Commentary

Bills' outlook bright, Browns' cloudy

Originally Published: July 30, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Mario WilliamsAP Photo/David Duprey The addition of free agent Mario Williams has transformed the Bills' defensive line.
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills sit on different sides of Lake Erie. For a change, their fortunes are vastly different.

An easy schedule and a couple key offseason additions give Bills fans hope of possibly the team's first playoff season in more than a decade. In Cleveland, an unexpected ownership change could redirect what looked to be a positive turnaround of the franchise.

This is football country. Fans are loyal but frustrated. Bills fans have been sticking by their franchise, waiting for something to revive the memories of when Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and other Bills gave them annual hopes of Super Bowls. The signing of the best free agent available in 2012, Mario Williams, shocked the league and jacked up the fans.

Browns fans still haven't recovered from Art Modell's move of the Browns to Baltimore. On Friday, news leaked that owner Randy Lerner was in negotiations to sell a majority share of the team to Steelers minority owner Jim Haslam, a move that could lead to a major overhaul of a front office that turned the roster young.

While the sun might be shining on the Bills' side of the lake, clouds and questions are lining up on the Browns' side.

Here are three observations from the Browns' training camp:

1. Going green on offense: Thanks in part to last year's Julio Jones draft-day trade, the Browns are making a bold youth movement on offense. Greg Little, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden form one of the boldest renovations on offense this league has seen in years. I like the long-term prospects. Former coach Eric Mangini cleaned out what were perceived to be problems in the locker room but left the offense lacking athleticism and speed. The young Browns offense looks potentially explosive and exciting, even though it may take a year or two to become efficient. The most encouraging sign is how second-year coach Pat Shurmur is setting up the passing offense. As offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in 2010, Shurmur had to set up mostly a three-step drop offense for then-rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. At that time, the Rams were going through receivers like a stadium goes through hot dogs. Even though the Browns' receiving corps is young, Shurmur is working in more five-step drops for Weeden, a sign of confidence in the blocking and the talent at wide receiver. Supplemental draft choice Gordon is raw, but he has the look of a future No. 1 receiver. Little, a second-round pick last year, is a good target, although he's trying to adjust to some work out of the slot. Benjamin is fast. It's a promising group.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
David Richard/US PresswireRookie QB Brandon Weeden has shined at times early in training camp.

2. The Browns believe Weeden is the real deal: Drafted at 28 years old, Weeden was one of the most discussed selections in the 2012 draft. He displays a strong arm and shows a good grasp of Shurmur's system. If the new ownership gives Weeden the chance to grow in Shurmur's offense, Weeden may be the quarterback this franchise has been seeking since it came back as an expansion team in 1999. Unfortunately, ownership changes lead to coaching changes, so Shurmur is on the hot seat in his second season. Weeden isn't, though. He's bigger and stronger than Colt McCoy, so it will be only a matter of a week or two before he wins the starting job. Baseball delayed Weeden's entry into football. He may not be a home run for the Browns, but he's at least a double in first impressions.

3. The Browns will be dangerous running left: Richardson was the prize running back in this draft. Seeing him run behind left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Jason Pinkston is a treat. Thomas is arguably the best left tackle in football, and Pinkston is developing as a guard. Richardson can run well to either side, but each carry to his left offers potential excitement. The Jones trade with Atlanta gave the Browns the draft choice they used on rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz is expected to start but like most rookies will take some time to set the proper lane for Richardson.

And here are three observations from the Bills' training camp:

1. The Super Mario effect in Buffalo: Not only did the Bills recruit the best free-agent pass-rusher in Williams, they also signed defensive end Mark Anderson, whom they rated as the second-best available. Many thought it would take two years for the Bills to add a pass rush. Arguably, the Bills have one of the best defensive lines in football. By switching back to a 4-3 scheme that is run by Dave Wannstedt, the Bills allowed Kyle Williams to play at his more natural position of 3-technique defensive tackle. Marcell Dareus, last year's first-round pick, can collapse the middle of a blocking scheme. All of that appealed to Mario Williams. He said he thinks Kyle Williams and Dareus can push the pocket several yards, setting up sack opportunities for him and Anderson. Another positive for the defensive line is that backups Chris Kelsay, Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson and Shawne Merriman all have been starters and now will be asked to be only part of the rotation. In 2012, the Bills will go as far as their defensive line takes them.

2. Cornering the market on coverage: The Bills appear to have scored big by drafting cornerback Stephon Gilmore. He's a big, physical player who can challenge every throw from man coverage. In Houston last year, Mario Williams watched Wade Phillips turn a horrible defense into one of the league's best by bringing in three key players -- defensive end J.J. Watt, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning. Gilmore, Williams and Anderson could produce comparable results in Buffalo. Wannstedt knows a good pass rush improves the effectiveness of cornerbacks. Gilmore earned a starting job in Buffalo by his second day in the offseason program. Aaron Williams, a second-round pick last year, may not be as consistent shutting down receivers as Gilmore, but he's a big corner with skills.

3. Chan Gailey's offensive system is hard to figure for defenses: No team spreads the field with four-receiver sets more than the Bills. The great part of the system is that Gailey doesn't need big-name receivers to make it work. He believes he has the smart quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who can get the ball quickly to receivers in the spread set. Steve Johnson is his best receiver, and the hands of 6-foot-5 David Nelson earned him the chance to be the slot receiver. What was noticeable in practice was how Gailey is still finding weapons. Dorin Dickerson, a tight end/fullback who failed in Houston, is making plays coming out of the backfield. As for Fitzpatrick, new quarterbacks coach David Lee will help maintain Fitzpatrick's mechanics through the season and prevent the second-half slump he experienced last season.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer