Examining Cleveland Browns' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles
Another offseason, another organizational overhaul for the Cleveland Browns.
Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan since the Browns returned to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999, but there’s certainly reason to be hopeful. After all, as any good Cleveland fan will tell you, there’s always next season.
Next season is almost here, though. Following a terrific offseason of excellent coaching changes and strong free-agent signings, that cautious optimism may soon transform into a lot more. The Browns are truly a team on the rise.
After a 5-11 campaign in 2012, new owner Jimmy Haslam had seen enough of head coach Pat Shurmur, firing the 48-year-old following an unsuccessful two-year stint at the helm of the team. While Shurmur wasn’t exactly faced with an easy situation in Cleveland, he also failed to produce much progress for a young team looking to make strides toward contention in the near future.
Speculation involving Shurmur’s future continued until his eventual dismissal, but the same can’t be said for team president Mike Holmgren, who seemed to have one foot out the door from the day he arrived in Cleveland. Holmgren was a terrific NFL head coach but he wasn’t yet prepared for the role.
Holmgren and Shurmur perpetuated a cautious, conservative approach to building a winning franchise. Browns fans have had enough of rebuilding—Haslam understands that.
Joe Banner remains the team’s CEO with a hand in nearly every personnel decision made this offseason, but Haslam went a step further in hiring former Browns personnel man (and recent NFL Network analyst) Mike Lombardi to fill the role of general manager.
Out with the old, in with the old.
The decision to bring back Lombardi after his tumultuous stint with the team in the 1990s wasn’t well received by the fan base, and while those fans will need to see positive results to welcome Lombardi back, he’ll need a little time to prove he’s a changed man. This season could go a long way toward doing so.
Cleveland has some terrific young pieces in place, and the Lombardi-Banner duo did well to add more this offseason in former Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Paul Kruger, former Oakland Raiders defensive end Desmond Bryant and former Philadelphia Eagles running back Dion Lewis, acquired in a trade in exchange for linebacker Emmanuel Acho.
We’ll take a closer look at free-agent moves in the following slideshow, but none of those moves will have as big an impact on the Browns success this season as the changes they made to their coaching staff.
By now, Cleveland fans have had their fill of “West Coast Offense” and “it’s a process” talk. With Shurmer out the door, Browns fans can look forward to a much more exciting offensive product, due in part to the development of a young offense and in part to Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner.
Chudzinski, who spent time as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008, was brought back this offseason as Shurmur’s replacement, effectively eliminating the dink-and-dunk offense that finished 25th in the league last season. Chudzinski has always favored a vertical passing attack that is perfectly suited to Brandon Weeden’s big arm, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the signal-caller make huge strides this season as a result.
Following his dismissal from the San Diego Chargers, Turner assumed the offensive coordinator role in Cleveland—a perfect match for an offensive-minded coach who loves to stretch the field and open up the offense with the vertical passing game.
The Browns’ offensive success this season will be predicated on Weeden’s progress and the health of budding star running back Trent Richardson, but coaching will play its part. The same holds true on the defensive side of the ball.
After switching to a 4-3 under Dick Jauron—who also saw his way out of town this offseason—the Browns opted to switch back to a 3-4 following the hiring of former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton. We’ll discuss the implications of that change in later slides, but this can already be said for the decision to hire Horton: Cleveland’s defense is in good hands.
Horton was extremely successful in Arizona, and he understands what it takes to both build and maintain a tough, physical defense. In the AFC North, that comes with the territory.
With a bevy of personnel changes and a few key signings, the Browns enter the 2013 season with plenty of question marks. They also look forward to this season knowing things are going to be a lot different.
We’ll take a closer look at many of the Browns’ offseason dealings, including free-agent acquisitions and departures, the 2013 NFL draft and several positions to watch as the season approaches. Read on.
2013 NFL Draft
Round 1 (Pick 6): OLB Barkevious Mingo, LSU
Round 3 (Pick 68): CB Leon McFadden, San Diego State
Round 6 (Pick 175): S Jamoris Slaughter, Notre Dame
Round 7 (Pick 217): DE Armonty Bryant, East Central (OK)
Round 7 (Pick 227): OT Garrett Gilkey, Chadron State
In trading their fourth-round pick to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns netted a 2014 third-round pick and found themselves with one less selection to use for young talent this offseason. They also swapped fourth-round picks and moved down from the fifth round to the seventh in dealing for former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess and traded a fifth-round selection to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 fourth-round pick.
Neither move was particularly detrimental given the underwhelming talent in the 2013 draft class, but both deals severely limited what the Browns could do on draft day. Having already surrendered its second-round pick to take wide receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft, Cleveland found itself with five selections when all was said and done.
Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden has a chance to see some time on the field this season, but the rest of the Browns’ late-round selections fall under the “wait and see” category. In all reality, LSU pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo is the only Cleveland draft pick assured of seeing substantial action this season.
