Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Org overview, part 1: Haslam's self-inflicted fix

The first and easiest quarter of the season has ended with the Browns a disappointing 1-3. But even that dismal record doesn't fully bespeak the serious problems of this organization, from the top down. Over the next few days, I'll take a look at a few of the key dynamics at work, starting today with owner Jimmy Haslam III.

The Tennessee truck stop magnate has shown two chief inclinations since buying the Browns three years ago. First, he'll do just about anything to monetize the Browns and the brand.
  • The city-owned stadium now bears a corporate name, adding some $100 million to team revenues. 
  • Their 40-year association with the Cleveland Clinic ended with the switch to University Hospitals for medical services and a sweet $30 million sponsorship. 
  •  The $125 million in stadium upgrades, financed largely with loans and a $30 million commitment from a not-so-flush city, helped justify a league-high 27.5% hike in ticket prices this season when the team's performance could not.
  • The modernization effort has extended to a makeover of the team's iconic uniforms.
None of that is particularly surprising or even extraordinarily rapacious as the NFL rolls these days. But part of the intangible identification that ties long-suffering fans to the Browns has been eroded, the part that values the unadorned, no-nonsense, blue-collar, straight-up, enduring traditionalism of the Cleveland Browns as a civic institution rather than a cash cow for billionaires.

Haslam's second strong inclination is the one that now finds him lashed to a flailing ship. It's impetuousness. He seems to want both deep involvement in the particulars of football operations and the appearance of clean hands, so that the blame for failure flows downhill. He knows stability is essential for success, but his first order of business was to clean house, then to trust a pair of untrustworthy executives, then to let them talk him into shamefully scapegoating a rookie head coach, then to get wise and swing his axe again, and then to hand the ball to a first-year GM and another first-year HC.

The problem now is what happens when the GM or HC or both prove themselves unfit for top-flight NFL competition. Can Haslam stick with them and let them grow into their roles, no matter how brutal the mistakes, losses and criticism become? Should he? Another firing and housecleaning means more upheaval and ultimately more time until the Browns develop the habit of winning.

But a mistake is a mistake, and you ought not throw good years after bad. If Ray Farmer can't outwit the majority of his counterparts in player acquisition, and if Mike Pettine can't assemble a coaching staff and schemes and cohesive units to achieve the expected results on the field, well, should Haslam be hamstrung out of sensitivity to his own reputation for impatience?

It's a dilemma only winning will solve, and in this regard there's one other ownership factor that must be mentioned.

Though recent lower, volatile gasoline prices have helped boost Haslam's net worth to the $3 billion range, damage from the fraud scandal at Pilot Flying J is substantial and ongoing. Recall that Haslam struck the deal to buy the Browns while the rebate fraud was running apace. It requires him to pay Randy Lerner another $300 million this time next year to complete the sale.

Factor in a $92 million civil penalty, an $85 million class-action settlement, ongoing litigation from remaining victims, the lost revenue from no longer being able to perpetrate the scheme, and the fact that Haslam has yet to be cleared of personal culpability as his guilty ex-underlings cooperate with the feds prior to sentencing, and you have a situation of serious uncertainty.

Now look at the Browns' spending on player contracts compared to the salary cap. They're an estimated $23.5 million below the cap. Only two teams have more unspent cap space. (Last year, they ranked second in unspent cap space; in 2013, 6th.) Candidly, they're skimping on talent, and I can't believe it's because Farmer thinks frugality is the key to building a winning tradition. It's a direct reflection of Haslam's under-the-radar influence.

It's too bad that his company's malfeasance has distracted the owner and sullied the Browns, because this franchise needs an all-in, all-out effort to get every bit of help it can.

Browns president Alec Sheiner (left) shares hilarity with owner Jimmy Haslam, along with now-exiled
CEO Joe Banner, as the Browns head toward a prime-time victory in 2013.

In the next installment, an examination of GM Ray Farmer.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Overlap dawgs

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Off the schneid

Things we now know about the 2015 Browns:

Travis Benjamin is back, better than ever. Rabbit can run.

Dwayne Bowe so far is perpetuating the absurdly consistent and, frankly, eerie trend befalling the Browns' wearers of the number 80.

We have a better record than (among others) the supposedly strong Ravens, Seahawks, Saints, Colts and Eagles.

