The off season for the 2015 Cleveland Browns is upon us and they find themselves in an all too familiar position. Last place in the AFC North. In the sixteen years since the Browns re-joined the NFL, they have occupied their division’s cellar eleven times. Four straight years and counting and seven of the last ten years. During those same sixteen years, the Browns have had a winning record only twice with a single Wild Card appearance in the post season once (2002). Their average record over those sixteen seasons is 5-11-0.
In the 62 years that the Browns have been part of the NFL, they have had six Principle Owners. Half of them have held that title over the past sixteen years. They have also had a total of fifteen Head Coaches – almost half of them (seven) over that same sixteen year span. The average life span of a Head Coach for the Browns since their return is 2.3 years. The Head Coach with the longest tenure in Cleveland since their return to the NFL is Butch Davis (3 ½ years). Perhaps not so coincidentally, they have also had seven different General Managers in the past sixteen years.
Yes, the Cleveland Browns showed some signs of life in 2014 finishing with their best record since 2007 at 7-9-0. But they did that against a schedule whose opponents combined record was 90-116-2 (0.438) which ranked 31st in the entire NFL. And, to make matters even worse, all three of their Divisional opponents made the playoffs in 2014. Looking forward isn’t very encouraging either. Of their sixteen games in 2015, nine of them are against 2014 playoff teams. The combined 2014 record of the teams the Browns will face in 2015 is 107-100-1 (0.517), almost ten percentage points higher than 2014.
Rock. . .
After starting the season at 7-3 and firmly in the running for a Divisional title or, at least, a Wild Card berth, what went wrong causing them to lose the last six games? Simply put, the 2014 Browns didn’t have enough depth to overcome significant injuries to starters at key positions. All teams experience injuries at various points in a season. However, the good to great teams have sufficient depth to overcome these injuries and, quite simply put, the Browns were not one of them.
Hard Place . . .
Entering the 2015 off season, the Browns have twelve players who are Unrestricted Free Agents, another eight who are Restricted Free Agents and an additional four players who are Exclusive Rights Free Agents. Of these twenty-four players, eleven were either starters or saw significant playing time.
In this writer’s opinion, there are four of these players who should be no brainers to re-sign;
- FS Tashawn Gipson (RFA). Prior to being injured in week 12, Gipson led the entire NFL with 6 Interceptions. Paired with SS Donte Whitner, these two formed a formidable tandem in the secondary.
- CB Buster Skrine (UFA). Even though he led the team in penalties resulting in the opposing team being awarded a first down (and normally at the most inopportune time), he still has NFL cover talent and that is a desirable commodity in today’s NFL.
- ILB Craig Robertson (ERFA). Only 26 years old. He played in all 16 games last year starting in 11 of them. He recorded 57 tackles, 2 Interceptions and a fumble recovery for a TD.
- WR Miles Austin (UFA). Admittedly a little long in the tooth (30 years old), Austin was the only Browns receiver to record receiving yardage in every game in which he played. With the expected return of troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon, Austin would fill the need for that veteran leader to act as the team’s “Diva Whisperer” in the WR room.
The next group, who I believe to be on the bubble, are;
- DT Ahtyba Rubin (UFA). At age 28, his 2014 on field performance did not live up to his $8,175,000 cap hit. He will be expecting even more money to re-sign.
- TE Jordan Cameron (UFA). He has already gone on record when asked if wants to return by responding, “I want to win and I want to make money”. The question here is does the Browns’ Front Office want to offer a big payday to a player who was not available due to injury for 38% of the season?
- OLB Jabaal Sheard (UFA). Now at the end of his four year rookie contract, Jabaal has not quite lived up to his 2nd round pick billing. His only saving grace is that he plays a position of need.
- DT Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (RFA). An undrafted rookie out of Kent State in 2012, his future may depend on what the Browns decide to do with Ahtyba Ruben. Even if they bit the bullet on Rubin, they may also opt to re-sign Kitchen to bolster the depth on the D-Line.
Which brings me to the next talking point.
Rock. . .
As of the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Browns have two Quarterbacks signed for the 2015 season; Johnny Manziel and Conner Shaw. While Conner Shaw played admirably in the week 17 loss to the Ravens, I do not believe anybody thinks he is the long term answer as a starting QB for the Browns as of this writing. And then there’s “Johnny Football”. For the record, I never thought for an instant that his skill set and mental acuity would translate to the NFL and, so far, he has proven me (and others, including Merril Hoge) correct.
Hard Place . . .
Neither of the only two consensus QB’s in the draft (Mariota and Winston) will be available when the Browns at pick 19. There’s always a chance that they could find a diamond in the rough in the middle to late rounds of the draft, but would you want to risk the immediate or long term future of your struggling $1 Billion franchise on the odds of finding the next Tom Brady late in the draft?
And it doesn’t get any rosier in Free Agency. The list of available Free Agent quarterbacks is long and undistinguished. If you eliminate the “has beens” (Michael Vick, Matt Hasselback, Shaun Hill, etc.) and the “never weres” (Luke McCown, Matt Flynn, T.J. Yates, etc.) you come up with a short list that looks like this;
- Matt Moore, age 30 – Miami Dolphins. 2014 Cap Hit = $5,500,000.