Selecting Mingo with the sixth overall selection earned mixed reviews. The LSU product certainly has tremendous upside as an NFL pass-rusher, but many question his ability to transition to outside linebacker in a two-gap scheme. Time will tell what Mingo can bring to the table, but there’s no questioning the potential he brings to a defense in need of athleticism at the outside linebacker position.
Mingo is the type of player who defines a team’s draft. At 6’4” and 241 pounds, he’s a little thin for the 3-4 outside linebacker position, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, quickness and explosiveness off the edge. While draft analysts couldn’t seem to decide where to come down on his NFL readiness, there’s no denying the intriguing skill set he brings to Ray Horton’s defense.
In all, it was an unspectacular draft class for the Browns, but that was to be expected given the moves they made prior to and during the draft process. If Mingo pans out, no one will be concerned with anything else Cleveland did in the 2013 draft.
A Little Here, a Gordon There
No one knew what to expect from 2012 supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon entering his rookie season. All he did to answer those questions was lead the team in receiving with 805 yards and five touchdowns and establish himself as the team’s No. 1 receiving threat.
Gordon is expected to make even bigger strides in his second season, but he won’t have a full 16-game slate to do so. As reported by ESPNCleveland.com’s Tony Grossi, Gordon will be suspended two games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
BREAKING: #Browns WR Josh Gordon will be suspended 2 games and docked 4 games pay for NFL substance abuse violation. More to come!— Tony Grossi (@TonyGrossi) June 7, 2013
Gordon isn’t doing himself any favors by razzing fans about the Miami Heat (as he did with this tweet), but off-field issues aside, he’s a potential star in the Browns’ receiving corps. What Cleveland does with its passing offense this season will be largely contingent on what Gordon can do when he returns to the field.
Gordon usurped 2011 second-round pick Greg Little as the team’s No. 1 in 2012, due in large part to Little’s unsure hands and general underwhelming production since being drafted. He showed some progress last season, though, and he’ll retain his starting role opposite Gordon in hopes of erasing those concerns this season.
Where Gordon will likely benefit from a more vertical passing attack as a down-field threat this season, Little will have to prove he can be a reliable deep threat who can hold onto the football. As Little noted to Matt Florjancic of ClevelandBrowns.com, everything in the offense is predicated on down-field passing:
So far, it’s been a wide receiver’s dream. Everything is down the field, and (Turner) really emphasizes pushing off the ball. Talking with Joe (Haden), he whispered in the meeting room to me to keep pushing off the ball the way I am because ‘everything is looking like you’re on a go. Keep that up because it’s really helping me if it’s anything intermediate.’ I just like how everything’s coming together. I’ve always been accustomed to run-after-the-catch, and this is definitely different because you’re already downfield, and that’s the good thing about it. I’ve had maybe 50, 60 catches for 500 or 600 yards, and maybe 50 to 60 catches in this offense is 800 or 900.
We’ll see how close Little’s projections are to his final numbers. He still has a lot to prove going forward.
Speedster Travis Benjamin will certainly benefit from the new offense, but it’s unlikely he sees a lot of action at wide receiver this season with the acquisition of Davone Bess. With Benjamin taking over the returner roles following Josh Cribbs’ free-agent departure, he’ll be more valuable as a special teamer, unlikely to see a sizable portion of snaps with the offense.
Bess should fit in nicely in the offense, however. Predominantly a slot receiver in Miami, he’s in line to fill in the same role in Cleveland as the team’s No. 3 option.
Bess has topped the 750-yard mark three times in his five-year career, proving to be a reliable option in the slot. If Turner’s offense is successful in stretching the field, Bess could easily come close to similar production with the Browns as their primary underneath option.
The Browns also signed former Buffalo Bills wide receiver David Nelson in free agency, and while Nelson was never a highly productive target in his three seasons in Buffalo, he is a solid No. 4 for the Browns. Provided Gordon, Little and Bess remain healthy, he won’t be asked to do too much.
2012 undrafted free agent Josh Cooper rounds out the list of most likely candidates to fill Cleveland’s active roster slots at receiver. He caught eight passes for 106 yards a season ago, but he did show a good deal of quickness at the position. He isn’t likely to see much time on the field this year, either, but he’ll be an intriguing second-year option should the injury bug show up.
Cleveland’s receiver corps certainly got better this offseason—and there’s reason to be hopeful for an improved 2013 campaign—but it all starts at quarterback. We’ll take a closer look at that situation shortly.
Ray Horton’s arrival signaled plenty of changes to the Browns’ front seven. Switching base defenses is typically a 2-3 year transition, but after having already fielded a 3-4 defense prior to Dick Jauron’s stint with the team, Cleveland already has some solid pieces in place, namely on the defensive line.
Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin anchored the Browns’ 4-3 front last season, and both are capable of filling the 0-technique role in Horton’s defense. Taylor looks to be the man to do so as Rubin transitions to defensive end, but neither player should struggle his new role.
Billy Winn and John Hughes will garner some attention to fill the other defensive end position, but that role is most likely to be filled by offseason acquisition Desmond Bryant. One of the most underrated names on the free-agent market this offseason, Bryant was a huge find for the Browns who needed another big body to tie down their 3-4 front.
That defensive end position was formerly filled by 2011 second-round pick Jabaal Sheard, who now looks ahead to a transition to a stand-up role in the Browns’ 3-4 front. At 6’2” and 255 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to make the move, but he probably won’t be a three-down option week in and week out.
More likely, Sheard will play a “Jack” role in the defense, acting as a primary pass-rusher lined up all over the defensive front. He has the potential to develop into a much more versatile linebacker with added experience at the position, but expectations for his 2013 success should be tempered until Sheard can prove he can make the switch.
Still, Cleveland doesn’t have a plethora of three-down outside linebackers right now. Paul Kruger, who the team inked to a five-year deal this offseason, is similar to Sheard in that he has always been used predominantly as a pass-rusher. Kruger is a terrific 3-4 edge-rusher but he doesn’t have a lot of experience in coverage and still needs to get better at defending the run.
Fortunately for both players, Horton’s aggressive two-gap scheme will allow them to do plenty of pass-rushing this season. There may be some bumps along the way, but in a 3-4 defense predicated on constant pressure, both players fit the bill.
Barkevious Mingo also stands to play a big part in the team’s pass rush this season, and while he’s still very raw as a three-down defender, he’s also much better suited for expanded responsibilities in the defense. Sheard and Kruger are in line to earn the starting spots, but don’t be surprised if Mingo is used extensively from day one.
D’Qwell Jackson has been the heart and soul of the Browns defense for several years, and he will remain at one of the two inside linebacker positions. Likewise, Craig Robertson will be back in 2013 after finishing behind only Jackson in total tackles last season.
Robertson still has a lot to prove after going undrafted in 2011, but as he noted to Tom Reed of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Horton’s defense doesn’t require anything but mobility and effort:
Inside, outside, linebacker is linebacker. At the end of the day it’s about getting to the ball. That’s how you make plays – you run to the ball. It doesn’t matter where you line up. I’m always going to get after it. (Teams) are putting more linebackers in space so you better be able to move. (Defensive coordinator Horton) fits guys to the defense. It doesn’t require the typical 260-pound head buster. We need guys who are going to move.
Robertson hit the nail on the head. Horton is a tremendous defensive mind who understand the fluidity of defense at the NFL level. He won’t have any problem finding a fit for his best players.
2012 fifth-round pick Tank Carder and 2012 undrafted free agent L.J. Fort could also see some time at the position, but as it looks right now, Robertson is the leading candidate to get the nod next to Jackson at inside linebacker.
Transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (or vice versa) is typically a dreaded move given the time it takes to find the right players to fill the new system. In this case, the typical drawbacks of such a transition shouldn’t be all that apparent this season. The Browns have several quality pieces in place, and there’s reason to believe Cleveland could field a top-10 defensive unit this season under Horton.
What of Weeden?
Brandon Weeden isn’t exactly in an enviable situation.
The Browns have been in search of a franchise quarterback since they returned in 1999, and after failed attempt after failed attempt, Weeden has been yoked with lofty expectations.
The 2012 first-round pick showed flashes of potential last season, but as a 28-year-old (at the time he was drafted), many expected him to already be a more polished NFL quarterback. What they saw last season, however, were the same struggles typical of a rookie signal-caller making the leap to the professional level.
But some of Weeden’s failures last season can be directly attributed to Pat Shurmur’s West Coast Offense that severely limited Weeden’s ability to hit targets downfield. The strong-armed quarterback has the tools to run Turner’s vertical passing attack, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make massive strides under center this season.
With fellow 2012 first-rounder Trent Richardson in the backfield locking down the running game (provided he can stay healthy), the Browns should field a much more explosive offense in 2013. Granted, that same thing has been said ad nauseum in recent offseasons, but this year there’s evidence to back it up.
Should Weeden struggle again this season, Cleveland will have a backup plan in place. The Browns signed former Chicago Bears quarterback Jason Campbell this offseason—and established veteran, who, despite failing to meet expectations at the NFL level, has the experience to step in if needed.
But for all the talk of Campbell’s arrival potentially creating a quarterback controversy this season, the bottom line is this: Weeden has to improve this season for the Browns to be successful. There’s no one else in the driver’s seat.
