Cleveland Browns: Roster Changes Mike Holmgren Must Make This Season
Cleveland Browns team president Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert have their work cut out for them this offseason.
When the Browns failed to make as much progress as expected toward their ultimate goal of building a team that will be a lasting success for years to come during the 2011 season, rumblings began that perhaps Holmgren wasn't quite the miracle worker many believed him to be when he was hired in 2010.
"The Plan" (as Holmgren's supposed masterminding of the Browns' resurrection has been called), with its all-too-appropriately vague title, was giving rise to more questions than answers, and the Cleveland fanbase worried that the team would have to be razed and rebuilt yet again.
Still, the time line on the plan that was laid out initially has not expired; Holmgren and Heckert have, essentially, one more season to prove that the team is at least headed strongly in the right direction, even if they don't make it all the way to where they need to be that quickly.
If Holmgren and Heckert can get the team moving quickly and in a positive way in 2012, there will be reason to have hope for The Plan after all.
The Browns took a good first step last week, hiring Brad Childress as their offensive coordinator and allaying some of the concerns that the team could never succeed with the clearly-overwhelmed Pat Shurmur acting as both head coach and offensive coordinator.
Shurmur has, disappointingly, retained play-calling duties, but that is a topic for another time. Today, we look at roster moves the Browns need to make this offseason to put themselves in a position to finally make some real progress in 2012.
There are many small tweaks and many individual players who need to be evaluated as far as the roster is concerned, but at this early stage in the offseason, mostly, we need to think bigger picture.
Following are six of the biggest roster adjustments Holmgren and Heckert need to make before the first snap of 2012.
1. Make the Offensive Line Less...Offensive
Of all the components of the team that failed to function properly in 2011, the offensive line was probably the biggest disaster of all.
Not only did their poor play heap pressure on and eventually lead to an injury to young quarterback Colt McCoy, it had a trickle down effect which hampered the receivers' ability to get open (which they have more than enough trouble with on their own), handicapped the running game and generally made every facet of the Browns offense look like a total train wreck.
Oddly enough, the guy who might be the Browns best player, Joe Thomas, is of course an offensive lineman. Sadly for the Browns, though, an offensive line is unfortunately made up of five people, and Thomas is only one man.
Between Thomas and center Alex Mack, the left side held together pretty well. The right side, on the other hand, seemingly found new ways to fail spectacularly at doing their jobs each and every week.
That is a roster issue that will absolutely have to be addressed this offseason, or the Browns offense, no matter what other changes they make, will continue to flail around helplessly in the face of even the most unremarkable of opposing defenses.
The biggest issue is the right tackle position, a revolving-door spot on the line at which none of those tested out at the position were able to play even passably. The Browns were shaky at right guard as well, making things exponentially worse.
Solidifying the right side of the line, in terms of both starters and depth, is probably the biggest roster issue for the Browns this offseason. As haltingly ominous as it sounds, if the Browns can't fix this part of the team, none of how the rest of the squad fares will likely matter. If that sounds like a portent of doom, good. When it comes to the right side of the line, things are every bit as bad as they seem.
2. Cut Ties with (Mo Mass)ive Problem at Wide Receiver
The Browns myriad problems at wide receiver are about a lack of depth, dropped passes and poorly executed routes by the whole group, not just Mohammed Massaquoi, though he's become the poster child for the problem, and his name did make a handy pun for the headline here.
All jokes aside, though, while I do believe the Browns may want to consider cutting their losses on MoMass and trading him for whatever they can get, he's far from the only pass catcher on the team who isn't getting the job done.
That the Browns need to acquire a seriously talented, play-making receiver either through the draft or free agency is obvious to everyone in town. But what also needs to be addressed is the fact that one guy is probably not going to fix the problem.
Fortunately, the Browns do have some potentially productive talent at the position—Greg Little looks like he might pan out as a solid No. 2 guy, Josh Cribbs has his moments when lined up as a receiver and I can't quite give up on Jordan Norwood who, if he could just bulk up a bit and stay healthy, could wind up being the team's most reliable set of hands.
