Can D’Qwell Jackson lead Browns defense to a better 2012?

Every year there’s a team that gets zero respect from many in the national media. Last year it was the Cincinnati Bengals, who many thought could win a game with their rookie quarterback. Of course the Bengals went on to make the playoffs.

That’s the NFL these days. Things change so much from year to year that many preseason predictions end up looking foolish. This year the team getting little respect is based in Cleveland, as many NFL gurus seem to be weighing the last 12 years of futility more than what’s really going on in Cleveland.

Of course there are many questions surrounding the Browns, and they may end up as a very bad team this year, mostly because the team is very young, with rookies expected to start at quarterback, running back, right tackle and possibly wide receiver. We can all expect some growing pains.

But last year the defense was much better, led by the improbably resurgence of D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson had missed two years in a row from 2009-2010 as a result of tearing each of his pectoral muscles in consecutive years. many doubted he would ever play again, let alone return as a top player at his position. But Jackson defied all the odds, and he flourished under the new 4-3 scheme implemented in Cleveland under the new regime last season. Jackson is a tackling machine and he helped the young defense post solid numbers, keeping the Browns in many ballgames despite one of the worst offenses in franchise history.

Jackson will be counted on again, and naturally he needs to stay healthy. But the Browns are young and talented on defense, so that side of the ball should be fine if they stay healthy.

It’s the offense that has some around the NFL predicting a long season for the Browns, but here they seem to be counting on a worse-case scenario. Sure, Brandon Weeden will be a 29-year-old rookie playing quarterback, and he may have some serious growing pains. But he has an amazing arm, and even if he struggles he should be a significant upgrade over Colt McCoy.

Trent Richardson is a rookie at tailback, but talented rookies often excel carrying the football, and a back like TRich can completely transform an offense.

As mentioned above, the Browns may also have rookies at right guard and wide receiver, but in 2nd round picks Mitchell Schwartz and Josh Gordon (supplemental draft), the Browns have added serious talent to positions of need.

The upside for this offense is significant. If Richardson reaches his potential, every defense will now need to respect the Browns running game, yet they also have to contend with Weeden’s strong arm. When you consider the young defense led by Jackson and the revamped offense, the Browns are one of those teams where it’s dangerous to predict an outcome for 2012, as anything is possible.

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Offseason Blueprint: Cleveland Browns

Notable Free Agents: Sean Jones, S; Andra Davis, LB; Willie McGinest, LB.

Projected 2009 Cap Space: $17,000,000

Draft Order: 5

Top Needs: Two years after signing LeCharles Bentley to a huge contract only to watch him suffer a career-ending knee injury on the first day of training camp, the Browns are once again in need of a center to bolster the interior of their offensive line. The team is also expected to beef up the linebacker corps and possibly add another defensive end for depth. Wide receiver and running back will also likely be addressed.

Offseason Outlook: Word has it that the Browns are already shopping quarterback Derek Anderson (the Jets have emerged as a possible suitor), which means Brady Quinn will likely become the unquestioned starter next season under center. But perhaps the majority of changes for the Browns this offseason will once again be made on the defensive side of the ball – especially in the front seven.

Adding defensive tackle Shaun Rogers via a trade with Detroit last offseason proved to be an outstanding move. Rogers was worth the risk (he was labeled as being lazy in Motown) and had a major impact along Cleveland’s defensive line last year. Corey Williams, another player the Browns added via offseason trade last offseason, was hamstrung with various injuries last season but showed his grit by playing hurt and is a steady player when healthy.

With the Browns set at those two positions on the D-line, they’ll turn their attention to the defensive end spot opposite Williams. Robaire Smith emerged as a quality playmaker in 2007, but a ruptured Achilles tendon cut his season short after only two games last year and the team was stuck with Shaun Smith, who proved to hit players more off the field (ask Brady Quinn), then he did on it. Don’t count on Cleveland upgrading this position in the first round of the draft because there simply isn’t a 3-4 end worth taking at No. 5, but the spot will be addressed at some point. Plus before his season-ending injury last year, Robaire Smith had only missed one game in the previous six seasons so if he can come back healthy, the starting job should remain his.

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