Like many NFL teams, the Cleveland Browns have their share of needs that will have to be addressed by their front office during the current offseason. As we look to the 2011 season, I have put together a “wish list” of some of the Browns’ most critical needs.
The Browns have got to find a dependable wide receiver. They need someone who is a playmaker at the position. Until they get that kind of player, they are not going to have the kind of offense that consistently wins games. The power running game with Peyton Hillis is a great start, as it gives the team something to build on, but they need more. A one-dimensional team, such as the Browns’ team of recent years, does not cut it in the NFL
Quarterback Colt McCoy gave the fans hope for the future, but he had to take so many hits while waiting for the receivers to get open. The Browns’ lack of overall team speed really becomes obvious when you turn on the tape – especially on the offensive side. At times, the receiving corps of Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Chansi Stuckey, and Josh Cribbs can be successful, but not one of these players has the combination of speed, hands, polish as a route runner, and explosiveness that is needed to be a true game changer at the wide receiver position.
Massaquoi and Robiskie will probably be great complimentary receivers during their NFL careers, but neither of them is a #1 type. Stuckey is more of an average slot receiver and probably will not be a key contributor on a top ten offensive team. Cribbs is more of a utility type offensive player, who should be moved around and utilized in different places where he can create mismatches for the offense. Clearly, the wide receiver position is one of the most vital needs that the Browns face going into this offseason. Through the draft, free agency, and trades, the front office should be able to fill this huge hole in their team.
When looking at the Browns’ roster, the overall age of the players is the one thing that really stands out. With the exception of Ahtyba Rubin, the Browns’ defensive line is closing in on senior citizen status. Robaire Smith started at defensive end during five games, but the 33 year old ended up being placed on IR. He has been a solid starter throughout his career, but it is difficult to envision him as a starter in the future.
Brian Schaefering had a solid season while filling in at defensive end for Robaire Smith, but he is more of a solid backup defensive end than a starter. He is a contributor on special teams (only defensive lineman on the unit), but most coaches do not like to risk injuries by playing starters on special teams.
Other defensive players who are beginning to be affected by age are Kenyon Coleman and Shaun Rogers, both age 31. Coleman has started every game this season, but it is obvious that his best years are probably behind him. Rogers is still an elite athlete for his size and has had an impressive career, but I would not be surprised to see him traded during the offseason. He shows up regularly on the injury report, shows next to no effort, and makes mental errors consistently (jumping offsides). Rogers officially recorded zero starts in 2010 with the young, promising Ahtyba Rubin holding down the nose tackle position for the Browns.
In my opinion, the writing is on the wall when it comes to the Browns’ defensive line and it seems that it would be best to address this early on in the draft, since both youth and athleticism are definitely lacking at the position.
When the Browns added Tony Pashos during last offseason, it seemed every supporter of the Cleveland Browns was confident that the team had finally plugged the huge hole on the offensive line that was right tackle. However, when Pashos had difficulty staying healthy during training camp and eventually ended up on IR after the sixth game of the 2010 season, once again, right tackle became a glaring need for the Browns.
John St. Clair’s attempted pass blocks during the past two seasons have led many Browns’ fans to question his ability. The Browns’ quarterbacks have sustained multiple injuries during the 2010 season. Could John St. Clair’s ineffective efforts at right tackle be partly responsible for some of these injuries? Maybe. It is true that for part of the 2010 season the Browns’ offense was clicking on all cylinders. Is it merely a coincidence that this happened when John St. Clair was injured and Billy Yates was manning the right guard position with Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack slid over to right tackle?
During the stretch, the Browns knocked off the defending champion New Orleans Saints and the Super Bowl favorite New England Patriots. It does not seem like only a coincidence. Yates was having arguably the best season of his seven year career when a biceps injury against the Jets put him on IR and ended his season early.
Although he only started in one game during the 2010 season, Rookie Shawn Lauvao could be a bright spot at right guard. He has great potential to be a future starter beside of Alex Mack on the offensive line. At 33 years old, there is a real possibility that St. Clair will not be with the team after this season. At this point in his career, he is much better served as a backup. With 32 year old Womack and 30 year old Pashos being the only other two realistic options at right tackle, the Browns definitely need to address the right tackle position soon. They should be able to draft a right tackle between the late first and fourth rounds, since this draft is going to be full of right tackle prospects who could immediately step in and start.
Finding two defensive backs that can come in and have an immediate impact is another crucial need. If the Browns can find a young starter at the cornerback spot, opposite Joe Haden, and the free safety spot, opposite TJ Ward, then they could greatly improve. Many fans believe that Sheldon Brown could make a solid transition from cornerback to free safety. Although his athleticism has diminished over the years, he is still one of the most physical corners in the league.
