Using the model originally used by Jonathan Bales (Dallas Cowboys Featured Writer on B/R, article found here), I thought I'd make the compendium and guide to follow as the offseason develops. I will try to be as specific and thorough as possible. Please keep in mind, most of this is ongoing, so if you see anything that may need fixing or has been left out, please do not hesitate to give me the strongly-worded statement I deserve below. This is my baby and it took me quite a bit of time to write. If you read this, please try to leave a comment or like the article, just to show your approval or disapproval, any bit of encouragement or criticism will help me.
Also, another thing to keep in mind, everything here is my opinion or else, I've researched it. Nothing I say is affiliated to the Browns organization itself, it is simply an in depth look at what MIGHT happen, and what I'd like to see happen.
All current player links will take you to their ESPN stats, all prospect links will take you to their scouting reports (via NFLDraft101.com)
One last thing, as Mr. Bales wrote in his article "...it’s quite difficult to obtain a reliable list of free agents. Some organizations are needlessly secretive about their players’ contracts, and there’s plenty of inaccurate information out there regarding free-agent statuses."
With all that in mind, let's dive right in!!
- Team Positions of Need (In Order of Importance): DE, DT, OT, FS, ILB
The Browns need to get younger and faster in the defensive front seven, that's no secret. I believe this starts in the trenches. If you can win on the line, then your defense will not succeed, simple as that. The linebacking corps also may need an immediate upgrade, as most of the guys on the roster right now are injury-plagued or getting older.
The right tackle spot as well, needs to be addressed. The front office thinks Pashos is the guy to step in and win the job, but be that as it may, a young guy competing for the job and added depth on the line could never hurt. I do not believe Pashos is the long term answer, but Pashos would be a great depth guy.
With the imminent departure of Abram Elam, there is some attention that needs to be paid to the open free safety spot. There will be quite a few of these available in the draft and in free agency.
- Positions Where Depth is Needed (In Order of Importance): WR, RB, SS, CB, OLB
Despite what many "experts" and many users in this forum believe, I am not under the impression that the receiving corps need immediate improvement. Under Mangini's offensive scheme, receivers were treated more like glorified tight ends at best. The receivers constantly blocked at the line and when they did run routes, they were "GO LONG!" playground routes, not suited to the skill set of receivers like Robiskie and Massaquoi, who are far more effective on slants and over the middle. Having a nice big play option would be nice, but this is not a pressing need.
The running back position needs depth. Sure, Hillis has proved to be the most productive back in Cleveland since the expansion, but he can't do it alone. At the end of the season he looked tired after being sent on the same two plays. Montario Hardesty is a good back, but he shouldn't be relied upon to return to full health. If Hardesty does manage to stay healthy for any length of time, he should be viewed as a bonus, not an insurance policy. This makes acquiring a good backup a little more important, still, Hillis should get the majority of the carries in any format.
Basically everywhere else could use some depth, T.J. Ward is still an injury risk, so getting a backup might be nice, but not really necessary. The Browns really need some corner depth, even if Eric Wright manages to return to his 2009 form we would only have two legit CB's on the roster. Any amount of front seven depth could only help this includes the linebacking unit.
Overview: Defensive end is, without a doubt, the most pressing need of the Cleveland Browns. The only serviceable, not good, true defensive ends on the current roster are Travis Ivey and Brian Shaefering. In any 4-3 formation, but especially in Dick Jauron's 4-3 scheme, the ends may be the most important factor in the entire defense. Multiple, speedy, pass-rushing ends are required. These defensive end spots could be filled with decent 3-4 OLBs (i.e. Kamerion Wimbley types) but with a lack of difference making 3-4 OLBs, they have proven to be true commodities at the NFL level.
A player like Marcus Bernard, if he could be transitioned into a DE, could prove to thrive in this system. Both Chris Gocong and Matt Roth played defensive end in college, and only after transitioned into outside linebackers. A switch back to defensive end may be just what the doctor ordered.
None of this speculation should, however, should subtract the importance of acquiring a few speedy, pure defensive ends. Whether this player is found in the draft or free agency, it doesn't make much a difference. Realistically, I don't see Holmgren and Heckert leaving the draft table on day three without having drafted at least one defensive end.
Top Free Agent Options:
- Ray Edwards, Minnesota Vikings
- Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants
- Jason Babin, Tennessee Titans
- Marcus Spears, Dallas Cowboys
- Vernon Gholston, New York Jets
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Surprisingly, I think Gholston and Kiwanuka are the most likely to be picked up by the Browns. Before you start to sharpen your pitchforks, hear me out. I'm not saying that either of them are tremendous, Gholston especially looks like he was a first round bust. However, because of their bad 2010 outings, both of them come with a low price tag. Kiwanuka looks like a solid player, but he comes with a big red flag, due to injury history.
