NFL Football: 5 Things the Browns Must Change to Improve in 2012

Daymon JohnsonCorrespondent IDecember 27, 2011

NFL Football: 5 Things the Browns Must Change to Improve in 2012

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    Well, here we are less than a week away from the final Browns game of the 2011-12 season, and there's arguably more questions to be answered now than there were last year at this time.

     

    The Cleveland Brows, to be frank and honest, are dysfunctional and in need of major changes. Some will say it needs to be the front office, some will say it needs to be the players on the field, but one thing we can all agree on is that something needs to change.

     

    Is it Pat Shurmur? Possibly. I've made my opinion known to the community on Bleacher Report about Shurmur. I believed from the start that he was the wrong hire for Cleveland, and I still believe that. I digress though.

     

    Is it the Holmgren/Heckert braintrust? Doubtful. Contrary to popular belief, I think Holmgren and Heckert have been better than they've been given credit for. However, mistakes have been made that are undeniable.

     

    The trading of Kam Wimbley, letting Vickers, arguably one of the leagues best FB walk, reaching badly on an oft injured RB in Montario Hardesty, drafting a project TE (Jordan Cameron) in the third round, not signing a legit WR when the opportunity was there going into this season.....the list goes on.

     

    That said however, H&H have brought in some very solid talent to date, and I expect this to continue.

     

    Let's look at what I believe are the top priorities for the Browns moving into next season.

Hire a Qualified Offensive Coordinator

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    Since we know that Mike Holmgren is going to stick with Shurmur for the foreseeable future, we know that a new HC will not be forthcoming. Mike Holmgren will give Shurmur every opportunity to succeed, even though his smartest choice may be to admit the wrong, and find the right guy.

     

    Moving on however, one thing that is absolutely certain to this point, is that Shurmur as an offensive coordinator, is woefully inept. This season, he's had a much softer schedule than last year's team had under Brian Daboll, and is likely going to fail to meet the five-win total posted by last season's team.

     

    To say embarrassment, well, that may be an understatement.

     

    This team, particularly the offense, has taken on the identity of its coach, which to me is passive, unassertive and overwhelmed. The ineptitude of the offensive game plan, implementation and overall scheme is a serious problem.

     

    There's a multitude of reasons for this, not the least of which, is Shurmur's inability to adapt to what the defense is doing and effectively implement changes on the fly.

     

    But also a factor here, is the fact that Shurmur has NOT been able to use all of the elements of the offense together, cohesively at the same time.

     

    That in and of itself creates a predictability to his scheme, and is likely a major contributing factor to Cleveland's offensive struggles this season. When teams know what you're doing, it's hard to be successful.

     

    Who would the new OC be? Well, that depends on what happens moving forward with other league coaches. That said, it would have to be someone with a depth and breadth of knowledge of the WCO that only a couple of people have; Jim Zorn is one of them.

     

    If Cleveland is going to stick with the WCO, which it seems as if they will, they need to find a guy that can use every aspect of the system effectively. A guy that knows everything there is to know about that system. Shurmur only had 2 years experience in this system coming into this year.

     

    Another little caveat here is that the new OC must and I do mean MUST be given the “keys to the car” so to speak. I don't think Cleveland can hire an OC in title only and still have Pat Shurmur calling the plays, which according to the PD, is likely going to happen:

     

    http://www.cleveland.com/browns/index.ssf/2011/10/coach_pat_shurmur_will_still_c.html

     

    If that is how the Browns will proceed, I can see the same struggles coming to light in the 2012-13 season. Cleveland NEEDS a true OC, a guy to run the offense, and not be undermined by an inept HC.

     

    I believe it was Einstein that said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result".  Hiring an OC in name only, while Shurmur still makes the calls would be insane.

Shore Up the Right Side of the Line...ASAP

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    Of all the areas of concern going into next season, one that may be the biggest (depending on who you ask) is the need to shore up the right side of the line.

     

    Tony Pashos was another questionable signing, and has played below average in his time in Cleveland.

