Browns, once again, have made a coaching change. But this time it’s different. Instead of getting a random coordinator such as Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, or Mike Pettine, they went after someone with plenty of experience and who was targeted by other teams. The move was surprising among the fans. However, the team has fully committed to analytics and have yet to hire a general manager. Owner Jimmy Haslam has mentioned the team is going through a complete rebuilding process . . . again. It looks like it will be another interesting offseason in Cleveland. So here’s a breakdown of the current roster and potential ways they can improve it.
Quarterback: Ah, yes. The position the Browns have struggled with since their return in 1999. Tim Couch is still the only quarterback to lead them to the playoffs, and he didn’t even play in the game. But that’s another story. In 2015, the Browns added veteran Josh McCown despite the front office and fans wanting to see Johnny Manziel under center. After the preseason, the team added Austin Davis who failed to make the Rams opening day roster. The previous season, Davis caught the eye of the NFL similar to Brian Hoyer with the Browns. But St.Louis didn’t see the need to retain him. McCown’s season actually went better than expected despite the concussion on the first drive of the season. He broke a Brown’s passing game record with a victory over the Ravens in Baltimore, which was the only game they won with him. Johnny Manziel eventually got his time to shine. In front of the home crowd, he beat the Titans and 49ers. He became the first Browns quarterback in history to rush over 100 yards in a game, week 16 in Kansas City. Austin Davis, unfortunately, didn’t do much better this past season, struggling in his only two starts which were against divisional rivals. During the season, Manziel continued to get negative media attention. An episode in Avon Lake with his girlfriend, lying to Pettine about partying during the bye week, and his alter persona, Billy Manziel. Several reports state that the hiring of Hue Jackson has put an end to the Manziel era in Cleveland. It still has yet to be official. The free agent market is headlined by names such as Sam Bradford, Kirk Cousins, and Brock Osweiler. It is highly unlikely either of them will come to shores of Lake Erie. That means the team will turn to the draft, where they hold the 2nd and 32nd pick. California’s Jared Goff, Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz could be next on the Browns radar. Prediction: Johnny Manziel is done. McCown, Davis, and whoever is drafted will battle out for the starting job. Hue Jackson will begin his first season with a critical decision that could impact the whole season. Huh? Where have I heard this before?
Current Grade: C-
Running Backs: Browns struggled with the run game all season long. The offensive line’s inconsistent play left very little for Isaiah Crowell and rookie Duke Johnson to work with. Cleveland still hasn’t had an 1,000 yard rusher since Peyton Hillis in 2010. Free agents include Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Alfred Morris. I can see a possibility they talk to Morris, but I think he stays with the Redskins. Browns fans who also enjoy Ohio State football, such as myself, would love to see Ezekiel Elliot tear across the field in First Energy Stadium. I personally don’t see the Browns using the number 2 pick or trading up to get him. Prediction: Coach Jackson has already expressed admiration for Crowell and Johnson. I think he sticks with them and finds ways to improve the o-line. In Cincinnati, he rotated Bernard and Hill throughout the game. I can see a similar strategy for next season. Expect another back to be drafted in the later rounds.
Current Grade: B
Wide Receivers: The Browns had a decent receiving year overall. They still had issues holding on to the ball in the end zone. Travis Benjamin had his best season yet, falling short of 1,000 yards receiving. I expect a handful of teams to approach him when free agency starts. Canton native, Brian Hartline, struggled at the beginning of the season and came through in clutch situations as the season progressed. Andrew Hawkins started as the number one receiver on depth chart, and was almost non-existent. When Farmer signed him, the idea was to keep him in the slot where he thrived on the field. Putting him in the best receiver position didn’t help the team. Marlon Moore and Taylor Gabriel continued to have balls bounce off their hands all season long. Dwayne Bowe sat and made more money than most of the team. Terrell Pryor showed flashes of potential on the receiving end, but still needs more opportunities if he’s going to prove to the league he is a true wide receiver. Fans are still hoping Josh Gordon can return to original form and stay out of trouble. I expect fans to call out names such as Alshon Jeffery when free agency starts, but I don’t see the Browns offering big money to receivers this coming offseason. The draft has a great receiving class this year, including a personal favorite of mine, Laquon Treadwell out of Ole Miss. Prediction: Browns will resign Benjamin and may add a quality veteran along with him. Jackson has coached Pryor before, so watch him resign for a second chance with the team. Dwayne Bowe will be released. Josh Gordon will be with the team when training camp starts. Even though Ray Farmer is no longer the general manager, expect the Browns to not draft a receiver with their first four picks. I hope I’m wrong but I just see them addressing other needs.
