DraftBrowns.com Contributor: Ryan Alton
Well, here we are again. It seems like only yesterday I was outlining my first post for our newly-minted site here at DraftBrowns.com. It was about a year ago (December 21st, to be exact) and one of my first ventures was to project the outlook for the latest “most crucial off-season in Cleveland Browns history”. That one, coming after the grim and disappointing end to the Randy Lerner via Mike Holmgren Era, where a change at the top would lead to systematic upheaval in every facet of the organization. As has been the case far too often in Brownstown, change was needed and change was indeed coming.
And so it began… the identification of coaching candidates, the hiring of a new general manager, free agency targets, and of course, the NFL Draft, where we would turn our collective focus and carve out our little niche as a website. Fitting then that, as this process begins anew (in many though not all respects), I have conjured the time and energy to weigh in about where to go from here, as another dismal campaign reaches its inevitable end.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Nothing stands out more than this as I think about what the last 12 months have been like for this team. Change has been the theme, yet here we are again, in late December, and the results are the same. Fortunately for the Browns faithful, though many may disagree, I don’t believe it’s any indication this current regime is anywhere near as inept as the last. The honest truth is that it’s way too early to know that with any degree of certainty. Let’s hope and pray that is indeed not the case. What the quote really goes to prove is, when it comes to the NFL, you can change everything from the owner to the murals lining the hallways at the practice facility, but if you don’t have a
great VIABLE OPTION at the quarterback position, you will not win football games. After a year of so much change, “we find ourselves in the same old mess, singing drunken lullabies”. But why?
For starters, we now know Brandon Weeden is NOT a viable option. We found that out the hard way. But make no mistake, we had to find out. We also found out Jason Campbell is too inconsistent to be considered a viable option. Nor does he possess the necessary qualities to take a young team on his shoulders and lead the way. He is what he is at this point of his career. He is a backup. He is someone you may be able to count on to win you a game here or there but not over any extended period of time. I wrote when he was signed in April, “If we have to depend on Jason Campbell to be our starter this season, we are doomed”. But that was when I was optimistic that Weeden, playing in an offense tailored to his strengths, would win the job and play well enough to keep it. My bad. No one could have predicted what would ultimately transpire. And that leads me to Brian Hoyer.
Unlike his contemporaries in the film room, Hoyer proved in his limited action that he CAN BE a viable option. But the jury is still out. Unfortunately, in only his third start, he was lost for the year. The real tragedy isn’t necessarily how the rest of the season was shred to pieces along with Hoyer’s ACL. And it sure as hell isn’t because the Browns didn’t scour the Earth searching for a tangible replacement that very minute. (Because the Josh Freeman experiment went so glowingly in Minnesota.) The tragedy is having to go into the offseason not knowing if Hoyer can be the franchise quarterback we’ve been longing for since I was a child. His injury prevented us from finding out one way or the other. So while I feel good about Hoyer as a viable option heading into next season, I’m hardly convinced we have our answer at the sport’s most valuable position. Then again, I’m not the one who has the capacity or the responsibility to make that determination. Thank goodness.
Therefore, I am of the opinion that the Browns need to draft their franchise quarterback once and for all. It’s not a question of IF, but WHEN. And WHO. Does that person exist in the 2014 draft? I have no idea. But I’m not willing to pay the price of inaction. If this too is as crucial of an off-season as everyone says it is, including the owner and front office executives whom I’ve spoken to directly, then they cannot afford to wait and see at the QB position. It is incumbent upon the people who have the resources to figure it out and do everything in their power to get the guy they see fit. And I have confidence that they will. Why? Because we all saw the words stenciled onto the war room wall… “We will be bold. We will have a championship level QB.” Is Brian Hoyer that guy, or is he merely a bridge to get that guy? I’m leaning toward the latter, especially now that Hoyer is coming off a major injury. Even before the injury, the Browns traded Trent Richardson for a first round pick. I doubt it was because they thought they had their championship level on the roster. But that’s just my take. We’ll see how it all pans out.
And now for some fearless predictions for the long off-season ahead…
1. The Browns will re-sign TJ Ward prior to him hitting the free agent market on March 10. As it was in Philadelphia, Joe Banner’s modus operandi is to re-sign players that he deems to be part of the core well in advance of free agency, so that they don’t have to compete with the market to retain the player. Unfortunately, in this case, the new personnel department in Berea only had this season to truly evaluate Ward prior to him becoming a free agent. The Browns wanted to see if he could A) stay healthy B) thrive in Ray Horton’s defensive system and C) become more of a leader off the field. Ward has gone above and beyond the call by not only playing at an All-Pro level on the field but by becoming an active leader in the community off of it. Now that they’re sure he is capable of being the type of player they want, they need to lock him up as soon as possible. The closer it gets to March, the more expensive he becomes.
