Cleveland Browns Offseason: Finding the Pieces to the Team's Puzzle
The Cleveland Browns are at a huge turning point. The powerful and talented front office, headed by Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, decided on a coaching change. They didn't just decide on a new coach, but they also decided on a young coach with no previous head coaching experience. It was a huge step into the unknown. With the hiring, they also decided on turning the team over with new offensive and defensive staples (the West Coast Offense and the 4-3 defense).
With big changes on both sides of the ball there are plenty of openings for starters and backups alike. The idea is to identify the openings and find useful solutions to those spots. There will be easy spots to fill and harder spots to fill, depending on the available undrafted free agents, the labor agreement and the strength of the free agent class.
Offensive Right Tackle: Jared Gaither
Gaither holds off Pro Bowler Clay Matthews
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Browns have had trouble with the right tackle position for the last few year at least. They have found stop gaps in Pork Chop Wolmack and Tony Pashos, but neither are exactly earth moving talents. Wolmack is a great versatile backup, but is not a full time starter. Pashos is getting older and is far too injury prone to be a full time starter.
One obvious way is to try to sign Baltimore Ravens' Offensive Tackle Jared Gaither. Gaither was a fourth-round supplemental draft pick out of the University of Maryland. This was brought up by ESPN Rumor Central a couple of weeks ago. Gaither became the starting left tackle and until an ugly back injury and the drafting of Blindside left tackle Michael Oher. He is a powerful blocker with long arms and mammoth strength. If he can prove to be healthy he will be a great steal from a division rival.
Jared Gaither OT
25 years old
Free Agent (CBA Dependant)
Safety: Donte Whitner
Marc Serota/Getty Images
T.J. Ward turned out to be a fantastic pick. As long as he can stay healthy, Ward could be the enforcer in the back end for the Browns for the next 10 years. The problem is that the Browns have an empty space next to him. Last season the other safety spot was manned by Abe Elam, who is an average backup. Mike Adams is a versatile sub-package defender, and a good backup safety and cornerback. Elam is a free agent and in all likelihood will not be brought back.
Donte Whitner, Cleveland native and former Ohio State Buckeye, has been rumored as a possible addition.Whitner was a former first round pick by former Buffalo Bill head coach (and current Browns defensive coordinator) DIck Jauron. The problem with this is that Whitner is closer to Ward than he is to the prototypical FS. But, he is fast, instinctive and sure-tackling, so he would be a solid contributor and a fan favorite.
Donte Whitner S
25 years old
Defensive End: Charles Johnson
Mary Ann Chastain/Getty Images
Defensive end may be the Browns' biggest need.With a transition to the 4-3 defense, the Browns effectively started from scratch at the position. The ends that they had from their previous setup do not fit the new scheme. They drafted University of Pittsburgh end Jabaal Sheard, who will man one staring spot. The other will be wide open and there will be one backup spot manned by situational rusher Marcus Benard (OLB).
There has been speculation on whether Minnesota end Ray Edwards would fit. There is a better fit...Charles Johnson. Johnson came on this past season after Julius Peppers departed as a free agent. Fortunately, it was in time to make him some money on the free agent market. Normally that would bring up questions, but Johnson has a good pedigree from the University of Georgia. He did much of his work without too much of a threat from the other side. He had 11.5 sacks.
He had some big production against the Browns' AFC North rivals. He had four sacks in three games against the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers. He added 2 sacks and a forced fumble at Cleveland in late November. He can play in the cold and has good production against the Browns' division opponents that they will play twice each.
Charles Johnson DE
24 years old
Free Agent (CBA Dependent)
Defensive End: Vernon Gholston
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
The team will be looking for depth. There will be a need for both quality and quantity. The team looking for a low risk, high reward prospect may very well end up on Vernon Gholston. The idea of trying out a bust the likes of Gholston may not look good right away, but the guy just wasn't made to play in a 3-4. He doesn't have the coverage skills to play as an outside linebacker and he doesn't have the sheer bulk to play as a 3--4 end. Gholston has a chance to be a 4-3 backup end. It would be a low pressure situation, closer to his home and it would be an inexpensive, incentive laden contract that would be helpful for both Gholston and the Browns.
Vernon Gholston DE
25 years old
Free Agent (Released)
Running Back: Derrick Locke
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
The idea of a the Browns adding another running back to a backfield that includes Peyton (King of the) Hillis and 2010 second rounder Montario Hardesty sounds odd. But, the team needs a change of pace back to take pressure off of the other two because Hillis needs rest after a 331 touch season 2010 and Hardesty needs to avoid the injury bug (torn ACL took his whole season in 2010). Both players have a more powerful style than a speedy style that the shifty, speedy Locke.
