Where to Start: The Browns and Their Biggest Roster Needs for 2014

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Where to Start: The Browns and Their Biggest Roster Needs for 2014
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The run game was a dud for the Browns in 2013; they need to upgrade at running back.

The Cleveland Browns finished the 2013 season with a 4-12 record that prompted yet another overhaul of the coaching staff.

With these changes likely comes a retooled roster to suit the new coaches' needs; however, even before Rob Chudzinski, Ray Horton and Norv Turner were replaced by Mike Pettine, Jim O'Neil and Kyle Shanahan, there were holes on the Browns' roster that clearly needed patching.

Let's take a look at the areas in which the Browns' roster is weakest and a few players—free agents and rookies alike—who may be best suited to turn things around.

 

Running Back

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Dion Lewis looked good in the 2013 preseason—until a leg fracture ended his year.

The Browns ranked 27th in rushing yards in 2013, and their inability to run the ball was their biggest offensive failing.

After running back Dion Lewis broke his leg in the preseason, and the Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round draft pick, the team simply had no success—and seemingly little interest in—running the ball. 

Cleveland's leading rusher in 2013 was Willis McGahee, who had 377 yards and two touchdowns on his 138 carries and who averaged a disappointing 2.7 yards per carry. McGahee is among the Browns' 2014 free agents and it's hard to imagine that, should he be re-signed, they'll be looking for him to lead the run game for yet another season. 

Browns Run Game, 2013
Rush Yds. Rank Yds/Rush Rank Rush TDs Rank
1,383 T-27 4.0 23 4 32

via ESPN

Behind McGahee was Chris Ogbonnaya, who had 240 rushing yards on 49 carries. Ogbonnaya's status as a third-down specialist and change-of-pace back should be secure in 2014.

But again, that means the Browns have yet another running back who doesn't possess starting-caliber skills. So where do they turn?

Dion Lewis is one option. In the 2013 preseason, Lewis had 10 carries for 45 yards along with seven receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown.

It's a small sample size in the most meaningless contests of the year, but Lewis did show flashes of speed and elusiveness desirable in a starter. However, his recovery from his leg fracture as well as his new coaching staff's interest in him will dictate what his 2014 depth chart position will look like. 

In terms of free-agent backs set to hit the market in March, the Browns do have a few options.

The first name that jumps out is Ben Tate from the Houston Texans. ESPN's Adam Schefter discussed the Browns' potential interest in Tate in the fall, and the talk hasn't died down.

ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi was even asked about it on Monday:

Tate rushed 181 times in 2013 for 771 yards and four touchdowns, taking over for starter Arian Foster, who missed much of the year with a back injury that landed him on injured reserve. Tate is certainly an option and will land with a new team and make good money, but the Browns might have interest elsewhere. 

The Browns aren't hard up for cash—they have $46 million in salary-cap space to work with this year, per Spotrac. However poised they are to spend money, that doesn't mean they need to overpay any of the free agents they choose to sign. They may also not want to dedicate so many financial resources to a veteran running back if they want to spend the money elsewhere.

Whether or not the Browns pick up a free-agent running back, they will still likely want to add another one via the draft. Obviously, this is not going to be a first- or even second-round priority.

However, a good use of their early third-round pick could be LSU's Jeremy Hill.

LSU running back Jeremy Hill could be a draft target for the Browns.

Hill had 1,401 rushing yards in 2013 along with 16 rushing touchdowns and averaged 6.9 yards per carry. He also has receiving skills, catching 18 passes for 181 yards.

Per WalterFootball.com, Hill looks and plays the part of a starting NFL running back, however he has some "off-the-field red flags" that could make him a third-round value for Cleveland if he's put those problems behind him. 

 

No. 2 Wide Receiver

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Josh Gordon was amazing in 2013. The rest of Cleveland's receiving corps? Not so much.

Browns wideout Josh Gordon had an incredible 2013 season. He led the league in receiving yards, with 1,646, was the team's top scorer with nine touchdowns and he accomplished it all after serving a two-game suspension to start the season and with three different quarterbacks throwing him the football.

