- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is an exciting day, because we're rolling out our season previews and predictions for the 2012 NFL season.
We'll start at the bottom of the AFC North and work our way up. Here's the link to the preview page for the Browns.
This is the one team in the division which everyone, well except those in the Dawg Pound, can agree on as far as place in the final standings. There's no question the Browns have more talent than they did a year ago. But this will be another year of growing pains for one of the youngest teams in the league.
The previews for the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers are up next.
Five things you need to know about the Browns:
1. Pat Shurmur's seat is already hot: His first season was made more challenging by the NFL lockout, which meant he didn't meet his players until training camp. His second one is marked by a change in ownership, which has created an uncertain future for him in Cleveland. If that hasn't made his job difficult enough, Shurmur's top draft pick from 2011, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, is expected to miss at least the first six games with a torn pectoral muscle. His top pick from this year, running back Trent Richardson, had his knee scoped in training camp. Circumstances have made it tough to make a fair evaluation of Shurmur.
2. The offense is young: The Browns are close to fielding a college all-star team on offense. There is a chance that Cleveland will start as many as four rookies: Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and wide receiver Josh Gordon. That's in addition to the three players who started as rookies last season: wide receiver Greg Little, left guard Jason Pinkston and fullback Owen Marecic. The Browns needed to inject some new blood into their offense. Cleveland ranked 29th in offense last season and scored more than 17 points just twice.
3. The big concern on defense once again is stopping the run: Only two teams (St. Louis and Tampa Bay) were worse at slowing running backs last season. The Browns allowed seven backs to gain more than 100 yards, and the Ravens' Ray Rice ran for 204 yards. There's little hope that Cleveland's run defense has improved. The only major addition was defensive end Frostee Rucker, a free-agent signing from Cincinnati. That pales in comparison to the losses in the front seven. Taylor is expected to be sidelined until Oct. 21, outside linebacker Chris Gocong is out for the season with an Achilles injury and outside linebacker Scott Fujita has been suspended for the first three games for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal. The Browns open the regular season against Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher from a year ago.
4. Weeden doesn't lack confidence: The knock on Weeden has been his age (he turns 29 in October), but he's the poised leader this offense desperately needs. The problem is the times when he's too confident. Weeden plays with a gunslinger mentality and shows no fear in throwing into tight windows. That will often lead to turnovers, which was one thing the Browns' offense didn't do last season. Weeden is in a tough position, because his wide receivers don't have the speed to consistently get open.
5. Schedule poses a couple of problems: The NFL schedule-makers didn't do the Browns any favors at the beginning or end of the season. After the season opener against the Eagles, the Browns play three of the next four games on the road, and all come against teams that made the playoffs last season (Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants). Cleveland finishes the regular season at Denver and at Pittsburgh. That's consecutive road games against Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Cleveland is a combined 1-19 against them.
DIVISION FINISH: 4th -- The Browns have upgraded their talent with Richardson and Weeden, although it won't show in the win total. Cleveland is too young on offense and too vulnerable against the run on defense to hold up against a difficult schedule.