Another year, another QB controversy. It's good to see Johnny Manziel make some plays and help the team win. But for now, put me in the camp that wants Josh McCown back as the starter when he's cleared to play. It will be easier and more natural to pull him for Johnny than the other way around.

Andy Lee is a punting beast. Here's what he's done so far:
  • 60 yarder, returned one yard 
  • 61 yarder, returned 12 yards
  • 35 yarder, fair-caught at the 11
  • 61-yard touchback
  • 58 yarder, returned five yards
  • 62 yarder, returned 16 yards
  • 57 yarder, returned six yards.
The defense still has holes. Donte Whitner seems pretty average. Joe Haden is good, but not great. Danny Shelton is not an instant standout at nose tackle.

The outside linebackers are weak against the run, especially with Scott Solomon out. Maybe they'll consider putting Chris Kirksey on the edge so the four best linebackers can play together (including Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson and Paul Kruger).

There's still work to do establishing a power running game. The O-line has been somewhat disappointing so far, and fullback Malcolm Johnson is not a "plus" blocking force just yet.

The Browns are sitting on more cap space than 90% of the league and will be faced with the possible loss of the the following players to unrestricted free agency after this season (in order of importance): S Tashaun Gipson, RT Mitchell Schwartz, WR/PR Travis Benjamin, LB Craig Robertson, TE Gary Barnidge, RB Robert Turbin, QB Austin Davis, DB Johnson Bademosi, TE Rob Housler and LB Tank Carder.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A case of first depression

What marvelous commentary is left to offer on the latest Browns stinker, its league record 11th straight opening day defeat? That was a Cleveland team as reckless as their coaches were gutless.

Name me the last NFL team whose top two leading rushers in a game were both quarterbacks.

And if Jimmy Haslam's decision to fire Chud in 2013 immediately followed a lackluster effort against the Jets, what exactly did we see to redeem Mr. Pettine's performance yesterday? He failed to challenge a questionable Brandon Marshall sideline catch that led to a score. The saved timeout was squandered when he let the clock run out on the first half. The in-game adjustments all worked to the Jets' advantage.

His squad was worse than outmatched by a far-from-elite Jets team; it was undisciplined, as a dozen penalties and five turnovers so decisively showed.

Josh McCown, the third-oldest quarterback ever to start for the Browns, apparently absorbed no lesson from the hits he let himself take two weeks back against Tampa Bay. Pettine later absolved his quarterback of fumbling and getting concussed when he launched himself toward the goal line in the first quarter.
"I don't know how you coach a competitor, a real football player, to slide there.''
If that's so, there is apparently much, too much, that Pettine doesn't know. That would include how to prepare a team to hit the field ready to win the games that count.

The supposed strengths of the team -- the secondary and the offensive and defensive lines -- were all revealed as subpar.

I don't expect every game to be as awful as that 31-10 pasting. But if the Browns don't turn it around on a dime, with two of their weaker opponents coming to town the next two Sundays, an ugly day will metastasize into yet another ugly, long season of Browns football, and another serious test of Haslam's touchy temper.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The 2015 Browns: a defense of destiny

The Browns will win Super Bowl 50.

That's right, it's hours before the opening day kickoff, and I'm putting it on the line, a 150-to-1 underdawg. Mark it down, lay your bets, laugh your head off, whatever.

Sorry, but I'm sick of dilly-dallying through a wilderness of trepidation. Oh, the division's too tough! Oh, but we're still short a key piece or two (or thirty). The schedule is brutal. We just don't know how the youngsters will respond. And, of course, woe is me, we're the Browns, so something especially sucky, while unforeseen in its particulars, is a metaphysical certainty.

Nope, we've been through all that, over and over and over. I'm not gonna hem and haw and hope. I just can't do it any more. You won't find me figuring us for 4-12 with a meek insinuation that if all goes according to plan, which it never does, the Browns may inch forward a game or two and avoid their eighth losing season in a row.

This is the year. Book it, boys.

And on the night of next February 7, don't forget who told ya.

Go ahead, call me delusional. But I prefer to connect with reality as it occurs, not before.

Think I'm a lock to be disappointed? Right. I'm a lifelong Browns fan. Ain't nothin' you can tell me about disappointment. Protect your own tender heart if you must. I'm all in.

Look at the first three teams on our plate: Jets, Titans, Raiders. The perfect launching pad to destiny. We'll be 3-0, in first place with at most one other division rival. More importantly, the players will believe. The players will perceive that they can achieve.

