With the hiring of Pat Shurmur as head coach, team president Mike Holmgren cemented his status as the Browns’ organizational leader. Or, the former Super Bowl winning coach merely finished the work he began a year ago in laying out his vision for the team’s future. In many ways, the marriage of Shurmur to the Browns can be traced through last year’s arrival of general manager Tom Heckert, who has a great deal of experience in finding players qualified to run the West Coast version of offense that Holmgren has envisioned.
The same can be said for decisions made along the defensive side of the ball, as veteran coach Dick Jauron has been tapped to revamp, or possibly reinvent a traditional Browns’ weakness. While not exclusively a Holmgren disciple, Jauron will likely install a defense that is more familiar to Heckert than Eric Mangini’s 3-4 scheme. After all, Heckert’s contributions to recent Philadelphia drafts focused on finding more traditional 4-3 types of defenders.
Of course, aligning all the major components of an NFL franchise was the easy part. And yes, after more than a decade of futile front office direction in Cleveland, this is perhaps the greatest understatement ever uttered. Finally, the overall direction of the Browns has been set in place and more importantly, it appears that a clear chain of command exists.
But now comes the hard part. Despite the presence of what appears to be some badly needed front office unity, success in the NFL is decided by the talent on the field.
In the Browns’ case – particularly among the defense – a talent upgrade is badly needed. Heckert’s recent thoughts seem to foreshadow some offseason changes.
"It's gonna be a challenge, no question," Heckert said. "There's gonna be some turnover. We have some age on the team. We have to get younger."
While many Browns’ followers are lamenting the decision to “blow up” the team’s defense after some modest gains in 2010, the on-field and injured reserve evidence is overwhelmingly apparent. The numbers may have inched forward, but last season’s Mangini-built defense simply lacked playmakers. Built for power, the defense wore down as the season progressed, thanks to a combination of age and injuries.
In a hypothetical sense, the same types of roster turnover would have occurred for another season with Mangini at the helm. Regardless of scheme, the Browns’ front seven is littered with players either ready to test free agency or dip their toes in the waters of retirement.
In fact, it’s possible that only three of the team’s regular front seven starters will return next season.
Along the front line, injuries again short-circuited veteran Robaire Smith’s season. Smith suffered a serious back injury early in the season, which hurt the team’s run defense. Across the line, Kenyon Coleman played on a shaky knee for most of the season, while Shaun Rogers was largely invisible. The only consistent performance found along the defensive line was the play of Ahtyba Rubin. However, thanks to the limited depth around him, Rubin fell apart in December.
Behind Rubin and the veteran starters on the depth chart are a collection of unknown players such as Travis Ivey, Ko Quaye, Brian Sanford, Jayme Mitchell and the scrappy, yet underwhelming Brian Schaefering.
A similar story can be told regarding the team’s linebackers. A midseason injury to Scott Fujita significantly contributed to the defense’s second-half decline in 2010 – particularly against the rush. Fujita’s injury forced Matt Roth into more of a run defense role, which hampered the team’s pass rush. While Chris Gocong played well inside, his veteran counterparts – including Eric Barton and David Bowens – could not be counted on to play significant roles.
Moving beyond the 2010 starters, the rest of the linebacking corps includes situational pass rusher Marcus Benard and a host of special teams players, including Jason Trusnik, Titus Brown, Eric Alexander and Blake Costanzo. Former starter D’Qwell Jackson and 2009 draft pick Kaluka Maiava both ended the season on injured reserve.
Looking ahead to 2011 and a move towards a 4-3 alignment, it’s possible that only Rubin and Fujita are locks to return to the starting lineup. Gocong and Roth are both free agents, while Smith, Coleman, Barton and Bowens will likely not be part of the new regime’s plans. Perhaps the same can be said for Rogers, who is still owed a sizeable chunk of money for next season.
As it stands now, Rubin could greatly benefit from a shift towards a more traditional four-man line. Despite his considerable size, Rubin was often pushed around as a nose tackle. The addition of another defensive tackle could also reduce the wear on Rubin’s body in 2011. As for the linebackers, Fujita should prove capable as a 3-4 outside linebacker – a position he has played in the past – while Gocong could be brought back to play inside. The rest of the roster’s current prospects don’t offer much beyond Benard possibly shifting to defensive end, which in reality, is what he mainly played for most of 2010.
Basic math would tell you that retaining only three to four potential 2011 defensive front seven starters is a frightening proposition. However, I suppose none of us should be too surprised. After all, the 2010 Browns’ defense was largely comprised of veterans on their last legs.
Perhaps even more frightening is the idea that only Rubin, Jackson and Maiava were original Browns’ draft picks.
Suddenly, Heckert looks like a prophet … one who has a lot of work to do.