At free safety, Abe Elam has been playing out of position during the season. Quite often, he seems to get lost in coverage. He has always been a strong safety and has been more accustomed to playing in the box. With the emergence of rookie TJ Ward at strong safety, however, Elam has been forced to play out of his comfort zone at free safety, covering the back half of the field in many of the defensive sets.
Eric Wright could be considered the wildcard in the whole roster dilemma. Wright was forced to learn the nickel back position (covering the slot receiver) during the offseason with the addition of rookie Joe Haden. Wright played well in the base defense (facing two receiver sets), as he started at his natural position of left cornerback, but when the opposing offense went to three receiver sets, the Browns inserted Haden at left cornerback and slid Wright to nickel. The Wright-nickel experiment in the 2010 season was a disaster, as Wright had the worst season of his short career. It seemed that nearly every time an opposing wide receiver made a big catch, Wright was the player responsible for giving up the big play.
Added to this is the fact that Wright, being a free agent, and having an admitted affection for California might keep him from re-signing in Cleveland. Quite frankly, no one really knows if the Browns’ front office even has Wright in their future plans after his adventure of a season that was 2010. Regardless, the Browns have two solid players to build around in the secondary with Ward and Haden. In this pass happy age in the NFL, teams cannot get away with only having two top level defensive backs. In order to add talent, experience, and depth in the defensive backfield, the Browns need to pick up two to four defensive backs during the offseason.
The Browns do not have a single linebacker who can consistently make the kind of game changing plays that are necessary in order to be successful. With aging vets David Bowens and Eric Barton, both entering free agency, the Browns will lack both talent and depth at the linebacker position.
Defensive captain Scott Fujita had the defense playing great at midseason, but the Browns were forced to place him on IR after an injury during the Jets game. The Browns were hopeful that they would be able to bring Fujita back for a playoff push late in the season. After losing to the Bills and Bengals in consecutive weeks, the Browns decided that it was better to place him on IR and end the season with two meaningless games remaining on the schedule. Fujita appears to be a solid starter at outside linebacker in 2011.
Chris Gocong had a sub-par beginning to his 2010 campaign, but the light bulb finally came on near the middle of the season. He actually put together a rather successful end to his season. Gocong is an upcoming free agent. Gocong had trouble fitting in the 4-3 defense during his tenure with the Eagles. I would be very surprised to see him re-sign with the probable switch from the 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense.
Matt Roth is one of the best in the business when it comes to setting the edge and stuffing the run from his 3-4 outside linebacker spot. He lacks in coverage skills and at 6'4” and 275 lbs., he is more of a glorified defensive end than a true outside linebacker. He will also become a free agent after the 2010 season. Roth displays intensity and toughness that coaches love. However, I doubt he will be back since he does not fit in the 4-3 defense.
Second year outside linebacker Marcus Benard is undeniably the best pass rusher on the Browns roster. Due to his raw coverage abilities and lack of impact against the run, he has been reduced to spot duty - playing only on special teams and passing downs on defense. Benard could make the switch to defensive end in the 4-3.
D’Qwell Jackson is a free agent and I doubt he will return. He has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries to his pectorals and never got a chance to show the front office what he can do.
The remaining linebackers on the Browns’ roster are only assets to the roster because of their special teams abilities. They will probably never be big time players on defense, but could make a significant impact on special teams. Athleticism and playmaking ability at linebacker is sorely missing on the Browns roster. This will need to be addressed during the offseason in order for the Browns to contend in 2011.
The final position that the Browns desperately need to fill is running back. With the emergence of Peyton Hillis, the need for a running back might be a surprise to some. Yet, it is most definitely a critical need for the Browns. After being traded from the Denver Broncos during the offseason, Hillis had a tremendous 2010 campaign. In spite of this, he cannot do it alone. It has become quite apparent that Hillis, with decreased carries and production, wore down as the season progressed.
Mike Bell is a fine backup running back, as shown during his 2009 season with the Saints. Bell is a free agent now and it is doubtful that he will be back in Cleveland next year. Rookie Montario Hardesty is the wildcard in the Browns backfield. Hardesty was all but given the Browns starting running back job during the offseason, but an ankle injury during training camp and an ACL tear during the last preseason game forced the Browns to place him on IR. This unfortunately ended his rookie season early. Hopefully Hardesty can bounce back from these injuries, and can go on to have a productive NFL career.
A versatile running back, with both game breaking speed and great receiving abilities would do wonders for the Browns’ offense. Although the running back position is not the greatest concern for the Browns during the offseason, a matchup problem in the backfield would most surely do great things for an offense that lacks explosive options at both the running back and wide receiver positions. By satisfying these needs, the Browns would have the ability to consistently put teams away.
Obviously, the Browns front office has quite a bit of searching and work to do during the offseason. Although the past year was not a complete bust, there are definitely many areas which need improvement. Rather than focus on the negative aspects of the past, the Browns should think about the positives that have occurred, and keep an optimistic open mind about the future!