Don't worry about this year being our turn to face the strong NFC West. The Bungles, Stools and Ratbirds must match up with them too. We're gonna win the division outright, not hope for some "help" on the last night of the regular season so we squeak in as a wildcard.

Instead of romping past the Jets and Titans, Pittsburgh will face Indy the week they return from Seattle and has already lost to the Patriots. Cincinnati gets Houston and goes to Buffalo. Baltimore's unique inter-division opponents are Jacksonville and Miami. Fine by me.

But how, you may ask? McCown, you may ask? Let's put it this way. You'll see. Enjoy what he can manage behind an elite offensive line. It won't be Marino's Dolphins or anything, but my prediction doesn't hinge on fantasy points.

Four Pro Bowlers in the secondary. A beefed up run defense to complement the unit that forced the lowest opponents' QB rating in the league last year.

It's no raw roster in search of its professional footing. Thomas and Mack. Dansby and Kruger. Bryant and Starks. Haden and Whitner. Even Hawkins and Hartline. Veterans. Leaders. Proven producers.

Most of the divas are gone. We have hungry youngsters like Danny Shelton and Taylor Gabriel and Chris Kirksey and Isaiah Crowell and Joel Bitonio. Come October, check out the headlines about the suddenly resurgent Browns, the great leap on the Great Lake, patsies no more, Pettine for president, a dominant defense perfect for this division and this city.

Injuries are inevitable, but this is the deepest roster in 20 years by any reasonable measure. We're not built upon a single set of knees.

And we've got Andy Lee! We'll consistently win the field position battle and probably lead the league in safeties scored. Two points at a time, baby.

Travis Benjamin will burn 'em on so many punt returns, we'll just laugh when a few get called back for blocks in the back.

We'll get a few lucky bounces and favorable calls. Cleveland will be the feel-good, eye-opening surprise team that everyone in the echo chamber expects to fall back to earth, but down in the trenches, the other teams will know we're for real. For real, man.

Really. I swear.

One way or another, I swear.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Non-starters: new Browns QBs who didn't even make the jersey

Most sentient football fans by now have seen some version of the Browns jersey featuring the league's longest list of starting quarterbacks since 1999 -- a total of 22 names to date. But even longer than that is the list of Browns quarterbacks who didn't get the starting nod for a single game, at least not yet.

This litany of camp fodder, benchwarmers, and late-season emergency options now numbers 27, though when the second McCown in Browns QB history takes the field in Game 1, the balance between starters and non-starters will narrow to 23 to 26.
  1. Mike Cook 1999
  2. John Dutton 1999
  3. Jamie Martin 1999
  4. Tony Graziani 2000
  5. Jeff Brohm 2000
  6. Kevin Thompson 2000-02
  7. Josh Booty 2001
  8. Shane Stafford 2002
  9. Pat Barnes 2003
  10. Nate Hybl 2003-04
  11. Todd Husak 2004
  12. Josh Harris 2004-05
  13. Lang Campbell 2005-06
  14. Doug Johnson 2005
  15. Dustin Almond 2006
  16. Richard Bartel 2009
  17. Brett Ratliff 2009-10
  18. Jarrett Brown 2011
  19. Josh Johnson 2012
  20. Alex Tanney 2013
  21. Caleb Hanie 2013
  22. Tyler Thigpen 2014
  23. Rex Grossman 2014
  24. Vince Young 2014
  25. Josh McCown 2015
  26. Pat Devlin 2015
  27. Austin Davis 2015 (edited 9/10/15 to add new signee)
Note: Graham Harrell participated in rookie minicamps in both 2009 and 2010 on a tryout basis but was not signed.
Former Bowling Green QB Josh Harris in Browns training camp in 2005.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The precarious state of the QB depth chart

The Browns' already weak quarterback situation is now bordering on catastrophe, and we're still half a month from opening day.

Injuries have necessitated the signing of Pat Devlin, a 27-year old street free agent now on his fourth team and yet to make his regular season debut.

Let's review the depth chart from top to bottom:

Josh McCown is in line to become the third-oldest quarterback ever to start a game for the Browns, his seventh NFL team. His career high in starts is 13 games, and that was back before the Browns traded away his younger brother a decade ago. The notion that he'll hold down the position for all 16 games, which no Cleveland QB has done since 2001, is far-fetched, to say the least. He jammed his right ring finger against Buffalo but it didn't keep him from practice.

