Can the Browns turn these frowns upside down?
The 2011 season came with much adversity for the Cleveland Browns.
A change at both head coach and defensive coordinator, a shift in both offensive and defensive schemes and a lockout-shortened offseason offered little time to prepare the NFL's second-youngest team for these changes.
As yet another long Cleveland Browns season wore on, strong points and weaknesses became evident.
On one hand, the defense played admirably considering its youth and the little time it had to prepare for the transition to the 4-3.
On the other, the offensive inequity reared its ugly head as the Browns struggled all season long to put points on the board.
Browns General Manager Tom Heckert has a lot to work on this offseason to get this organization into competitive shape.
While the Browns should make good use of free agency this year, Heckert has done an excellent job stockpiling picks for the upcoming 2012 NFL draft, and he adheres to the philosophy that a successful team is one built through the draft.
Not all of the Browns' problems can be fixed solely through the draft, and they certainly aren't just one offseason away from competing for the Lombardi Trophy, but they can lay the framework that sets them on that path.
Here's a look at the necessary draft upgrades that their future success hinges on.
Little is a great start, but The Browns are a long way off with the current core.
As a rookie, Greg Little led the team with 61 receptions and 709 yards. While it's a personal bright spot, it does point to deficiencies with the surrounding cast.
The 2011 Cleveland Browns ranked 30th in receptions of 20-plus yards and a slightly better 26th in receptions over 40 yards.
Meanwhile, they posted a 24th-best 193 receiving yards a game in the pass-heavy West Coast Offense scheme.
Add to it a group near the top—that is to say, the bottom—of the league in drops, and it's clear the wide receiving corps is in dire need of an upgrade. Most notably they could use a deep threat, one that can draw double coverage to free up receivers underneath.
There is plenty of early-round talent available in Justin Blackmon, Alshon Jeffery, Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright.
The Browns must come away with a No. 1 receiver this draft; it's been ignored far too long, and is a weakness that affects both the passing and running games.
Is McCoy the guy? Hard to tell from this angle.
There are a lot of grumblings about Colt McCoy as a viable franchise quarterback option.
But without protection, any and every quarterback is going to struggle in a Cleveland Browns uniform. Eric Steinbach's absence certainly hurt the offensive line this year, but the greater liability lies further down the line.
To put it into perspective, the Browns line allowed 83 QB hits and 39 sacks, ranked not-so-respectfully 8th-worst and 14th-worst in the NFL.
The problems don't stop with pass protection, however. The right side of the line was also mediocre at run blocking.
They ranked 24th in the PWR rankings (percentage of rushes on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. Also includes rushes on 1st-and-goal and 2nd-and-goal from the opponent's 2-yard line or closer.—taken from NFL.com).
They also posted a 31st-worst eight rushes for 10 or more yards from the right side.
Now I understand when you have a solid left side anchored by Joe Thomas, you want to follow him on the left side, but there needs to be a balance across the line to keep the defense guessing.
Adding a solid young right tackle would have a positive two-fold effect.
For one, McCoy will have more time to make throws; secondly, it allows versatility in the Browns running game. Picking an early-round right tackle to go with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack would make the Browns one of the youngest and most talented lines in football.
The Browns need more of this!
Whether it comes from an upgrade to the side opposite Jabaal Sheard on the defensive line or outside linebacker, the Browns need a playmaker who can get at the quarterback.
The Browns ranked 23rd in the league with 32 sacks. Defensive end Jamie Mitchell contributed just 1.5, clearly the weak link of a young, up-and-coming defensive line.
Likewise, aside from Chris Gocong's 3.5 sacks, no other outside linebacker recorded a sack this year for the Browns.
Both positions could use an overhaul, but the end goal is that there has to be more pressure on the quarterback.
Finding a great young pass-rusher at either position makes a defense that was under the radar this year, dangerous next year.
Hillis gone or not, depth at running back is a concern.
In all likelihood, last year's darling and this year's foil, Peyton Hillis, will not be back in Cleveland.
This leaves a large void at the running back position. Montario Hardesty has been unable to stay healthy, and while Chris Ogbonnaya has shown flashes, he doesn't appear to be the answer as a full-time back.
When Hillis is out, the offense grinds to a halt. Hillis contributed 587 yards and three touchdowns to the Browns offense. The other backs combined for only 612 yards and one touchdown.
More and more in today's NFL we are seeing running backs come out of nowhere and produce. There is, no doubt, a handful of them waiting in the draft somewhere.
This team without Hillis and no upgrade is in big trouble. An upgrade could come relatively cheap in comparison to a free-agent grab.