Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Moves leave no shortage of draft needs

Here's a quick summary of how the Browns have reshaped the roster by positional group this off-season. The bulk of free agency is now past, and the focus is clearly on the draft. In both cap space and draft picks, the team stands in very good shape, so we can still expect major changes before the 2014 Browns take the field. This post is mainly designed to point the finger at where those changes should occur.

OFFENSE

QB -- Gained: nobody. Lost: Brandon Weeden (cut, now with DAL), Jason Campbell (cut, now with CIN). Current quality and depth: Only Brian Hoyer and Alex Tanney remain, so it's obvious that the Browns will draft a quarterback. Just who that is --  and how high -- are the biggest pending questions of 2014. I expect the Browns to open camp with four QBs, so if they don't double up using a later pick, look for a veteran like Rex Grossman to sign after the draft. Need level: Very high.

RB -- Gained: Ben Tate (2-year UFA deal, HOU). Lost: Willis McGahee (UFA, unsigned). Current quality and depth: The Browns went from riches to rags at this position in the span of a month last year. Tate's a clear upgrade over the washed-up McGahee. But with his injury history, the supporting cast of Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis, Edwin Baker, Fozzy Whittaker, and Jamaine Cook could stand an upgrade from a mid-to-late-round runner, plus a true fullback. Need level: Medium.

WR -- Gained: Andrew Hawkins (4-year RFA deal, CIN). Lost: Davone Bess (cut, unsigned), Brian Tyms (waived, unsigned). Current quality and depth: We have a true #1 in Josh Gordon and a capable slot man in Hawkins. Drop-prone Greg Little almost certainly will play his last year in Cleveland in 2014 if he hasn't already. Travis Benjamin should be back for return duties and as an occasional big-play threat using his straight-line speed. Maybe Charles Johnson will emerge, but I'd be shocked if the Browns didn't use this deep draft to target at least one viable starter opposite Gordon. Need level: High.

TE -- Gained: Jim Dray (3-year UFA deal, ARI). Lost: nobody. Current quality and depth: Six tight ends now fill the roster, including Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, who's entering the last year of his rookie contract. The only priorities here are to re-sign him and decide who else makes the cut. Dray seems favored to be the top backup over Gary Barnidge, and I'm interested in seeing how MarQueis Gray develops as well. Need level: Low.

OL -- Gained: Paul McQuistan (2-year UFA deal, SEA). Lost: Shaun Lauvao (UFA, now with WAS), Oniel Cousins (UFA, now with TAM+). Pending: Alex Mack (transition tag). Current quality and depth: If the season started today, I guess the starters, left to right, would be Joe Thomas, John Greco, Mack, McQuistan, and Mitchell Schwartz. But I wouldn't wager $10, even at 3:1 odds, on that lineup for Week 1. Jason Pinkston may actually be the team's best guard. Chris Faulk could push for a starting job. Mack may still leave, or miss OTAs/minicamp before signing his one-year bonanza. Who knows what the new staff thinks of this crew? Given all their picks and the quality of the draft pool, I expect at least one lineman to be chosen, but it could be anywhere from their top pick to a late-round flyer. If Auburn's Greg Robinson is somehow available with the fourth pick, he'd be hard to pass up. Need level: Medium.

DEFENSE

DL -- Gained: nobody. Lost: nobody. Current quality and depth: On paper, it's the strongest unit on the team, but there are question marks. Ahtyba Rubin is set to earn a hefty $6.6 million in the last year of his contract. Former first-rounder Phil Taylor will also be a free agent after 2014 as things stand. Pricey 2013 signee Desmond Bryant is set to come back after being sidelined by a heart condition. Behind them are some able young players including Billy Winn, John Hughes, and Armonty Bryant. Need level: Very low.

LB -- Gained: Karlos Dansby (4-year UFA deal, ARI). Lost: D'Qwell Jackson (cut, now with IND), Paul Hazel (waived, now with HOU). Current quality and depth: The OLB positions go two-deep with Jabaal Sheard (entering his contract year), Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, and Quentin Groves. But depth inside is a problem. Dansby is a great player but is 32. Craig Robertson had a rough first season as a starter. Solidifying the middle, particularly in pass coverage, should be an important draft priority. Need level: High.

CB -- Gained: Isaiah Trufant (2-year UFA deal, NYJ), Royce Adams (street FA, NYJ), Brandon Hughes (street FA, PHI). Lost: Chris Owens (cut late in 2013, now with KC). Current quality and depth: Joe Haden is a premiere player who's expected to sign an extension in the coming weeks. Buster Skrine emerged as a legitimate starter, though he's better suited covering slot receivers. The off-season pickups are marginal, the tiny Trufant being a special teams cover guy, Adams a local kid who caught Pettine's eye in New York, and Hughes a young veteran signed coming off injury by the ousted front office regime. The play for Darrelle Revis failed, and last year's third-rounder Leon McFadden remains unproven, so it's essential that a potential starter be drafted, preferably of the taller variety, by the early third round. Need level: Very High.

S -- Gained: Donte Whitner (4-year UFA deal, SF). Lost: T.J. Ward (UFA, now with DEN). Current quality and depth: It's debatable whether the Browns upgraded in letting Ward walk and signing the slightly older Cleveland native Whitner. It's also debatable whether Tashaun Gipson will prove much more than a replacement level starter. Behind them is nothing but low-round or undrafted potential (Josh Aubrey, Jamoris Slaughter, Jordan Poyer, et al). While not as critical as CB, there's certainly no reason to exempt this position from consideration on the team's draft board. Need level: High.

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