Johnny Manziel appears to have straightened out his personal life a bit, but now he's shelved with a sore right elbow. Coaches cite imperfect throwing technique for this recurring problem, but there's apparently no structural damage at this point. Let's hope for no further storyline similarity with the previous Browns QB to sport his jersey number.

Connor Shaw is a game young player well-liked by the coaches, despite his marginal arm strength. He held his own as a fill-in for last year's finale and seemed likely headed for the practice squad this fall, but a thumb injury in the first pre-season game required surgery, and he's probably headed for injured reserve.

Thaddeus Lewis is similar to Shaw, just a bit older. He too had one decent start to conclude a Browns season back in 2012, which was two head coaches ago for Cleveland and three teams ago for him. He and McCown are the only QBs expected to take snaps this Saturday against Tampa .

Around the league we've recently seen the Steelers pick up Michael Vick and the Falcons sign Rex Grossman, whom the Browns released last summer. In inking Devlin, they passed up Tyler Thigpen, who was around for part of 2014. He's clearly a camp arm and a future speed-dial emergency option in case two of the remaining three QBs go down.

The big question mark here is how Manziel's arm responds to rest and treatment. He seemed to solidify his claim to the top backup slot, but if his health is iffy, the Browns may need to keep three quarterbacks (i.e. including Lewis) on the 53-man roster, which I imagine they really don't want to do.

And, of course, fans can't help speculating about what this might mean for Terrelle Pryor, the ex-quarterback now struggling to stay healthy enough to establish his qualifications for a roster spot at receiver. His potential as an in-game disaster option (in case the only two active QBs both go down) may be a slight versatility factor in his favor. He's started more games than Lewis, Shaw and Manziel combined. But it's clear that all focus for him is on proving himself a viable route runner and pass catcher, not a passer, and his fate will rest on what he shows on tape in the next dozen days.

The conventional wisdom on the Browns is that their overall roster is stronger -- especially in its depth -- than it has been in the expansion era, but the game's most important position remains a major question mark. That vulnerability is especially glaring in light of the injuries and the lack of viable alternatives.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Stats support "Lockdown on the Lake" hype

I won't be sticking my neck out predicting the Browns' 2015 fate with any specificity. Given the outsize randomizing impact of injuries, it's a fool's errand anyway.

But one thing I expect is that they will be tough to throw on. Why?
  • Their four starters in the secondary are all Pro Bowlers
  • The defensive scheme is entering its second year, which is what counts as continuity in Cleveland
  • The defensive line will generate more of a pass rush than last year's injury-wracked unit
  • The crew of linebackers includes several who are quite capable in coverage, particularly Karlos Dansby, but also Chris Kirksey and Barkevious Mingo
  • The depth at cornerback (assuming the training camp injuries don't linger) is better than I can ever remember. After Joe Haden and Tramon Williams, emerging players like K'Waun Williams, Pierre Desir, and Charles Gaines show promise. When the eighth overall pick in the draft a year ago is no better than your fifth corner, the position is a decided strength.
According to this post from the insightful Football Perspective, the Browns ranked third best in the league last year in something called "Relative Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt," behind only Buffalo and Denver. Longtime Browns followers know that the expansion era teams have generally ranked pretty well in most gross pass defense stats, but that's partly due to how easy a time opponents have had running the ball, and how seldom they've needed to mount comebacks. But RANY/A is a more meaningful and sophisticated metric, particularly due to the "per attempt" factor.

Last year's Browns pass defense was not only strong compared to other teams around the league, it was also the team's best performance by this measure since at least 2002. And whereas their trend is favorable, it's quite the opposite for the Ravens and, most remarkably, the Steelers, who ranked 30th last year in defensive RANY/A after finishing no worse than second for seven straight years in the previous decade.

So while I'm not optimistic about the Browns' prospects at the offensive skill positions, I am looking forward to seeing them shut down receivers and give opposing QBs headaches. If they succeed in improving their run defense to any appreciable degree, it could be a special defensive squad to behold.
Ball-hawking safety Tashaun Gipson is back from injury for his contract year. (Kuntz/NEOMG photo)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The peak of pain

It's official. The NFL, through its own website, has "honored" the Browns as the top team in their Pain Rankings.

Writer Dan Hanzus' piece is a pretty decent overview of the various disasters of the Super Bowl era, and if you haven't seen the various videos associated with The Move, The Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88, it's probably a positive exercise in fortitude to do so. Once, anyway.

