remains a point of frustration.

Greg Little trimmed down in the offseason and seemed poised for a super sophomore season. But the drops that put a damper on his 61-catch rookie season have followed him into Year 2.

Josh Gordon was taken in the supplemental draft to become a No. 1, but so far, his catches per game (1.75) have barely exceeded that. He has the desired size and speed, but they’ve flashed only sporadically during games. The effort is inconsistent and he’s more project than producer. If he doesn’t figure it out quickly, general manager Tom Heckert will be ripped for sacrificing a second-round pick in 2012.

Mohamed Massaquoi was an early bright spot as the most consistent target for Weeden, but he injured his hamstring and has missed the last game and a half. He needs to quickly return, continue the good start and prove he can be durable and reliable.

Rookie Travis Benjamin has elite speed, which makes him unique on this offense. But he’s slight of build and shies away from contact, which limits his role.

4. Real deal

Rookie running back Trent Richardson is a special player and someone defenses have to worry about already. He fights for every yard and is strong enough to move the pile. He also showed difference-making speed to beat the Ravens to the pylon on a 1-yard touchdown run Thursday night.

Richardson is just as special off the field. He’s a motivated individual who expects greatness from himself and his teammates. His personality was needed in the Cleveland locker room and will prevent the season from getting ugly.

5. Huge hole

There was never any doubt Joe Haden was Cleveland’s top cornerback. But his absence has shown him to be the best player on the entire defense.

His presence changes the game. Not only does he raise the talent level, but he affects the scheme and communication of the whole unit.

Dimitri Patterson has proved he should start alongside Haden when he returns, with veteran Sheldon Brown and youngster Buster Skrine splitting time against three-receiver sets. The Browns will benefit in the long term from the force-feeding of playing time to Skrine and rookie nickelback Trevin Wade.

Haden will be welcomed back with open arms, but Shurmur should make it clear to Haden his selfish move left the team in a terrible spot. The Browns would’ve won in Cincinnati if Haden were on the field. For that, he must apologize to teammates, coaches and fans.

6. The playmaker

Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has been a stable presence, when healthy, since Phil Savage drafted him in the second round in 2006. But he had been searching for impact plays.

He’s found them.

Jackson is comfortable in his second season in the 4-3 scheme, which uses the front four to spare him from constantly having a guard in his face. He’s playing fast and free, running from sideline to sideline, dropping in coverage and blitzing.

The result has been a series of impact plays to start the season. He has two interceptions, three sacks, a touchdown and a number of big hits.

Jackson should finally make his first Pro Bowl.

7. Why’s he here?

I don’t know why fullback Owen Marecic has a roster spot.

He isn’t a linebacker-smashing lead blocker. In fact, Richardson often runs away from his block.

He isn’t a receiver. He’s had two chances to pick up first downs with short catches, but dropped them both, and looked uncoordinated doing it.

Marecic, a fourth-round pick in 2011, is smart and has a role on special teams, but makes no impact on offense. He doesn’t have the power or athleticism to succeed in the NFL.

8. Unlikely backup

Montario Hardesty hasn’t played an offensive snap. Brandon Jackson has been a healthy inactive the last three games. In a surprise to everyone besides Shurmur, Chris Ogbonnaya has seized the role of third-down back.

Ogbonnaya is a favorite of Shurmur’s since their days together in St. Louis and filled in admirably as a midseason pickup in 2011. He gets time ahead of a second-round pick (Hardesty) and free-agent signee (Jackson). He can catch (11 receptions) and pick up the blitz. The perfect example was on Little’s drop in the end zone Thursday night, as Ogbonnaya gave Weeden time to throw by laying out linebacker Ray Lewis on his blitz up the middle.

Richardson’s role will increase as the season progresses with time on third down, but it’s good to know Ogbonnaya can step in when needed.

9. For kicks

Phil Dawson continues to amaze. He’s 8-for-8 on field goals, including 50-, 51- and 52-yarders Thursday that kept the Browns in striking distance. He’s not only gotten more accurate with age — he’s 37 — his leg has gotten stronger.

Punter Reggie Hodges hasn’t been nearly as consistent in his return from a torn Achilles tendon. His kicks were too flat until Thursday night, when he was told to add hang time to reduce the returns. Hodges has had success in the past, but needs to improve on a net of 36.6 yards.

10. Watch for wins

I thought before the season the team would be much improved in Week 8. I still feel the same.

Weeden will only get better with every rep he takes against NFL defenses. Richardson is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery Aug. 9. The rest of the rookies and second-year players are gaining valuable experience.

Throw in the return of Haden and the expected return of Taylor from a torn pectoral muscle, and I expect the close losses to turn into victories in the second half of the year.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.