|You should have known better, Peyton.|
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.
We continue the previews with a team so tortured that even Brad Childress can’t make things much worse, the Cleveland Browns. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:
*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Estimated cap is $124 million.*
2011 Record: 4-12
PPG For: 13.6 (30th)
PPG Against: 19.2 (5th)
2012 Cap Number: $103,789,162
Draft Position: #4 Overall Pick
Just how bad were things in 2011? The Browns played the Colts, Dolphins, Titans, Raiders, Seahawks, Rams, Jaguars, and Cardinals…..and still lost 12 games. Even in those four wins, the Browns needed a miraculous drive against Miami and a phantom holding call that brought back Seattle’s game winning punt return. All in all, the Browns season was an utter disaster. And to think, there was actually a bit of promise brought in from the end of 2010. Heading into last season, it looked like Cleveland had finally found answers at QB (Colt McCoy) and RB (Peyton Hillis), and the schedule set up perfectly for a strong campaign. That sentiment quickly subsided however, as the Browns couldn’t even find their way out of the huddle for a key defensive play against Cincinnati – IN THE VERY FIRST GAME OF THE YEAR! And now, as is their custom, Cleveland finds itself stuck in the same rebuilding cycle that has perpetuated the franchise since their reincarnation. Will this year be the year that Mike Holmgren finally delivers some real hope, or will it be yet another disappointment? It is, after all, Cleveland…don’t get your hopes up.
Typically, when we talk about a four win team, we use the word “good” in its most relative form. As in, “the Rams pass rush was actually pretty good, since its middle of the road ranking wasn’t nearly as pathetic as every other aspect of the team.” In this case, however, “good” is not a relative term. The Browns defense was genuinely good last year, allowing the fifth fewest points per game in the league. It wasn’t a fluke either. For all the criticism heaped on Holmgren for his lack of success in acquiring offensive talent, he deserves an equal amount of praise for the unit he’s put together on the other side of the ball. 2010 saw the arrival of Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, both of whom spearheaded a pass defense that finished second in the league last year, allowing just 184.9 YPG. 2011 saw the arrival of Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard. Though they were considered reaches at the time, they quickly showed why Holmgren was so intent on bringing them in. Sheard, in particular, showed flashes of being a big time game changer off the edge, and his continued development could take this unit to another level.
It takes a special effort to lose 12 games with the league’s fifth ranked scoring defense, and the Browns offense delivered just that. A very, very special effort. Special, as in, when the Browns scored, you felt like you might never see it again. Special, as in, a Browns touchdown qualified as a literal miracle. Special, as in, the Browns offense made Tim Tebow look like an offensive juggernaut. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating. Coming into the season, the Browns held promise on the offensive end, as a full season of Colt McCoy’s short, accurate passes and Peyton Hillis’ punishing runs seemed like a perfect fit for Pat Shurmur’s West Coast Offense. Somewhere along the way, Colt McCoy stopped being accurate. And somewhere along the way, Peyton Hillis thought it would be a good idea to slit his own throat by going on the cover of Madden. And, of course, there was always the problem of not having any receivers or a right side of the offensive line. Minor details, I know. Blame who you will, whether it be McCoy, Hillis, Shurmur, or some combination. The point is that Cleveland must, and I do mean MUST, invest much of their offseason’s resources to improving this offense. If they fail, then another four win season is the likely outcome.
Key Free Agents: S Mike Adams, K Phil Dawson, G John Greco, RB Peyton Hillis, LB D’Qwell Jackson, P Brad Maynard, CB Dimitri Patterson
3 Key Questions:
#1 – Who is the QB?
Cleveland has been trying to answer this question for a long, long time, with little success to show for it. After a promising finish to 2010, it appeared as Colt McCoy might be the guy, but he regressed big time in 2011, opening up the question once again. There are several intriguing options out there, including Robert Griffin in the draft, and Matt Flynn in free agency. While Griffin is likely to be the popular choice amongst Browns fans, I actually think Flynn is the better way to go. It appears as if Green Bay is not going to tag him, meaning Cleveland would retain all their draft assets in any deal. The contract would be expensive, yes, but the Browns have both the cap room and the flexibility to make such an investment. Imagine a scenario in which they sign Flynn, draft Justin Blackmon at #4, and take a RT at #22. That would give them a significant boost in three major need areas, while also not gutting them of future picks. Win-win if you ask me.
#2 – Re-sign Peyton Hillis, or let him walk?