A few phrases that hit home:
  • There's a parallel universe -- one I don't suggest Browns fans even try to imagine -- in which Bill Belichick coached Ray Lewis for 15 years in Cleveland.
  • This is a team that took Kellen Winslow Jr. when Ben Roethlisberger was available. (The only thing Big Ben and Winslow had in common was flawed motorcycle-riding abilities.)
  • Even Lindsay Lohan is disturbed by Johnny Football's fall from grace.
  • [Cleveland fan/comedian Mike Polk Jr.:] "I care less and less about pretty much every aspect of life as I get older, and fortunately one of the positive byproducts of that is that I don't freak out to that degree about Browns games anymore."

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Roster notes: influx of TEs, OLBs inevitable

I'm now in my third year of obsessively updating a Browns roster spreadsheet, usually faster than the team itself. Here are a few stray tidbits from the off-season flux.
-- The overall headcount is about right for this time of year: 70 players signed or tendered. They have ten draft picks, leaving plenty of room to sign UDFAs and stay under the limit of 90.
-- Kickers (3) currently outnumber tight ends (2). Expect at least three new TEs/H-back/FB types to join the fray.
-- Two-thirds of the current roster was acquired since Ray Farmer took over as GM last year.
-- At most, 22 players will take the field this fall for their third season or more as a Brown.
-- Only 12 Browns were acquired before Josh Gordon. Only 15 Browns are younger than him.
-- All four starting DBs have been selected for the Pro Bowl.
-- That said, the depth at safety must be considered a need. Only Jordan Poyer and Johnson Bademosi -- zero career starts between them -- back up Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson as it stands today.
-- Looking at potential RFAs next year, the Browns extended John Hughes and are apparently trying to re-sign Gipson too. Others possibly in their last year here include Mitchell Schwartz, Billy Winn, Phil Taylor, Gary Barnidge and Travis Benjamin. Actually, barring a rash of injuries at WR, I don't see Benjamin making the team this year.
-- They have the same number of QBs under contract as RBs -- four.
-- The other position glaringly in need of a surge of incoming talent is OLB. Only Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Scott Solomon currently qualify. They'll probably keep four or five on the final 53, which means bringing six to eight to camp.
-- Possibly the worst decision of the whole off-season (aside from Gordon's refreshments) is giving Dwayne Bowe the number 80. I get that 82 was taken and he wore 80 at LSU, but Oh Lord....
-- How the current roster was acquired: street free agents 23, draft 17, undrafted rookie FAs 10, waiver claims, 9, unrestricted FAs 7, practice squad poach 2, restricted FA 1, trade 1. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

Tracking the off-season turnover

Four days from now, the new league year begins, and that means players with expired contracts are free agents. Amid the off-season tumult of 2014, the Browns -- for a variety of reasons -- failed to secure the services of some key contributors heading into their contract year. So now we have a lengthy list of players headed elsewhere and an owner saying out loud they'll be "playing less in free agency" despite ranking near the top in available salary cap space.

As I've done in years past, I'm summarizing the key off-season turnover in terms of who's replacing whom. I'll keep this chart updated over the course of the next few months' free agent signings, trades, and draft picks. It should provide a convenient way to judge whether Ray Farmer and crew have really upgraded the roster. It looks like quite an uphill task.

    Position Departure 2014 starts Reason Arrival Via
    QB Brian Hoyer 13 UFA Josh McCown FA
    WR Miles Austin 11 UFA Brian Hartline FA
    WR Josh Gordon 5 suspended Dwayne Bowe FA
    WR Marlon Moore 0 UFA re-signed
    TE Jordan Cameron 9 UFA Rob Housler UFA
    OL Paul McQuistan 1 released

    DL Ahtyba Rubin 11 UFA Randy Starks FA
    DL Sione Fua 0 UFA

    DL Ishmaa'ily Kitchen 3 RFA* (low tender)
    OLB Jabaal Sheard 5 UFA

    ILB Craig Robertson 11 RFA* (2nd round tender)
    CB Buster Skrine 16 UFA Tramon Williams UFA
    S Jim Leonhard 5 UFA/retirement

    S Tashaun Gipson 11 RFA* (2nd round tender)
    QB Tyler Thigpen 0 UFA Thad Lewis FA

    *RFA are retainable depending on which contract tender the team may offer. And this should be obvious, but here's my proprietary formula for measuring whether a roster is improved from one season to the next:
    1. take the value of player contributions from previous year
    2. add value of players returning from injury
    3. add projected value of incoming players via FA, trade & draft
    4. add the net effect of returnees' skill development
    5. subtract value of players departing for any reason
    6. subtract for probability of player injury
    7. adjust for degree of continuity and alignment with organization, coaching schemes, and roster
    8. compare the result to step 1.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2015

    Who else ever beat out five first-rounders?

