One game remains in another double-digit-loss year for the Cleveland Browns. Instead of playoffs, thoughts turn to the possibility of a brighter 2013.
This slideshow will lay out the perfect offseason plan for everyone's favorite northeast Ohio team. We will break down which integral players to keep, who should be signed through free agency, top draft prospects and front office decisions.
If the Browns follow these steps, the city could be talking about a double-digit win season this time next year.
Soon to be free-agent Josh Cribbs
Before the Browns can worry about who to go after in the free agent market, they must decide what to do with some key contracts up for renewal.
1. Phil Dawson - K (one year/$3.81 million)
"Mr. Automatic," "Phil the Foot," whatever you want to call him, Phil Dawson is the most consistent player on this Browns team.
The last remaining player from the 1999 expansion club is Cleveland's all-time leader in field goals made (304) and second in total points (1267). Tack onto that this week the fact that Dawson was finally selected to the Pro Bowl. It would be hard too imagine No. 4 in any other jersey.
Being given the franchise tag for two straight years means that he will need a multi-season deal. According to ESPN Cleveland, using the tag a third time would cost an astronomical $15 million.
It is a no-brainer to keep the 37-year-old on staff as long as he is willing to come back. Dawson has made 28 of 29 FG attempts in 2012 and booted six of those from 50 or more yards
If anyone deserves to retire a Cleveland Brown, it is Dawson.
2. Josh Cribbs - KR/WR (three years/$15.49 million)
A big decision needs to be made about the most popular Browns player of the new era.
Cribbs is still feared on both sides of special teams and is tied as the NFL's all-time leader in kickoffs returned for a touchdown with eight. Holding records is nice but, as we know, this league is all about what you have done lately.
For No. 16, that doesn't add up to much on the scoreboard. Cribbs has not taken a kick back for a TD since 2009. Rule changes and surrounding personnel contributes to his this drought of return TDs, but excuses don't matter.
The former Kent State quarterback constantly clamors for more offensive opportunities, which demonstrates his passion. However, his comments to the Plain Dealer about feeling "caged" earlier in the season and controversial twitter outburst following the loss to Denver are unnecessary distractions.
Five fumbles on returns through 15 games, increasing injury troubles and sporadic use on offense all point to a parting of ways.
The speedy eight-year man is still a proven threat when utilized out of the Wildcat and was second on the club in receptions with 41 in 2011.
Ultimately, if Josh Cribbs is not going to be used in a significant way outside of special teams, then it is time to let him walk away. It would be nice for Cribbs, who has played with the Browns his entire NFL career, to finish his career there.
3. Sheldon Brown - CB (three years/$15.25 million)
The crafty 11-year cornerback put together his best statistical season in Cleveland for both tackles (52) and interceptions (3)
Sheldon Brown is a role model for this young defense and can still breakdown plays prior to the snap.
It is no secret that No. 24 has been picked on this season by opposing quarterbacks wanting to avoid Joe Haden. Brown's inability to consistently keep up with the league’s fast and physical young receivers is a problem that cannot be overlooked.
That being said, if the Browns can draft or sign a younger serviceable corner, the South Carolina native can move to free safety. This would allow the secondary to utilize his vast experience and eliminate the mismatches that have been occurring on the perimeter.
At 33, if Brown agrees to a two-year extension, he is definitely worth keeping around.
4. Benjamin Watson - TE (Contract: three years/$12 million)
The rock of an inexperienced tight end group, Benjamin Watson became a favorite target for rookie QB Brandon Weeden as 2012 wore on.
In nine of the 15 games played, he averaged over 10 yards per catch and has scored three touchdowns this season overall. His excellent hands and sturdy 6'3", 255 lb. frame for blocking made it essential to keep him on board Cleveland's young offense.
Watson also provides stability while the skills of fellow tight end Jordan Cameron, a second-year player, are still under evaluation.
Offering the 32-year-old pride of Norfolk, Virginia another three-year deal makes perfect sense, especially considering his health has not been a concern.
That time frame gives the Browns a transition period to groom from within or search for their next No. 1 TE.
5. Reggie Hodges - P (Contract: three years/$2.94 million)
The six-year veteran ranks 32nd among NFL punters with an unimpressive average of 42 yards per punt. Hodges has never returned to his 2010 form since an Achilles injury put him on the sidelines for all of last season.