     

    This is a HUGE are of concern for Cleveland. The Browns need to find someone either via free agency or through the draft that is capable of starting and holding down the right side of the line.

     

    A good RT is sorely needed. The left side, with the return of Steinbach next season should be back to what it usually is. The right side however needs a dramatic overhaul.

     

    There are several players that could fill the need, and do the job better than anyone that Cleveland has now. And, with a projected $31.332mm of cap space available, Cleveland has more than enough ammunition to make the deals needed.

     

    The best solution, in my mind, is Demitrius Bell of the Buffalo Bills. He's currently playing LT, and is a fantastic pass blocker and bulldozer of a run blocker. He's capable of playing both sides of the line, and would be an ideal fit on the right side.

     

    Also likely to be available are Carl Nicks from New Orleans, who is a stout and very good OG, and Ben Grubbs from Baltimore, another stout run blocking guard. Grubbs will likely be given a contract extension, however, Carl Nicks could be had by Cleveland as New Orleans just spent a ton of money on Jhari Evans.

     

    At the end of the day, Cleveland has to address this need in the coming offseason, and make sure it can give whoever is calling plays under center a chance to succeed.

Add Playmakers on the Offensive Side of the Ball

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    Cleveland's offense has been, for the lack of a better word, horrid this season.

     

    They've struggled to sustain drives and score when the opportunities to do so are there. And, they've had far too many dropped passes and inconsistent runs to be successful.

     

    Let's Start with the WR's. Cleveland started this season with Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie as their starting two. Now, I don't want to sound harsh here, but, on ANY other team in the NFL, neither of those guys would be anything more than a slot or situational WR.

     

    They'll be finishing the year with, accoridng to the depth chart, Massaquoi and Greg Little as the starting WR's. While this group is better, it's still not NFL-caliber.

     

    Mike Holmgren clearly made a mistake (again) when he assessed his WR group and decided not to persue a WR in free agency. Next year however, he cannot make the same mistake.

     

    The WR position must be addressed early either in the draft or FA period.

     

    The draft prospects, we all know. Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Alshon Jeffery are the big three available in the draft. Cleveland, as of now, is picking at the No. 5 spot, and that means that Justin Blackmon will likely be gone.

     

    Thus leaving Jeffery and Floyd as the possible options, neither of whom I believe are worthy of a Top 5 selection. That said however, the combine is up in a couple of months, and that could change everything. So, I'll reserve final judgement until I see what happens there.

     

    The free agent market actually could look pretty good going into 2012. Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston and Brandon Lloyd strike me as players that could fit the role of No. 1 WR.

     

    I would prefer Cleveland to select a WR in the draft and add someone through FA that can be a slot or a true No. 2 WR. A guy like Pierre Garcon, Earl Bennett or Early Doucet make sense here.

     

    Which leads to the RB position. Some are in favor of keeping Peyton Hillis on the roster and re-signing him for next season, while some are in favor of drafting a stud RB, and letting Hillis walk.

     

    There are valid arguments on both side, however, I am of the belief that Cleveland should look to draft a RB and see if you could sign Hillis for a reasonable price.

     

    To me, the no-brainer move is to draft Trent Richardson, if he declares which most sources say he will, and then try to sign Hillis. Am I crazy? Sometimes...  But imagine the profound ground game that Cleveland could have.

     

    The problem is however, that no one really knows where Hillis falls into the proverbial pecking order for the RB position. He had a breakout year last season, and this year, has been injured most of the season.

     

    This is likely the problem that Holmgren and Heckert will have trying to sign him. His value will be in the eye of the beholder. Some teams may see him as a surefire No. 1 RB, while some may see him as a good RB, but not a true No. 1.

     

    Holmgren and Heckert have to really evaluate this decision carefully, because while you don't want to lose a guy of Hillis' capabilities, you definitely don't want to overpay either.

     

    Hence the reason I believe that drafting a stud RB like Richardson might be the Browns' best choice. He can be locked in for much less money for the same term as Hillis, and truth be told, he's as dynamic of a back as we've seen in recent years.

