The Browns have been the picture of turmoil since returning to the NFL in the 1999 season. In that time period, they’ve had 7 different head coaches, 5 different general managers, 3 different principal owners, 20 different starting quarterbacks, and 0 playoff wins. They are about to get their 8th head coach and 21st starting quarterback in 2014. Obviously, the new starting quarterback is going to be necessary after they botched the Brandon Weeden pick, but I don’t understand why they felt the need to let 1st year head coach Rob Chudzinski go.
What exactly was he supposed to do with this team, especially after the Trent Richardson made Willis McGahee their starting running back? Chudzinski helped coax breakout years out of raw pass catchers Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron and at some point they need to make up their mind and value stability. Also, Chudzinski’s untimely firing gives the Browns a bad rep around the NFL and makes them a very unattractive destination for head coach candidates. Josh McDaniels, their #1 target, already turned them down while Adam Gase, their reported next target, seems to be hesitant. That hurts their long-term development as a franchise.
This season wasn’t all bad. I already mentioned the breakout years of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, but they also had a league leading 5 All-Pro players, Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Josh Gordon, Joe Haden, and TJ Ward. Those five were all deserving, but the problem is that two of them are free agents this off-season. The Browns undoubtedly won the Trent Richardson trade as they got the 26th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft for a guy who averaged 2.9 yards per carry with the Colts and lost his starting job to Donald Brown.
I haven’t given up on Richardson’s long-term potential and he could be much better in 2014 once he gets in better shape and more familiar with the Colts system, but the Browns are almost definitely going to come out winners at the end of the day. In hindsight, taking a running back that high in 2012, 3rd overall, was a dumb move regardless of his long-term ability so credit the Browns’ new regime for cutting bait before it was too late. The Browns have two first round picks to build around their core and if they can get the quarterback position solved, this team could get a lot better in a hurry.
Drafting Brandon Weeden didn’t work out. In 2 seasons, the 22nd overall pick has completed 55.9% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. At least he’s young and has time to develop. Oh wait, he’s going to be 31 next season. Great job. The regime that drafted him is long gone and the Browns will almost definitely be looking at quarterbacks early in the draft, with two first round picks. Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer both did some nice things this season, but probably project as backups long-term. The Browns front office is reportedly very high on Johnny Manziel, so he could be the Browns next quarterback, their 21st since 1999.
As I mentioned, the Browns undoubtedly won the Richardson trade. However, the Browns desperately need a new starting running back. Trading Trent Richardson forced them to sign Willis McGahee off the streets to be the new starting running back and the 32-year-old averaged 2.7 yards per carry and busted just 4 carries of 10 yards or more. He’s highly unlikely to play in the NFL next season and he wouldn’t be a starting option for the Browns anyway. They need an entirely new offensive backfield. Fortunately, they can draft a running back in the mid rounds and he’d probably be significantly better than Richardson.
Rob Chudzinski’s firing was especially strange considering he coached up the once raw Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron into two of the premier players at their positions in the NFL. However, they need a 3rd option and another wide receiver opposite Gordon. Greg Little was Pro Football Focus’ lowest ranked wide receiver by a wide margin, catching 46.6% of his targets, averaging 11.3 yards per catch, dropping 8 passes to 41 catches, and had a league worst 37.4 QB rating when thrown to. After 3 years in the league, it’s time to give up on him as a starting caliber player. Slot receiver Davone Bess also struggled this season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked wide receiver, catching 42 of 83 targets for an average of 8.6 yards per catch and dropping a whopping 14 passes. He could easily be cut.
If the Browns want to go into a complete rebuild, they could cut D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is a veteran leader, but he has a history of injury problems and is on the decline heading into his age 31 season and owed 6.7 million in 2014. The Browns can save 3.9 million on the cap by cutting Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Even if they don’t, they need to find some sort of upgrade over Craig Robertson, who ranked 52nd, including dead last in coverage. He surrendered two separate 100 yard receiving games to running backs Reggie Bush and Shane Vereen.
The Browns desperately need help opposite Joe Haden. Buster Skrine was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked cornerback, allowing 9 touchdowns through the air and missing 20 tackles, both worst at the position. Chris Owens did a decent job in limited action, but the career backup is a free agent. Leon McFadden was a 3rd round pick in 2013, but he struggled as a rookie. They shouldn’t give up on him, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter considering where he was drafted so they shouldn’t count on him either.
