By MICHAEL HEINBACH
Building from the ground up. It's a position Cleveland Browns fans are all too familiar with.
For the fourth time since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, a new coaching staff has taken the reins of the franchise with a vow to change the culture of losing that's plagued the team the past 10 seasons.
With the start of training camp rapidly approaching and several questions yet to be answered, it's time to take a look at the three most pressing issues that need to be addressed by head coach Eric Mangini and his staff prior to the season opener, Sept. 13 at home against the Minnesota Vikings.
Priority No. 1: Agree to contracts with the remaining four unsigned draftees and get them into camp immediately.
The rookie training camp reporting date for the Browns is next Friday, the earliest for any team in the NFL. Already inked to four-year deals are all three of Cleveland's sixth-round selections—running back James Davis and cornerbacks Don Carey and Coye Francies —as well as forth-round pick, linebacker Kaluka Maiava.
But time is running out to get the Brown's top four draft picks—first-round offensive lineman Alex Mack, second-round wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, and outside linebacker David Veikune—to sign on the dotted line in order to be in camp by the start date.
The importance of having the rookies at team headquarters in Berea, OH, at the very beginning of training camp is immeasurable. The jump from college to the NFL is immense, as first-year players are faced with new schemes, a new playbook, a different coaching staff, and the increased speed of the pro game.
Each minute the rookies aren't with the team as it conducts meetings and practices grossly stunts their learning curve. To get the most out of the 2009 draft class, each member needs to be in camp on Day 1.
Priority No. 2: Resolve contract disputes with wide receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs and place kicker Phil Dawson.
Cribbs, a fan favorite due to his special teams play on both sides of the ball and his local ties as a former Kent Sate quarterback, became a distraction when he held out of voluntary workouts in May in an effort to renegotiate his contract.
The contract was slated to pay him the remaining four years of a $6.77 million, six-year deal signed prior to the 2007 season.
After a face-to-face meeting with Mangini, Cribbs joined the team for workouts, but he's still searching for the new deal he says was promised by the Browns' old regime. He's again threatening a hold out if the grounds for a new contract aren't being laid.
Dawson, the last of the 1999 Browns remaining on the roster, has consistently kept the kicking game from being an area of concern through his 10 years with the Browns. And while Cleveland fans might think the team owes Dawson a debt of gratitude, Mangini has no personal ties to him and might be willing to cut Dawson loose.
Whether Mangini and the front office decide to negotiate new deals, attempt to trade them, or outright cut either Cribbs or Dawson, these decisions have to come soon in order to promote continuity among the team.
Priority No. 3: Promptly chose a starting quarterback.
Many in the media believe the decision to start Brady Quinn over Derek Anderson has already been made, and that the facade of a quarterback competition exists only to increase Anderson's trade value.
Assuming that's truly the case, why give Anderson reps with the first team, taking away time for Quinn to develop a comfort level with his receiving corps?
The bottom line is that whoever starts under center, that guy needs all the work with the starters so a chemistry can be developed with his offensive line, running backs and receivers.
If the Browns go into their third preseason game without an established starter under center, the offense will again underachieve through the early portion of the regular season schedule.