Current Grade: C
Offensive Line: Just as Johnny Manziel’s season was similar to a comedy television show, the offensive line’s season could be viewed as a soap opera. The Browns had picked Cameron Erving out of Florida State with their second first round choice. This was to add depth to what was already a solid o-line group. I remember talking to other fans about how they were going to be the team’s strength this past season . . . so we thought. The season starts, and the offensive line coach made the news. The guy had a troubled past and was accused of hitting a female guest in his home. The line continued to have problems opening holes for the run game and limiting pressure in pass protection. Trade deadline came, and fans were surprised to hear their two best players, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, were being offered. The Browns made no deal at the deadline. Joe Bitonio and John Greco suffer injuries which ended their season. Cameron Erving gets his time to shine and flops. It got so bad that Pettine replaced him with someone off the practice squad until the final game. Mitchell Schwartz has his best season yet, and falls short of making the Pro Bowl roster. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack made the Pro Bowl roster. After Pettine was fired, Thomas hinted he may ask to be traded depending on the moves Haslam does to improve the coaching staff and front office within the next month. However, since the hiring of Jackson and Sashi Brown, Thomas has a new attitude and looks forward to playing with the Browns next season. The draft has a solid offensive line class, headlined by top five pick, Laremy Tunsil out of Ole Miss. Free agency has a few names such as Seattle’s Russell Okung, Cincinnati’s Eric Winston, and Browns own Mitchell Schwartz. Prediction: Browns will offer one big contract this offseason and it will be to Schwartz. Alex Mack will opt out of his contract and say farewell to his friend, Thomas (I hope I’m really wrong about that). Cameron Erving will be a much improved player next season and will become an important piece of the line. Bitonio will bounce back from his injury and resume duties at left guard. I suspect the Browns to draft an o-lineman with one of their first three picks in the draft.
Current Grade: C
Tight End: One of the few positions the Browns have been able to consistently use well since their return in 1999. From the dynamic duo of Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea, to Kellen Winslow Jr.’s Pro Bowl season in 2007, and former basketball player, Jordan Cameron, and his 2013 Pro Bowl season. The team entered their 2015 season with uncertainty who their everyday starter would be. Until a win in Baltimore in week 5 caught the league and the fans attention. In that game, Gary Barnidge had 8 receptions, 139 yards, and 1 touchdown. That touchdown was one of the best catches you will ever see. He ended his season with 1, 043 reception yards and a franchise best 9 touchdowns. After Patriot’s Rob Gronkowski decided to deny his Pro Bowl invitation, Barnidge was chosen as a replacement. Before the season ended, Barnidge signed a three-year extension. He has been a blessing to the team on and off the field. Always good to the fans and has a charity that helps the community around him. However, the man is thirty-one. That is young in life but old in football. The Browns had little depth behind the man. Expect that to change. Prediction: Browns will look in free agency to find some talent for the right price. Names such as Mercedes Lewis and Zach Miller are possibilities. I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked a tight end in the mid to late rounds of the draft. Expect Jackson to keep Barnidge as an important weapon in the Browns offense. I don’t think this season was a fluke.
Current Grade: B for Barnidge
Defensive Line: Browns, once again, were one of the worst rush defenses in the league this year. But at the same time, you can’t place all the blame on the linemen. Starting from the beginning, the Browns signed John Hughes to an extension and then signed veteran Randy Starks last free agency. With the 12th overall pick in the draft, they selected defensive tackle Danny Shelton from the University of Washington. After the preseason, the team made a surprising move trading Billy Winn to the Colts. The defensive line consistently brought pressure on every play, but it never was enough. Despite how some fans feel about Shelton, I thought he had a solid rookie season. His job was to take up space in the middle and help stop the run, and he did that. Opposing teams found that running around the outside was the best way to wear down the defense. Shelton was avoided most of the season, which is actually a compliment to him if you think about it. The combination of Shelton, Starks, and Desmond Bryant worked the best. The majority of sacks and stops came from that trio. Armonty Bryant got in legal trouble again. John Hughes and rookie Xavier Cooper seemed non-existent. The team has a talented group right now, but they need to be better coached and more depth is mandatory going into next season. As much as I would like to see it happen, it’s doubtful they draft Ohio States’ Joey Bosa with the 2nd pick. The 2016 free agent class has a lot of defensive line talent to be desired such as B.J. Raji and Jason Pierre-Paul. Prediction: Browns will address the defensive line in the offseason. There maybe a move or two in free agency, but the draft is where the team will go to upgrade the line. Desmond Bryant and Randy Starks aren’t young players, so they’ll go with some youth that could start when needed.
