Andrew Luck is the best player taken in the 2012 draft. The Browns faced him already this season.

Luke Kuechly is the second best. They get him this weekend in Carolina.

Kuechly shows the unpredictability and vagaries of the NFL draft. After Luck was taken first overall, Kuechly waited eight more picks before the Panthers took him.

He’s now among the best middle linebackers in the game.

He leads the NFL with 138 tackles. But add to that three sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and nine passes defensed.

While Robert Griffin III drew a mob at the NFL scouting combine, with people writing about his socks, Kuechly drew a small media crowd and talked in a humble manner about his future.

This came after he had led Boston College -- and the NCAA -- in tackles two years in a row -- and after he had 158 tackles after starting all but one game as a freshman. Kuechly won every college award he could. Prior to the draft, ESPN draft analysts compared him to Brian Urlacher.

Simply put, he can play.

He became a Boston College guy, but before that, he was an Ohio/Cincinnati/Xavier guy. He combines his amazing ability with film preparation and tremendous instincts.

In short, he’s exactly what an inexperienced quarterback might not want to face because he’s so smart and quick to react.

The guy is pure football player, and if the draft were based on pure football ability, he’d have been taken in the top three or, at worst, the top five.

Here's a look at the players taken between him and Luck in that draft:

1. Luck

2. RG3 -- Benched and the subject of constant drama in Washington.

3. RB Trent Richardson, by the Browns. Traded to Indianapolis.

4. OT Matt Kalil, Vikings. Has given up a league-high 12 sacks.

5. WR Justin Blackmon, Jaguars. Suspended.

6. CB Morris Claiborne, Cowboys. Injured for season.

7. S Mark Barron, Bucs. Traded to Rams for fourth- and sixth-round picks.

8. QB Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins. Having solid season as Miami’s starter.

9. Kuechly.

Cousin Sal's Week 16 Picks

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
2:00
AM ET


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Cousin Sal sits down with Neil Everett to makes his picks for Week 16 in the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns have acknowledged that Sunday did not go well for Johnny Manziel, but their public plan for addressing Manziel questions this week seems to be a strategic one.

Opt for a confidence boost over tough love.

Manziel
This week's company line has been the entire offense must improve; that Manziel, despite struggling, didn't get the necessary help. This is coming from coach Mike Pettine, players and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who on Thursday said Manziel's a "real dude" who has the mental makeup to respond.

They've acknowledged Manziel looked indecisive at times, but that usually comes with the follow-up that the offense had similar problems.

Perhaps the tough love comes behind the scenes, but the Browns seem to recognize that now is the time for building Manziel up, not tearing him down.

This feels like a sound strategy -- the Browns had better hope it works.

Either Shanahan is an eternal optimist or he saw enough encouragement from Manziel through the nuances of studying the 38 offensive plays Sunday to suggest Manziel's problems are fixable.

Stepping into throws with conviction was Manziel's biggest issue, and Manziel has been earnest about improving in that area this week.

I said this three weeks ago and I'll say it again: It doesn't matter whether Manziel or Brian Hoyer are the quarterback if the Browns can't run the ball. Cleveland has hit its second run-game dry spell of the year, averaging 3.2 yards per carry in the last three weeks (242 yards on 75 tries).

That number is survivable if your offense is built on the pass. The Browns' offense is not.

The missed details in the running game are all around left guard Joel Bitonio. He sees guard-center double teams when it should be tackle-guard. He sees failure to account for a safety creeping up or "not quite making it to the linebacker" up the middle, he says.

This has been life for the Browns' offensive line, which Bitonio said actually graded out well Sunday. But when they missed assignments, they missed big.

"One play, one guy gets beat and it's a tackle for a loss, Then he does his job great and another guy gets beat and then it just looks terrible," Bitonio said. "We need to be on the same page every day...That’s the whole goal so Johnny has more time to be back there to throw the ball. We don’t want defenses teeing off."

For the factors Bitonio described, Pettine is right when he says it's "unfair" to judge Manziel on one game. But considering all the circumstances -- the timing, the Browns' chances at a winning season unraveling, the critics quick to bash -- now is the perfect time for the blocks to be tight, the tailbacks to be instinctive and Manziel's decisions to be crisp.
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BEREA, Ohio -- Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan isn't burying his quarterback. In fact, he's building him up.

