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 25, 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 24.
  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. Josh Johnson 2012
  19. Alex Tanney 2013
  20. Caleb Hanie 2013
  21. Tyler Thigpen 2014
  22. Rex Grossman 2014
  23. Vince Young 2014
  24. Josh McCown 2015
  25. Pat Devlin 2015
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.

    Sunday, December 28, 2014

    A better record, but a team on the rise?

    Once again, the Browns have finished a losing season in a tailspin, dropping their last five games. They led the AFC North as late as November 16, but now the rest of the division is headed for the playoffs, and the Browns are headed for another tumultuous off-season.

    Unlike the past two years, the head coach and general manager will stay on, according to owner Jimmy Haslam. The new Mike Pettine/Ray Farmer regime produced a three-game improvement over 2013, which ended with the scapegoating of rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski and -- after a prolonged search for a successor -- the eventual firing of CEO Joe Banner and his henchman, GM Mike Lombardi.

    The sole rationale Haslam provided for Chud's firing was this:
    What we would say is that it's really important that we show improvement during the course of the season. Specifically, we talked about, I believe if you look back at the quote, we needed to be better in the last three games than we were the first three games. As the season developed and what was a really nice start and as we got later into the season, it was our feeling that as a team we were not getting better. Yes, we had a young team, but I think if we'd reflect on it we would all say, ‘A young team should get better,' and we simply didn't feel like that was happening.
    But that was a year ago. So does this 7-9 season, ending as it did with some serious skid marks, represent substantial progress and cause for hope? That's certainly debatable, but history can provide some context.

    Ten other times in NFL history, a team followed up a 4-12 season by going 7-9. So what happened next? Their combined records the next season were 66-93-1, which means the average record for a team that went 7-9 the previous year and 4-12 before that is just 7-9. And that's rounding up.

    Here are those ten teams, most recent first (* = team changed coaches during or between the preceding 4-12 and 7-9 seasons, as the Browns did):

    • 2014 Lions, 11-5 (wildcard team with new coach and established QB)
    • *2013 Buccaneers, 4-12 (Greg Schiano's second-year regression got him the boot)
    • 2007 49ers, 5-11 (four different QBs started games)
    • 2004 Bears, 5-11 (also had four starters in Lovie Smith's first year)
    • 2002 Falcons, 9-6-1 (won a wildcard game in Michael Vick's first full season)
    • *1997 Cardinals, 4-12 (turned to rookie QB Jake Plummer from mid-season on)
    • *1996 Rams, 6-10 (Rich Brooks' second and last season as a head coach)
    • 1994 Cardinals, 8-8 (Buddy Ryan took over for Joe Bugel and lasted just two years)
    • *1990 Lions, 6-10 (Wayne Fontes and Barry Sanders would have better and worse seasons)
    • 1980 Chiefs, 8-8 (a middling year in the middling Marv Levy era).

    The takeaway is just this: a losing team that improves by three wins doesn't necessarily keep on improving. In fact, it usually stays a losing team. Even if it's not the Browns.

    Johnny Manziel and Jimmy Haslam confer before the Colts game. (Jason Miller/Getty)

    Monday, December 15, 2014

    Shut down, up and out

    I don't get to go to many games, one a year if I'm lucky, as I live three hours away. The previous one was last year's win over the Ravens, my favorite in-person Browns experience in 26 years.

    My dad and I were there yesterday, and the pre-game excitement was palpable within and throughout. The coach had hyped the playoff atmosphere. A girl with a Hillis jersey was in high demand for photos as she sported her "Fear the Midget" sign.

    The weather was mild and calm, a welcome contrast to a previous December memory of freezing through my long-johns for three hours to see only a single gimmick touchdown. Even then we stayed 'til the bitter, bitter end.

    But dear god, yesterday, by the second quarter, the Bengals were averaging a point a minute, and the only people standing in section 102 were the beefy dudes right in front of us. When we finally got our first first down (by penalty), the crowd was sarcastically chanting "Super Bowl, Super Bowl." By then the lady right behind behind me was obsessively chanting "BRI-an HOY-er" after every offensive fail, despite her husband telling her to give it up already.

    And speaking of giving up, it was obvious that our no-nonsense, "Play like a Brown" head coach knew we were done for. Down 23-0 very early in the fourth quarter, it's fourth-and-14 from near midfield, and he sends in the punter. That signaled Game Over for me. Five minutes later, fourth-and-two, same score, same decision. Punt the ball away.

    Now I've been known to sit through the sloppy end of boring night exhibition games with my car parked on a dark Detroit side street. But yesterday I had a surprisingly strong new urge to get the hell out of that stadium right there and then. My dad convinced me to stay for one more offensive series so that if the Browns were somehow to score, we wouldn't have missed it. As you know, they yielded a 14-play touchdown drive that took nearly all of the remaining nine minutes off the clock.

    By then we were in the car wondering when the line to leave would start moving. Through the windshield there was just enough daylight left to see glum-faced fellow fans silently straggling away, the shoulders of their souvenir jerseys slumped forward.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014

    Impressive investment at a perilous position

    The new Browns have become known for their rapid turnover at quarterback, 20 different starters since 1999. That's a lot, of course, but it is contextualized and partly explained by this equally astounding figure: over the same time frame, Cleveland has started 39 different men at the two offensive guard positions.

    (Try this quiz to see how many you can name.)