Tashaun Gipson was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and he unsurprisingly struggled in his first year as a starter in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked safety out of 86 eligible. He’s not terrible, but he could definitely be upgraded. This position becomes a much bigger position of need if they lost All-Pro TJ Ward to free agency, but my guess if they’ll franchise tag him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety.
The Browns have a very solid offensive line, but their biggest hole, by far, is at right guard. Oniel Cousins and Shawn Lauvao split starts there this season and both were among the lowest ranked guards on Pro Football Focus despite their limited snaps. Grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st and 70th ranked guards out of 81 eligible. Lauvao is a free agent so they should take this opportunity to upgrade the position because Cousins is not a starting caliber player.
Alex Mack is one of the top centers in the NFL, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center last season and making the All-Pro team. This is how you have to hope it works out when you draft a center in the first round. Unfortunately, he’s a free agent this off-season and they can’t really franchise tag him because they’d be paying him like a tackle if they did that, far more than any other center in the NFL. If they can’t retain him, he’d have to be replaced.
Billy Cundiff decently redeemed himself on a one year deal in Cleveland this year, after missing a chip shot to tie the AFC Championship in 2011 and going 7 of 12 and getting benched in 2012. He’s a free agent this off-season and will need to be replaced if he’s not retained.
Key Free Agents
S TJ Ward
TJ Ward blossomed into one of the top safeties in the NFL this season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety and being named an All-Pro. That was perfect timing as the 2010 2nd round pick will be a free agent this off-season. Chances are he’ll never hit the open market because the Browns will franchise tag him worst case scenario. He’ll get a good payday either way. He has some history of injury issues, but he’s clearly one of the game’s premier safeties and would be deserving of a contract worth around 7 million per year over 5 years. That would put him among the games top safeties.
C Alex Mack
The Browns drafted Alex Mack in the first round in 2009. It was a risky proposition, even though he was widely considered one of the top center prospects of the decade, because they would need him to emerge as a perennial Pro-Bowler. If he was just an average starter, he would have been a bust because center isn’t that valuable of a position. Unfortunately, the Browns can’t really franchise tag him because they’d be paying him like a tackle if they did that, far more than any other center in the NFL. He could be elsewhere next year if he wants.
CB Chris Owens
Chris Owens, a 3rd round pick in 2009, has been a depth cornerback for the entirety of his career. He’s been a very solid reserve in Atlanta and Cleveland over the past two years. He should get a decent amount of money on a one year or two year deal to be a nickel back somewhere. Cleveland should considering bringing him back considering their cornerback issues.
K Billy Cundiff
Billy Cundiff decently redeemed himself on a one year deal in Cleveland this year, after missing a chip shot to tie the AFC Championship in 2011 and going 7 of 12 and getting benched in 2012. He hit 21 of 26 field goals this season
Cap Casualty Candidates
OLB Quentin Groves
Having Quentin Groves, a capable reserve in Arizona in 2012, as their 4th outside linebacker was kind of overkill for the Browns. Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and Paul Kruger make a very good trio so there’s no need for Groves. The Browns would save 1.1 million in cap space by releasing him, which makes a lot of sense considering he played just 53 snaps last season.
QB Jason Campbell
The Browns are likely going quarterback early in the draft and they won’t keep 4 quarterbacks on their roster. They can’t cut Brandon Weeden because there’s still guaranteed money on his contract so one of Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer is probably gone next season. Hoyer outplayed Campbell this season so Campbell is probably gone. Cutting him would save 2.25 million in cap space. Campbell turns 33 next season and completed 56.8% of his passes for an average of 6.36 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions this season. He’ll look to find backup work this off-season. He’s not a starting caliber quarterback at this point in his career.
MLB D’Qwell Jackson
If the Browns want to go into a complete rebuild, they could cut D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson is a veteran leader, but he has a history of injury problems and is on the decline heading into his age 31 season and owed 6.7 million in 2014. The Browns can save 3.9 million on the cap by cutting Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He struggled against the run. He had just 26 stops (tackles within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards of the line of scrimmage on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) on 437 snaps, a rate of 5.9% that was the 4th worst in the NFL at his position.
DE Ahtyba Rubin
The Browns can save 6.8 million on the cap by cutting Ahtyba Rubin in his contract year this season. He’s a solid player, but he’s below average as a pass rusher and probably not worth his cap number. The Browns have an excess of defensive line depth with Billy Winn and John Hughes to go with Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant, fellow starters, so they can move on from him pretty easily. They could still keep him to maintain their depth.