The Cleveland Browns lost a very tough game to the New England Patriots last Sunday and now have to dredge through their final three games of the season, which have very little meaning. So now the focus shifts from competing for this season to evaluation for next year.
The game plan of the front office over the final three weeks will be to find out which players are going to stay, what players are going to go and who might develop into something more than what they currently are.
The Chicago Bears come to town on Sunday and are fighting for an NFC playoff spot. They are currently the eighth seed and desperately need wins down the stretch.
This is the perfect game for young players to show that they will compete until the season ends and not be discouraged by the overall failure of the season. This is the test.
It is not just for young players, however. It is also for the veterans. Can they prove they still have a spot in the NFL? Can they still contribute to a winning team if given the opportunity?
The coaches will continue to try and post victories, but everyone else knows the actualities of the situation.
The Competitive Edge
Usually this would be where we break down each position and decide which team has the advantage. Instead of deciding meaningless battles on paper, from here until the end of the season, we will examine Browns players, who will be evaluated for one reason or another.
Player by player we will explain why they are under heavier evaluation and update their status week by week.
Quarterbacks—Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden
Jason Campbell has done some very good things this season and has also had some flops. Last week against New England was his best performance of the year.
Campbell will be vying for a quarterback position outside of Cleveland next season, so he is essentially trying out for 31 other franchises.
There is a slight chance Campbell stays in Cleveland, but that would likely be the Browns' third or fourth option this offseason.
Brandon Weeden has been cleared to practice and will most likely be the backup quarterback on Sunday. If he is able to play again at any point this season, he will fighting for his NFL life.
His only possible option is a backup somewhere other than with the Browns.
Running Back—Fozzy Whittaker
Fozzy Whittaker is an interesting player because this is his first season of action in the NFL. He is playing on a one-year contract and can return kicks as well as play running back.
He has not set the world on fire as a back. He has just 79 yards on 28 attempts for 2.8 yards per carry. He has, however, shown flashes catching the ball out of the backfield.
He has 17 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, he is carrying a 22.8 yards-per-kick-return average, which is among the worst in the NFL.
He will be evaluated by the Browns to see if he has a future in Cleveland as well as every other team as a possible offseason addition.
Wide Receivers—Greg Little and Davone Bess
It does not seem that Greg Little has a future with the Cleveland Browns and will most likely be playing out his season as an audition for other teams.
While he has not dropped many passes this season, he doesn’t even register among the league leaders, according to The Washington Post, he has not been very productive either. He has just 35 receptions for a measly 384 yards.
Davone Bess, on the other had, is third in the NFL in dropped passes. While his production has been minute as well, just 41 receptions for 353 yards, the Browns traded for him last offseason, and he will probably remain in their future plans at least for the time being.
Offensive Linemen—Mitchell Schwartz, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao, Jason Pinkston and John Greco
When a team has allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL with 43 and are 28th in the NFL at 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, there will be some major changes.
The Browns may even have to look to select a right tackle early in the draft and move Schwartz to guard,according to Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com.
@shanemink Mitchell Schwartz is a liability at right tackle, need an upgrade this off-season— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) December 12, 2013
It looks like the Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston experiments at guard have been a major failure. Neither of them has made much progress in run blocking, and both are below average in pass blocking.
Schwartz will probably remain on the Browns roster, at least as a backup tackle, but the rest of the guards should be auditioning for jobs elsewhere.
Alex Mack will be a starting somewhere next season, but no one knows where as of yet. The Browns will continue their evaluation of him over the final three weeks and decide whether or not to re-sign the former Pro Bowl center.
At the beginning of the year, it seemed as though Craig Robertson was due for a large payday. It would have been a great success story as he was once an undrafted free agent and now the starting inside linebacker for the Browns.
Instead of solidifying his next contract, Robertson fought injuries and was exposed in his coverage abilities this season. It is hard to imagine that the Browns will not go out and find a significant upgrade at this position.
Robertson is most likely auditioning for a backup job or a shot at competing somewhere else in the league.
