With the Cleveland Browns’ new coaching staff in place, attention now turns to the roster. Despite a disappointing 5-11 record last season, the Browns do in fact have many promising pieces in places and, in the grand scheme of things, look only a few moves away from taking a major step forward next year. Competing In one of the toughest divisions in football, new head coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff certainly won’t face an easy task in trying to transform the ill-fated Browns into playoff contenders but one does get the sense that the groundwork is well and truly in place for a legitimate assault to be mounted, especially with around $45million in cap space available (including the 2012 carryover).
Of course, the task of filling those holes on your roster is easier said than done, particularly at this early stage in the year when everything seems to slot into place perfectly on paper. Going into this offseason however, the Browns’ biggest needs are fairly clear-cut compared to previous seasons and, for once, the task of ‘rebuilding’ does not appear quite so daunting. Without further ado then, let’s run through the key areas which the new regime will be looking to address for 2013.
Though Sheldon Brown performed much better in 2012, he’s 34-years-old, a free agent and doesn’t appear to be a fit in Ray Horton’s new 3-4 system, in which the corners will have more man responsibilities. Buster Skrine meanwhile can be a solid slot/nickel guy but shouldn’t be starting on the outside. In essence, the Browns desperately need a number two corner opposite Joe Haden, whose absence from games last year was all too noticeable. Adding a name like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie through free agency, or Dee Milliner in the draft, would give the team a strong combination of starters at the position and go a long way towards shoring up a somewhat leaky pass defense.
With the switch to a 3-4 defense, the Browns are left distinctively lacking in players who can rush the passer from a standing position. As uncertainty surrounds Chris Gocong’s future with the team and with Juqua Parker set to become a free agent, the only genuine option currently on the roster is the team’s sack leader in 2012, Jabaal Shead, whose effectiveness in this new role remains to be seen. The team clearly needs someone on the other side to pressure the quarterback and that’s reflected in the amount of mock drafts flying about which have the team connected to names such as Barkveious Mingo and Damontre Moore with the sixth overall pick. If free agency is ultimately where they look to however, then Detroit’s Cliff Avril would be a very tempting option.
While perhaps not a dire need, guard is certainly a position the Browns should consider addressing. The likes of Shawn Lauvao, John Greco, Ryan Miller and Jason Pinkston (before he landed on IR) were all adequate at best last year and though their continued presence in the starting line-up likely would not hurt the team too badly, a genuine upgrade would certainly be appreciated. In the form of Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns already have the makings of an elite offensive line and the addition of another solid piece would help form a formidable group of blockers for Trent Richardson to thrive behind. Andy Levitre is a name that’s very popular at the moment but I’d imagine Buffalo will make a strong push to re-sign him before he even gets a chance to test the market. As for the team’s current starters, Lauvao, as the weakest link at right guard, is the likeliest to be replaced.
As you may well know, Chudzinski loves to use his tight end in the passing game and that’s great news for the promising Jordan Cameron, who’s sure to see a fair share of balls thrown his way in 2013. The former USC Trojan is still somewhat inexperienced at NFL level however, while two of the other main tight ends on the roster last year, Ben Watson and Alex Smith, are both free agents and reportedly unlikely to be back. The Browns do have former Alabama H-back Brad Smelley at their disposal but it seems doubtful at this stage that he’ll be handed a sizeable role on offense. Instead, you can count on the team to bring in another name to share snaps with Cameron and allow for more of those two tight-end sets which coach ‘Chud’ is so traditionally fond of.
Again, with the switch to a 3-4 defense, the Browns now need reinforcements at inside linebacker. The injury-prone D’Qwell Jackson is arguably more suited to play the middle in a 4-3, while the rest of the options alongside him are clearly lacking in experience. Ideally, the team will look to bring in another starter here, someone like the recently released Nick Barnett perhaps?
The Browns could probably get by with Usama Young starting at free safety for another season but you’d have to think they’d at least explore the possibility of upgrading the position, especially with so many intriguing options out there on the free agent market. I very much doubt they’ll be one of the teams in the mix for Ed Reed but if they could manage to nab another of the big names out there then that would be an obvious coup for the defense. With the likes of Jairus Byrd and Dashon Goldson expected to be franchise tagged however, that may prove more difficult than anticipated. One other interesting option could be the Lions’ Louis Delmas, who, though injury prone, has certainly displayed all the requisite skills to succeed in the NFL and would be a more sensible alternative to bringing in a hard-hitting veteran like LaRon Landy for big money. Failing such an addition, a player like Notre Dame’s Zeke Motta could make sense at some stage later in the draft, to add depth to the secondary and challenge for some playing time.
Josh Gordon surprised many (including myself) by establishing himself as a certifiable number one receiver last year, while the formerly drop-prone Greg Little in fact displayed much improvement down the stretch. Travis Benjamin too has shown himself to be a useful weapon while Josh Cooper could ultimately develop into a solid slot receiver. That said, with Josh Cribbs and Mohammed Massaqoui both free agents, you have to be somewhat concerned about the depth here. After all, like they say with pitching in baseball, you can never have enough depth at receiver. The Browns really don’t need to draft another physically gifted yet raw prospect but it would certainly help if they added a veteran presence to take some more pressure of both Weeden and Gordon. I’m not convinced the team will be able to sway one of Wes Welker, Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings, however much cap space they possess, but someone like the Bills’ Donald Jones or Ohio-native Brian Hartline could be just what’s required.
Chudzinski didn’t utilise a traditional fullback with the Panthers last season but, if he and Norv Turner want to recreate that productive Chargers offense of a few years back, they’ll need someone to fill that Lorenzo Neal role. That someone is obviously not Owen Marecic, who has been truly horrendous since he was drafted by the Browns in 2011, so much so that the team were forced to replace him with Alex Smith for the later part of last year. There are some solid names out there in free agency, such as Jerome Felton and Greg Jones, but if the Browns ultimately choose not to take their offense down that route, they could well simply decide to use the formerly mentioned Brad Smelley in a primary blocking role. That was after all a role he often filled for Trent Richardson while the two of them were at Alabama together.
Both Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson and punter Reggie Hodges are free agents this offseason. It goes without saying that Dawson, the Browns’ longest-serving player, will be back but Hodges’ subpar year may render him expendable, despite a reputation for being a great locker room presence. With Josh Cribbs’ future with the team up in the air too, the team may also be searching for a new kick/punt returner, though that’s a role they could fill with an in-house option like Travis Benjamin or even Buster Skrine.
I’ve left quarterback until last because it’s of course a fairly contentious issue. Personally, I feel the Browns would be ridiculous to give up on Brandon Weeden so soon, a belief which is only intensified by the slim pickings on offer in free agency and the draft. Pat Shurmur’s offense really minimised the former Oklahoma State signal caller’s strengths and the new system being bought in by Chudzinski and Norv Turner should be an ideal fit. Weeden clearly isn’t a ‘franchise’ quarterback but he’s serviceable and, until the organisation find that guy who they believe can turn around the team’s fortunes, it would be foolish to make a move just for the sake of it. I wouldn’t be against taking a developmental project like Brad Sorensen in the later rounds of the draft, especially with Colt McCoy likely out the door, but if you think Alex Smith or Ryan Mallet is the answer then you are very much mistaken.