2. Another option the Browns have with Ward, if they can’t reach an agreement before March, is to use the franchise tag. The tag would allow the team to retain the rights to Ward for another season. It would also give both sides until July 15th to work out a long-term deal. If July 15th comes and there’s still no deal, Ward would play under a one-year tender and then be up for Free Agency again in March of 2015. Again, this is not Banner’s preferred method of choice. Also, given Ward’s injury history, it would be very risky for him to play under a one-year deal. If he gets hurt, he won’t see the payday he was expecting on the open market. Therefore, there is mutual incentive for both sides to work out a deal prior to July 15th, if they can’t agree by March.
3. With Joe Haden’s contract expiring in 2015, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Browns got him under a new deal prior to the start of next season as well. Like with Ward, not only would it benefit the team by not having the threat of him test the market hanging over contract negotiations, it would benefit the player by providing financial security and not having him play in a contract year where the threat of injury could prevent him from ever cashing in on the open market. And oh, by the way, 2014 is the first year the Browns have to spend a certain percentage of their available cap space; a feat which can be easily done by re-signing Haden and Ward.
4. Unlike Ward, I think Alex Mack will be allowed to test the free agent market. While he has been decent in pass protection, Mack seldom gets a push on the bigger defensive linemen and linebackers he lines up across from. It’s no secret that the interior of the offensive line has struggled mightily this season and the running game has been practically non-existent. While some of it can be attributed to play calling, injuries at the guard positions, and mediocre running back play, Mack shoulders some blame. And for Pete’s sake, how many times has he forgotten the snap count this season? Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily that the Browns think Mack is unworthy of keeping, but it’s going to come down to where Mack perceives his value vs. where the Browns perceive it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mack bet on himself getting more money on the open market than he can here in Cleveland. I feel like the Browns will at least let him explore that possibility.
5. The Browns will be active in free agency with a focus on improving the offense. This is a no-brainer. The Browns have the cap space and they have to find pieces to bolster the offense. Aside from Joe Thomas, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, there is not one other player on that side of the ball who is irreplaceable. However, contrary to reports, I don’t see them offering a big contract to a running back like Ben Tate. It’s painfully obvious that this regime does not value the running back position highly. Why then, would they pay a premium in free agency for the biggest name scheduled to hit the market at that position? It doesn’t mesh. The Browns have shown that they’re not shy about signing players to big money in free agency, but only if those players play a premium position. Think about what positions this regime values highly and that should provide some clues as to their approach in free agency.
6. Ray Horton will return as Defensive Coordinator next season. Cleveland in the post-LeBron era collectively suffers from post-traumatic delusions that every good player or coach will ultimately be stolen away from us and our teams will be left in utter disarray. While it was true for the 2010 Cavs, I just don’t see it in this case. Horton has garnered attention in league circles as a potential candidate for upcoming coaching vacancies but how much of that is based on talent and how much is to satisfy the ridiculous Rooney Rule? How sad is it that I even have to ask that question? Also, what about the recent 4th quarter collapses Horton’s vaunted defense has inexplicably surrendered in the latter part of this season? All things to consider. Furthermore, the NFL is an offense-minded, quarterback driven, pass happy league. Of the eight head coaching vacancies that existed this time last year, only one was filled by a defensive-minded coach (Jacksonville-Gus Bradley). Call me crazy but, while I believe Ray Horton may be called upon to interview, he will be inevitably passed over for a head coaching position this January. Then again, he could very well replace Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh and win not one, not two, not three…. (Just joking Browns fans. The league frowns on lateral moves. Phew!)
7. The Browns have seven picks in the first 4 rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. They will not draft seven players with those picks. While the Browns still have many needs to fill, it is unrealistic to think they will fill them all in one off-season. Ad infinitum. It is also unrealistic to think they will nail every pick and have seven rookies contribute in a significant way in 2014. Also, the Browns are already the second youngest team in the league next to the St. Louis Rams. Expect the Browns to package a few of those picks to get an impact player and/or to move around in the draft to get players they have targeted. No one can hit on every pick but in the classic Belichick/Lombardi philosophy, the more picks you have means the more chances you have to get them right. Taking an impactful player with every pick is not realistic. Using those picks as currency in order to come away with a few impactful players is the way to go.
Well, I think that should tide me over for now as the holidays bring another bout of change and uncertainty in Brownstown. Perhaps I’ll find the time to espouse my views more regularly as the offseason goes on, but I just want to take a moment to thank everyone who has supported our efforts here over the last year and all of those following us on Twitter. Merry Chirstmas and… Happy New Year? Sure as the ball drops at midnight, we can always hope.