Defensive Backs—Joe Haden and T.J. Ward
Joe Haden will be playing for a contract extension and the opportunity to make his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He is currently eighth in voting at cornerback.
The Browns will need to extend him this offseason as his agent Drew Rosenhaus will be difficult to negotiate with during a contract year.
#Browns Pro Bowl fan voting so far: Ogbonnaya 2nd among FB, Cameron 4th TE, Thomas 3rd OT, Haden 8th CB & Ward 7th SS. Gordon not top-10 WR.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) December 11, 2013
T.J. Ward is also trying to make a Pro Bowl push and is currently seventh among strong safeties. More importantly, he is being evaluated every week as the Browns decide whether or not to re-sign him.
Ward has been healthy and productive this year and will start somewhere in the NFL next year if the Browns do not offer him a contract.
Browns Offense vs. Chicago Defense
Chicago’s weakness on defense is in the running game. They are the worst team in the league when it comes to stopping the run. They allow 157 yards per game in that department.
Unfortunately for the Browns, they are anemic when it comes to rushing the football. So instead, they will have to attack the 11th-best best pass defense in the league.
Jason Campbell, who has been inconsistent this season, will need to play at a level similar the one he played at in New England. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings each have three interceptions and are playmakers in the secondary.
The Bears do not create much pressure on the quarterback, just 26 sacks on the year which is 30th in the NFL, but they have very good cover corners.
Campbell will have time to throw and will have to make the Bears pay for any mistakes in coverage.
Browns Defense vs. Bears Offense
This is a question mark because the Browns do not know with definite certainty which quarterback they will be facing on Sunday. Head coach Marc Trestman said, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, “barring a setback," Jay Cutler will start.
Even if this is the case, what type of quarterback will the Browns see? It could be the Cutler who was lighting up the NFC through the first six weeks and already had amassed 1,630 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
It could also be the Cutler who tried to play in Week 8 against the Detroit Lions and was a shell of his former self. In that game, he threw for just 250 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He looked immobile and uncomfortable, and the Bears lost 21-19.
Since quarterback Josh McCown took the helm, receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall have flourished. Will their chemistry bounce right back when their starting quarterback returns?
The Browns must also account for running back Matt Forte. He is having a huge rebound year after compiling just 1,094 rushing yards, 340 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 15 games last year.
He already has 1,073 rushing yards, which is fourth in the NFL, 518 receiving yards and nine touchdowns this season.
Chicago has the ever-dangerous Devin Hester returning kicks still. While he is getting a little long in the tooth, he is still sixth in the NFL in return average, but he has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season.
Their kicker Robbie Gould kicks for a high percentage and has the leg to hit kicks over 50 yards. This could be a critical element to the game Sunday as the forecast from Weather.com is 28 degrees and shows showers.
What They’re Saying
“We’re going to be prepared for both, and we have to be prepared for both. I’m sure they’re not going to announce that and let us know on that.”
—Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski on which Chicago quarterback he will prepare his team to face
“The thing that I am most impressed with, you take a kid I believed had some blemishes on his record…seeing him really ‘get it’ early (in his career).”
—Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall on Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon’s success
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
With guard John Greco not practicing, Jason Pinkston will continue to get reps with the first-team offense. Last Sunday, the line had one of its best games since the bye week last Sunday, and Pinkston was a big part of that.
It is expected that quarterback Brandon Weeden will be the backup come Sunday, but with him still being limited in practice, Alex Tanney will get some reps this week as well.
Weeden still has some concussion protocols he must pass before he is cleared to play on Sunday.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
Josh Gordon has totaled 774 receiving yards in the last four games and 649 in the last three. Both figures are NFL records, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Gordon’s average of 19.7 yards per catch this season leads the NFL, and his average of 18.2 per grab since his rookie 2012 campaign is also first.
Despite not having a quarterback play more than six full quarters consecutively over the past four games, Cleveland has thrown for 1,342 yards, the second-highest total in the NFL during that span.
Jason Campbell has registered a rating of 100-plus in three of his five starts this season.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns’ and Bengals’ communications departments.