    At this point, it's really anyone's guess who will line up behind center when the Browns' 2015 season opens seven months from now. Will free-agent-to-be Brian Hoyer be re-signed? Will Johnny Manziel elevate his game? Surely the Browns will sign, trade for and/or draft at least one and probably two other QBs. But that speculation is all over the map.

    All this is just prelude to my making one small point. Brian Hoyer, who entered the league undrafted, the local kid with a chip on his shoulder, has completed his two-year contract with the Browns. That alone is remarkable. Who was the last Cleveland QB to sign a multi-year contract and stay through its expiration? Kelly Holcomb?

    Anyway, in his two years here, the Browns went 10-6 in games he started. They went 1-15 in the games he didn't. He beat out no fewer than five different first-round quarterbacks in order to earn that playing time:

    Has anyone anywhere ever fended off challenges from five first-round draft picks at his position in the span of just two years? That it would be done by an undrafted guy with only a single start in his first four years is pretty astounding.

    Hoyer eventually got the nod over Campbell and Weeden in 2013.

    Saturday, January 24, 2015

    Off-season overview: WR, OL, DB

    It's about now that the Browns' decision-makers should be done evaluating the 2014 season and roster. They know their own strengths and liabilities. It's now a matter of strategy. Which of their own dozen-plus potential free agents should they try to re-sign? Who are their top targets around the league when free agency kicks off in March? How much of their abundant salary cap space are they willing to spend? Which positions are deep in the draft, and which prospects project best for the brown and orange? Who might they trade for and trade away?

    Yesterday I focused on the Browns' top three positions that need attention: QB, DL, and TE. Here's the rough landscape for the next three units to buttress.

    Wide receiver -- It seemed telling that the first player new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo mentioned in his introductory press conference that he's excited to coach was Josh Gordon. The mega-talented but enigmatic #1 wideout was thought to be all but out the door after the team suspended him for the final game. But if they were intent on sending him packing, the incoming OC wouldn't be so quick to drop his name like that. Gordon's leash may be shorter than ever, but the potential upside of him returning to 2013 form outweighs the benefit of cutting bait just yet. He's still just 23 -- no fewer than 57 current Browns are older! And the two suspensions last season deprive him of becoming an UFA after the coming year, though Gordon is expected to contest that.

    While his potential is immense, there's no way the Browns can rely on Flash as the focal point of the offense. GM Ray Farmer tends to downplay the importance of investing in premiere receivers, but clearly more options are needed. First thing I'd do is re-sign Miles Austin for another year. He was a clutch target last year and a mature presence even after his season-ending injury. Beyond that, Cleveland has three bantamweights: Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin. They each can continue to contribute, though Benjamin's value depends on reestablishing himself as a reliable returner. Marlon Moore played mostly on special teams, is unsigned for '15 and -- going on 28 -- seems unlikely to be back. Three other developmental players -- Phil Bates, Kevin Cone and Rodney Smith -- each have size and will compete for roster spots. That still leaves a pretty glaring need, even if the flaky Gordon and injury-prone Austin return. It's time to add another viable option, probably via the draft. Had they kept Charles Johnson last fall, I might not be saying that.

    Offensive line -- Last year's line was outstanding until center Alex Mack's broken leg exposed a disheartening lack of depth. He should return to his fine form for at least one more season, after which he could opt out of his contract and hit the market. The left side remains quite solid with perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas entering his ninth season at tackle and Joel Bitonio quickly establishing himself as a fine find at guard. At right guard, veteran John Greco was reliable and made no one pine for Shawn Lauvao. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has now started all 48 games of his career and heads into his contract year. I'd love to see how his evaluation went. He may be challenged by Michael Bowie, who started eight games for the 2013 Seahawks, and perhaps a reasonably high draft pick, as the Mack experience was eye-opening, and the falloff should Thomas ever get hurt would be similarly tragic. I'd be surprised if they see the durable but inconsistent Schwartz as a pillar of this team long-term. Others in the mix include disappointing vet Paul McQuistan, fill-ins Nick McDonald and Ryan Seymour, and prospects Vinston Painter, Andrew McDonald and Karim Barton.