Ray Edwards is the best available DE in free agency but realistically, he probably won't be on our roster in 2011.
Top Draft Options:
- Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson Tigers
- Cameron Jordan, California Golden Bears
- J.J. Watt, Wisconsin Badgers
- Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue Boilermakers
- Robert Quinn, North Carolina Tarheels
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Hopefully, one of these guys has their names called on draft day during the Browns selection. The most likely to end up here, amid much fan speculation is Cameron Jordan. Jordan is a mountain of a man. At nearly 300 lbs, he could play nearly every position on the defensive line, and may just be the player the Browns need. The kind of flexibility and athleticism Jordan brings could only benefit the Browns unspectacular line, I can see him lighting up quarterbacks left and right.
Recently, Mel Kiper had Da'Quan Bowers going to Cleveland at #6. If he's there,and Holmgren and Heckert like him, we have to take him. He could be the cornerstone for the defense for a very long time to come.
Predicted Course of Action: Honestly, I see the Browns relying on a little bit of both. More than likely, two game-changers at the end position are not going to fall into Cleveland's lap. Finding one solid end in the draft and another in free agency sounds like the most logically course of action. One of their priorities should be re-signing Jayme Mitchell, who the Browns acquired from Minnesota last year for a seventh round draft pick, at the very least based on his upside.
Overview: With the jettison of Shaun Rogers a new vacancy has opened at the position. I think Cleveland is pretty sure that Ahtyba Rubin is a solid building block to work with. This leaves finding another suitable starter a big priority. Since the position is so deep in this years draft, and there are multiple former starters in free agency, finding a starting caliber player at the position isn't going to hard. It's finding the right fit that will be difficult, but also incredibly important.
Top Free Agent Options:
- Barry Cofield, New York Giants
- Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks
- Mike Patterson, Philadelphia Eagles
- Shaun Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
- Stephen Bowen, Dallas Cowboys
- Pat Williams, Minnesota Vikings
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Amongst these guys, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Barry Cofield may be the most likely to land here. He fits our system, we have money to pay him, and we could certainly use him. If Kiwanuka makes it to Cleveland he may be able to pull Cofield and maybe even vice-versa. Brandon Mebane has been instrumental in the Seattle run defense, and for that reason I think he stays in Seattle. Mike Patterson is another guy that may end up in Cleveland, and I don't think he'd be a bad pick up at all.
Top Draft Options
- Marcell Dareus, Alabama Crimson Tide
- Nick Fairley, Auburn Tigers
- Stephen Paea, Oregon State Beavers
- Marvin Austin, North Carolina Tarheels
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Literally, any of these guys would be solid options. Obviously, these are not all of the top options, as this is a very deep class of defensive linemen. I'd love to get good value on a lineman like Paea or Austin as the upper two guys have some question marks. I think more than likely, the pick will be Austin, however Paea would be a great pick as well.
Predicted Course of Action: More than likely, the Browns will try to draft a defensive tackle, as most of the guys on the free agent market are older and don't have nearly the upside as some of the top DTs in the draft. I see the Browns trying to find good value in the draft, but at the right pick, they may let loose a little and take Fairley or Dareus.
Overview: The Browns offensive line has a lot going for it. With two Pro-Bowlers (Joe Thomas and Alex Mack) and an exceptional left guard (Eric Steinbach) it seems like the Browns are about one solid acquisition away from having the best offensive line in the league. Tony Pashos is a short term answer at the position and is rather injury-prone. The drafting of Shawn Luvao gives the Browns a young guy to plug in on the line, and from what we've seen of him, he's capable of being a solid right guard. This leaves the right tackle spot, at least in the long term, vacant. The Browns need to find a difference maker and fill that gaping hole for the next five years, at least, if they want Colt McCoy to develop into their franchise QB.
Top Free Agent Options:
- Willie Colon, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Tyson Clabo, Atlanta Falcons
- Marshal Yonda, Baltimore Ravens
- Matt Light, New England Patriots
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Willie Colon, when healthy, is the best option the Browns could sign. He's also available and the Steelers have seemingly lost interest (as they tendered Terry Hillis and not Colon). He's played in the AFC North, he's help keep Roethlisberger safe all these years, and he's only 27. If Colon is not available, the next most likely target is Tyson Clabo, a Pro-Bowl right tackle. Although both of these guys aren't extremely young, and more than likely come with a big price tag, they could both help solidify the line for years to come.
