With a lot of football still left to play in 2011, it seems early to be talking about the 2012 season. But in a town like Cleveland where we're perpetually waiting 'til next year, it's never too early to look a bit farther down the road.
2012 is supposed to be a big year for the Browns; Holmgren's plan promised significant and noticeable improvement then. All eyes will be on who the Browns draft next spring, as well as on the young core members of the team, who should have enough experience by then to start to look like contenders if they're ever going to be capable of reaching that point.
But equally intriguing for the Browns in the offseason leading up to 2012 will be which players they decide they won't be bringing back.
Obviously, we can't say anything definite about who the Browns will likely part ways with during the offseason at this point in time. Players who currently look like locks to be cut might redeem themselves enough to earn a stay of execution for 2012. Others who aren't yet on the ropes might find themselves there after Week 17.
What we do know is whose job appears to be in potential jeopardy as things stand right now. Following are five Browns who need to get their game together over the next six weeks of football, or they'll likely be losing their jobs in February.
Oh, how things change.
A year ago, Peyton Hillis was probably the most well-liked guy in Cleveland. Now he's just another one of the many athletes who have been chastised over the years for poor choices on and off the field.
I'll refrain from editorializing too much on the Hillis situation, because the media doing that is a big part of what got us to where we are in this mess anyway, but I will say this: From what we know of Hillis' contract demands for an extension, they're, well, quite a reach. It looks as though Hillis set his rate at that for an elite back, which he was...for a whole one year.
It isn't Hillis' fault that he was over-hyped thanks to the Madden cover and other factors, but he and his agent should have been more judicious in the way they tried to take advantage of it.
This season Hillis has played just four games and posted 211 yards on 60 carries with two touchdowns. Injuries or no, that's not a good enough showing for a guy asking for the kind of money he wants. It would be nice if Hillis and the Browns could work things out and reach an agreement for 2012, but I wouldn't count on it.
When the Browns first signed RG Tony Pashos, he was supposed to be the answer to the team's tremendous offensive line woes.
Sadly, Pashos has been neither dependable nor healthy during his time in Cleveland, and has been a big contributor to the problems on the right side offensive line that have plagued the Browns.
Pashos continues to struggle with injuries, and no longer even has a consistent starting job for the Browns. He's signed through 2012 for $3.35 million in the final year of his contract, but you can bet the Browns will cut him loose after 2011.
While I won't miss most of the guys on this list at all, I do hate having to include a guy like CB Sheldon Brown on it.
Brown, a terrific teammate, locker room guy and mentor, unfortunately seems to have reached the age where he can no longer produce the required results on the field to keep his job, even if we all appreciate what he does off the field.
Granted, technically speaking, Brown isn't that old. He's only 32. But regardless of the number, his play has shown signs of the kind of deterioration that comes with the aging process in football.
Brown has played 10 games this season and has 27 tackles and one forced fumble, but he's also missed his man or failed to properly anticipate a route multiple times this season in key situations.
Brown is owed $3.7 million by the Browns in 2012 before his contract runs out, but I don't see the team sticking this one out. It would be nice if the Browns could retain Brown for the sake of his skills as a mentor and leader, but the price tag for those services alone without more success of the field is simply too high.
DE Jayme Mitchell has been one of the few weak points on an otherwise solid defense for the Browns.
While the team has been outstanding defending against the pass, they've struggled heavily against the run, and Mitchell has unfortunately been a big part of that. The Browns seem unable to contain outside rushers, and Mitchell has often been the guy on the hook for it when somebody breaks free for a big gain.
Mitchell has 24 tackles on the season, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble in nine games played.
The Browns signed Mitchell to a two-year contract at the end of July, which was probably a mistake. While he seems well-suited to a second-string role, he isn't the answer for the Browns as a starting DE.
The Browns have an excellent young defensive line in Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, and it will be one of the team's biggest strong points going forward. I don't see Mitchell fitting into the equation over the long term, as the Browns will certainly want an upgrade who can match the level of play of the other three guys on their line.
You will find very few better human beings in the NFL than LB Scott Fujita. Unfortunately, you will find quite a large number of better linebackers.
Unlike many other players on this list who are flat-out underperforming or making themselves unwanted for off-field reasons, Fujita is simply getting to the point where he's just too old to get the job done, much like Sheldon Brown.
Fujita is of course also an excellent leader and mentor, but the Browns need to get younger, faster and stronger at linebacker. With the outstanding D'Qwell Jackson at MLB and Chris Gocong recently signed to a contract extension at Weakside LB, the odd man out will be the aging Fujita.
Fujita is set to make $3.65 million next season for the Browns, but I don't see him ever getting that money. He will likely be let go after the end of 2011.
In some ways you hate to see this happen, as Fujita has 10 years of experience, clear locker room leadership ability and is just an all around stand-up guy. But alas, it seems it's time for the Browns to move on to a younger and more effective replacement at strongside LB.
Following are a few other Browns whose might find themselves jobless in 2012 if they don't step up their game:
OL: Oniel Cousins, John Grego, Artis Hicks
WR: Mohamed Massaquoi, Carlton Mitchell
LB: Titus Brown
S: Ray Ventrone, Usama Young
There are others as well who could be in danger if they don't show more the rest of this season, or at least in training camp in 2012 before final cuts are made.
One other guy to keep an eye on in this capacity is backup QB Seneca Wallace. Wallace is signed through 2013, and his issue does not relate to performance problems.
Rather, because Wallace has previously seemed slightly disgruntled over not having a starting role, it stands to reason that he could again tire of being confined to a backup role that sees very limited action thanks to Colt McCoy's toughness and ask for a trade.
Obviously, the Browns would hate to lose him and certainly won't be cutting him loose any time soon, but we have to acknowledge the possibility that Wallace may ask to leave before he hits free agency in 2014.