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Shutdown Countdown: Cleveland Browns are still rebuilding, but the defense could be stellar

(Yahoo! Sports)

The Cleveland Browns haven't had a winning record since 2007, and the franchise has had just two winning seasons in total since the NFL re-established the Browns with an expansion team in 1999. And as one can expect after so much organizational underperformance, there are a lot of new names in town. In the last year, the Browns got themselves a new owner (Jimmy Haslam), CEO (Joe Banner), general manager (Michael Lombardi), head coach (Rob Chudzinski), offensive coordinator (Norv Turner), and defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).

So, things will be different ... but will the Browns just be churning up the same old paradigm in a new way? The AFC North is a pretty brutal division, and the Browns haven't exactly been a threat in recent years. However, there are aspects of this particular rebuild that should give fans a lot of hope.

Is the roster better, worse, or about the same? Much better on defense. The Browns made four significant additions on that side of the ball — LSU pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo from the draft, then defensive end Desmond Bryant and linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves through free agency. Their front seven that was already fairly stacked with underrated talents like Jabaal Sheard, Ahtyba Rubin, D'Qwell Jackson, and Phil Taylor. And the addition of Horton, who made the Arizona Cardinals' defense one of the NFL's most multiple and effective over the last few years, will only make things better.

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The Browns might have one of the best front sevens in the NFL this season. (Getty Images)

Best offseason acquisition: Kruger. The former Baltimore Ravens defender can rush the passer, but he's also a good run-stopper, especially in sub packages.

Biggest hole on the roster: Quarterback. Some people believe in Brandon Weeden, but in 2012 the rookie led the NFL with 24 passes batted down at the line, displayed an erratic arm, had trouble with his reads (the same problem he had at Oklahoma State, where he was more a "see it and throw it" guy than a player known for his ability to out-think what he was watching), and he'll be 30 in October. Weeden finished between John Skelton and Chad Henne in Football Outsiders' season-cumulative efficiency metrics, and it doesn't help that his primary target, receiver Josh Gordon, will be suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season.

Position in flux: Special teams. The Browns let Josh Cribbs walk in free agency, and kicker Phil Dawson did the same — Cribbs went to Oakland, while Dawson took his talents to San Francisco. Safety Johnson Bademosi, wide receiver Travis Benjamin, and cornerback Buster Skrine are among those pegged to compete for Cribbs' old return spot, but Bademosi couldn't help but remember how important Cribbs had been to the team over the years.

“Seeing the way Cribbs did things last year, he was amazing,” Bademosi recently told the Akron Beacon-Journal. “He was an all-pro, obviously, at it. … He was great at locating the ball. He had great vision, great acceleration through gaps. I’m still watching [film to learn] how he did things.”

Meanwhile, to replace Dawson, the Browns may actually contemplate carrying two kickers on their roster this season. Shayne Graham and Brandon Bogotay are the competitiors, and it was recently hypothesized on that the best compromise would be to have one kicker for field goals, and another specialist for kickoffs.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Jabaal Sheard was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Pitt, and he's put up some decent sack numbers with 15.5 in two seasons. But there are some indicators that he could soon become one of the NFL's best edge defenders. Sheard led the team in quarterback hurries with 16 last year, per Football Outsiders' game-charting, and his run defense stats are among the best in the league for his position. In Horton's defense, Sheard will play some outside linebacker and then move inside on passing downs, giving him more opportunities to get after the quarterback.

Stat fact: The Browns had just four players at or over the age of 29 at the end of last season, and Weeden was one of them. They are one of the youngest teams in the NFL.

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The Browns need more from Brandon Weeden. (Getty Images)

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: The Browns' front seven plays up to its ultimate potential, an undefined receiving corps puts it together, the Steelers and Ravens regress, running back Trent Richardson transcends a worrisome injury history, Weeden takes a few steps forward, and the Browns push past the .500 mark for the first time in more than half a decade.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Weeden is what we thought he was, Gordon continues to be a thorn in the side of Browns management, and it doesn't matter how the defense plays because the offense can't score any points. With the strong personalities in this front office, a first disappointing season could lead to some very interesting soap operas.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Unquestionably, it's Weeden. Unless he significantly improves his accuracy and ability to read defenses, it will be tough to argue the previous Browns administration didn't make a mistake by bringing him in. The new guys will go into the 2014 draft thinking it might be time for a re-do at that crucial position.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders

31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills

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