Current Grade: C
Linebacker: When a team runs a 3-4 defensive plays they rely on three defensive linemen and four linebackers. The Browns pretty much ran a 3-3 defense all season. Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby, and Craig Robertson continued to play to their best ability every game. Ray Farmer didn’t give Pettine enough to fill the right outside linebacker position. In Farmer’s defense, I don’t think he saw the problems coming with that specific position. Going into training camp, Scott Solomon was named the starter. After two different injuries in two games, Solomon was placed on the injured reserve list. Barkevious Mingo tried filling that hole for most of the season, but his performance was inconsistent. Second-round draft pick, Nate Orchard, started the last few games of the season. Orchard showed he could bring his pass rushing ability to the pro level, but other than that I don’t think we got a good look into his ability. In the player’s defense, I question the coaching at the defensive side of the ball. I’m more pointing fingers at Jim O’neil than Mike Pettine. Fans questioned strategies from the team’s defensive coordinator that seemed to consistently hurt the team more than help. A prime example was using Paul Kruger as a coverage linebacker. Kruger is one of the best pass rushers in the league and coverage is not a strong point of his. Opposing teams took advantage of that mistake. Ray Horton is back in Cleveland so hopefully we’ll see improvement. Craig Robertson is a free agent this year. Some of the biggest free agent names include Von Miller and Bruce Irvin. Prediction: Craig Robertson signs a long term deal to stay in Cleveland. Browns may add someone in free agency such as Emmanuel Lamar from the Bengals, who may want to reunite with Hue Jackson. Mid to late-round draft picks could be used to add depth. I believe the Barkevious Mingo experiment is over. I expect he’ll be traded or released.
Current Grade: B-
Defensive Backs: Watching the Browns defensive backs play this past season was similar to watching a straight A’s student struggle with math because the teacher lacked the ability to teach it properly. Seriously. Some fans may disagree with me when I say that we had a one of the best defensive back groups in the NFL. The numbers may not back up my statement, but hear me out. One of the first signings the Browns had in 2015 was Pro Bowler Tramon Williams from the Packers. On paper the Browns had four Pro Bowlers starting including Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, and Tashaun Gipson. During the draft, Farmer picked two potential starting cornerbacks in Louisville’s Charles Gains and Oregon’s Ifo Ekrpe-Olomu. Fans didn’t get a chance to see Ekrpe-Olomu this season due to a torn ACL he suffered during Oregon’s playoff game against Florida State. Before the injury he was predicted to be a top 10 pick in the draft. Getting him in the 7th round could have been the biggest steal in the draft. If he works out, fans could say Farmer made up for the Justin Gilbert pick. The snowball effect happened to the whole team in general but it seemed to hit the defensive backs harder than anyone else. Haden gets two concussions and only plays five games the whole season. Whitner and Gipson suffer injuries throughout the season. Charles Gains misses half the season but comes back and does a solid job. Pierre Desir got a lot of playing time this season and showed some flashes of a reliability on the field. Despite the praise Pettine gave Gilbert during practices, you rarely saw the 1st rounder step onto the field. He had no problem joining Manziel, Gordon, and Bryant to the list of Browns players getting bad media attention. Fans still sit here day dreaming of using that pick on Sammy Watkins or Odell Beckham Jr. But I digress. Fans and analyst questioned how the talent was being used by Jim O’neal. I remember Browns legend Bernie Kosar breaking down bad defensive play calls in the middle of the season. This made me believe coach had a lot to do with their issues. Again, we need to pull for Ray Horton. Some flashy names in free agency include Prince Amukamara, Josh Norman, Janoris Jenkins, Eric Weddle, and Eric Berry. Prediction: Browns sign Tashaun Gipson to a long term deal. They may add a player or two sometime this coming offseason, but I don’t see them loading up on defensive backs. Then again, come draft time they surprise people. I can see them finding a younger strong safety to learn from Whitner since he’s nearing the end of his career. Justin Gilbert’s days are done in Cleveland. Coaching will turn this squad around.
Current Grade: B+
Special Teams: Say what you want about the handful of block kicks they had, this special teams unit came through when they are needed. Travis Coons set the record for most field goals made in row for a rookie kicker. Andy Lee came in and had a Pro Bowl type season after being traded from the 49ers. But don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of room for improvement. For starters, blocked kicks need to stop. The problem, unfortunately, was the blocking from the 1st round picks, Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving. There needs to be better preparation in order to prevent that. This is the first time this team has had this problem, believe it or not. The next issue that needs to be presented is kick and punt returning. Browns are still looking for the next Josh Cribbs. Travis Benjamin showed flashes of it the past few years, especially in punt returns. But after a few fumbles and a promotion to starting wide receiver, the team went with other options. I understand new NFL rules have ruined the kick return game, but there has to be something done to avoid average returns. Coach Jackson has retained Chris Tabor as coordinator. He has been with Cleveland since Pat Shurmur was hired. Four different coaches? Give the guy some credit, he’s done something right to stay with them all. Despite these problems the team stays aggressive when kicking off, Coons has made field goals, and Lee can boot the pig skin with the best of them. Yes, I know special teams isn’t something to brag about, but it’s one of their only bright spots. Prediction: Haslam’s analytics crew finds two returners to help the team with their return issues. Andy Lee stays as punter. Travis Coons had a great season, but when there’s room for improvement there will be changes. Browns will make the case he is accurate but his leg strength could be better. They don’t want a Billy Cundiff situation all over again. Fans will wake up one morning and it will be like Christmas. Did they get their quarterback? No, don’t be silly. But a fan favorite will return to Cleveland. They’ll turn on their morning news and find out that free agent Phil Dawson has decided to return the shores of Lake Erie. He will spend his last seasons in a Browns uniform. I hope I’m right.
Current Grade: B+