Johnny Manziel struggled in his NFL debut Sunday but needed more help from teammates that never came in the 30-0 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Shanahan said. Sunday's game against the Panthers in Carolina "couldn't come quick enough" for the entire offense, Shanahan said, especially Manziel.

"I felt bad for him," Shanahan said. "I know he had a lot of pressure on him. Any time someone has that pressure, they want to go out and perform. He definitely didn't play his best, but I don't think we helped him, either."

Manziel finished 10-of-18 for 80 yards, two interceptions and a 27.3 passer rating, suffering the first shutout by a first-time starter since Tennessee's Rusty Smith in 2010. The Browns are looking for Manziel, a mobile quarterback, to find a balance between choosing when to run and when to plant and throw.

Manziel said he second-guessed himself too often Sunday. The expectation was the Browns would roll out Manziel on bootlegs to give him open space to run the offense. Shanahan called two bootlegs, in part because the Bengals tried to take that away.

Manziel has "no problem" running the ball despite his five carries for 13 yards Sunday, but the Browns know the runs won't always be there if teams force him to stay in the pocket.

The Browns' rushing game is averaging 80.7 yards in the past three games, a downward trend for an offense built on the running game. Manziel has the mental makeup to shrug off the sluggish play, Shanahan said.


(Read full post)


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Matthew Berry discusses players at the flex position he loves and hates for Week 16.
BEREA, Ohio -- Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan explained one of the more intriguing Cleveland Browns offensive plays in Johnny Manziel's first start on Sunday, that 30-0 loss to Cincinnati.

The play symbolized the approach from the coaching staff, and the way the day went for the players, as the Bengals clearly came prepared for what the Browns wanted to do.

Manziel
On the team’s first third down, it faced third-and-2 at the Cleveland 25, down 7-0.

The Browns brought a formation out of mothballs, lining up four receivers to the far right in a diamond arrangement and one split left.

Shanahan said the play was a triple-option.

"Depending on how they lined up -- I can’t give you all the secrets -- there were a bunch of different things he could do with (the ball) spreading them out,” Shanahan said. "It ended up being a draw."

The options were not hard to see on the tape of the game, given the play was third-and-2. If the Bengals don't have enough with the bunch, the Browns have an advantage. If the defense puts four people with the diamond, then the quarterback looks left. The Bengals did put four, so Manziel looked left.

That receiver was Josh Gordon, who ran a slant. But safety Reggie Nelson read the slant and jumped the route. That, plus the up-the-field action from the defensive end, meant Manziel had no throw.

So he ran. And Nelson recovered to make the tackle. The Bengals basically abandoned the middle of the field -- one safety was with the bunch, Nelson jumped the slant -- to take away what the Browns wanted to do.

What does all this say?

It says that teams have a decent idea what to expect with Manziel at quarterback, and they have the ability to match his movements.

It says that the Browns weren’t exactly trying a lot on offense with Manziel in the game -- Shanahan also said he called just two roll-outs because he didn’t want to put Manziel in a "knockout" play.

It probably says that Carolina will watch the film and take the same approach as the Bengals -- muddle the middle, keep ends wide and pressure the throw.

Carolina has the advantage that it’s used to defending the read-option and bootleg. They see it all the time with Cam Newton in practice.

Manziel has another opportunity to prove himself.

But it doesn’t figure to be a whole lot easier.

Cam Can Handle The Pain

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
5:28
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John Clayton talks about how Cam Newton is preparing for week 16.
CINCINNATI -- Rookie Jeremy Hill claimed his second FedEx Ground Player of the Week honor this season after rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns.

He last earned the Ground Player of the Week award when he rushed for 152 yards in a Week 9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This latest award comes after Hill was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday for his efforts in last weekend's shutout win. It was the first time since Week 14 of last season that a Bengal had earned conference weekly or monthly honors. Quarterback Andy Dalton had three last year.

Along with Hill, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was named FedEx Air Player of the Week for being the best quarterback in Week 15, according to FedEx fan survey.

FedEx announced it also will be making a $2,000 donation in Hill's name to the Cincinnati American Red Cross chapter.
BEREA, Ohio -- Karlos Dansby felt encouraged a few weeks ago that he could make a swift recovery from his sprained MCL.

But Dansby told ESPN on Thursday, "it's all up in the air" if the team will shut him down after the biggest hurdle to recovery is making lateral movements from the linebacker spot.

