Somehow It Got Worse: How to Fix the Cleveland Browns
Last year, when I said that, I was referring to Cleveland Brown from the “Family Guy”, basically because his spinoff show was cancelled by Fox. Yup, Cleveland had to schlep it back to Quohog to return as a secondary cast member of the “Family Guy”. And if that wasn’t bad enough, some people hated Cleveland Brown so much, they considered being associated with him to be insult. One guy even SUED Marlon Wayans for saying he looked like Cleveland Brown. Seriously, it got THAT bad for him. But even with that, I feel worse for the Cleveland Browns football team.
In fact, after a dismal 3-13 season, where they were outscored by a whopping combined 154 points, had the 3rd worst scoring offense, were in the bottom ten for both total offense and total defense and had the fifth worst turnover differential (-7) in the league, there’s little reason for optimism. I’m sure Browns fans remember the time where there was reason for optimism, such as when now continuously suspended Josh Gordon was looking to be NFL’s number one WR, and when people actually were happy to associate the greatness of LeBron James with the potential of Johnny Manziel. Now this photo just makes people cringe.
It seems that Cleveland is perpetually rebuilding. And this year is no different. Head coach Mike Pettine is out and Hue Jackson is in. OC John DeFilippo lasted only one season, his only time as a coordinator. Pep Hamilton, who has had success in Indianapolis before he was let go in November 2015, has been instilled as the QB coach and essentially OC, so perhaps we see some growth with whoever the Browns QB will be. Plus, owner Jimmy Haslem went out and got Paul DePodesta, of “Moneyball” fame, from the New York Mets. Perhaps for his next move, he can pick up a few Major League Baseball players as well. Can’t be worse than who they already have on the team, particularly at QB.
I think it’s time to look forward, Cleveland. And with $33,223,128 in projected cap space this off season, good for 9th most in the NFL, what better time than now?
So here’s the $33 Million question: with all the problems that the Browns organization has, where does one start? Almost everything is a mess.
On defense, the Browns pass rush was abysmal having the 5th least sacks (29) while allowing the 3rd highest passer rating (101.8) to opposing QBs in the NFL. The secondary wasn’t much better with the 2nd least passes defended (53). Tramon Williams was supposed one of the best off season acquisitions for the Browns, but only had 10 pass defenses and 1 INT total through the entire season. Part of the issue, perhaps, is a much-less-effective Joe Haden who was also out due to injury for all but four games. Perhaps most interesting is that the Browns pass defense actually regressed after obtaining Williams, as they actually had the 8th best pass defense in 2014.
The offense wasn’t much better, as the offensive line allowed the second most total sacks (53) leading to the third most yards lost on sacks (374) of any team in the NFL. With that, it’s amazing that QB Josh McCown managed a respectable 63.7% completion percentage with 12 TDs and only 4 INTs. In fact, his passer rating of 93.3 was actually higher than Aaron Rodgers (92.7). Of course, McCown was limited to just 8 games due to a litany of injuries leading to his temporary demotion and ultimately landing him on IR with a broken clavicle. And let’s not even start with the mess that is Johnny Manziel.
Not only did EVP Sasha Brown imply that Manziel would be cut, but then Manziel’s agent, Erik Burkhart, dropped him. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, Manziel’s ex-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, filed an affidavit with a request for a restraining order indicating that Manziel hit her so hard he ruptured her eardrum and then forced her into a car threatening to “kill” them both. Clearly, Manziel won’t be back with the Browns, nor is he likely to be back in football anywhere. And as far as Austin Davis is concerned, he might be a decent QB3, but he doesn’t look promising as a starter, at least from his short audition during the regular season.
With respect to receiving options, the Browns leading receiver, and rare offensive brightspot in a lost year, was Pro Bowler TE Gary Barnidge (1043 receiving yards and 9 TDs, averaging 65.2 yards/game). And working with a merry-go-round of QBs didn’t stop WR Travis Benjamin from having a productive year (966 yards and 5 TDs, averaging 60.4 yards/game).