     

    I think Cleveland could benefit greatly from a kid like Richardson. He's MJD v2.0, and while Hillis is a nice back, many believe, maybe including Holmgren and Heckert, that he's not really a “bellcow” back in Shurmur's dreadful system.

     

    There are a lot of backs that will be FA's heading into 2012, so Cleveland could look there as well.

     

    The TE is of concern as well. Benjamin Watson while solid if unspectacular, is a good TE. However, his recent string of concussions may force him to step off the field.

     

    If that's the case, the only real “stud” TE in the draft is Dwayne Allen from Clemson. He had a fantastic season and will be a late first early second round pick. However, I cannot see Cleveland using one of their first-round picks on a TE.

     

    I can however see Cleveland making a play for one of the TE's that will be available in free agency.

     

    A guy like Fred Davis, John Carlson or Martellus Bennett would make sense. Both Carlson and Bennett could be sly, under-the-radar type pickups. Carlson has been out all season rehabbing his torn labrum, and while he's not Antonio Gates, he's still very good and creates mismatches like crazy.

     

    Bennett is an interesting option as well. Dallas likes him a lot, but, playing behind Jason Witten, they can't justify paying what he wants. He's a tall, physical TE that can do some good things. He would be the most dynamic TE Cleveland will have had since Winslow.

     

    All that said, the offense is in need of a serious injection of talent, and this year, with two first-round selections, is the year to do it. Cleveland can create depth and add a lot of talent to this team in this draft. 

     

    And, if there's on thing that every team shouod take from Green Bay, it's that depth is key to success in the NFL.

Lock Up D'Qwell Jackson as Quickly as Possible & Add Depth

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    Ray Rice said it a week ago - “Jackson isn't just one of the best LB's in the AFC North, but the entire NFL.”

     

    Why he said that, you decide, but, the numbers don't lie. This season, D'Qwell Jackson has amassed 107 solo tackles, and 145 total, 3.5 sacks and 1FF and 1 Int this season.

     

    Those numbers put him ahead of several of the “best” LB's in the NFL. He should be retained and allowed to do what he does, and that's run free and make plays.

     

    Dick Jauron has done a tremendous job with Cleveland's D this season, and has done very well, assessing the talent on board and designing and implementing the system that will work with the strengths his players offer.

     

    The only thing left to do in Cleveland is add another DE and possibly a LB.

     

    Through the draft, Cleveland could opt for a Zac Brown from North Carolina, or a Vantaze Burfict for Arizona State as Manti Te'o decided to go back to school. I think Burfict will do the same.

     

    Luke Kuechely from Boston College will likely be gone before Cleveland has a look at him, so Zac Brown becomes the next possibility.

     

    At DE, Quinton Coples from North Carolina will likely be a Top 10 selection, and after him, the pool thins a bit. That said, Whitney Mercilus for Illinois, Brandon Jenkins from Florida State and Melvin Ingram from South Carolina all posses good talent.

     

    Cleveland needs someone opposite of Jabaal Sheard, who has had an absolutely amazing rookie season, and some LB help. If Cleveland can inject some talent via the draft, they can then look to the FA market.

     

    Guys like Dan Connor from Carolina, Stepehen Tulloch from Detroit, Manny Lawson in Cincinnati, Quinton Groves from Oakland, Ben Leber from St. Louis, Barrett Ruud from Tennessee and Geno Hayes from Tampa Bay would all be welcome additions to the Browns LB corps.

     

    And on the DE side of things, there are 2 guys that Cleveland should look long and hard at, as both could be potentially game changing acquisitions.

     

    Robert Mathis from Indianapolis and Cliff Avril from Detroit.

     

    Robert Mathis is an absolute beast on the outside, and he forces teams to accommodate and account for what he's doing at all times. He's already stated that he's unhappy that Indianapolis has NOT offered him a long term extension and is looking to see what the market will bear before accepting any offer from the Colts.

     

    This is a HUGE deal, because with Cleveland's abundance of cap space (projected to be roughly $31mm, they can afford to add arguably one of the leagues best DE's.