But behind Gordon, there was little else to Cleveland's receiving corps.

Not counting tight end Jordan Cameron, the team's next leading receiver was Greg Little, who had 465 yards and caught 41 of the 99 passes thrown his way. Then came Davone Bess, who caught only 42 of the 86 passes thrown his way, for 362 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the team in dropped passes, with 14.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Davone Bess had 14 dropped passes on just 558 offensive snaps.

Neither Bess nor Little is the ideal receiver to pair with someone as game-changing and explosive as Gordon. And if Gordon is going to continue to be successful, the Browns need another receiver on the field to test opposing defenses. 

Should the Browns release both Little and Bess, then Gordon will be the elder statesman of the Browns' receivers, at three years in the league.

This youth may thus influence the Browns to pick up a veteran free agent. As a No. 2 wideout, soon-to-be Denver Broncos free agent Eric Decker would be a great addition.

Comparing 3 Free Agent WRs for the Browns
Player 2013 Team Tgts. Rec. Yds. TDs YAC
Eric Decker Broncos 137 87 1,288 11 345
Golden Tate Seahawks 98 64 898 5 451
James Jones Packers 93 59 817 3 315

via ESPN

However, Rich Cimini of ESPN New York reports that Decker could be paid as much as $9 million per season—which isn't that far-fetched, considering Rotoworld points out that's what the Minnesota Vikings paid out to Greg Jennings just a year ago.

That's No. 1 receiver money, and the Browns already have one of those. Their salary-cap space doesn't matter—Decker won't get that kind of cash from the Browns when they need a No. 2 wideout.

If the Seattle Seahawks let Golden Tate walk, choosing to pay Doug Baldwin instead, then Tate could be on the Browns' radar. James Jones of the Green Bay Packers could also pay dividends for the Browns at the No. 2 receiver position and shouldn't command anywhere near Decker's cash to do so. 

The Browns should also look to round out their receiving corps in the draft. In fact, it is something they could address with their second of two first-round picks. Clemson's Sammy Watkins will likely be off the board by then, but there are many other talented receivers in this draft class. 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin could be a perfect pairing with Josh Gordon.

Two options are Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and Penn State's Allen Robinson. Both are big-play receivers in the mold of Gordon, either of whom would make the Browns receivers a nightmare in coverage.

Benjamin had 54 receptions in 2013, for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns; Robinson had 97 catches for 1,432 yards and six scores. One or both of these players could still be available to the Browns when they select at 26th overall. 

 

Offensive Line

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Browns center Alex Mack could be headed for free agency, though it doesn't seem likely.

The presence of Shanahan on the Browns' coaching staff means one thing—zone-blocking is coming to Cleveland's offensive line.

That's not the blocking scheme the Browns ran under Chudzinski and Turner, however, which means there will be a need to add the right type of offensive linemen to the roster this offseason.

That doesn't mean, of course, that each Browns offensive lineman is in danger of losing his job. Shanahan said so in his introductory press conference: 

"I think it gets a little overrated [when people assume] you've got to have smaller [linemen] that can move and stuff. Really, you want to get the best O-linemen possible. You want guys who can come off the ball, guys who can run numbers to numbers. But you want those guys as big as possible while they still have some quickness that they can reach people and really create space for a back."

One change that may befall the Browns' offensive line in the coming months is at center.

Alex Mack is one of the team's impending free agents. Though he was the team's second best offensive lineman in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), as well as the league's fourth-best center, if he's not suited to Shanahan's blocking style, he could be in danger of not being re-signed.

Center, however, is not an easily replaceable position, and the learning curve is steep. Therefore, Mack should be high on the priority list for a new deal from the Browns. But that doesn't mean the Browns' offensive line as it was composed in 2013 is how it will look in 2014. 

Right guard, in particular, was a weak spot for the Browns. Shawn Lauvao and Oniel Cousins split time at the position and neither shined in either pass protection or run-blocking. Neither is particularly athletic, which is a must in a successful zone-blocking scheme. Both are unrestricted free agents, as well.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Oniel Cousins, along with Shawn Lauvao, are free agents this year. Neither will be the Browns' starting right guard in 2014.

