For non-playoff-bound teams like the Cleveland Browns, the 2011 season is nearing its close.
The Browns have just three more games left before they close out their year.
It has been a difficult season in which to evaluate talent for the Browns; whether because we don't know what the long-term timetable for improvement is for the group and for individuals or because it's tough to judge one one player or position group independently of the influence of others.
Still, the Browns will have to do just that in only a few short months when the free-agency period begins and they have to start evaluating the talent they already have to see who stays and who goes.
Following are some preliminary thoughts for the Browns offseason evaluations of players on who should be kept, who should be traded and who should be cut in preparation for the 2012 season.
Note that this evaluation uses the current starters for the team. Injured players who would be starters (such as Scott Fujita) are not included in order to make room on the list for each position's current incumbent.
QB Colt McCoy
McCoy has a lot of detractors, but to me, he's a keeper. For now. The jury is still out on whether or not McCoy is a viable solution at quarterback over the long haul, but that is difficult if not impossible to evaluate now given the poor protection and inconsistent pass targets he has at the moment.
Remember that he'll also have only had a year and a half of NFL experience at the end of the 2011 season. McCoy needs at least one more year—one with a better offensive line and more viable receivers—before we'll really know if he can hack it.
WR Josh Cribbs
While technically not considered a starting receiver on the depth chart, Cribbs is in at receiver enough to get a nod here and is instrumental to the return game.
The Browns still aren't using Cribbs as effectively as they could, but he's tremendously talented and is the heart and soul of the team.
WR Mohamed Massaquoi
I've never been a big a Massaquoi fan, but I've always hoped he would make me change my mind someday. Unfortunately, while he's shown occasional flashes of potential, he still has trouble with dropped passes and has yet to play consistently over a span of several games.
He's been around long enough by now that we should have seen that already. While Massaquoi could have value as a backup, with (hopefully) a new WR coming in next season, there's just no room in the starting lineup for him and he's likely worth more in trade than on the bench.
WR Greg Little
Little came into the league in a very raw state and, while he's improved, he's still in one now. Thus it's way too soon to evaluate Little for long-term potential just yet, but he certainly has enough talent to hang onto a job for now.
RB Peyton Hilis
Hillis will certainly be the most talked about offseason decision for the Browns, but the solution should really be pretty simple. The Browns will likely allow Hillis to test the free-agent market, but he's unlikely to get the kind of money from another team that his agent seems to want.
So long as the price remains reasonable, the Browns would do best to re-sign Hillis now that the drama surrounding him seems to have subsided.
RB Montario Hardesty
Obviously there is really only one "starting" running back, but I thought it best to mention all three since who actually winds up with the job (especially if Hillis leaves) is very much up in the air.
However, the guy who winds up with the job definitely shouldn't be Hardesty. He's simply too big an injury risk with too little production when he is healthy to keep him around, especially if the Browns bring in another running back.
I don't see much value in him for the long term, but someone desperate for a cheap RB with a high upside probably will.
RB Chris Ogbonnaya
After the first two running backs on the depth chart fell off the carousel, Ogbonnaya did an excellent job stepping in and taking over starting rushing duties. He'll never be a true number one running back, but he's more than proven he's worth having around.
He's a decent spot starter, viable for two-back formations, and among the league's better backups.
FB Owen Marecic
The Browns made a huge error in letting Lawrence Vickers leave after 2010, and they're still paying for it. Marecic has had some decent games, but mostly, he's just not equipped to handle the job.
The team needs to look elsewhere, and they need to do it immediately.
Verdict: Cut or Bench
TE Ben Watson
Watson is getting older, but nowhere near retirement age. He's been a solid target for Colt McCoy, and is a good anchor for a WR/TE corps that is otherwise very young.
I don't see the Browns keeping Watson around forever, but for 2012, he's certainly vital to the offense.
TE Evan Moore
Moore signed a contract extension for three years this season, so he obviously isn't going anywhere, nor should he be. There are some injury concerns and he's had trouble with drops of late, but he's also proven that if he can be consistent and healthy, he'll be worth keeping in the lineup.
Considering what an ungodly mess the offensive line has been in 2011, it's tempting just to say, "Throw the whole thing out and start over." It's also tough to say exactly who the starters really are, given the revolving door at RT and RG.
Still, there are several members of the line who we shouldn't be tossing overboard at all, as well as some who might be useful in the future in backup roles.
LT Joe Thomas
Though he hasn't had as good a season this year as he had in the past, he's still the line's anchor and a solid left tackle. He's one of just two guys on the line who we can say with certainty are part of the long-term plan in the position group.
