Cleveland Browns' 8 Best, Worst Moves of the 2012 Offseason
Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert may often resemble a dyspeptic NFL Laurel and Hardy, but the Cleveland Browns' 2012 free agency and draft decisions ultimately featured more bulls-eyes than pratfalls—as long as everything plays out according to Holmgren’s “my system is king” plan. And no one gets hurt. And every new player performs his chess-piece role precisely as predicted by Holmgren, Heckert and the rest of the personnel gurus.
Hey, it’s training camp—everything is possible in May!
On the "best" side of the ledger, the Browns front office addressed both lines in a generally intelligent manner and added depth to a linebacking corps about to suffer a suspended starter. Unfortunately, they took a scatter-the-buckshot approach to WR.
However, all is good in Cleveland since the decision makers managed to nab the biggest deodorizing Band-Aid available in 2012: running back Trent Richardson.
Running Backs: Out with the Hillis, in with the Richardson
The Kansas City Chiefs rolled the $2.8 million dice that Peyton Hillis will return to form physically and mentally in 2012. It’s a $1.4 million base with another million if he makes the team and $400,000 in “per-game bonuses.” So even the Chiefs have doubts.
Oh well, not Cleveland’s problem, is it?
The Browns will probably end up making a deal with Trent Richardson in the four-year, $23-25 million range with about $4 million up front (based on spotrac.com’s figures for 2011 third overall pick and former Tide teammate Marcell Dareus’ contract).
After Hillis completely sullied his Cleveland reputation and considering Richardson’s tremendous potential, this seems like a reasonable tradeoff. It’s even debatable as to whether dumping Hillis and drafting Richardson qualifies as a “good move,” or more a matter of “what was obvious to everyone who ever watched an AFC North game.”
In 2010, Hillis carried the ball 270 times for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns with 61 receptions for 477 yards (7.8 per catch) and two touchdowns.
Richardson is expected to take over this role. Immediately. Which, again, is not unreasonable, given Richardson's Crimson Tide contributions: 540 carries, 3,130 yards with a 5.8-yard average and 35 TDs, plus 68 receptions for 730 yards with a 10.7-yard average and seven TDs. He averaged more than five yards per carry in his entire college career. So, yeah, he can probably handle it.
Naysayers point to injury concerns, which are legitimate given the offseason knee surgery and previous ankle problems. He is a runner who aims for contact, looking on tape a great deal like Marshawn Lynch. Despite the worries, Richardson is on record as not planning to change his running style:
“I’m not going to change my game. That’s who I am. That’s how I got here.”
Crank up the seismograph.
Offensive Line: Cleaning House, Drafting for the Right
No, that’s not a Congressional prediction. The Browns reluctantly parted ways with Eric Steinbach and Tony Pashos. Injuries made both men ineffective on the right side of the offensive line, with the result that Colt McCoy got hammered all through 2011.
Though many fans expected/hoped Holmgren and company would address the woeful situation at wide receiver, taking Mitchell Schwartz in the second round may have been a better move. Jerry Rice can’t catch anything if Joe Montana is on his butt.
The Browns are probably expecting Schwartz to start at right tackle for the next decade or so, but Mitchell seems flexible. He started 35 games at LT and 16 at RT while at Cal, where he was named the most valuable lineman the last three years.
“Honestly, I’m pretty comfortable with both sides [of the line]. It’s just a different side of your body and a different leg is back, but in terms of the techniques and the style of your play, it’s basically all the same," he said.
In one of three collegiate teammate hookups currently on the Cleveland roster, Schwartz played with center Alex Mack in California.
Some scouts had other O-linemen rated more highly, but Schwartz landed in Berea with an NFL-ready label attributed partly to having a brother (Geoff in Minnesota) already playing professionally.
At 6’6” and a shade under 320, Schwartz isn’t the biggest O-lineman in the league, but he managed to make first-team All-American both athletically and academically. You can never have too many smart big men up front. Ask any quarterback.
Heckert's verdict: "We just think he’s a good player.”
Gee, don’t strain yourself there, Tom.
The front office didn’t stop with Schwartz, drafting guard Ryan Miller in the fifth round and signing J.B. Shugarts and Matt Cleveland in rookie free agency. They also hung on to versatile John Greco and 2011 part-time starter Oniel Cousins.
