April 25, 2014

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Petrak: Browns offense must prove itself this season, or there will be big changes

BEREA — Joe Banner had a long to-do list when he arrived in Cleveland.

He’s checked off most of the items on one side of the ball, but has largely ignored the other.

Banner focused his attention on the defense in his first offseason as Browns CEO. He signed outside linebacker Paul Kruger to a five-year, $40.5 million contract and defensive end Desmond Bryant for five years and $34 million. He drafted outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 pick, cornerback Leon McFadden in the third round and safety Jamoris Slaughter in the sixth.

The work on the other side of the ball has been minimal. Trading for receiver Davone Bess, then extending his contract was the only move of significance.

“This is actually the hardest part of where we’re at, because we’re really impatient and we’re really competitive,” Banner said at the start of training camp, referring to owner Jimmy Haslam and coach Rob Chudzinski. “We’re trying to stay very disciplined about taking steps forward as opposed to fooling ourselves into trying to do everything at once, frankly signing too many free agents that are hard to integrate.

“I can’t wait till we get to the point where we go into a season feeling like we’ve at least got solid players at every position, and hopefully some really dynamic difference-makers at some positions.”

Banner isn’t shy about delivering his message. He wants the young players on offense to feel the pressure. Nothing’s guaranteed, few jobs are secure.

Starting with quarterback Brandon Weeden and including receivers Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Travis Benjamin, tight end Jordan Cameron and even running back Trent Richardson, a lot of people have a lot riding on this season.

“With his own two eyes he hasn’t seen us play to this extent,” Weeden said of Banner. “You have to understand that’s coming.

“He’s been in this business a long time. That’s his job. As players we have to respect that. We want to go out and perform well for him. It’s part of the way this whole thing plays out. We have new players and we have a lot of new guys in the building.
Hopefully we play well and it all works out.”

The faith is stronger among the players than the front office.

The old regime of president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur spent high draft picks on Weeden, Richardson, Gordon and Little, believing they would lead the turnaround.

Banner, GM Michael Lombardi and Chudzinski wouldn’t have made those picks, with the possible exception of Little. While many on the outside believe the offensive talent was upgraded significantly in 2011 and ’12, the new regime continues to have deep doubts.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t optimism concerning the group of second- and third-year players.

“The best outcome will be — and even if this happens we’ll still have some additional needs to fill — but the best outcome will be as many as possible of these younger players turn out to be as good as we hope they can be, and there’s a lot that have a chance to be very good,” Banner said. “So there’s potentially a lot of upside on the roster just in players developing.”

The hope for a surprising season comes from that potential.

If Weeden improves his completion percentage and throws more touchdowns in coordinator Norv Turner’s system, he can become a top-15 quarterback in the league.

If Richardson stays healthy, he can average more than 4 yards a carry and take some pressure off Weeden.

If Gordon stays out of trouble and returns from his two-game suspension focused, he can become one of the league’s most dangerous deep threats.

If Cameron shows up on Sundays and proves he’s tough enough, he can take advantage of the plays designed to use his athleticism downfield.

“I always look at what you hope they can become,” Turner said. “Now, I don’t control that. Sometimes they don’t control it, but they have a helluva lot better control of it than I do.”

The clock is ticking.

Weeden turns 30 in October. The Browns will move on if not satisfied he’s the answer for the next five years. Banner said Gordon has little rope left following the suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

Little and Richardson have more security, but could be replaced if they disappoint.

“I think our play will speak for that, just coming on and working hard and doing what is asked of us and going above and beyond the expectations,” Little said. “A lot of things will take care of themselves.

“I think we have all the talent that we need.”

Turner realizes he’s fighting an uphill battle as he teaches the young roster the system that’s made him one of the most prolific coordinators in recent NFL history.

“We’re behind everyone else in our division because they’ve been together for a longer time, so we just have a lot of work to do as an offensive group,” he said.

Turner likes the strides the Browns made during the offseason practices, but is well aware Week 1 is right around the corner, when progress won’t be enough.

“That’s the challenge,” he said. “If we can get the practice time in, our guys can stay healthy, our guys can make the kind of progress they made during OTAs and minicamps, I think we can be ready to be a good offense when the season starts.

“But we have a lot of work to do and we have a lot of guys that have to get a lot better in terms of understanding what we’re doing.”

Weeden is at the top of the list. And quarterback is at the top of Banner’s to-do list — the one on hold for the next five months.

“For us to have a chance to win, I need to get better in every facet,” Weeden said. “Whatever it takes to win games is really all I care about. I want to do what I can to help this team win games.”

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