Dansby, who's missed four weeks with the injury, didn't sound as positive as in previous weeks. Coach Mike Pettine originally diagnosed the injury as a month-long recovery, and Dansby injured the knee 32 days ago against Houston.

"I'm trying to do what I can to get back," Dansby said. "It's a tough injury, especially at my position, all the lateral movements and that kind of stuff. It's detrimental. I can't go out there and put some bad film out there and let the guys down in this room. That's one thing I do not want to do. I'm not that selfish to go out there and do that. It's a fine line. You have to be smart and look at it from the bigger picture. If I'm healthy enough to go out there and do it, I'll do it."

Dansby was one of the Browns' most impactful defensive players through the first 10 games with 73 tackles, three sacks and an interception.

Inside Edge: Browns-Panthers

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
3:58
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ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando delivers stats to help you make a pick for Cleveland at Carolina.
Three quick-hit Browns nuggets for your reading delight...:

1) The local Pro Football Writers of America chapter voted Joe Thomas the Cleveland Browns player of the year, which daily beat writers here felt was generally long overdue.

Thomas
Thomas has been in Cleveland since 2007. The list of previous winners since 2007: Derek Anderson, Shaun Rogers, Josh Cribbs, Peyton Hillis, D'Qwell Jackson, Phil Dawson and Josh Gordon. With all respect to those dudes, Thomas is a future Hall of Famer who is arguably the best tackle in football right now. He should have been on that list in a previous year.

And congrats to Brian Hoyer, who won the local PFWA 'Good Guy' award. Hoyer was always accessible, after good games or bad.

2) Just what Johnny Manziel needs entering his second start -- the Browns' top receiver missing Thursday's practice. Andrew Hawkins (58 catches, 763 yards) was not on the field. Should find out more about Hawkins missing practice later -- maybe he got a veteran's rest day -- but Hawkins is a good weapon to have against Carolina's zone-heavy scheme. With reliable third-down target Miles Austin done for the season, Manziel needs all the receiving help he can get.

3) Manziel is trying to let last week go. Can everyone else? Probably not. The wounds are too fresh. But Manziel is hoping his past wisdom is true, that some days a quarterback is just "off." "The biggest thing for us is to put that behind us and not harp on that ... just let it go," Manziel said.
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns might be trying to answer a question that has no good answer.

That would be: Can a team get a rookie quarterback ready who needs as much real practice time as he can get while taking care of the rest of the team by going half-speed in practice?

Manziel
This would seem like the proverbial square peg and round hole, which is a tough fit.

Mike Pettine showed the balance he is trying to find between taking care of his team’s physical needs and getting it ready to play a game within the context of giving Johnny Manziel his second start.

For the past two weeks, Pettine has scaled back on the speed and intensity of practice to take care of his players. The grind of a season wears on players, and by this point physically they need a break.

So Pettine said the practices the past two weeks have largely been jogging and walk-throughs. Nothing full-speed, no pads.

"It’s that time of year where we’ve logged a good amount of repetitions, so we can look to trim a little bit here and there just to get them out of here a little bit sooner and get them off their feet," Pettine said.

That’s a good idea for taking care of players.

But it becomes challenging when trying to prepare a player like Manziel who has one very tough NFL game on his resume.

"It’s all about getting as many reps as possible, getting in there with the No. 1s and getting even more and more comfortable with them,” Manziel said.

Manziel also said this when asked if Bengals were faster than he anticipated:

"No, obviously the NFL it seems like it is a higher speed, but once you go through reps in practice, you went through preseason it’s not a shock anymore. It is what it is, and this game is faster and these guys are better and that’s just the facts. That’s just what it is. No, I don’t think it caught me off guard if that’s what you’re asking."

Which pretty much clears that up.

As Manziel saw against Cincinnati, game speed in the NFL is far, far different from game speed in college.

And regular-season game speed is different from preseason game speed.

And late-season game speed when the opposition has the playoffs at stake is different from early season game speed.

So Manziel is going from preseason game speed to late-season game speed while practicing and processing all the new information at half-speed.

It just further illustrates the complications and challenges he faces in trying to start this late in the season.

And it illustrates a factor that might have contributed to his first-start struggles.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Derek Anderson didn’t leave Cleveland under the best of terms in 2009. Admittedly frustrated after being cut, he called the fans “ruthless’’ and said they “didn’t deserve a winner.’’