     

    If that ship sails, Cleveland should look at Cliff Avril. Avril has been Detroit’s best pass rusher all season long, and has really come into his own. Detroit may look to keep him, but, they have a lot of money committed to next season's D Line, and Avril may not have a place.

     

    To me, surrounding your best talents, Joe Haden, D'Qwell Jackson and Jabbal Sheard, with deeper, equally talented players can only help. I think it is of utmost importance for Cleveland to really assess the needs on the defensive side, and bring in players that can help.

     

    And, while I've never been a big fan of making a "big splash" in the free agent market, one thing I do know is that adding one of those 2 would be a smart move.  They say you build through the draft, and while I agree, there are FA signings that you can build from too.

     

    Look at Eric Steinbach.  Cleveland spent a lot of money on him, and prior to this year, that signing worked out brilliantly.  I think lightning could strike twice with one of either Mathis or Avril.

     

     In the AFC North, there's one thing that holds true no matter what....Defense is mandatory. Cleveland got a lot better this year, and if they can add some pieces, they'll do the same next season.

     

Decide Which Direction to Go at QB, and Stick with It.

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    This is hot of a “hot button” topic as you'll find right now in the City of Cleveland, and with good reason.

     

    Right now, there's a much uncertainty surrounding the QB position as there's been in recent years.

     

    Is Colt McCoy the guy? Should the browns sign a FA QB? Should Cleveland draft a QB?

     

    I have been as outspoken on this matter as anyone else here on Bleacher Report, and I firmly believe that Colt McCoy CAN be the QB that Cleveland needs, however, he needs some help.

     

    That said, I can see the argument for the other options as well.

     

    A popular Free Agent name that keeps being thrown around is Matt Flynn from Green Bay.

     

    There are a lot of reasons to like this option, he's got several years of WCO experience, he's undoubtedly had the chance to learn the position for arguably one of the best QB's Green bay has ever had, and while he lacks some of the tools elite level QB's have, he will likely be a ver good starting QB.

     

    Matt Flynn, to me, makes some sense if Cleveland has decided that Colt McCoy isn't the guy they want. But, one has to wonder what the competition for his services are going to be like.

     

    My gut tells me that he'll be one of the most widely persued Free Agent's on the market this coming season. Cleveland may not be ready to get into a bidding war for him.  I think teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets (yes...Mark Sanchez is that bad), Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins could be in the mix.

     

    If they don't, the next option is to draft a QB.

     

    Robert Griffin III is a potential option for Cleveland, however, with Matt barkley deciding to return to school, RGIII could see his value rise sharply. Thus, seeing someone trade up to get him prior to Cleveland isn't unlikely, with Washington being the primary candidate to do just that.

     

    The other QB's, primarily Andrew Luck, will almost certainly go to Indy and Landry Jones doesn't really warrant a top 15 selection.

     

    The important thing here, is that whoever the QB is going into next season, he too needs to be given the “keys to the car” and be given the opportunity to run every play in the playbook.

     

    Pat Shurmur has limited his playbook, (or, he just doesn't have a very deep playbook) all season long. Very rarely has he allowed either QB that has played this year to throw down the field, and when he does, it's usually poorly set up, so, it becomes very diagnosable by opposing defenses.

     

    It is important that whoever the Browns hire as an OC, has confidence in his QB and is willing to give them the chance to play the game while using the pklaybook in it's entirety.

     

    I feel like Holmgren and Heckert may have decided that McCoy isn't the guy moving forward, and I think there's a distinct possibility that they will bring in another QB.

     

    And frankly, I believe that's a mistake. Colt McCoy is a good QB, and he can be effective in the AFC North, despite what an anonomous NFL GM says about him.  They also said John Elway wouldn't work in Denver since he was a "warm weather" QB, and well....the Hall of Fame says otherwise.

     

    If you look at his numbers this season, they're not great. However, with the offense as being inept as it's been all season and the WR corps being as pedestrian as they've been, is it any surprise?