The ground game wasn’t quite as successful, as the Browns totaled the second least rushing TDs (5) in the NFL, BUT did end up with a healthy 4.0 yards per carry behind the efforts of Isaiah Crowell. There was significant excitement regarding rookie RB Duke Johnson, but he turned out being a better pass catching back (and part time slot receiver) than between-the-tackles runner. In fact, his 61 receptions, tied for second most for a Browns rookie. Regardless, the Browns play calling didn’t help the ground game either, totaling the 6th least rushing attempts (380) in the NFL. Part of the problem was simply being in catch-up mode in most games, but to be successful, the Browns will have to find some improved balance.
At least K Travis Coons worked out, for the most part, as he was money from short range (21 of 21 up to 39 yards) but had some trouble with distance (7-11 from 40+ yards).
Wow, where to begin?
Just about everything needs to be fixed, but some are in worst shape than others. In the category of “OK for now” is the RB situation. Crowell wasn’t great, but he was a fine early down option that really improved late in the year, averaging 5.23 yards per carry over the final 5 games and scoring 3 of his 4 rushing TDs. In combination with Duke Johnson in a complementary/passing back role, the Browns can de-prioritize the RB situation.
I’m also not thrilled with the offensive line, but if the Browns can keep C Alex Mack, who has an option to void the last 3 years of his restricted free agent deal, and the Browns can find a little help in free agency, I think draft resources are best focused elsewhere. I’m not completely sold on the necessity of keeping free agent RT Mitchell Schwartz, primarily because his 2015 season was the best we’ve seen so far, which may drive the price up by putting the Browns in competition with a number of other suitors. I think resources may be best directed elsewhere, but have no issue with retaining Schwartz if possible.
The top need for the Browns is clearly at QB, as although McCown is a passable transition QB, he’s not the QB of the future. The Browns have him under contract for 2 more years at an acceptable price of $5 million per year (though a bit high in my opinion), and there’s a real dearth in QB talent heading to free agency, so looking at the draft maybe the best option. I don’t think anyone is going to debate this, as the QB position in Cleveland has been the most volatile in the NFL. Just check out this terrific graphic from Business Insider:
The next need, in my opinion, is on defense, both on the line and at linebacker. On this front, the Browns will have free agent OLB Craig Robertson to deal with, but honestly, unless they can retain him on the cheap, there may be better options (or at least similar options) available in free agency. Again, this may be a spot to focus on in the draft.
The last major need is at WR. This, in part, depends on what happens with suspended WR Josh Gordon. Assuming he’s reinstated AND the Browns feel like he’s learned his lesson and can be productive without being a distraction off the field (we all know the Browns can use a LOT less of that), then keeping him makes a lot of sense. Either way, the Browns should know whether Gordon is reinstated before the draft. Along with re-signing free agent WR Travis Benjamin, and the TE Gary Barnidge, who has already been locked up for 3 years, perhaps taking some chances late in the draft will be sufficient. WR Brian Hartline was serviceable, but cutting him could clear some cap space as well, so I don’t think he’s a lock to return.
With the Harvard brain trust of Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta at the helm, perhaps the Browns can finally make use of their draft picks.
The Browns again, essentially, have two first round picks. There are only 31 picks in this year’s first round because of the NFL’s penalty on the New England Patriots, so the Browns have the No. 2 and 32 picks. It sounds good, but honestly, first round picks have been wildly inconsistent in recent history (Brady Quinn, Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel come to mind). And although they haven’t had much success with first round QBs, I think one of those picks this year should be a QB.
The big question is “which QB to take and when”. Do you use the No. 2 overall pick to “reach” for a QB or do you go with value and hope to snag one of the top 4 QBs with No. 32?
I think the problem is that there are a number of teams that have picks in the first round ahead of No. 32 that also need a QB. For example, the Cowboys, 49ers, Eagles, Rams and Texans all could use a QB and have picks that fall between 2 and 32. So, in my opinion, seeing as how there’s very little in terms of QB quality in free agency, drafting a potential franchise QB is incredibly important for the Browns and should be the focus of the No. 2 pick.
So now that we have the “when”, let’s turn to the “which QB to take” question. In my opinion, there’s only 2 QBs to consider with the No. 2 overall pick, and that’s Jared Goff (Cal) and Carson Wentz (North Dakota State). Arguments can be made for considering Paxton Lynch (Memphis) and Connor Cook (Michigan State), but honestly, I put them in the second tier and wouldn’t spend an early pick on them. If per chance the Browns want to reverse the strategy and build defense first, I don’t have any issue with spending the No. 32 pick on Lynch or Cook, but if we’re going for franchise QB, we really should target the best available in the draft. In addition, I feel this draft, in particular, is deep with defensive talent, so there’s no reason the Browns can’t use their 3rd and 4th round picks on solid defensive picks as well, whereas I’m not willing to gamble on finding QB value that late.
