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2005 preview: Browns

AFC North predictions
1. Cincinnati
2. Pittsburgh
3. Baltimore
4. Cleveland
Cleveland Browns
Head coach: Romeo Crennel, first season
2004 record: 4-12
2004 rankings: Offense, 28th (280.1 yards/game); Defense, 15th (325.9 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: First
From SportingNews.com: AFC North overview

After starting 3-3 last season, the talent-strapped Browns fell apart under coach Butch Davis. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was a bust in Cleveland's system, the running backs struggled behind poor blocking, and the defensive line was one of the NFL's worst.

After the Browns went 1-9 in their final 10 games – a period which saw Davis step down from the team under duress – all signs pointed to owner Randy Lerner stripping the franchise bare and starting over again. That's precisely what happened, starting first with the appointment of Phil Savage to general manager and the eventual hire of Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as the new head coach.

OFFENSE

The three quarterbacks that made starts last season are gone, leaving the offense to starter Trent Dilfer and backup Doug Johnson while draft pick Charlie Frye is groomed for the future. Running backs Lee Suggs and Reuben Droughns are expected to battle for the starting tailback spot, and the team hopes top draft pick Braylon Edwards can supplant wide receiver Antonio Bryant and start alongside Andre' Davis.

As would be expected with a major retooling of the roster, Cleveland has an array of questions facing the offense. Dilfer hasn't started more than 10 games in a season since 1998, and in four years of limited work with the Seahawks, he threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13).

Edwards is going to take time to develop, and the offensive line will have to work in two new starting guards, Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman. Kellen Winslow Jr.'s absence with his latest injury doesn't help, either.

DEFENSE

The Browns' switch to Crennel's preferred 3-4 defense will require a season-long adjustment, and there'll be plenty of rough spots. It remains to be seen how defensive end Kenard Lang is going to handle his move to outside linebacker or where the team is going to get a pass rush. And there are no assurances coming from the defensive line, either. If the secondary doesn't improve with the signings of cornerback Gary Baxter and safety Brian Russell, the Browns must hope they can win plenty of shootouts this season.

Essentially, this is a unit that is going to have to make do this year, while Savage, Crennel and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham search for pieces that fit the scheme. Make no mistake, this is an audition for a unit that will likely see another round of sweeping changes next offseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The special teams are solid with kicker Phil Dawson and punter Kyle Richardson, but both coverage units could use some additional speed. Dennis Northcutt is a serviceable punt returner, but Cleveland lacks a serious threat on kickoffs. Rookie defensive back Antonio Perkins will get a chance to fill that void.

PREDICTION

The Browns will finish 3-13 and fourth in the AFC North.