An improvement can be targeted in this year's draft with such talents as Ryan Allen and Quinn Sharp coming available.
Green Bay Packers WR, Greg Jennings
With no second round pick in the upcoming entry draft and an estimated $40 million in salary cap space, Cleveland could look to make a splash in the free-agent pool.
Below are three perfect offseason FA additions for the Browns.
1. Andy Levitre - G
Levitre’s four-year/$3.56 million contract with Buffalo expires at season's end.
He would be a welcome addition to a Browns offensive guard position that is in desperate need of depth. When Jason Pinkston went down with health troubles it exposed weaknesses at guard in pulling and making space at the second level.
Levitre is well-known for his pass-protection abilities, but adding successful in-line run blocking to the total package should really pique Cleveland's interest.
Referred to as the Bills secret weapon by Pro Football Focus, the Oregon State alum is an integral part of the Bills sixth ranked running game success, a fact the Browns saw firsthand when they hosted Buffalo back in Week 3. The visitors rushed for a combined 138 yards with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
No matter who runs the football for the Bills, Levitre demonstrates steady improvement in creating lanes.
At 26, the most productive years are still ahead of him and he would be an instant upgrade to Cleveland’s O-Line.
2. Greg Jennings - WR
Josh Gordon and Greg Little have both shown tremendous progression throughout the 2012 campaign. Although the future looks bright at receiver, a reliable veteran presence is needed as a go to option, especially on third down.
Greg Jennings currently looks like the best fit for Cleveland’s wide receiver needs.
The Michigan native is not a locker room distraction and would be an excellent role model for Gordon, Little and Travis Benjamin.
Missing two months with a groin injury, Jennings is on a Green Bay club that is deep in young receiver talent.
The 29-year-old’s career average of 15.4 yards per catch is impressive and he is a first-down machine. More importantly, he can hold onto the football.
Battling an ailment that typically requires surgery drops his value, which means Jennings may be available at a decent price.
3. Cliff Avril - DE
Depending on other transactions Cleveland makes, the Browns should have the salary cap room to entice the 26-year-old to switch Great Lakes and make the move.
The defensive end gobbled up opposing offenses with 20.5 sacks through his last 31 games.
The former-Purdue Boilermaker is a 260-pound force who can do more than just take down quarterbacks. He knows how to create turnovers, too. Eight forced fumbles, three of which he recovered, over the previous two seasons would provide an enticing book end to Jabaal Sheard.
Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner (No. 28) in action
Depending on how the final game this Sunday goes in Pittsburgh, the Browns could end up picking anywhere between seven and 13th overall in the NFL draft.
The top three first round prospects ranked on team need and probable availability are as follows:
1. DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner - CB, Alabama
A unanimous vote to first-team All-SEC was the junior’s reward for a spectacular season that will conclude January 7 in the BCS National Championship. The Alabama cornerback is tied at third in the NCAA for passes defended with 16 breakups and two interceptions.
Throw in 51 tackles, including four for a loss, and it is no wonder that Dee Milliner has rocketed up the draft boards in 2012.
Dane Brugler from CBS Sports commented that Milliner, "plays tight bump-and-run and enjoys pressing with little cushion. Closes quickly and baits throws, looking to make a play on each snap...physical striker and does a nice job avoiding blocks while keeping his eye on the ball."
His 6’1" frame and general athleticism gives Cleveland the size needed to compliment Joe Haden as the second shut down corner.
If the Browns do not go the free agent route for an outside CB then Milliner must be selected. He is the highest rated player at his position and helps to fill this team's gaping holes in the secondary.
2. Damontre Moore - DE, Texas A&M
Damontre Moore shared second place in the NCAA this season with 12.5 sacks and was also tied for third in tackles for loss at 20. Those impressive numbers followed on the heels of a breakout junior campaign that was capped off by an All-SEC first team selection.
Moore’s versatility is a bonus. He played for Texas A&M’s 4-3 scheme as a defensive end and in the previous year was an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Experience in a 4-3 setup would allow for this 6’4", 250 pound specimen to transition well into the Browns already powerful line.