    Secondary -- The defensive backfield was the Browns' best unit last year, with three players earning Pro Bowl honors: corner Joe Haden and safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Much-maligned Buster Skrine also played well overall as the other starting corner. With Haden on the other side, he gets attacked a lot and probably commits too many penalties, but he's a very game competitor, lightning fast and solid in tackling. He's also headed for free agency, and this will be an interesting call. Does he want to re-sign here, and are the Browns willing to pay up? I hope so on both counts. We've suffered through his early growing pains, so it would be nice to enjoy his prime years. In the wings at corner are last year's rookie crop. Blue-chip draftee Justin Gilbert was a disappointment and seems unready to step up and start. Small school sensation Pierre Desir started to emerge late in the season. K'Waun Williams was a fine free agent find, playing well in the slot. Fellow UDFA Robert Nelson and late-season pick-up Kendall James round out the group, along with young journeyman Micah Pellerin, added just last week. As for safety depth, Jim Leonhard played well after Gipson went down, but he's retiring, leaving holdovers Jordan Poyer and Johnson Bademosi. The latter is a special teams stalwart and a restricted free agent worth bringing back. The higher priority, though, is fellow RFA Gipson, who deserves a multi-year deal. I could see the Browns taking a flyer on a late round safety, given that Whitner is entering his 10th season, Gipson is recovering from serious injury, and the existing depth is fairly unproven.

    In the next installment I'll summarize the situation with the linebackers, running backs and specialists. In the meantime, take a detailed look at the roster as it stands today.

    A secondary is only as good as its weakest link. The Browns would
    be fine with K'Waun Williams and Pierre Desir as their third and fourth CBs.

    Friday, January 23, 2015

    Off-season overview: top three need positions

    Here's a quick overview of the three Browns positional groups that need the most attention this offseason.

    Quarterback -- Cleveland's braintrust isn't foolish enough to rely on Johnny Manziel as the answer for 2015. He'll probably get one more fair shot to show up or to show off and ship out. Meanwhile it's hard to put odds on the return of UFA Brian Hoyer, but I lean against. We now know his ceiling. Connor Shaw may prove serviceable but ultimately limited. Late-season emergency signee Tyler Thigpen shouldn't return. So it will be fascinating to see who the Browns bring in. Veterans such as Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker and Nick Foles (if the Eagles look elsewhere) seem worth considering. Even so, expect the Browns to draft another quarterback. Who and in which slot? That will surely be a storyline to follow into May.

    Defensive line -- The unit most saw as the team's strength was decimated by injuries. Now longtime starter Ahtyba Rubin is a free agent, as is fill-in Sione Fua. Ishmaa'ily Kitchen saw lots of snaps on the nose, and he's a restricted FA. It's quite possible none (except maybe Kitchen) will return. That leaves the expensive Desmond Bryant, plus three guys headed into the last year of their rookie contracts: Phil Taylor, Billy Winn and John Hughes. Winn and Hughes ought to be considered for new deals before next season. Injuries aside, Taylor hasn't played to his first-round potential. Armonty Bryant was an intriguing pass rush threat before his ACL tear. His rehab and the development of Calvin Barnett and Jaccobi McDaniel will be telling in terms of depth. One impact player would fit in really well, but I'd be very reluctant to open the bank for the soon-to-be-ex-Lion Ndamukong Suh.

    Tight end -- The big question is whether former Pro Bowler and UFA-to-be Jordan Cameron will return. On one hand, it would be a shame if we lose him after the years invested in his development. He's a sure-handed big-play threat that defenses must respect. But he's also concussion-prone. The Browns were right to let Brodney Pool walk five years ago, and I could understand if they won't pay a premium this time either. I hope it works out for him to return. Otherwise, TE becomes a serious need. Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge are nice complementary players who'll be back. But no doubt the scouts' shopping list has tight end near the top.

    Other units ranked in decreasing order of need:
    • Wide receiver
    • Offensive line
    • Secondary 
    • Linebacker
    • Running back
    • Specialists
    Look for my overviews of these units soon. In the meantime, you can review the current roster yourself here.

    Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin may very well be going and gone, respectively.