[+] EnlargeDerek Anderson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsIf Cam Newton can't go, Derek Anderson would love to get the start against the Browns, his former team.
 “I will never forget getting cheered when I was injured,’’ Anderson said at the time. “I know at times I wasn’t great. I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and [we] roll them.’’

That opportunity could come on Sunday.

The Carolina Panthers still haven’t decided whether starting quarterback Cam Newton will return after suffering two small fractures in his lower back nine days ago in a two-vehicle crash near Bank of America Stadium.

If Newton can’t play, Anderson will get his second straight start and third of the season when Carolina (5-8-1) faces the Browns (7-7) in Charlotte.

Anderson is a realist. He knows Newton’s competitive spirit and that if he continues to progress from what he did in Wednesday’s practice, it will be hard to not start the two-time Pro Bowl selection.

Anderson also makes no secret he’d love to face the Browns, although not because of the things he said five years ago.

“The whole situation and how the whole thing went down in the last few months wasn’t great,” Anderson said on Wednesday. “I said some things I regret saying when I left.

“But it’s over with, I’ve moved on. I’m happy. I wasn’t in a great place when I left. I’m in a lot better place now.”

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen has said repeatedly there are a lot of NFL teams that would love to have Anderson as their starter. He wouldn’t bite when asked if one of those teams is Cleveland.

The Browns haven’t had a consistent quarterback since Anderson was cut. Brian Hoyer was benched last week in favor of first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel, who had a disastrous debut with a passer rating of 27.3 in a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati.

Anderson is 2-0 as a starter this year with a passer rating of 105.2.

“I know it’s been a while since he played there, but I’m sure he would be excited to go show them what he’s capable of these many years later after they kind of showed him the door,” Olsen said. “It’s been kind of a revolving quarterback position there ever since.”

But this game isn’t about revenge for Anderson as much as it is doing whatever he can to keep the Panthers in the playoff hunt. Carolina needs to win its final two games against the Browns and Atlanta, along with a New Orleans loss, to repeat as NFC South champions.

“It’s out of my control,’’ Anderson said of whether he starts or not. “I just have to continue to have a very good understanding of what we’re going to do. If I play, I’ll play and be ready to go.’’

That the opponent is Cleveland does make this intriguing, though. Anderson went to the Pro Bowl with the Browns in 2007 after passing for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns en route to a 10-5 record as the starter.

He was 16-18 as a starter during his five seasons that he described as “up and down, wonderful at times.’’

But Anderson isn’t focused on those times or the bitter feelings he had back then.

“I’ve moved on from it,’’ Anderson said. “I’m focused on us.’’

 
In responding to a Johnny Manziel supporter, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick delivered his own version of "the money sign."

Billick delivered harsh criticism of Manziel on Wednesday, posting on Twitter that "Manziel proponents say he can be Russell Wilson. I liken him more to Troy Smith...a 5th rounder no longer in the NFL."

Someone on Twitter named "Bflo44," who has a picture of Manziel as his avatar, shot back at Billick with this: "And why would we listen to a coach no longer in the league?”

Billick, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network, delivered the ultimate comeback -- a picture of him wearing his Super Bowl ring.

It is still surprising that Billick never got a chance to be a head coach again. He won a Super Bowl in 2000 -- which he colorfully pointed out -- and guided the Ravens to an 80-64 record (.556) and four playoff seasons.

Some may argue that the reason Billick never got another job was his inability to develop a franchise quarterback. The Ravens had 13 starting quarterbacks in Billick's nine seasons, the last of which was Troy Smith.

Billick's criticism of Manziel went beyond 140 characters. He gave a lengthy and scathing commentary on Manziel for the NFL's official website.

To Bflo44's credit, he took Billick's rebuttal in stride on Twitter:" So I got owned by @CoachBillick Today! Pretty sweet. Fun stuff!"

Browns vs. Panthers preview

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
8:00
AM ET
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: CBS

Welcome to Johnny Football versus Who Will Get The Football.

There's still some uncertainty whether the Carolina Panthers will start Cam Newton or Derek Anderson at quarterback opposite the Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel.

If it's Newton, who broke two small bones in his lower back when his truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident last week, it will be the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner versus the 2012 winner.

If it's Anderson, it will be the Browns' quarterback of the past (2005-09) versus the Browns' quarterback of the future.

The Panthers remain in the hunt for the NFC South title. At 5-8-1, they need to win out and they need New Orleans to lose one of its final two games to repeat as division champions. The Browns (7-7) have lost three straight and four of their past five to fall out of playoff contention.

ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon are here to break this one down:

Newton: Pat, now that the Browns have opened up the Johnny Football can of worms, do you think he gives Cleveland the best chance to win this week?

McManamon: If it's based on hype and hope, sure. He can win. But so can Connor Shaw, and he's on the practice squad. If you base it on college achievement, Manziel should win. He was tremendous in college. But college achievement means less than nothing in the NFL. If you base it on reality and the way Manziel played against Cincinnati, he gives them less than a 1-in-10 chance to win. Not even Mike Pettine tried to sell the "best chance to win" card, as Monday he said Manziel gives the Browns "an opportunity to win."

Manziel should improve in his second start. Logic says there's nothing to do but improve. The Browns have to desperately hope he does, because if Manziel doesn't show more than he did in his debut there are serious issues at quarterback in 2015. As for winning, the final two games are about evaluating No. 2.

Let's flip the script on Manziel, David. The Bengals were nearly jumping out of their uniforms to hit, sack and taunt Manziel on Sunday, and they were largely successful. Do you feel that's an attitude the Panthers will share, and would you expect some money signs on Sunday?

Newton: I haven't gotten that sense. The Panthers simply are happy when they get to the quarterback this season. They have only 31 sacks after leading the league with 60 last season. The absence of 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is heard in 2015, is a major factor there. And if anybody was going to do money signs it would be Hardy, who is all about the money. Perhaps cornerback Josh Norman would have a little fun with the money sign, but he'll be busy shadowing Josh Gordon. Never know, though.

Who do you think the Browns would rather see at quarterback for the Panthers? Newton and his running ability, if indeed the back injury will allow him to run? Or Anderson, who will face his former with something to prove?

McManamon: I'd guess they'd much rather see Anderson, because nobody wants to face an effective passer who also can run. If a quarterback is one or the other, defenses can take away what he does best. If a guy does things as well as Newton does throwing and running, the challenge increases. In the week leading up to Manziel's debut, Pettine admitted that it's easier when a defense can draw an X on the field and envision the quarterback being near that X most of the time. Newton is a 58 percent passer with 16 touchdowns. He averages 5 yards per carry. Anderson has a big arm and more experience than he had in Cleveland, and he'd be motivated to beat the Browns. But I'd still guess the Browns would rather face an immobile Anderson than a mobile Newton.

Are there any apologies taking place in Charlotte for the fact the Panthers are 5-8-1 and in the playoff hunt? Can they really win the division?

Newton: They hear the jokes nationally, but around here the fans and players are thankful there is a meaningful game in December. I'm pretty sure the Browns would trade places in a heartbeat if it meant they had a chance to make the playoffs. Can the Panthers really win the NFC South? As far as I'm concerned, it all comes down to what happens between New Orleans and Atlanta this Sunday. If the Falcons beat the Saints, as they did in Week 1, I can see Carolina winning out to take the division. If the Saints win, I can't see any way they lose to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale. Then again, it has been a wacky season in the South, so predicting anything seems kind of silly.

What's the biggest reason for the Browns' skid after a solid start that had them looking like a contender to win the division?

McManamon: Three things. First, injuries depleted depth. The loss of center Alex Mack was crippling to the running game. Injuries to the defensive line and ILB Karlos Dansby affected the defense. Second, the running game took a serious turn south, which affected the play-action passing game. Finally, the uncertainty at quarterback affected Brian Hoyer, who pressed, and the team, which for the umpteenth year in a row found itself in the midst of a raging quarterback debate. One year the Browns will find themselves in a season when they know the starter and use the backup as a backup. Until that happens, real success will be elusive.

Luke Kuechly is an Ohio guy, from Cincinnati. His numbers seem nearly impossible. Is he that active, and does he rank among the best defensive players you've covered?

Newton: You're right, the numbers -- including 138 tackles this sesaon -- are ridiculous. At times it seems Kuechly is in on every play. While I'm partial to Carolina's original middle linebacker, Sam Mills, even at his best Sam wasn't in on the number of plays Kuechly is. I hesitate to say he's the best defensive player I ever covered. End Julius Peppers was pretty special. And when it came to sacks, Kevin Greene was a beast. But as far as all-around player, few can touch Kuechly. His work ethic is second to none, and he's always looking for ways to improve. He usually does, too. He'll be a factor in this game as he is in most for Carolina.

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