Rumors are that there is considerably disagreement within the organization as to what should be done here. I can understand that sentiment, as Hillis’ weird 2011 campaign went beyond disappointing. Hillis and the club continually fought over money, with the RB doing serious damage to his stock thanks to illness (Strep? Really?), injury, and PR gaffes. So Cleveland should cut all ties, right? Not so fast! Hillis was a game changer in 2010, and there is very little reason to think he can’t regain that form. He’ll be just 26 years old next season, and his mileage is extremely low with just 512 carries in four seasons. He’s an effective pass blocker, an underrated receiver, and he’s an ideal fit for Shurmur’s system (think Stephen Jackson in St. Louis). More than anything, he won’t be on the cover of Madden next year. And yes, I am kind of serious when I say that. Sad, I know. Anyways, this is a huge opportunity for Cleveland to lock up a potential top 10 RB for well below market value. Given their lack of playmakers, it’s an opportunity they can’t afford to pass up.
#3 – Does Mike Holmgren have a clue?
Brad Childress. Brad. Childress. Is this for real? I mean, are they serious with this hire? ‘Chilly’ is just a couple seasons removed from having a very talented team quit on him, and his tenure in Minnesota was an unmitigated disaster. He consistently mismanaged the team, he clashed with his star players, his play calling was questionable at best, and he alienated the fan base to the point where they were calling for his head IN THE MIDST OF A SUPER BOWL RUN! That’s bad. Now, he’s Cleveland’s offensive coordinator. That’s right, he’s been brought in to be the savior of one of the league’s worst units. Brad Childress, who wasn’t even allowed to call his own plays in Philadelphia, and who never quite figured out that Adrian Peterson was probably good in short yardage situations, is now presiding over the development of whatever young offensive stars Cleveland brings in. That sounds encouraging.
As I mentioned above, Cleveland’s first decision is whether or not they want to pursue Robert Griffin. Trading up for him, even if it’s just one spot, will incur a heavy cost, but it’s absolutely worth it if they are convinced Griffin is the answer. While I would prefer going the Flynn route, I certainly won’t begrudge them for Griffin, as I strongly believe he has the potential to be a star. For the Browns, or really any team, there is no price too steep for landing a franchise QB.
However, if they choose not to pursue Griffin, then the #4 pick becomes quite interesting. Assuming Justin Blackmon is still on the board, it seems logical to snatch him up and not think twice. Greg Little had his moments last year, and he certainly has the makings of a nice player, but it’s a stretch to call him a true #1 at this point. The lack of receiving threats was clearly a major deterrent in McCoy’s development, and it would definitely affect Flynn or any other QB brought in as well. Simply put, Cleveland needs a big time playmaker on the outside. Until they get one, the offense will be limited in their effectiveness. While it’s always tough to project WR’s, it sure seems like Blackmon is as good a prospect as any that’s come out in recent years. He has the ability to have an A.J. Green-like impact in his rookie season, and that could be exactly what Cleveland needs to take the next step in the rebuilding process.
Another rumored possibility is Alabama RB Trent Richardson. If Hillis is not retained, then Cleveland would have a major hole to fill at RB, and Richardson is as good a prospect to come out since Adrian Peterson. While I do think Richardson will be an outstanding player, I’m dubious of Cleveland taking him this high. Letting one star RB walk to select another just feels like treading water to me, and there are too many needs on this offense to opt for a player who might be a slight upgrade over another at the same position. Richardson is nice, but Blackmon is the right move here.
Keep in mind that any deal for Griffin would likely involve Cleveland giving up the #22 pick as well. While that would obviously be worth it to land a star QB, there could be some nice fits for Cleveland if they hold on to the pick. Assuming either Blackmon or Richardson goes at #4, the Browns should look long and hard at an offensive lineman. Mike Adams is slowly rising up draft boards, and he could be a nice upgrade at RT. Also in play would be G David DeCastro. Guard isn’t typically drafted in the first round, but DeCastro looks to be the rare prospect worth taking this high. He could offer help at either guard spot, which is something Cleveland sorely needs. Finally, there are several solid WR’s worth taking a chance on should Cleveland pass on Blackmon. Michael Floyd is my favorite, and a guy who I think could potentially wind up being as good as Blackmon, but my guess is that he will be gone by #22. If that is the case, then I’d reach a few spots and take Rueben Randle from LSU. His value is deflated thanks to Jordan Jefferson’s pathetic throwing ability, but the plays that he did make were certainly eye opening.
(Edit: I forgot to mention that Vontaze Burfict should be considered at #22. D’Qwell Jackson has always been overrated, and Burfict has the ability to establish himself as the anchor at MLB that Jackson was always supposed to be.)
After going through this, I already feel regret for my impending “Cleveland could be a surprise team” prediction that will undoubtedly mar my season preview podcast and column. I did it last year, and I doubt I’ll be able to stop myself this year. On the other hand, if they can finally solve their QB problem while bolstering at least one of the other problem areas on the offense, then who knows what can happen! The defense, as they just proved, is more than up to the task of carrying the team, and the opportunities that their schedule and potentially weakening division present very well could mark them as a sleeper in 2012. Then again, it’s Cleveland. At least it will be interesting to see how they blow it this time.