2016 NFL Preview: This is what 'Year Zero' looks like for Browns and Hue Jackson

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Cleveland Browns’ roster looks like an expansion team. It’s not that much different than the roster in 1999, when the Browns actually were an expansion team.

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The quarterback spots are filled by a veteran desperate for a second chance to start, an older veteran backup and a developmental rookie. The best skill-position player is a tight end who had a breakout nobody saw coming at age 30. There are 14 drafted rookies. The only clues this isn’t an expansion team is the future Hall of Famer at left tackle (Joe Thomas) and an elite corner (Joe Haden), but even Haden is coming off a down season.

“Year Zero” is a term perhaps invented by former University of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley (and used often by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) to describe a college coach’s first season, when the coach guts the roster and bottoms out as he finds players who fit his program. Then he starts to really build in his second season on the job. A “Year Zero” season shouldn’t happen in the NFL. This isn’t the Mid-American Conference; even the worst NFL team isn’t that bad.

But that’s exactly what 2016 is in Cleveland. This is “Year Zero” for new coach Hue Jackson.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The latest Browns rebuild has to be a long-term project. The last coach to survive more than two seasons in Cleveland was Romeo Crennel, and his run ended in 2008. Three coaches since then have been given just two years, and Rob Chudzinski was given just one. You can’t build anything that way. You have to trust a hire and let it play out.

The Browns were fortunate to get Jackson, a hot name after doing a great job as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator. Who knows why he’d want to go to this Browns franchise, which has been remarkably dysfunctional over the past few years. But he’s here, and the Browns have to give him a long time to turn this around. They have to trust their process for once and allow Jackson to build slowly, and maybe see positive results in four or five seasons. Another quick change after a couple losing seasons (and there will be losses in Jackson’s first couple years) would leave the Browns the same hapless mess they are today, just two years further down the road.

Consider this a fresh start. Year Zero. Expansion, The Sequel. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a total rebuild. This season will probably be ugly, but Jackson will figure out which of these rookies and younger players fit, then will presumably have a nice pick next year. If a terrible season results in Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in 2017, that’s great.

You can understand why Browns fans (and ownership) want some immediate success. Their team is 0-1 in the playoffs since re-entering the NFL in 1999, which is staggering. The league is set up so every team can turn it around quickly, and the Browns have yet to win a playoff game in their existence. They’ve shuffled through coaches and front offices at a breakneck pace, upset when wins haven’t come immediately. That approach is not working.

The vision should be for what the Browns could be in 2019 or 2020, not the win-loss record of this season or next. We’ll see if Jackson is given the time to pull that off.

Hue Jackson will try to turn around the Browns (AP)
Hue Jackson will try to turn around the Browns (AP)

Outside of Robert Griffin III, a reclamation project at this point, the Browns didn’t make any big signings. The new analytically-inclined front office showed it knows the value in trading down in the draft, adding a ton of picks by repeatedly moving down. I don’t love their draft class, but when you pick 14 players, some have to stick. They should have re-signed free-agent safety Tashaun Gipson, the kind of young talent the Browns could use as a building block. The same goes for right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who is just 27. Gipson went to Jacksonville and Schwartz signed in Kansas City. Losing 30-year-old center Alex Mack was inevitable. It wasn’t a good offseason for immediate impact but what matters most is if the draft class is a keeper. Grade: D+

Few are expecting a lot of wins, but they could be more competitive than last year. Jackson did a great job in Cincinnati with Andy Dalton, and maybe he can turn Griffin around. If tight end Gary Barnidge repeats his amazing 2015, Josh Gordon comes back from suspension and plays like a star again, and first-round pick Corey Coleman has an instant impact, the passing game could be OK. And the season shouldn’t be judged in wins and losses but by how the players pick up Jackson’s offense and if some of the young talent develops.

What’s not a potential problem? The defense doesn’t have a great pass rush or a strong secondary. The offensive line is rebuilding. The quarterbacks aren’t great and the skill-position players are among the worst in the NFL. Again: This is a long-term rebuild for the Browns. There’s a long, long way to go.

Is Josh McCown the Browns’ best quarterback? Maybe. He had a respectable 93.3 rating on a terrible team last year. It still makes no sense to play him over Griffin. McCown is 37 and Griffin still has the pedigree of a former offensive rookie of the year and he’s just 26. Cody Kessler, a late third-round pick who was panned by almost everyone outside of Cleveland, may be an option late in the season if all else fails. If Griffin somehow looks like a franchise quarterback by the end of this season, it would be a surprise and a fantastic development for the Browns. But the Browns’ quarterback of the future is probably getting ready for the NCAA season right now.

