5 Biggest in-House Questions the Cleveland Browns Must Address for 2011
With the lockout supposedly coming to a close very soon, it's free-agent mayhem all across the NFL.
Every team, including our Browns, is in a frenzy preparing to determine which free agents they want to aggressively pursue out of the gate.
But there are some issues in our own backyard that need to be cleared up as well. Some of those are givens, like doling out playbooks and signing draft picks, but there are also a number of big questions that the Browns need to address about in-house issues that don't have clear-cut answers on how to proceed.
The following are five big questions the Browns will have to answer about in-house issues once the lockout is lifted, and it's back to business for the NFL.
Please feel free to add any additional major in-house issues you think the Browns need to prioritize addressing, once the lockout is lifted in the comments below!
1. Who Will Be the Browns Starting WRs This Season?
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As we've all discussed many a time, the Browns receiving corps from last season needed a major facelift in order to be productive in 2011.
The Browns started making the necessary changes by declaring they would move to a traditional West Coast Offense that would favor the skill sets of the receivers they had on their roster, selecting hot shot WR Greg Little in the second round of the 2011 draft and forging a bond between the receivers and their quarterback with the creation of Camp Colt.
The groundwork has been laid, so the only remaining question is, who exactly will be the starters in this year's Browns' receiving corps?
As it stands Brian Robiskie and rookie Greg Little are the two big front-runners, with Josh Cribbs being the most frequently mentioned candidate for the third receiver. But at this point, nothing is set in stone. Of all the WRs on the roster, not a one of them is yet guaranteed a starting job.
In addition to the three mentioned above, there is of course Mohamed Massaquoi, a 2010 starter who struggled last year but has enough talent to stay in the mix for a starting job. There has also been some talk of TE Evan Moore moving to slot receiver. While those might be longer shots that the first three WRs mentioned, neither is out of the question.
While the Browns have until opening Sunday to officially determine who their A-team is at WR, they best get cracking on it as soon as the lockout ends. The more time those who look to be the starters have to get comfortable with their quarterback and the playbook, the better they'll be right off the bat when the Browns open 2011 against the division rival Bengals.
2. What's the Best Way To Use the Versatile Josh Cribbs?
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Perhaps the biggest position battle for the Browns isn't any competition that is between two players for one spot but a battle between positions for the one where Josh Cribbs lands.
Right now, the possibilities are wide receiver, running back and safety. I'll spare you the detailed argument for each (you can check out the pros and cons of each in my Cribbs column from last month here).
The bottom line is, this is a make-or-break season for the Browns in terms of figuring out where Cribbs belongs. With kick returner no longer a viable full-time role for anyone thanks to the new kickoff rule, the time has come when the Browns will have to make a choice. Well, maybe.
About a month ago, I ran a poll asking readers what position they prefer Cribbs play: wide receiver, running back, safety or a multi-position role. Nearly half of voters chose a multi-position role as the best use of Cribbs in 2011. WR came in second with 25 percent of the vote with the remaining fourth roughly split between running back and safety.
So to hear the fanbase tell it, the best choice of position for Cribbs in 2011 is: d. all of the above.
Fans' emotional involvement and blind faith often means their choices in debates such as this miss the mark. But this time, they may well have gotten it right. There's a very good argument for using Cribbs in a number of different roles this season, though to be fair, there's some decent arguments for confining him to a single one of the options as well.
This answer to this particular question may not become clear until the Browns have had a few games to test Cribbs out in various roles. Still, it's something they need to start thinking about right away, so that Cribbs is comfortable and well-prepared for wherever it is that the Browns decide he'll be lining up this season.
3. Which Browns Free Agents Should Be Re-Signed on Offense?
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Before the Browns dive into the free-agency open market to pursue outside players to fill needs, they need to have a clear idea of which in-house free agents they want to retain and which ones they want to bid adieu to.
This is probably an easier question to answer for this year's offensive in-house free agents than for those on the defensive side of the ball, but that doesn't mean there won't be some tough calls as to whether some offensive players should stay or go as well.
In my opinion, the Browns need to re-sign TE Evan Moore (ERFA, second round tendered) and possibly RB Mike Bell and G Floyd Womack (depending on how the market looks at RG). QB Seneca Wallace has already been re-signed. Obviously, they'll also be re-signing K Phil Dawson, who they put a franchise tag on last spring.
As for those who should be let go? The Browns should be bidding farewell to WR Chansi Stuckey. TE Robert Royal and OT John St Clair have already been let go.
The most difficult call is FB Lawrence Vickers. There are good arguments for keeping him just as there are good arguments for letting him go. While in an ideal situation where money is no object, the Browns would likely keep Vickers, in reality we unfortunately probably need to say goodbye to him.
4. Which Browns Free Agents Should Be Re-Signed on Defense?
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When it comes to players eligible for free agency on defense, the Browns seem to have a lot more issues that have to be resolved than they do on the offensive side of the ball.
There are more players eligible for free agency on defense who they need to examine, as well as a greater number of players whose sign/don't sign cases are not quite as black and white as there are on offense.
My two cents' worth is as follows: The Browns should re-sign DE/OLB Marcus Benard (ERFA), CB Eric Wright (second round tendered), DE Jayme Mitchell, DE/DT Brian Schaefering and ILB Blake Costanzo (RFA). ILB D'Qwell Jackson was already re-signed.
Those who should be sent packing are: S Sabby Piscatelli, OLB/DE Titus Brown (RFA), ILB Jason Trusnik, DE/DT Derreck Robinson and the talented but difficult DE/OLB Matt Roth. ILB Eric Barton, DE/OLB David Bowens, and DE/DT Kenyon Coleman have already been released.
On the fence: SS Abram Elam, DE/DT Robaire Smith and S Nick Sorensen.
5. How Much Leash Should New Head Coach Pat Shurmur Get from the Front Office?
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This may be the most difficult question facing the Browns' front office leading up to the 2011 season and is also the one we're least likely to get a straight forward answer to ahead of time.
The Browns appear to trust Shurmur enough to call his own plays, since he's been given the go-ahead to operate without an offensive coordinator. But how much control does he really have?
Those who have a lot of faith in Shurmur insist that what we're told by Holmgren and Heckert about Shurmur's role and how much control he has is the truth. Those who are of a more skeptical bent insist that Shurmur is merely a glorified offensive coordinator, and Holmgren is really calling the shots. Some have even gone so far as to label Shurmur a "puppet coach."
Whatever your opinion, it won't likely be proven true or false any time soon. The Browns definitely need to have a clear idea of which way they want to lean with Shurmur before the season starts, but it's unlikely anyone is going to come right out and tell us what they decided before kickoff in week one.
Most likely, the answer will become clearer midway through the season, when it's easier to determine based on what happens on the field and how the team appears to be operating without having to be directly told by the front office.
Also, there's a good chance that regardless of what they say, the Browns themselves won't answer this question until they see what Shurmur can and cannot do in the first few games of the season.
No matter what the sound bites from Holmgren and Heckert indicate, the length of the leash Shurmur will ultimately get will probably be shorter or longer by the end of 2011 depending on what they see from him in the first five or so games of the season.