- Mark Sanchez, age 28 – Philadelphia Eagles. 2014 Cap Hit = $2,250,000.
- Blaine Gabbert, age 25 – San Francisco 49ers. 2014 Cap Hit = $2,011,587.
- Brian Hoyer, age 29 – Cleveland Browns. 2014 Cap Hit = $1,250,000
- Ryan Mallett, age 26 – Houston Texans. 2014 Cap Hit = $776,976.
My money is on Mallett and Gabbert both being re-signed by their current teams. Mallett because of the high opportunity in Houston to become the full time starter on a relatively good team and Gabbert because I believe the 49ers know the necessity of keeping a viable backup QB when the starter is a freewheeling mobile player whose on field performance took a bit of a downturn in 2014.
Suffice to say that Browns fans should expect to see, at best, a Quarterback under center that is starting not because they have insane skills but, rather, have shown an ability not to lose games. In other words, the dreaded “Game Manager”.
Rock. . .
During the second half of the 2014 season, the Browns couldn’t run the ball and they couldn’t stop opposing teams from running the ball. Both of these traits can be directly attributed to the aforementioned lack of depth – specifically in the trenches. There is one statistic that pretty well sums this up. In 2014, the Browns gained only 88 first downs by running the ball and they allowed their opponents to gain a first down by running the ball 126 times. Even without dissecting the season on a week by week basis, I can state without much fear that the disparity between these two numbers widened as the season progressed.
Hard Place . . .
If you can’t score by running the ball then throw it – right? Not quite. The 2014 Browns ranked dead last in the NFL for passing TD’s with 12. The 2014 Browns passing game, or lack thereof, has been pretty well documented over the course of the season. And it too went downhill as the season progressed. From the suspension of the NFL’s 2013 reception yardage leader (Josh Gordon) for the first ten games of the season to the week 17 start of former practice squad player Conner Shaw, the Browns passing game became more and more non-existent as the season progressed. When your leading receiver for the season is playing out of the slot (Andrew Hawkins, 824 yards) you know you have a problem.
However, there are some bright spots on the horizon. Namely;
- Defensive Secondary: The Browns have a relative wealth of talent here in Cornerbacks Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, K’Waun Williams, Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir and the Safety tandem of Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner.
- Running Back: As bad as the running game was in the second half of 2014, it wasn’t because of a lack of talent with the running backs themselves. It is my belief that the running game left on the cart that carried Alex Mack off the field with a broken leg in week 6. Rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell showed that they are both up to the task given an average hole to run through.
- 2015 Cap Space. The Browns have the third highest cap space in the entire NFL for 2015 (per overthecap.com) at $49,369,654. That, is a lot of money and the Browns will be forced to spend it this year as they have been under the league minimum for three consecutive years. And that figure is before any cuts are made to players whose 2015 contractual salary is greater than the player’s “dead money” so it could end up being even more.
- Additional high drafts picks. We have seen this before, as recently as last year, and walked away from the draft disappointed. What makes this year hopefully different is that the Front Office and Coaching Staff will have more than the 90 days they had last year to assess the current roster and formulate an overall strategy between the draft and free agency to build the 2015 roster.
Frankly, I have absolutely no idea what the Browns plan to do for 2015. There are an infinite number of directions they could go but, if I had my way, based on what I know, this is what I would do;
- The Browns have at least four core players (Gordon, West, Gilbert and Manziel) that have demonstrated an acute lack of professionalism in the attitude department. Rather than rely on them to change their ways, plan on them to show up for OTA’s with the same mindset as last year but draft or bring in mid-level free agents that can fill their roster spot.
- If you already know that you won’t have a “Franchise Quarterback” on the roster for 2015 and you know why the running game failed in the second half of the season, then don’t try to pound a square peg into a round hole. Fix the right side of the Offensive Line and ensure that you have adequate backups in the likely event that injuries strike again in 2015. As the 2015 draft is ripe with defensive front seven talent, go after and sign the very best Free Agent Right Tackle (Brian Bulaga) and Right Guard (Mike Lupati) you can get. Your back-ups now become John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz.
- Make your mindset that you are going to run the ball in 2015. After fixing the right side of the O-Line, then give your two young running backs someone to follow. Enter All-Pro Fullback John Kuhn. Kuhn is more than long in the tooth at age 32 but the man can still play fullback in the NFL – at least for a couple of years.
- Sign a Free Agent veteran Quarterback who would become your “game manager”. Let him know up front that he will be the starting QB and then let Johnny Manziel try to unseat him.
- Focus the draft on the defensive front seven. An absolute must would be a run stuffing Nose Tackle to back up Phil Taylor and, at least two pass rushing OLB’s that can also set the edge. Those would be my first three picks. The rest of them would include insurance policies for Gordon, Gilbert and West. Most importantly, don’t try to draft starters for 2015. Draft talented players who would fill back-up roles and grow into starters in 2016 and beyond.
- Finally, realize that you will probably overpay for Free Agents. That’s the price you have to pay for being so bad for so long.