Gordon, who surprisingly is still just 25 years old, could be a building block. Here’s how many current NFL receivers have led the league in receiving and are younger than Gordon: Zero. Of course, we also know Gordon has been wholly unreliable and it’s unclear if he’ll be reinstated from his suspension in August. We also don’t know if playing just five games over two years has eroded his skills. How nice would it be for the Browns if Gordon stayed out of trouble and became a star for them again? Cleveland could use a break like that.

Cosell: “At quarterback, I wouldn’t be surprised if Josh McCown is the Week 1 starter. I think RG3 has a long way to go to really learn how to play NFL quarterback. I think Josh McCown, when all is said and done, will give them their best chance to compete.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Browns and the rest of the AFC North]

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Instability under center, a cadre of rookie receivers, and yet another regime change … the Browns are hardly a buffet of fake football treats. With Hue Jackson trekking north across the state, however, Cleveland’s running game offers intriguing worth. Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell are expected to open the season as the ground game’s primary components. While their current ADPs are solid values, I think the most intriguing – and certainly cheapest – option is still flying under the fantasy radar.

“I present to you … Terrell Watson. At 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds, he’s a big-bodied bruiser who comps similarly to the Bengals’ Jeremy Hill. Incredibly productive in college, Watson’s name is scribbled all over Azusa Pacific’s record book. The 22-year-old racked up 79 scores and rushed for almost 6,000 yards.

“He was also the first free agent signed by the Browns after Jackson was named the team’s head coach. A member of the Bengals’ practice squad in 2015, Jackson has obvious familiarity with the small-school stud. If Crowell were to struggle or go down with an injury, Watson would likely be his replacement, receiving work on early downs and at the goal line. Given Crowell’s trials both on and off the field, Watson has a real shot of making an impact by midseason, if not before.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Starting in 2003, the Browns have finished in last place of the AFC North 11 times in 13 seasons. They’ve finished third once and second once since 2003, and have finished last each of the previous five seasons. They also had two last-place finishes in their first two seasons, before realignment. So overall it’s 13 last-place finishes in 17 seasons for the new Browns. That’s unbelievable.

CAN ROBERT GRIFFIN III TURN HIS CAREER AROUND?

Griffin’s top priority in free agency seemed to be landing with a team for which he could start. He dodged a bullet when the Browns decided the trade haul from Philadelphia was a better option than drafting Carson Wentz. So Griffin now has a prime opportunity to prove he can stick, on a team that should have no problem letting him play through mistakes. It’s hard to tell what kind of player Griffin is anymore. It has been a long time since he played (he didn’t appear in a game last season), and it has been many years since he looked like a top quarterback. Since Griffin’s great 2012 season, he has had one game in which he threw for multiple touchdowns in a win, and that was Oct. 20, 2013. He hasn’t thrown for multiple touchdowns in any game since Nov. 17, 2013. Touchdown passes aren’t a be-all, end-all stat, but it shows that it has been a really long time since we’ve seen Griffin play well.

There are questions about Griffin’s ability to stay healthy and play from the pocket. Jackson should help with the latter. Griffin’s immense talent was clear in 2012, when he was the No. 2 pick and NFL offensive rookie of the year. He and Washington coach Jay Gruden didn’t work out, for whatever reason. Jackson could be great for Griffin — Jackson turned Dalton into an MVP candidate last year, after all — but if Griffin struggles and shows again that he doesn’t have great vision from the pocket, it’s hard to imagine he’d get another chance as a starter in 2017 for any team.

In the most sunny scenario, Griffin plays like it’s 2012 again under Jackson’s tutelage and RG3 becomes the Browns’ franchise quarterback for the next decade. More realistically, this season is all about Jackson establishing what he wants to do and finding the players who want to buy in and be a part of the Browns’ rebuild. If the team plays hard and a good percentage of the younger players impress, that’s a great “Year Zero” for Jackson.

Because ownership has been so destructive in Cleveland, nothing can be ruled out. If there are signs that owner Jimmy Haslam doesn’t grasp the concept that Jackson needs time to build through some losing seasons, then there should be little hope going forward. Starting over every two years is a good way to ensure that nothing will ever change. It would also be bad if all these draft picks look like … well, like most of the recent Browns draft picks.

The Browns should be a little feistier than expected. They were 7-9 in 2014, and 2-4 with three losses by seven points or less before it all fell apart in late October last year. But it’s clear where this season is headed. And if you told Cleveland fans the Browns will be incredibly bad this season but they’ll get the first pick and presumably select Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, every one of them would happily sign up for that scenario. Besides, they have the Cavaliers’ title to soften the blow.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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