Still, of those listed above who do have some value, not a one of them is cut out to be the No. 1 receiver, and all of them have been inconsistent or ineffective at times, whether through injury or error.
Bringing in one very high-ceiling, go-to receiver type might be enough with this supporting cast around him, but it would still be a risk to go without acquiring any further reinforcements.
3. Solidify the Pass Rush Via Linebacker
I hate to complain too much about the Browns defense, which not only progressed far more quickly in its development than expected, but was also, well, pretty darn good.
They did still have serious problems—stopping the run, to name a big one—but overall, most of our gripes about the team this season weren't with this group.
Still, I've seen enough good offenses on other teams throughout this season to know that the Browns defense in its current state wouldn't last long in, say, a playoff game (if they ever get to one—sigh) against a top-ranked offense.
They were completely mowed down by opposing rushers in the majority of the games they played in 2011, and while the pass defense was worlds better, it wasn't perfect and many argue that the stellar stats and rankings it garnered are skewed because other teams simply didn't bother to pass against the Browns because it was just too easy to run it every time.
Such statements are gross exaggerations, but they do have a shred of truth to them.
That the Browns need to shore up their run defense goes without saying; it's been discussed constantly and doesn't need to be rehashed here.
But the other thing they need to do is make a roster move or two to improve the pass rush. The Browns defense did OK in this area last season, but they weren't aggressive enough at times and had trouble actually taking the quarterback down for a sack after chasing him around behind the line of scrimmage all too many times.
Luckily, this is a smaller issue than some, such as the offensive line, because the Browns really only need to fill one starting spot this offseason to fix the problem.
Just one roster move, at the WLB spot, could be enough to get the Browns linebackers over the hump. D'Qwell Jackson (assuming the Browns re-sign him) and Chris Gocong handle their positions well.
But at WLB, the Browns will need to make a move, because what's currently available just isn't going to cut it. I absolutely adore Scott Fujita as a leader, as a member of my beloved Browns and as a person, but on the field, he just doesn't have it any more. He would make a wonderful assistant coach if the Browns were so inclined, but his playing days should be over.
And while Kaluka Maiava makes a very solid backup, I don't think he has what it takes to hold down the starting job. I'd like to be wrong about that, but I have my doubts. That means the Browns need to make a move for a starter here, or at least bring in someone to compete with Maiava for the job and/or add some depth at the position.
4. Josh Cribbs and the Case of Mistaken Identity
The fact that the Browns still seem to have trouble figuring out exactly how to get maximum value out of Josh Cribbs after all his time with the team would be kind of hilarious if it wasn't so incredibly tragic.
He's been with the team for seven years. To put that into perspective, when Cribbs first signed with the Browns undrafted out of Kent State, Colt McCoy was just starting college.
In other words, it's been a while; the Browns should have figured out how best to use this guy by now.
And yet, we still see all too many instances of Cribbs being misused or underused. Is he a receiver? Is he exclusively a special teams player? Is he both? Would he be more effective lined up at running back? How about at safety?
Seven years, and we still have no answers. The only thing about Cribbs that the Browns seem to be sure of is that they need him on special teams, both as a returner and in coverage.
That is, of course, a completely correct assessment on their part. It's just that, at least in my opinion, it's also an incomplete one.
Cribbs, like every other offensive player on the planet, thought that he didn't get the ball enough as a receiver and said something about it. He's certainly not the first pass catcher to say that; he's just one of the first ones to actually be right about it.
And even if the Browns don't like him as a more frequently used receiver, they need to figure something out beyond just having him play special teams. Confining him to that for the most part is a tremendous waste of his talent, effort, hard work and heart.
Perhaps Cribbs ultimately wouldn't be able to handle the extra duties, but we'll never know until the Browns actually give it a try. And until they do, they're letting one of their best weapons sit around collecting dust.
Fortunately, getting Cribbs more involved doesn't even require a roster move per se; just some shuffling on the depth chart. And that means there's even more reason to go ahead and do it.
5. The Ground Game: Running on Empty
I think I speak for all Browns fans when I say I've had enough Peyton Hillis drama to last a lifetime.