Thomas will likely be a Brown for many years to come, as he should be.
LG Jason PInkston
It will be interesting to see what happens with Pinkston next season when Eric Steinbach returns. Pinkston has done a nice job filling in, especially considering he's a rookie who wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the starting lineup this year.
We don't know what Steinbach's situation will be next season, but Pinkston could still wind up with the job. If he doesn't, he'd be a very valuable backup.
C Alex Mack
Along with Joe Thomas, Mack is the only other guy on the Browns offensive line whose position is likely very secure.
Aside from the infamous booted snap on the field goal, Mack has mostly been a solid player, and is certainly not a guy the Browns will want to part ways with anytime soon.
RG Shawn Lauvao
I adore Lauvao, but his performance hasn't said "starter" to me at all this season. He's still young, so he gets a little slack on the learning curve, but the Browns can't afford to have him out there protecting McCoy on a regular basis given his inconsistency.
I'd like to see him stick around as a backup, but only as a backup. And if a trade offer crossed the table, I'd listen.
Verdict: Keep as Backup or Trade
RT Tony Pashos
The right tackle position has probably been the biggest mess on the Browns offensive line this season, which, sadly, is really saying something considering what a disaster the whole thing has been.
There have been a number of players in and out of the spot, and no one has done a good job there. Pashos is technically the starter, but I can't wait until that's no longer the case.
The Browns need to make a big move at RT, and Pashos is too old and ineffective to be kept around even as a backup.
Of every position group on the team, the defensive line is clearly the most improved in 2011. The switch to the 4-3 has worked wonders for the Browns here, and will continue to do so.
LDE Jabaal Sheard
I have been beyond impressed with Sheard as a rookie. He may be the biggest contributor thus far of the 2011 draft class, and will likely only get better. If he keeps it up in 2012, I'd be looking to set up a long-term deal if I were the Browns.
DT Phil Taylor
Another rookie who has been solid in his first NFL season. I like Taylor and think he will continue to get better and do so quickly.
I'd be more hesitant to lock him up long-term than I would be with Sheard, but that may change next year.
DT Ahtyba Rubin
Quietly one of the team's best players, Rubin has been outstanding and is still young enough that he may even get better.
He might be the team's biggest no-brainer pick to hang on to long-term aside from Joe Haden.
RDE Jayme Mitchell
Mitchell wasn't expected to be in this role at the outset, but it's where he's ended up and he's been pretty solid there. Still, over the long haul, he'll likely be the weakest link of the four.
It wouldn't hurt the Browns to keep Mitchell where he is, but given the solidity of the line, this might be a good place to make a trade if the offer was high enough.
I would move MItchell...but only for the right price.
Verdict: Keep or Trade
LB Chris Gocong
The Browns recently signed Gocong to a three-year extension, and after the way we saw him play last week, that decision looked like an excellent one. Gocong has improved steadily and is evolving into a top-notch LB.
He'll likely never be a star, but he's certainly a solid piece of the puzzle.
LB D'Qwell Jackson
Perhaps the best surprise of the season, the previously oft-injured Jackson has been outstanding and injury-free this season. As of this time last year, I was ready to give Jackson the boot, and I'm thrilled to have been wrong about that.
Jackson is the leader of the defense and one of its most productive members. He should be a Brown for a long time.
LB Kaluka Maiava
Maiava got the job by default after an injury to the starter, but he's done a decent job so far. I don't think, ideally, he's the answer at WLB, but unless the Browns draft a top-notch guy for the spot or go grab someone in free agency (which is a distinct possibility), the job is his to lose.
Even if they do replace him as a starter, I'd be in favor of keeping him on as a very solid backup.
CB Joe Haden
Undoubtedly the team's MVP and the best young talent to come through Cleveland in ages, Haden is and will be a standout corner for a long time.
The Browns have a potential shut-down corner on their hands in Haden, and a very long term contract extension on top of the one he already has should be in the works in another season or so.
CB Sheldon Brown
I like Sheldon Brown. As a leader, a teammate and as a person. Who doesn't? But as a starting cornerback, his ship has most definitely sailed.
I hate to lose Brown's locker room presence, but on the field, he's a definite liability who needs to be replaced.
S Mike Adams
I like Adams more than most folks seem to, and while the Browns could potentially upgrade here, I don't think it's necessary for the time being.
I'd keep Adams right where he is for the foreseeable future.
S T.J. Ward
Ward has been on a downslide from his rookie season in 2011, with injuries and seeming inattentiveness devaluing his play. Still, you can't argue Ward's talent, and I expect he'll bounce back in 2012 and get right back to the point where he needs to be.