What Does Kyle Shanahan Need from Browns to Rejuvenate Cleveland's Offense?

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 4, 2014

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The Cleveland Browns announced on Monday night that they have found their latest offensive coordinator—Kyle Shanahan, who joins the Browns after four seasons working in the same capacity in Washington. 

Shanahan inherits an offense that had few bright spots beyond league-leading wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had 1,646 receiving yards despite his two-game suspension to start the season. The Browns ranked 18th in total yardage in 2013, 27th in scoring and tied for 27th in rushing. To say he's got a lot of work to do this offseason is an understatement.

The Browns' list of offensive needs isn't a surprise. They require a quarterback—Brian Hoyer should be fully healed from his ACL tear well before the start of the season, but odds are they'll still take one early on in the draft. They need a run game. They need more receivers, because Gordon alone does not make a passing offense.

Cleveland Browns Offense, 2013
YardsRankPass YardsRankRush YardsRankPPGRank
via ESPN

And they need all of these things to succeed quickly, considering how little patience the Browns front office has for failure. The previous coaching staff only got one season before being axed. 

Shanahan's job won't be easy, but there are ways to alleviate some of the stress inherent to the position. Namely, the Browns decision-makers, with whom Shanahan likely has some say, must provide him with the tools they simply lacked in 2013 when Norv Turner held his job.

It starts, of course, with quarterback. Hoyer played well in 2013, but it was brief—he started just three games (all wins) before tearing his ACL in October against the Buffalo Bills. In total, the Browns started three different quarterbacks on the season: Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.

The Browns need stability at the position, someone who can reliably start all 16 games in 2014 and then repeat that feat for five or 10 years in a row. This is something the Browns haven't been able to accomplish since returning to the NFL in 1999, but it's better late than never. The Browns have yet another chance to get this right in 2014 and Shanahan's job is dependent upon whether they actually do.

One option, trading for Washington backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, immediately comes to mind. Cousins is apparently open to being traded (per ESPN's Adam Schefter), believing he's ready to become a starter. However, it doesn't look like the Browns will be the team to make the move, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. Shanahan coached Cousins and is fond of the quarterback, but he's not in the Browns' plans. 

That means Hoyer will likely be Cleveland's starter this year, though he'll have competition in the form of a rookie, probably taken with the team's fourth overall pick in the upcoming draft. If it does so, then the draft's top three quarterbacks are in play for the Browns—Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles.

However, Hoyer will have to play better than he did in 2013 to keep his job, no matter whom they draft. Though all three of his starts were wins, he still had a completion percentage of just 59.4, averaged only 6.41 yards per pass attempt and threw three interceptions compared to five touchdowns. 

Shanahan and newly hired quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains will need to work closely with Hoyer if he's going to win and keep the starting job, and do the same with the rookie in case Hoyer cannot.

Then, there's the task of having an actual run game. After trading second-year back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for their 2014 first-round pick (a trade the Browns absolutely won), the Browns simply didn't effectively run the ball or seem to care very much about doing so.

Their leading rusher was Willis McGahee, who totaled only 377 yards on the ground. The rushing offense as a whole netted only four touchdowns for the season, the worst in the league. The Browns wound up passing more than any other team in the NFL as a result. Clearly, the Browns must be more balanced this season; the run game cannot be a throwaway part of the offense any longer.

It should help that Dion Lewis will likely return from the broken leg he suffered in the 2013 preseason to compete for the starting running-back job. But Shanahan comes from a lineage of strong rushing offenses, dating back to his days in Houston.

And he did pluck a diamond in the rough, sixth-round 2012 draft pick Alfred Morris, and made him one of the league's leading rushers, with 1,613 yards in his rookie year and nearly 1,300 in his sophomore effort. That fact at least hints that the Browns offense under Shanahan will be able to identify talented running backs and maybe even get them at a discount, either via free agency or the draft.

Can Shanahan find the Browns their own Alfred Morris in order to spark the run game?
Can Shanahan find the Browns their own Alfred Morris in order to spark the run game?Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The same goes for wide receivers, whom the Browns are lacking aside from the astounding Gordon. After Gordon and his 118 receiving yards per game came Greg Little, who caught just 41 passes for 465 yards and two scores. Little is unreliable, prone to dropping the football and isn't suited for a No. 2-wideout role.

