Cleveland Browns 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Positions of Need

Wide Receiver

Josh Gordon has been suspended for the entire 2015 season and the Browns weren’t expected to keep him even before that. As talented as he is, the Browns seem to have grown tired of all the off-the-field issues and he seems to be out of chances. The Browns’ receiving corps wasn’t terrible in Gordon’s absence, as free agent signing Andrew Hawkins, veteran Miles Austin, and undrafted rookie free agent Taylor Gabriel all exceeded expectations, but Austin is a free agent going into his age 31 season this off-season and none of those guys are the #1 receiver they need. With two first round picks, I’d be surprised if they didn’t use one on a wide receiver.

Quarterback

This seems to always be on the Browns’ list. The Browns paid 100K for a study that determined that Teddy Bridgewater was the best quarterback in last year’s draft class and lo and behold he was easily the best rookie quarterback in 2014. The only problem is the Browns chose to ignore that study and draft Johnny Manziel and his rookie year went about as bad as possible. Manziel struggled to learn the playbook and make it on the field, even though veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer was flopping as a starting quarterback, finishing the season with 55.3% completion, 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 13 starts. When Manziel did make it onto the field, he was worse than Hoyer, completing 51.4% of his passes for an average of 5.00 YPA, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. After the season, reports about his behind the scenes issues started coming out, ultimately culminating with a report that Manziel checked himself into a rehab facility a few weeks after the season ended. The Browns will obviously hope their 2014 1st round pick can turn it around, but they obviously need competition for him. Bringing back Hoyer is an unspectacular, but realistic option.

Defensive End

The Browns’ defense overall was solid, but they were weak on the defensive line. Desmond Bryant hasn’t really lived up to his 5-year, 34 million dollar contract yet, after signing two off-seasons ago. I don’t expect them to let him go yet because they have so much cap space, but they still need help on the defensive line. Phil Taylor is coming off of a rough year and might not be back in 2015 at his scheduled 5.5 million dollar salary, as his 4-year career has been full of inconsistency and injuries. Even if Taylor is back, he could move back to his natural position of nose tackle, with Athyba Rubin headed to free agency. Billy Winn struggled at the other 3-4 defensive end spot in Taylor’s absence in 2014.

Defensive Tackle

As I just mentioned, nose tackle Athyba Rubin is a free agent this off-season. He probably won’t be back as a starter, if he’s back at all, because he was horrible in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible. Taylor could move inside to nose tackle, but, like I said, he might not be back either. The Browns have to add on the defensive line both at defensive end and defensive tackle.

Tight End

Jordan Cameron missed 6 games with injuries in 2014 and the Browns showed their lack of depth at the position when that happened, as neither Jim Dray nor Gary Barnidge showed much in the passing game. This is a problem as Jordan Cameron is heading into free agency. If he’s not re-signed, he’ll need to be replaced.

Center

Alex Mack suffered a horrible leg injury in 2014. He should be back in 2015 and he’s never missed a game in his career with injuries other than that one. However, the Browns’ depth in Mack’s absence was so bad that they might want to consider adding to this position this off-season. Paul McQuistan, Nick McDonald, and Ryan Seymour were all horrific in Mack’s absence and were big parts of the reason why their offense was so terrible down the stretch.

Key Free Agents

OLB Jabaal Sheard

Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid edge rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. He has experience playing in both a 4-3 and 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he necessarily wouldn’t be a bad signing for a 4-3 team. Either way, Sheard should get a decent amount of money on the open market, in the 6-7 million dollars per year range, assuming the Browns let him. The Browns have a ton of cap space so they could easily re-sign him before free agency.