Cleveland now projects to have six offensive linemen under the age of 27. As soon as they meld into a unit they will form one large chunk of good news for Browns fans, hopefully for years.
Where Nepotism Works: Brad Smelley and Josh Cooper
Seventh-round fullback/TE Smelley blocked for Trent Richardson at Alabama while undrafted free-agent Josh Cooper labored under the radar beside Justin Blackmon at Oklahoma State.
Brandon Weeden was already completing passes to Cooper in rookie camp. ESPN’s Will Burge quotes Weeden on Twitter: “I liked throwing the ball to him just as much as I liked to throw to Justin Blackmon.”
While Trent Richardson reportedly went to bat for his fullback, (per the Washington Post in an article no longer on the site), it was Tom Heckert who asked Weeden to convince Cooper to sign with the Browns. On the golf course. By phone. OK.
Despite being on the small side for the NFL at 5’11” and 195 lbs., it was Cooper who lined up in the slot at rookie mini-camp (again according to Burge). That puts Travis Benjamin on the outside—which is right where he should be opposite Greg Little.
Brad Smelley is undersized for a fullback in the NFL, but his relationship with imminent star Richardson and his frankly tremendous ball-catching ability will either put him in rotation (read: competition) with Owen Marecic or in the TE mix.
There is no crystal ball that shows Smelley turning into a league feel-good story, but there is something about him that bodes well. He is, quite simply, productive.
Playing H-back and fullback at Alabama this young man had 34 receptions for 356 yards and capped it off with a huge contribution in the win over LSU: seven catches for 39 yards. Versatility is one thing that the NFL does appreciate, and Smelley has it in spades.
Depth at Linebacker: James-Michael Johnson Steps Forward
One of the best spring moves by H & H was re-signing star middle linebacker and reigning Comeback Player of the Year D’Qwell Jackson.
However, even team presidents have no power over Commissioner Roger Goodell. With the unsurprising suspension of veteran linebacker Scott Fujita, fourth-round draft pick James-Michael Johnson is a big step closer to a starting role.
Where that role will be is the subject of vastly entertaining offseason debate.
The general consensus is that Chris Gocong should move over to the SLB spot while Kaluka Maiava moves up to start at Will. However, there are those who believe Johnson can slide in at one of the OLB spots immediately, even though most depth charts show him “in training” behind Jackson at MLB.
Somewhat lost in the hubbub are Johnson's special teams contributions in college. On a Browns special teams unit that had a pitiful inability to stop opposing return men, this could be sweet music.
The rookie had an impressive first camp, spending time at all three positions—and providing no clue as to his landing spot.
What he did provide was ample evidence of the speed and agility that led to his presence on the team. He ran a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash with a 37” vertical and an almost 10' broad jump. Yeah, he’s got skills.
The very existence of this spirited debate over a landing spot proves that, at least in the full blush of spring optimism, Browns fans approve the acquisition of Mr. Johnson.
DT John Hughes: Your Time Is Now
Just when the Cleveland faithful were starting to feel good about landing Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden and Mitchell Schwartz, the team went and used its third-round draft pick on a talented defensive tackle with work-ethic issues. Great.
But it’s okay, no panic. The kid won’t have to start. Right?
Wrong. The minute Phil Taylor tore his pectoral muscle, John Hughes was pushed front and center and under the microscope. Time to seize the moment, sir.
Hughes may well rise to the occasion. His senior season under new coaching at the University of Cincinnati was a vast improvement over his younger years. He started 12 games, tallied 51 tackles (12.5 for a loss), made five sacks and blocked a field goal.
Though primarily a run-stuffer, Hughes does have the ability to shed blocks and rush the passer. This versatile potential is probably the reason that he was targeted by coordinator Dick Jauron and Heckert.
That’s lovely, but now he may have to actually play in a couple of months.
Sixth-rounder DT Billy Winn may have something to say about that. For now, Hughes will probably be the new LDT with Winn serving on reserve and in rotation.
In the universally applauded department, Cleveland signed free-agent DEs Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Releasing unproductive Jayme Mitchell was a necessary part of rebuilding the line. Re-signing Marcus Benard and Brian Schaefering has proven foresighted after Taylor’s injury.
The John Hughes experiment is but the first of several moves that will prove either wise, foolhardy or downright dreadful, depending upon the performance of the many rookies who will be thrust into the fray come September.