Top Draft Options:
- Anthony Costanzo, Boston College Eagles
- Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin Badgers
- Nate Solder, Colorado Buffaloes
- Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Marcus Cannon, Texas Christian University Horned Frogs
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: If any of the guys listed in the top four fall into the second round, it would be absolutely incredible to grab one of them. All of those guys have the potential to anchor the right side of the line for years to come. If the Browns decide to take a tackle in the first round (not likely) I would say that Carimi or Solder has got to be the guy, both are solid lineman that lead a rather deep class of great offensive tackles.
Predicted Course of Action: There's a 50/50 chance pretty much. I think that if Holmgren and Heckert don't pick a tackle early and aren't sold on any of their mid-draft options, then they might target Colon or Clabo. If they do take an offensive lineman early, look for any of these guys to be the pick. I think it's ultimately going to come down to a guy like James Carpenter, Alabama (as I don't see them using any higher than a third round pick on an OL) or else punting offensive line in the draft and overpaying for Clabo, fresh off a Pro Bowl.
Overview: With the fate of Abram Elam uncertain, it seems that the Browns are either going to have to find his replacement or else splurge a little cash and keep him. Personally, I'm in favor of just letting Elam walk. Elam is the equivalent of a backup FS anywhere else (except maybe Dallas or Houston) and the benefits of him being here are heavily outweighed by the contract we'd have to give him. This leaves an opening at the free safety spot. Let's have a look.
Top Free Agent Options:
- Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers
- Bernard Pollard, Houston Texans
- Roman Harper, New Orleans Saints
- Quintin Mikell, Philadelphia Eagles
- Michael Huff, Oakland Raiders
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: I think Weddle has to be the target. He is a restricted free agent however, he gives the Browns a young, athletic guy who is solid all around and brings a positive attitude. If Weddle is not available, Pollard and Huff are terrific options as well. Hopefully one of thsoe three is signed, although Mikell is familiar with Defensive Coordinator Dick Jauron and GM Tom Heckert.
Top Draft Options:
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: None. I just don't see the Browns addressing this need in the draft. If we got very good value, Deunta Williams looks like a very solid prospect. His mid-second to third round price tag is what makes it hard to see that happening.
Predicted Course of Action: Free Agency all the way. Too many needs to fill to take one of those guys in the draft. If we pick up a lot of mid round picks, maybe, but there's more important needs to fill.
Overview: I've seen a lot of people in this community ask "who's going to play Mike LB?", it's a good question. We really can't say. Some people have said, and accurately, that D'Qwell Jackson has ideal features to be a successful MLB in the 4-3. He was considered a solid MLB prospect coming out of Maryland, and is really not big enough to play on the outside. However, playing MLB is how Jackson hurt both of his pectoral muscles and Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes (at this point) believe he could be effective on the weak side. Chris Gocong is an ILB in the 3-4 so he seems like a likely candidate, at least initially, to start at the spot. However, if a linebacker isn't found this season, things will only become harder for the Browns front seven. The good news is the amount of solid talent available right now.
Top Free Agent Options:
- Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Paul Posluszny, Buffalo Bills
- Rocky McIntosh, Washington Redskins
- Clint Session, Indianapolis Colts
- Takeo Spikes, San Francisco 49ers
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Barrett Ruud. I'll say it until I'm blue in the face, Ruud is one of the best free agents on the market this season. He has all the leadership and character qualities you'd want in a young guy, he has solid tackling technique and he understands how to play the position well. All of these things could be said of Posluszny, who is younger, but it seems like the Bills want to keep Posluszny in Buffalo, understandably. Ruud needs to be in the Top-5 if not Top-3 most important pickups on this free agent market.
Top Draft Options:
- Greg Jones, Michigan State Spartans
- Martez Wilson, Illinois Fighting Illini
- Nate Irving, North Carolina State Wolfpack
- Casey Matthews, Oregon Ducks
- Mario Harvey, Marshall Thundering Herd
Most Likely to End Up in Cleveland: Out of these guys, I could see us taking a chance on Mario Harvey or Casey Matthews late in the draft. If one of the guys towards the top of the rookie list falls into round three or four (I'm looking at you Nate Irving) Heckert shouldn't think twice about nabbing one of them, especially if he gets some extra picks. Both Matthews and Harvey are low risk/high reward options, that have plenty of intangibles. With some coaching I feel either of those guys could be a solid player and spot stater as early as next season.
Predicted Course of Action: I'm thinking free agency here, Ruud seeming like the no-brainer choice. Heckert could do worse than picking up Mario Harvey in the 7th and praying he outplays his draft stock. There are so many directions that this particular choice could go, it's impossible to predict the outcome. Only Tom Heckert knows the answer.
In Part II I will address the positions where we need more depth and the best options there. As I said earlier on the article, any amount of feedback you can give me on this article will help.