Locke carried the ball for 887 yards and 10 touchdowns even though he missed four games with a high ankle sprain. He also had 34 catches for 318 yards. Locke, who ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, so he has wheels. That speed has paid dividends in each facet of the game. He tallied five 100-yard games, a 100-yard receiving game in 2010 and he has two career 100 yard kickoff returns for touchdowns. The Browns do have All-World returner Josh Cribbs, but after he was injured last season, the Browns had nothing to replace him, leading to the team searching frantically (and unsuccessfully) for a replacement. Locke can fill that spot and a backup running back slot...two for one.
Derrick Locke RB/KR
21 Years Old
University of Kentucky
Undrafted Free Agent
Athlete: Terrelle Pryor
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
This one may conjure the most talk. Pryor is a quarterback? Pryor is a wide receiver? No one truly knows what position he will end up playing and it is probably going to be dependent upon the team that drafts him in the Supplemental Draft. ESPN's NFL Blogger James Walker thinks that the Browns would be a great team for Pryor. The Browns have needs at quarterback and wide receiver, so no matter which he ends up at, the Browns will come out ahead.
The Browns have the NFL's best quarterback mentor in Mike Holmgren, who says that his biggest regret is that the Browns did not select a developmental quarterback in the Draft. Pryor is an amazing athlete who boasts rare size and speed no matter the position he ends up with. If he ends up as a quarterback, Holmgren can mold Pryor's raw arm strength and inaccuracy into a tool suitable to the West Coast Offense.
Pryor should go between the third and fifth round of the supplemental draft. Walker estimates that he would be a fit for a fourth-round pick of the draft (no matter what agent Drew Rosenhaus says about going in the first round). Pryor completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,772 yards and 27 touchdowns. He also ran for 754 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was, however, much worse against top competition. Top training like Holmgren's would help make Pryor into a better quarterback or if that fails, Pat Shurmer would be able to take him and mold his athleticism and speed into another offensive weapon (like a wide receiver).
Terrelle Pryor QB/WR/Athlete
21 Years Old
The Ohio State University
Outside Linebacker: Mark Herzlich
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Another undrafted free agent that should have been drafted is Mark Herzlich. The Browns' transition to a 4-3 makes the type and quality of linebacker they are looking for very different than what they previously were using. Scott Fujita is getting up there in years and Chris Gocong is only an average player who had his career year playing in the 3-4 last year. The Browns will also be very thin behind those two, boasting only pass rush specialist Marcus Benard, who may also end up playing on the line in certain situations. They could use a backup at the very least and a young player would boast well for the future.
Herzlich's situation was a well documented. He was an All-American, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus Award Finalist and team captain. After the 2008 season he was diagnosed with cancer. He battled it and overcame it. Herzlich came back for the 2010 season and was more than a great story, he was a heroic example. He is a leader and one of the hardest workers to be found. He would be a the perfect add to the Browns' defense for the present and the future.
Mark Herzlich OLB
23 Years Old
Undrafted Free Agent
Cornerback: Richard Marshall
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The Browns need a second cornerback. They have Eric Wright, who slumped badly against the upgraded AFC North receivers. Sheldon Brown is a great player and an even better leader, but he is slowing down a bit as he is getting older. He may actually be a better fit as a nickle back and a free safety. With the amount of playmaking receivers being added to the Browns' rivals they need as many good corners as they can get. Draft pick Buster Skrine is better as a sub package defensive back because he lacks the size to hold up against bigger receivers. General manager Tom Heckert loves defensive backs and there is a great chance that he will go after more than one this offseason.
Eric Wright and Richard Marshall are both younger corners with good speed. Wright does not have the strength or the confidence to deal with bigger, better receivers. Marshall, however, holds his ground well and is a sure tackler. He has averaged better than 84 tackles a season for his young career. Marshall would be a better fit for a team that desperately needs defenders who can make the sure tackle. He is not the best in coverage, but he brings a higher level of confidence than Wright, who has been consistently picked on by AFC North quarterbacks. Both men need a change of scenery and both are restricted free agents (barring a CBA agreement changing free agency rules). Regardless of whether they acquire a corner they will most likely draft one high next season.
Richard Marshall CB
26 Years Old
Free Agent (CBA Dependent)