Wide Receiver: Risking the Offense on UDFAs
The Browns had one potentially productive NFL-caliber wide receiver in 2011. One. And yet the front office drafted one WR in April. One. That’s after signing none in free agency.
Fourth-round pick Travis Benjamin carries the deep-threat hopes of Holmgren, Pat Shurmur, Brad Childress and Brandon Weeden. That’s a lot of pressure for a guy who is 5’10” and less than 180 lbs. It’s a good thing he’s fast, because there is significant doubt that he is strong enough to withstand NFL contact.
Nevertheless, Benjamin had a solid rookie camp and won praise from coach, running back and quarterback. Weeden practically gushed: “The guy can really fly. And they had him moving around a bit, playing some different positions. Travis is a real good player.”
Some think that Mohamed Massaquoi, Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell will remain on the team, but when the Browns signed undrafted free agents Bert Reed (Seminoles, 4.3 40-yard dash) and Missouri State’s Jermaine Saffold (4.36 40 time) the three veterans landed on shaky ground.
Joshua Cribbs is too valuable on special teams and as the emergency quarterback to lose, but Shurmur can’t wear him out the way that the Browns did in 2011.
Add in Brandon Weeden’s new/old go-to guy, Josh Cooper, and the 2011 wide receiving corps is destined to be history. At least that’s what fans hope.
If the somewhat infamous front office duo can pull off a new and effective grouping of West Coast ball-catchers, they will gain some much-needed credibility by the lake.
Coaching Moves: Brad Childress?
Mike Holmgren is king in Cleveland. Heckert keeps things running and looks for talent.
So what are the coaches going to do? Hopefully teach. If Pat Shurmur has the right personality for any part of being a head coach—it’s the teaching part.
Brad Childress was Shurmur’s boss in Philadelphia. That should be an interesting dynamic. “Chilly” is planning to be up in the booth calling plays, but the plays are going to go through Shurmur, who will change them if he wishes to. Right.
Dick Jauron should continue in relative autonomy on the defensive side of the ball. Right.
And who, exactly, will be managing the game? And the clock?
Jettisoning Colt McCoy: Cold and Tacky—Will It Work?
The problem with the Brandon Weeden/Colt McCoy quarterback duel is that it’s impossible to dislike either combatant. It’s the Texas Hero versus the Comeback Kid. They’re both seemingly likeable young men and the situation cannot end without crushing disappointment.
For some inexplicable reason, many fans seem to think Mike Holmgren is a quarterback guru. We laugh at all of those NFL Films clips of him sputtering at Brett Favre, but those pieces are, upon reflection, a picture of a man who cannot handle a quarterback. Heck, Holmgren couldn’t even get along with Matt Hasselbeck, who is, by all accounts, the nicest man in the world.
By drafting the 28-year-old Weeden, Holmgren and Heckert served notice that they intend to replace McCoy. Rookie or not, a 28-year-old is not hired to “develop” on the bench. His selection is a front office Hail Mary: a gamble on striking a geyser and dragging this team into instant contention. There is no other interpretation.
Believing there is a balanced quarterback competition being staged in Cleveland is sweet—but it’s inaccurate. Quarterbacks don’t benefit from being completely and systematically undermined for months at a time. The Browns’ treatment of McCoy is shabby in the extreme.
Of course the team had a right to pursue Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill or Weeden. The public will likely never know how hard they pushed for the Rams trade or how much they really planned to select Kendall Wright at the end of the first round.
Those stories really don’t mesh with any kind of “Colt’s our guy” or “Brandon’s our guy” plan. Those stories are either smokescreens designed to keep their cards hidden, or they really were throwing darts at the draft board. Yikes.
However, they’re now stuck with “Brandon’s our guy.” And post-draft behavior by office and coaches bear out that Weeden has been their guy since losing out on RGIII—no matter what they say. Provable? Of course not. Logical? Absolutely.
It would serve them right if Colt McCoy came storming into town, guns blazing and played so brilliantly that the team has to sit Weeden and waste all of that money on a clipboard holder. That’s unlikely, given the unequal playing field going in, but no one really expects McCoy to simply hand over the keys to a new-and-improved offensive roster.
The quarterback position in Cleveland has been mishandled from Day 1. Brandon Weeden may well turn out to be the proverbial “franchise quarterback." He may lead the Browns to the playoffs for 10 straight years. If he does, a victory-starved fanbase may forget all about this episode.
However, it will never be the Browns' finest hour.