Neither is Davone Bess, who is likely as good as gone from the Browns. Bess was the team's third-best wide receiver, but that's not saying much—he had 42 catches for 362 yards and two scores and had 14 dropped passes. Only tight end Jordan Cameron significantly helped out Gordon in the Browns passing game, with 917 yards and seven scores on his 80 catches. 

At least Shanahan has experience working with offenses featuring limited receiving weapons, like in Washington. Despite this, Mike Jones of The Washington Post (via Matt Florjancic of ClevelandBrowns.com) believes that Shanahan has "a bright, offensive mind," and added that he is:

...a guy who has a lot of ideas and a lot of ways to get receivers open despite limited talent. The Redskins, outside of Pierre Garcon, really haven't had much to work with the last four years, but guys always seem to be getting open with the route trees and the concepts he has. His offense, even when Rex Grossman was in there at quarterback, moved the ball.

However, the Browns can address both running back and wide receiver in the draft, as well as free agency. The team is projected to have a significant amount of salary-cap space—$25.2 million carrying over from 2013 plus an estimated $21 million in space in 2014 gives Cleveland around $46.2 million to work with.

Cleveland's Salary-Cap Situation
Projected Salary Cap$126.3 Million
Carry-Over Cash, 2013$25.2 Million
Projected Spare Cash, 2014$21 Million
Projected Browns' Total 2014 Cap Space$46.2 Million
via Spotrac.com

On the more expensive end, the Browns could look at oft-injured veterans Darren McFadden or Maurice Jones-Drew, at least in hopes one of them may be able to stay healthy in a new location. It's also expected Chris Johnson will be released from the Tennessee Titans rather than take a pay cut; he may intrigue the Browns. 

However, if the Browns pick up a free-agent running back, expect it to be someone who will command less money than the McFaddens or Johnsons of the world.

Toby Gerhart of the Minnesota Vikings should be a hot commodity on the free-agent market, so he'll inevitably cost more than the just over $1 million he made in 2013, but certainly not $8-to-9 million per year. Ben Tate of the Houston Texans has been linked to the Browns, per Adam Schefter of ESPN, since last fall and should be more affordable than some of the other veterans on the market. 

The wide receiver free-agency market is even more enticing. Though a few of these names are more likely to get new deals from their current teams (Anquan Boldin and Jeremy Maclin, for example), others will hit the market and could offer good value to Cleveland. These players include James Jones from the Packers, Hakeem Nicks from the Giants, Damian Williams of the Titans and Eric Decker from the Broncos

The Browns have enough cash and draft picks to get all manner of wide receivers to pair with the phenom, Josh Gordon.
The Browns have enough cash and draft picks to get all manner of wide receivers to pair with the phenom, Josh Gordon.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Even if the Browns do add to their stable of backs and receivers in free agency, that doesn't mean they will avoid these positions in the draft. With two first-round picks, one in the second and two each in the third and fourth rounds, the opportunities to snag high-level offensive skill players will be many. The more they can build out their offense, the better, much as they did in 2013 on the defensive side of the ball.

There is a lot of depth in the 2014 draft at wide receiver. The Browns won't be in trouble if both Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans are off the board when it comes time for them to make their second pick in the first round. Talents like Allen Robinson or Odell Beckham Jr. could also be available in the second round. Even the third round this year could net them a starter.

At running back, the Browns won't jump the gun and take one in the first round like the old regime. Shanahan's ability to spot running-back talent can allow them to take their time and find someone later on—Auburn's Tre Mason might be great, but maybe they could get LSU's Jeremy Hill a round later and have him be just as effective.

Ultimately, the keys to a successful Shanahan offense are the keys to any offense having any success in Cleveland—a good quarterback, a working run game and better receivers. All of these can be easily acquired thanks to the Browns' hefty cap space and glut of draft picks. The important part is that they get the right guys who can contribute immediately. If not, Shanahan will simply be known as the latest man to try and fail to turn Cleveland's offense around. 


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