After a dismal 4-12 season, and countless days of deliberation, Browns owner Randy Lerner finally gave the keys to his brown and orange Ferrari to new Head Coach, Eric Mangini (formally of the NY Jets) and new General Manager, George Kokinis (formally of the Baltimore Ravens).
Like most new front offices, Kokinis and Mangini first had to decide which players on the current roster were worth keeping around and which players they could jettison. The next order of business is to address the weaknesses of this team through free agency and the draft (mostly through the draft). Once the dust settled, and the smoke cleared, the Browns were left with 12 free agents, eight draft picks and three players via a draft day trade.
It appears that the talent acquired shows one important thing: the depth of this team, if nothing else, will be improved! Here’s a synopsis of the top four major weaknesses of the team by position and whether or not the Browns addressed these needs to date:
1. Linebacker - in the 3-4 defense the linebackers do everything from putting pressure on the quarterback to making a majority of the defensive plays on the field. Unfortunately, under the Crennel regime, the linebackers were unsuccessful in completing this task.
The Browns made the attempt to upgrade the position by signing linebackers David Bowens and Eric Barton in free agency from the Jets and drafting linebackers David Veikune and Kaluka Maiava in the second and fourth rounds respectively. Also, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the rest of defensive coaching staff are also intrigued by two linebackers from last years’ draft—fourth round pick Beau Bell, and seven round pick Alex Hall.
2. Safety/Cornerback – After losing SS Sean Jones in free agency, the Browns quickly addressed this problem by re-signing Mike Adams (who can play both safety positions) and making the trade on draft day for S Abram Elam from the Jets. Elam is expected to start at SS immediately, while incumbent FS Brodney Pool should remain in the starting lineup with Adams backing up both positions.
One player looking to get some time at safety in training camp is All Pro KR/PR Josh Cribbs; who will be looked at as a Jack of All Trades a la Troy Brown of Patriots past!
At cornerback, Eric Wright seems to have one side locked up but the other 2008 starter, Brandon McDonald, struggled mightily until the final four games of season. The front office let DB’s Travis Daniels and Terry Cousin walk while bringing in Hank Poteat (formally of [guess who?] the Jets!) and drafting cornerbacks Coye Francies of San Jose State and Don Carey of Norfolk State.
3. Wide Receiver – After trading TE Kellen Winslow, the impending trail of WR Donte Stallworth, and the release of WR Joe Jurevicius, the question of “who will be the starting QB between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson?” became irrelevant because they did not have anyone to throw the ball to!
After picking up WR’s David Patten and Mike Furrey in free agency, the future of the position, with or without impending free agent Braylon Edwards, rests in the hands of 2009 draft picks Brian Robiskie from Ohio State University and Mohammed Massaquoi from the University of Georgia. These two newcomers should provide stability, big play ability, and most importantly, football intelligence.
4. Running Back – Jamal Lewis turns 30 on Aug. 26, the age where most running backs tend to break down. After rushing for 1304 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in 2007, Lewis backslid to 1002 yards and four touchdowns in 2008. His yards/carry average also dropped from 4.4 in 2007 to 3.6 in 2008. The Browns need to run the football to be successful in 2009 and they have to have others share the load with Lewis.
Jerome Harrison, who has shown flashes of brilliance in limited duty with the Browns, will see immediate dividends with an increased role in the offense. For his career, Harrison is averaging 5.8 yards/carry and 7.9 yards/reception. Harrison can be to the Browns what Leon Washington is to the Jets. The Browns drafted sixth round pick James Davis out of Clemson and picked up free agent Noah Herron in free agency. They should help a running attack that ranked 26th in the NFL last season.
Looking over the roster as it stands today, there are two immediate observations that can be made about the Kokinis-Mangini era. They are:
1) Running the football
2) Stopping the run
With 2009 No. 1 draft pick Alex Mack (center), free agents Floyd Womack (guard/tackle), John St. Clair (tackle), plus blocking tight end Robert Royal, Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is clearly committed to running the football.
In Mangini’s three seasons with the Jets, their running game improved from 20th in 2006, to 19th in 2007, and eventually climaxing to ninth in 2008! A committed and effective rushing attack will be critical to whoever is lining up under center at quarterback.
On the defensive side, the Browns felt that they struck gold with the draft day trade for Coleman and Elam. Coleman, at worst, is a rotational lineman with Shaun Rogers, Corey Williams, Shaun Smith, Robaire Smith, and former Jet C.J. Mosley. Meanwhile, Elam as mentioned earlier…starts!
Coleman and Elam’s most important attribute that they bring to a defense is that they are known to defend the run! For Browns fans, one can only hope! With the linebackers and defensive backs either picked up in free agency or drafted, the Browns hope to improve a defense that ranked 28th against the run last year, giving up a whopping 152 yards/game!
As diversified and complex as the NFL can appear, the bottom line is that teams who both run the football and stop the run are the most successful. With Baltimore and Pittsburgh being the poster-children of that age old philosophy, and the fact that they play them twice a year, the Browns have to be able to do this to consistently compete in the AFC North, let alone the NFL!
Are the Browns finally going in the right direction? Only time will tell. One tip that Browns' fans will give to this new regime is "Don't wreck the Ferrari!"