Sign Hillis or don't. I don't care much one way or the other at this point.
What I do care about is moving forward and doing it sooner rather than later. Whether that progress happens with or without Hillis driving the bus becomes more and more immaterial every day.
I certainly understand both the supporters and the detractors of the idea of Hillis staying in Cleveland. Both sides have made some excellent points.
But to me, the bottom line is that this is no longer about HIllis personally (who has, despite his talent, proved himself expendable if nothing else from an ethical point of view), but about the fact that the Browns basically have zero options at running back as things currently stand.
If they want to fix that problem by re-signing Hillis, great. If not, they either need to draft Trent Richardson with their first pick or go get a solid free agent running back with an established track record of decent success and perhaps most importantly, exceptional durability.
Save for re-signing Hillis, this is a problem that cannot be fixed internally. I don't want to hear how Montario Hardesty is going to magically become the viable player he's never been all of a sudden in 2012. And while I adore Chris Ogbonnaya, I'm not interested in watching the Browns limp by at running back with a guy who is long on heart but short on talent.
It would be nice if the Browns could fix this in-house, but when there's nothing in the fridge to eat for dinner, you either go fishing or starve. Hopefully, the Browns are willing to cast a line and see what's out there.
And then there's that pesky fullback issue. There is, after all, a good argument that the running back issue is kind of moot as far as who winds up with the job if there's nobody to block for him.
We've seen Hillis and the other Browns running backs play behind the blocking of a stellar fullback in Lawrence Vickers. Then we've seen them play behind the blocking of an ineffective mid-round pick rookie in Owen Marecic. The difference between how the running backs performed behind the different fullbacks was so staggering that I expect you could see it from space.
So that means the Browns need both a running back and a fullback to make their ground game productive next season. It seems like a lot to ask for an upgrade at both spots, but it also isn't an unreasonable request, and a completely necessary one if the Browns want to have even a passable running game.
6. Improve Depth Perception
There's certainly no denying that many of the Browns' woes in 2011 stemmed from a lack of talent at the starter level. But there was also a good deal of trouble that arose because the Browns had so little depth at almost every position, they couldn't absorb injuries at all.
Injuries are a problem for every team and of course usually strike without warning. If they hit a team in an area where they lack depth, the negative impact multiplies. That's where things get even worse for the Browns: Unfortunately, they lack depth pretty much everywhere on the field.
You can't really blame the Browns completely for failing to rectify this problem more quickly and thoroughly; it's tough to build much depth when your team has so many holes at the starting level.
Still, depth is also a lot easier and cheaper to acquire than starter-caliber talent, so the Browns have little excuse for not at least making more progress depth-wise than they have.
That said, I'm not sure they're as far behind in this regard as many disgruntled fans seem to think. There are areas of the team where the Browns have sufficient or in a few cases even semi-impressive depth as compared to other squads.
Fans also need to consider that like a winning team and the starters who do the heavy lifting for it, a fully-realized roster with respectable depth cannot be built overnight.
So are the Browns behind on this issue and do they need to make a series of roster moves to address it? Absolutely. But is the problem as big as it appears? Probably not, especially if they're smarter about handing walking papers to oft-injured starters than they have been in the past and focusing on more durable front-line guys.
Some injuries of course cannot be anticipated or avoided, but the Browns were caught unprepared for injuries they should have seen coming several times last year. This year, they need to have the depth to absorb that even if they can't yet totally fix the problem from the top down.
Offensive tackle and guard, linebacker, safety, running back and defensive end are areas where I see the most need for adding depth.
Wide receiver, of course, goes without saying, and if the only guy we have backing up McCoy (if he keeps his job) this season is Seneca Wallace, then the Browns will be in trouble at QB as well. Wallace clearly can't handle the job, and given how little we hear of him, I'm beginning to think maybe third-stringer Thaddeus Lewis doesn't even really exist.
The bottom line? Clearly, in terms of depth, the Browns have a long way to go. But they should be able to make serious progress in at least shoring up the backup squadron this offseason. If the starting players can get the team to the cusp of success early on in the season, depth may be the one thing that ultimately makes all the difference.