    In other words, a Browns starting guard has kept the position less than 13 games on average. Over the course of 15-plus seasons, they've installed about two-and-a-half new starters each year.

    The longest lasting? Eric Steinbach, 62 games from 2007-2010, and Shawn Lauvao, 44 starts from 2010-2013.

    One of several blatantly bad personnel decisions at guard was allowing Shaun O'Hara to leave in free agency after he'd started 38 games from 2000-2003. He ended up making three Pro Bowls in seven years as the Giants' center.

    The highest draft pick the Browns have spent in this area came this year after they showed no interest in re-signing the free agent Lauvao. Here's second-rounder Joel Bitonio, writing in MMQB about his adjustment to the NFL and to adulthood in general.

    After all the flame-outs and flakes, heavy-footed hole-patchers, creaky vets and leaky threats to our quarterbacks' well-being, I like what I'm seeing from Bitonio, who may be the first guard dawg of the new era to earn post-season accolades. Let's hope he holds up, because we've already seen serious statistical shrinkage with the need to plumb the depth chart. He's quickly become the Browns' only indispensable rookie.

     Gregory Shamus/Getty

    Tuesday, October 14, 2014

    The bigger they come...

    Here's how Browns quarterbacks have performed since 1999, categorized by their draft position (regular season and playoffs):

    Draft round W/L record W/L % Pass yards Completion % TDs INTs
    1 35-75 31.8% 22,485 57.9% 119 122
    2-4 13-38 25.5% 9,747 59.1% 45 54
    5-end 16-25 39.0% 8,194 51.6% 50 58
    undrafted 16-28 36.4% 9,568 60.7% 56 51

    This data dive was inspired by the recent success of Brian Hoyer, one of the undrafteds, who continues to hold off first-round rookie Johnny Manziel. Hoyer's the only Browns starter in this era with a winning record.

    For your reference, here are the QBs in each category, listed in descending order by pass attempts:

    Monday, October 13, 2014

    What a rush! Browns overtake Steelers

    OK, I think they're for real. As you may have heard, the Browns yesterday dismantled the Steelers 31-10, their largest margin of victory in the series in a full quarter century.

    There are several storylines of interest here, from the satisfaction of a convincing division win, to the season-ending broken leg of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, to the gritty performance of the hobbled and harried Browns defense, to the prospect of continuing this roll against three subpar opponent on the immediate horizon.

    Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Browns should be favored over the Jaguars, Raiders, and Buccaneers (combined record of 1-13). If they convert, they'd be 6-2 heading into a crucial Thursday night showdown at Cincinnati. Then they'd have All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon back from suspension to face three middling teams -- the Texans, Falcons, and Bills -- before a challenging stretch run in December.

    To focus on one aspect of the Browns success, take a look at the three-headed monster in the backfield:
    They stuck with the top two yesterday, sending a message to West, the rookie third-round draftee, by benching him in favor of Glenn Winston, who, like Crowell, is an undrafted rookie with considerable upside despite some past character demerits.

    Assuming West satisfies the coaches with improved attitude and pass blocking, he'll return to complete the most balanced and productive tailback ensemble in many years. They're averaging 143 yards per game, which puts them on pace for 2,288 for the season. Not since Jim Brown's peak year of 1963 have three Browns combined for as many rushing yards.

    All three of them are decisive and powerful, good fits for Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking, one-cut approach. Each has his strengths and weaknesses. 

    Tate, the veteran, has good vision in the open field and is shifty enough to threaten the second level of defenders. But he's had injury problems throughout his pro career, and his smallish hands make him less than an ideal receiver and a fumble risk (ten in 40 games over three years in Houston).

    Crowell flies off the TV screen with a very strong burst, allowing him to find and attack seams in a hurry. His biggest area to improve may be concentration. We saw a few ball-security lapses against the Steelers. As he matures, he stands to become a more complete player worthy of a higher proportion of snaps.

    West finishes his runs well, leveraging his compact frame to churn ahead and fall forward for extra yards. If he could use that physicality as a pass blocker, he'd be a more viable option on third down.

    While the group's rushing productivity is high, none of them has stood out as a preferred option in the passing game. Rookie fullback Ray Agnew deserves credit for some strong lead blocking, and he may be their best pass protector in the backfield. 

    The trio has totaled just six catches for 28 yards, mostly by West. Agnew's been targeted five times with just one reception. This indicates that the Browns could benefit if one of their talented runners could step up to provide reliable blitz pick-up and glide into the flat as a checkdown option.

    Screen passes, at least to running backs, are essentially absent from the Browns' game plan.

    It will be interesting to see if West remains in the doghouse, if Winston will join the rotation, how much the loss of Mack up front will hurt, and whether the Browns continue to keep their stable fresh and hungry with a balanced workload.

    It's hard to argue with this kind of success. The Browns' 349 rushing yards is their highest season total against the Steelers since 1966.

    Cleveland ranks third in rushing yards per game, despite no single run longer than 29 yards. Their eight rushing touchdowns leads the league.

    The offensive unit as a whole averages 6.0 yards per offensive play, tied with Dallas for fifth. They're top 10 in many categories including points per game, first downs per game, and turnover margin, despite having the fewest completed passes of any team.

    Yesterday, eight was enough.

    Ben Tate gears up to get past Troy Polamalu. Jason Miller/Getty photo.