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.