     

    To date, Colt McCoy stats are:

     

    57% completion – 2733 yards – 14 TD's – 11 INT's

     

    While other AFC QB's are:

     

    Flacco: 56.8% completion – 3480 yards – 19TD's – 12 INT's

     

    Roethlisberger: 63.6% completion – 3856 yards – 21TD's – 14 INT's

     

    Dalton: 58.9% completion – 3166 yards – 20TD's – 13 INT's

     

    While all of the numbers above seemingly show that all the QB's are better than McCoy, you must also consider what McCoy has dealt with this season while evaluating those numbers.

     

    Dropped passes, at least 4 dropped TD's, no running game, an inept OC....the list goes on. All of the QB's above have better supporting casts, from the RB's to the WR's and the O-Line to the OC.

     

    Figure that McCoy has missed one game, and with the dropped passes probably and additional 400-500 or so yards, and at least 4 TD's. If his WR's make those catches they should, Colt's numbers look a lot better, and show he's on par with other QB's in the AFC North, save for Roethlisberger.

     

    And, while I agree that Cleveland NEEDS a franchise QB, I don't know that anyone can fairly or adequately assess McCoy's performance this season, at least not how this season has progressed. The kid has only played in 21 games in his entire career, and Holmgren stated that it takes several years to thoroughly evaluate a QB.

     

    And in ALL of those 21 games, he's played with a poor supporting cast.

     

    If Cleveland has truly decided to move on from McCoy, I think that before making a hasty decision to sign a Matt Flynn or draft an RGIII, it may be smart to consider who will be available next year (2013) in the draft.

     

    With Matt Barkely going back to USC for his Senior season, he now becomes the number one propsect going into 2013. Could Cleveland potentially use their 2 first round picks in 2013 to move up to get him?

    If Colt McCoy is really going to relegated to clipboard duty, then I would be in support of Matt Flynn.  However, I don't know that Colt has done enough...or...not enough to get there.  He's a talented player, he just needs some help, and surrounding him with that help can only benefit the Browns.

    I mean, if Cleveland brings in a group of talented players to help McCoy and he still struggles, then you'll know for sure, and at least you'd have that talent in place for  the next QB.  One more season makes a lot of sense.

     

    Many questions remain to be answered, but one thing is absolutely certain. Whoever the QB is, he needs to be supported with players and coaches that will allow him to be successful. And that is something that McCoy has not had yet.

The Conclusion

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    Cleveland has a long way to go before they become perennial contenders in the AFC North.

     

    This season should have been a step toward legitimacy, however, it's been a year of regression.

     

    The reason, as I stated earlier, are varied and wide spread, however, Pat Shurmur's ineptotude is a big part of why Cleveland is where they are.

     

    I typically don't make hasty decisions, or come to conclusions without thorough evaluatiion.  That said however, I knew almost immediately that Pat Shurmur was the wrong choice for Cleveland.

     

    2 coaches that weren't even interviewed in John Fox and Jim Harbaugh both took over losing teams in 2010, and turned them into playoff contenders in 2011.  San Francisco, in 2010, had a record of 6-10 and Denver was 4-12.

     

    Both of those coaches did one thing right, and that's assess the talent they had effectively and in short order, and build around what they had to make it work.  Heck, Denver has had to implement not 1 but two offensive systems this season.  One for Kyle Orton as the QB and another for Tim Tebow.

     

    Alas, Mike Holmgren is stuck to Pat Shurmur like Fixodent to a pair of dentures.  Thus Shurmur is going nowhere, anytime soon.  So, Cleveland must do what they can to improve everywhere else, and perhaps this could help Pat Shurmur become a more proficient Head Coach.

     

    There are some major issues looking Cleveland dead in the eye going into 2012, and the correct evaluation on addressing of these situations, is critical for future success.

     

    Hopefully, the Holmgren and Heckert make the right decisions, not the easiest ones, as they did with the hiring of Pat Shurmur.  A more thorough search may have just yielded a Jim Harbaugh or a Joh Fox.  And, honestly, both of thosemen, I believe, would have Cleveland playing better football than they are now.

     

    Here's hoping the winds of change start blowing in 2012.