Moore tramples opposition with his combination of physicality and quickness. Having him opposite Jabaal Sheard would give quarterbacks and running backs no escape around the edges.
Cleveland’s 2012 DE free agent signings Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker have performed above expectations. However, bringing in a pair of fresh legs like Moore to replace the 12-year pro Parker could be an upgrade in both the present and future.
3. Eric Reid - FS, LSU
If both Milliner and Moore are gone by the time Cleveland's name is called then the next man up should be Eric Reid.Often considered the most violent hitter in the SEC, he was voted to the AP All-American second team on December 16. The LSU Tiger possesses all the potential to be a future Pro Bowl free safety, but needs to harness his overaggressive behavior.
Getting into undisciplined penalty trouble is a consistent problem for the junior. Offensive coordinators exploit his eagerness through misdirection and it is these bad habits that need to be ironed out at the professional level.
However, that nastiness can be a virtue if channeled appropriately.
The 6’2” defender is equally effective in stopping the run as he is slipping back into coverage and attacking the deep ball.
If experienced cornerback Sheldon Brown is not retained and moved to FS, then this position will become an immediate area of focus. Present starter Usama Young is serviceable, but there is definitely room to grow. Reid could be that spark plug to rev up Cleveland’s secondary.
Head coach Pat Shurmur with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III
The bell tolls for general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur. CEO Joe Banner stated in several interviews that decisions on the future of key personnel will be made quickly following the Browns' season, which ends Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The new regime has at least given an image of fairness. Since taking control in October, owner Jimmy Haslam made it clear that everyone from top down would be evaluated through the rest of 2012.
GM - Tom Heckert
Fan petitions are all over the internet to try to persuade Banner to keep Heckert on. Of course they won't make a difference one way or another.
Successful draft picks during his tenure include: Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Phil Taylor, Billy Winn, Josh Gordon and Trent Richardson. Via trade the over 20-year NFL executive acquired talent such as Sheldon Brown, Chris Gocong and Peyton Hillis, of 2010 fame.
Some succesful free agent signings have helped in key areas. Scott Fujita, Benjamin Watson, Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker were all brought on-board under Heckert's watch.
In a December 14 press conference he revealed that having final say over the 53-man roster was not necessarily a deal breaker. It was more important for him to control trades and the draft.
In the end, this could wind up being a case where the GM is forced to step down because Banner wants to take away too much responsibility.
Heckert has made enough positive moves to earn at least one more season. Allowing him to continue to build on his vision would be the best option for this franchise.
Head coach and staff
If the head coach goes, his staff is often not far behind.
Pat Shurmur went from the long-term solution under former president Mike Holmgren, to being uncertain if the new ownership group would keep him around.
Throw in an inconsistent rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden along with key players questioning his offensive strategy, and it makes life even tougher. Star running back Trent Richardson told reporters it was "shocking" that he only carried the ball twice in the second half following the Week 15 loss to Washington. Josh Cribbs complained on several occasions that the coaching staff does not know how to utilize him effectively.
In spite of those situations, the NFL’s youngest team does battle every game and is rarely blown out.
However, there have definitely been concerns when it comes to play calling. Streamlining the broken telephone communication between offensive coordinator Brad Childress, Shurmur and quarterback Brandon Weeden was resolved during the bye week.
Questionable third-and-short calls were also under scrutiny. Predictable screen passes and not handing off to Richardson instead on those plays seemed perplexing to everyone. These issues have generally been corrected as well.
Rightly or wrongly, the head coach stuck by his rookie pivot all season and will be judged, in part, on his progression. Now Weeden is injured for the last game. With supposed-QB gurus on staff in Childress and Mark Whipple, was No. 3 the right choice in the end?
If Holmgren remained in charge, Shurmur would be given a longer leash.
But that is not the case. New management typically brings in their own people and that suggests Sunday will be Pat Shurmur’s last time wearing a Browns headset.
Offseasons bring hope for struggling teams and this will be one of the most important for the Browns since their return to the NFL. Cleveland demonstrated throughout 2012 that some core pieces are in place to build a solid foundation towards a bright future.
Browns fans anxiously wait to see whether Jimmy Haslam is the club's savior or just another letdown in a long line of disappointments.
Follow Andy McNamara on Twitter @AndyMc81