Apart from 2010 first-round pick Joe Haden, the Browns don’t have a cornerback on the roster guaranteed a starting spot in 2013. Buster Skrine saw plenty of action opposite Haden last season, but the results were less than spectacular.
Skrine was just a second-year player last season (and a first-year starter), however, and he may have one more chance to prove he’s worthy of the starting spot this season. He’ll have to show a lot of improvement, though.
The numbers don’t lie. Skrine was rated the No. 49 corner in the league last season by AdvancedNFLStats.com—and he looked every bit of it.
Despite being one of the fastest players on Cleveland’s roster, Skrine struggled with down-field coverage last season, drawing the ire of fans in the process. If he doesn’t show marked improvement this offseason, he stands to lose his job to one of the many hungry cornerbacks on the Browns’ current roster.
2013 third-rounder Leon McFadden could be that player, though he’s arguably better suited for the nickel corner role at the NFL level. At 5’10”and 185 pounds, he faces similar questions regarding his size as the even smaller Skrine.
Still, McFadden has the blend of speed, toughness, fluidity and ball skills to make a sizable impression this offseason, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him usurp Skrine at the position at some point this season.
But Rob Chudzinski doesn’t seem set on any one player at the moment. As quoted by Matt Florjancic of ClevelandBrowns.com, the new head coach hopes for a spirited competition:
That’s the thing about those guys; that’s a competitive group, and you like seeing that from that position. Everybody has to prove that they can play every day, and that’s the kind of environment we want to create.
2012 seventh-rounder Trevin Wade could be another player added to that mix after seeing action last season in relief of the suspended Haden and injured Sheldon Brown and Dimitri Patterson—neither of whom is on the roster this season. Wade wasn’t all that impressive, but as a late-round rookie, that was to be expected.
Along with Chris Owens and Johnson Bademosi, the battle for the other starting corner role will certainly be a heated one entering the 2013 season. For a team that finished 25th in pass defense in 2012, it will have a massive impact on the success of Cleveland’s defense this season.
|2013 Cleveland Browns Schedule|
|Week||Date||Opponent||Time (ET) ||TV|
|1||Sept. 8 ||vs. Miami Dolphins||1 p.m. ||CBS|
|2||Sept. 15 ||at Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sept. 22 ||at Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||CBS|
|4||Sept. 29||vs. Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 3 ||vs. Buffalo Bills||8:25 p.m. ||NFL Network|
|6||Oct. 13||vs. Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||FOX|
|7||Oct. 20||at Green Bay Packers||4:25 p.m. ||CBS|
|8||Oct. 27||at Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 3||vs. Baltimore Ravens||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Nov. 10|| BYE WEEK ||—||—|
|11||Nov. 17||at Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 24||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Dec. 1||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Dec. 8||at New England Patriots||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. Chicago Bears||1 p.m.||FOX|
|16||Dec. 22 ||at New York Jets||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 29 ||at Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
*For a complete look at Cleveland's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens lost a lot of talent this offseason. And yes, the division looks a lot more wide open than in years past.
But one thing always holds true in the AFC North: Nothing is guaranteed. Whichever teams walks away with the division title will have earned it.
The Browns have made one playoff appearance in the last 14 years, and to change that trend this season, they’ll have to be much more competitive in the division. That seems entirely possible given the team’s strong offseason, but it’s extremely hard to predict Cleveland’s success in 2013 given the strength of the division.
Outside the AFC North, the Browns also face tough matchups against the NFC North and the New England Patriots. Traversing that stretch of the schedule above .500 should be considered a major victory.
Of course, the Browns also face very winnable games against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. But to make the playoffs in one of the league’s toughest divisions, the Browns can’t settle for only beating the teams they are expected to beat.
Several teams did good work in the offseason, but few made as many major changes as the Browns. As much as we’d like to accurately predict how this season will play out, there are simply too many variable to consider.
I’ll give it a shot, though.
Prediction: 8-8, Fourth in AFC North
In all honesty, the Browns’ final record could be anywhere on the spectrum short of 12 wins. They boast a tremendously difficult 2013 schedule, but there’s reason to be hopeful for a winning season as well.
Chudzinski and Turner can’t produce an offense much worse than the units the Browns have fielded in recent years, and Ray Horton is a defensive wizard who has already found several pieces to implement his new schemes. Paired with Jimmy Haslam’s passion for fielding a quality product and the emergence of a couple young stars in the making, it’s hard to place a limit on what the Browns can do this season.
But it’s extremely difficult turning a struggling franchise into a Super Bowl contender in just one season. Realistically, Cleveland’s best-case scenario is a winning record and playoff berth—or at least setting in motion the first of several successful steps for building a contender in future seasons.
Browns fans are desperate to watch a winning team. While hope has faded all too often in recent years, this offseason is a time to be genuinely excited for the future. By all indications, Cleveland is a team on the rise, and it won’t be long before they make that plainly obvious.