Sunday, January 6, 2013

Off-season Diagnosis: Cleveland Browns

Note: I am going to attempt to look at all 32 NFL teams over the next few weeks as the offseason nears. First up, the Cleveland Browns. I am using to project pending free agents, and will diagnose what positions need filled via the draft. I will name a few prospects at those positions.

First up: Cleveland Browns

History has never treated the city of Cleveland well, at least in the sports world and the Browns are no exception to this "rule." With that said, this offseason could turn the NFL on its back, and turn the Browns into....wait for it....A PLAYOFF TEAM. This team is in a position that most franchises dream about. Take away, the history, jerseys, and you would look at this roster and tell yourself, there is a ton of talent here. In football, there are three vital positions. Quarterback, left tackle, and shutdown corner. The Browns have two of these in place for years to come. Joe Thomas is a top five tackle, and Joe Haden is a good corner who is still improving. These are good building blocks. Throw in Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon and you have a nice young nucleolus.
Richardson is one of a few nice building
blocks in Cleveland.

With this said the Browns still have an ample amount of questions to answer this offseason. First up, who will be the head coach? It appeared that Chip Kelly will be on his way to employ his spread attack, but he passed on the NFL (for now) and is headed back to Oregon. (Side note: I think Chip is waiting for the Panthers to lay an egg, so he can go coach Cam Newton, or take a job next offseason with a top three pick so he can land Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater, two QB's that would thrive in his system). Who will coach the Browns? I believe they will go with a coach who has proven himself in the league. The Pat Shurmer experiment just didn't work. How about Lovie Smith? He is coming off a 10 win season, is a proven guy who can help this young Browns defense become one of the best units in the league. Smith is well respected around the league, and could help lure veteran talent, something that is not easy to do in Cleveland (because of the lack of success, not the city). Maybe they look to a guy like Ken Whisenhunt who like Smith, is respected and has head coaching experience. Whoever the coach is will have his work cut out for him. Here are the offseason priorities the Browns must address.

First up, resign Sheldon Brown. The veteran corner finished as the 22nd best corner in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, and tied the team high with three interceptions. He is a stabilizing force in the secondary, and has 2-3 more years of solid football in him. He can be had for the right price. His current deal is around $3.7 million so he is not too pricey. The Browns should also look to resign Ben Watson, a reliable tight end who would be tough to replace.

Next, let Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs go. While both are fan favorites, and very reliable players, its time to move on. Dawson has received the franchise tag the past two seasons, and will command a decent amount of money for a kicker. He is 37 years old, so even if Cleveland retains him, they will be looking for a new kicker any year now. Go out and draft a young kicker in the late rounds or sign one for dirt cheap. This teams has holes, why waste cap space on a kicker? Cribbs is even more of a waste. I know that hurts Cleveland fans, but he caught 7(?!!!?) balls this season, and is only a threat in the return game. He has never became the receiving threat that many had hoped he would be. Travis Benjamin, a rookie out of Miami is a better receiver, and can handle the return game for years to come. This team is probably a few years away from being a consistent winner, and Cribbs is tired of being part of a rebuilding project. Let him walk, and move on.

Andy Levitre should be the Browns
top focus in FA.
Cleveland should also look to let go of Colt McCoy. Him and Weeden are almost the same player, and while Weeden wasn't spectacular, he certainly looks to have more upside than McCoy, who doesn't possess the arm strength to get it done in this league. The team should then look to bring in a solid veteran QB who can not only help Weeden, but even push for the starting job. A guy like Jason Campbell, or Matt Moore would be a nice fit. The line needs some retooling, especially the guard spot. Andy Levitre from Buffalo would be a great fit. He will command good money, but the Browns have money to spend. He is only 26, and has his best years ahead of him. If the Browns can construct an elite line, they could be a force for years. A top tier wide receiver and pass rushing specialist are the other two needs. With no elite QB in town, it may be tough to bring in a guy like Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace. One name to keep an eye on is Dwane Bowe. If the Browns are willing to pay the man, he can be had. Cliff Avril, Osi Umenyiora, and Randy Starks are three defensive linemen that Cleveland should look into.

While the Browns could be very active in free agency, they will likely look to retool via the NFL draft. They own the sixth overall pick, and wont be looking for a QB (which is a good thing in this years draft). Cleveland is in a perfect spot to trade, its just a question of moving up or down. History tells us they would prefer to move down (mega trade with Atlanta a few years back) but this is a new regime for the organization. Regardless, I believe they will be looking DE or CB. Remember, they could lose Sheldon Brown, and even if they do retain him, his age is a major issue. DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner out of Alabama would be a nice fit, and if they trade down, Johnthan Banks out of Mississippi State would be an option.Both these two young corners would fit nicely across from Joe Haden. My belief is, if they stay at six, they will take Bjoern Werner (FSU) or Jarvis Jones (Georgia) if either are available. Both are stud pass rushers, and Werner would solve the DE problem. The rest of the Browns draft will consist of guards, defensive /linemen/d-backs, and those areas of the team. They filled most of the WR core with players such as Travis Benjamin and Josh Morgan in last years draft. Running back is in good hand for the next 8-10 years, and you just spent a first round pick on a QB. Cleveland needs to use this draft to improve the other areas of the team, and trust that the young play makers will develop.

The Browns have been rebuilding for years now, but never have they been this close to becoming a playoff contending team. Baltimore is old and losing a few key players (#52). Pittsburgh has their problems, and will likely lose Mike Wallace (Heath Miller will be out awhile too). Cincinnati shouldn't scare anyone. They backed into the playoffs, and there are plenty of questions around Andy Dalton. While it may not seem possible, the Browns are very close to becoming AFC North contenders, but make no mistake, they will have to earn it.

Weeden will be the key to Cleveland's success going forward.
Lastly, the Browns can have a stellar draft, T-Rich can become a top 5 NFL running back, they can bring in whoever they want to help bolster the receiving core, and Vince Lombardi himself could be hired as coach... It wont matter unless someone (I'm looking at you Brandon Weeden) becomes legitimate NFL QB and can make plays to win ballgames. John Elway doesn't have to walk through that door (after all, Andy Dalton has made the playoffs two years in a row out of the North) but there must be a consistent leader who can make plays under center. Will the Browns FINALLY get overt that hump? Or will they fall flat their face, right back into rebuilding mode? This offseason will go a long way in answering these questions.

---Lee Kunkel

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