There are a number of free-agent guards who come from similar schemes who could boost the Browns' ranks, many whom they can get at an affordable price.

One option that stands out is Jon Asamoah of the Kansas City Chiefs, who was Pro Football Focus' 20th-ranked guard for 2013 (subscription required) and had a low cap hit of just $1.55 million.

The draft should be a good source of athletic offensive guards this year. The Browns could easily find a starter to replace the Lauvao-Cousins tandem in the second or third round, should they so choose.

The options include David Yankey from Stanford, Zack Martin from Notre Dame and Cyril Richardson from Baylor.

All played either guard or tackle in college, have great athleticism and zone-blocking backgrounds, with the tackles looking more like NFL-style guards based on their size.

No matter which route the Browns take this year—free agency, the draft or both—right guard is a roster spot they'll need to fill this year.

 

Pass-Rushers

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jabaal Sheard led the Browns in sacks in 2013, but he had only 5.5

When the Browns hired Horton to coach their defense last season, the expectation was that it would look much like it did in Arizona when he held the same job with the Cardinals—aggressive, hard-hitting, ball-hawking and riddled with blitz packages.

However, Horton couldn't recreate the magic he made in Arizona, and he's since moved on to the Tennessee Titans.

The Browns' 2014 defense will be modeled in the image of the ones Pettine and O'Neil created in both Buffalo with the Bills and with the New York Jets. It is a hybrid system, not beholden to just a 3-4 or 4-3 base and, if numbers are any indication, is far more aggressive than Horton's. 

The calling card of Pettine's style of defense is sacks, and lots of them. Pettine's Bills had 57 in 2013, the second most in the league; in contrast, the Browns were tied for 16th, with 40 sacks.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Pressure was the calling card of Pettine's defense in Buffalo; his unit had the second-most sacks in the NFL in 2013, with 57.

Sixteen Browns defenders notched at least one sack on the season, but none shined with double-digits. Their sack leader was linebacker Jabaal Sheard, with 5.5. The Bills had three defenders with double-digit sacks in 2013.

The Browns don't need one premier pass-rusher; they need pass-rushers, plural. And they don't have enough of them on the roster presently.

In fact, only Sheard and now-departed cornerback Chris Owens had positive pass-rushing grades for 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while Football Outsiders ranked the Browns' pass rush as a whole at 22nd on the season.

While Pettine and O'Neil might be successful in getting more out of the Browns defenders currently on the roster, they need to add more pass-rushing talent.

However, with the Browns handing linebacker Paul Kruger a $40.5 million contract in free agency last year and spending a first-round draft pick on Barkevious Mingo, they will be in the market for situational pass-rushers and not full-time starters (of course, there is the matter of Mingo needing to gain weight to consider). 

In terms of free agents, there may be no better choice than Robert Ayers, who is about to hit the market after five seasons with the Denver Broncos. Ayers may not have lived up to his first-round draft pedigree, and he does struggle against the run, but he could be an affordable option as a pass-rushing specialist in Cleveland.

Otherwise, the Browns could use one of their two fourth-round draft picks on a pass-rusher. The benefit of the Browns running a hybrid defense is that they could select a 4-3 style defensive end or a 3-4 style outside linebacker to add to their stable of pass-rushers. A "tweener" who projects to be either-or could fit well in Cleveland as well. 

Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith absolutely meets the Browns' needs. He had 8.5 sacks in 2013 and had a good showing at the Senior Bowl, which could make him unavailable to the Browns if they wait until the third or fourth round to add another pass-rusher. But, should he slide, he'd be perfect. 

Ultimately, all of a team's needs can't always be filled via free agency and the draft. However, the Browns have 10 total draft picks this year and the second most salary-cap room to work with this offseason.

It's quite possible the Browns could find players who meet their most pressing needs and field a complete, competitive team in Pettine's first season as a head coach.

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