TE Jordan Cameron

Jordan Cameron had a breakout year in 2013, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, after playing just 398 snaps and catching 26 passes in his first 2 seasons in the league. Cameron didn’t match that production in 2014 though, as he missed 6 games and caught just 24 passes for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron heads into free agency as a one year wonder with a concerning concussion history and no full 16 game seasons played. Even his 2013 season wasn’t as good as his numbers looked as he was fortunate enough to be on one of the pass heaviest teams in the NFL. His 1.47 yards per route run was 19th among eligible tight ends. He’s also graded out below average as a run blocker in each of the last 3 seasons, including 60th out of 67 eligible in that facet in 2014. He could be overpaid this off-season.

DT Athyba Rubin

Rubin was one of the worst defensive tackles in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible. He did that at the wrong time as the veteran is going into free agency this off-season. He’s not generally this bad, but the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus was 2009, so he’s not great. He won’t get a ton of money this off-season, even only going into his age 29 season.

QB Brian Hoyer

Hoyer had his moments in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2014, but ultimately proved to not be anything more than a solid backup caliber quarterback. He completed 55.3% of his passes for 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The former undrafted free agent’s career numbers aren’t much different, as he’s completed 56.5% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions on 630 career attempts. He’ll probably get a chance to compete for the starting job wherever he goes next and he’ll be paid decently, but he’s not a long-term option, especially since he’s already going into his age 30 season. As I said earlier, a reunion with the Browns would be unspectacular, but practical.

WR Miles Austin

Austin had somewhat of a bounce back year last year, catching 47 passes for 568 yards on 67 attempts (70.1%) and 314 routes run (1.81 yards per route run) with the Browns. This was after catching 24 passes for 244 yards on 46 attempts (52.2%) and 323 routes run (0.76 yards per route run) in 2013 with the Cowboys. However, he’s going into his age 31 season, has missed 15 games in his last 4 seasons, and last had 1000+ yards in 2010. He won’t draw a ton of interest on the open market this off-season and should only be a depth receiver. A reunion with the receiver needy Browns in that role would make a lot of sense.

CB Buster Skrine

Skrine was just a 5th round pick of the Browns’ in 2011, but he made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. The problem is he’s not very good, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. The Browns drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round in 2014 to be an upgrade over him, but Gilbert struggled to get on the field as a rookie. Gilbert should see more playing time in his 2nd year in the league in 2015 though and, with fellow 2nd year players Pierre Desir and K’Waun Williams also in the mix, the Browns could easily move on from Skrine. Wherever he ends up, his market won’t be strong and he’ll struggle to find another starting job.

Cap Casualty Candidates

WR Josh Gordon

At the end of the season, it looked like Josh Gordon was done with the Browns. He had one last chance with the team and he appeared to use it up when it he was late to a practice and got suspended for week 17. Then he got suspended for the entire 2015 for failing an alcohol test, after being prohibited from drinking as the terms of his DUI agreement. Weirdly enough, that actually makes it less likely they cut him loose, because they won’t have to pay for him 2015. However, he’s on very, very thin ice with the team and, despite his talent, could be let go.

G Paul McQuistan

McQuistan’s salary isn’t very big, as he’s owed 1.395 million for 2015, but he’s not a very valuable backup. McQuistan made one start in 2014, slotting in at guard with John Greco moving to center after Alex Mack went down. He was so bad that he didn’t make another start, even though Nick McDonald and Ryan Seymour were both horrible in Mack’s absence. McQuistan is going into his age 32 season and was horrible in 2013 too, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible with the Seahawks that season. He’s close to the end of the line.

DT Phil Taylor

The Browns picked up Taylor’s 5th year option for 2015 last off-season and will owe him 5.477 million in 2015. That 5th year option money is not guaranteed so teams still have the option to go back on their option. I don’t think that will happen very much as this new process moves into the future, but one team that could change their mind is the Browns with Phil Taylor. Taylor struggled on 133 snaps this season thanks to injuries. He’s now missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the first round in 2011 and only graded out above average once, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. Overall, he doesn’t seem to be worth his salary for 2015 so the Browns could easily cut him loose or ask him to take a paycut.

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