There’s been A LOT of press regarding Wentz, basically due to his outstanding interviews and his performance at the Senior Bowl, more so in practices than in the game itself. He has great physical attributes at 6 feet 5 inches, 232 lbs. and with a 32 and 3/8 inch arm length. He has excellent accuracy and mobility in the pocket and played two years in a pro-style offense, largely under center. In 23 starts in college, he threw 42 TD passes, rushed for 12 and threw only 14 INTs. The NFL comparison made by NFL.com was Blake Bortles, which actually sounds worse than it really is. With these types of measurables, he could end up being closer to Ben Roethlisberger. But Wentz played in the FCS, so its even more unclear how he’ll transition to the big stage, or how representative his competition was in college of what he’ll have to deal with in the NFL. So there’s a significant leap of faith taking Wentz early in the draft, particularly seeing as how he basically was off the map until a month ago.
At 6 feet 4 inches and 215 lbs., Jared Goff doesn’t have the same build that Wentz has, but he does have significant experience running an uptempo offense at Cal. Goff started three years at Cal and amassed some eye-popping stats. In 37 games over those three years, he threw for 96 TDs (a school record) and just 30 INTs. That’s an average of 2.6 TDs and 0.8 INTs per game with a 62.3% completion percentage. He also holds school career records for passing yards (12,200) and completions (977). Clearly, his accuracy and delivery is off the charts (he completed 43.8% of his deep throws), and regardless of playing in a spread offense, he certainly can adapt to the NFL, particularly since Hue Jackson had significant experience coaching at Cal as offensive coordinator and QB coach and will be familiar with what needs to be done to adapt. Perhaps you remember this other Cal product by the name of “Aaron Rodgers”? He seemed to do pretty well for himself in the NFL, and I’m certain Goff has similar potential. The comp identified by NFL.com was Matt Ryan, but I think that’s more his floor than his ceiling.
I honestly would be fine with either QB at no. 2 overall, but, contrary to many draft pundits, slightly prefer Goff. He has a longer track record in college against higher end competition, and Jackson may be exactly the coach he needs to meet his potential in the NFL. Plus, he was thrown into the fire as a freshman, starting for a terrible Cal team, yet still kept his poise and ultimately set numerous single season records while receiving an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick that year. He knows how to play through adversity on a losing team, and he understands what it takes to turn that around, which makes him an excellent candidate for a rebuilding Browns team.
After taking Goff at No. 2, I’d want the Browns to take a DT with No. 32, preferably one of Andrew Billings (Baylor), Vernon Butler (Louisiana Tech) or Chris Jones (Mississippi State), in that order. Although defense is deep in this draft, the Browns could really use some immediate defensive line help, and I believe all three of these players have potential to start right away.
Since the Browns have the ninth-most salary-cap space in the NFL, it’s time to spend in free agency. At this point, though, it’s a little early to figure out who’s likely to be available. So I’ll reserve judgment here, simply noting that seeking a good WR or ILB would be my first priority in free agency, followed by offensive line help.
Some off hand thoughts regarding free agent WR targets include Rishard Matthews, who is an unrestricted free agent from Miami, and Vincent Jackson, assuming Tampa Bay decides to move on from him. Matthews was solid (662 yards and 4 TDs) before suffering an injury in Week 12, but the fact that Miami drafted DeVante Parker last year means that Matthews may not be involved enough in Miami to want to stay. Jackson ended his four 1000-yard season streak with a wimper with only 543 yards and 3 TDs. But part of that might be the fact that rookie Jameis Winston was starting, and part of it could be Matt Evans drawing more targets. Either way, he could be a savvy veteran presence for the Browns, assuming they don’t have to break the bank to get him.
So there you go, Cleveland. Your plan for success.
Oh, I almost forgot. As I said last year, don’t try adding a walking talking cartoon bear. Trust me, it doesn’t work.