When establishing any top whatever lists, one has to set parameters first and foremost. While staring at the makeup of the Cleveland Browns roster, deciding who was worth being named among the "Top Ten Most Valuable Browns" was more difficult than expected. Potential at key positions has just as much value as those who have already produced in this league for an extended period. As such, the key became who is on the roster that will set the tone and direction of the team as it progresses into the future.
1. Joe Thomas - The best left tackle in professional football is rarely given the respect he deserves. His career path is on a Hall of Fame caliber curve at a position that holds the utmost value. Each week the Browns' quarterback, and usually there is a different one weekly, never has to worry about his blindside.
2. Colt McCoy - The quarterback du jour, and hopefully over the long haul, is El Pistola. It's important for McCoy to produce in a Cleveland Browns uniform, not only for its overall health, but because his 'brand" is on a higher plane of existence than the Browns at the moment. His potential success will help this team's on-field and off-field perception tremendously.
3. Joe Haden - Last year's first round selection showed glimpses of becoming the NFL modern-day equivalent of a "shutdown cornerback.” In a passing league, if a defense can take away half the field, the benefits are incalculable.
4. Ahytba Rubin - Rubin is only 24-years old, but his experience on the field will contribute greatly when paired with the team's recent 337-pound first rounder, Phil Taylor. If the two can become a wall in the middle of the defense, it will set everything else up on the defensive end.
5. Peyton Hillis - Madden's new cover boy has to prove he was more than just a one-year flash in the pan. His bruising style and ability to catch the football make him the type of workhorse that Pat Shurmur already had in St. Louis in Steven Jackson.
6. Scott Fujita - It was obvious that the defense took a step back when its leader was off the field. Fujita is vocal in and out of the locker room and well respected. Once healthy, he can help set the tone once again.
7. Greg Little - Little has yet to play a down of football for the Browns. In fact, he hasn't played football in well over a year. Despite those issues, he is still the most talented athlete Cleveland currently sports at its weakest position. Little needs to step up quickly and become a legitimate target.
8. D'Qwell Jackson - Injuries have plagued a productive career. The Browns linebacker corps lacks talent, period. Jackson should be able to step in and start once again and may be more effective in a 43 front.
9. Ben Watson - Watson posted a career year in 2010. He should not have to repeat the fact whenever this season does commence, but his calming influence as a target and in the huddle should help McCoy enormously.
10. Alex Mack - A Pro Bowl center should probably be higher on the list, and Mack is becoming a rock in the middle of the offensive line. Despite those glowing reviews, there are those who have to produce at more valued positions if the Cleveland Browns hope to succeed sooner rather than later.
At first glance, it appears rather easy to put together a top ten list of Browns performers. However, similar to what Brent suggested, the combination of potential and production have to be equally assessed – especially considering the tenuous state of rebuilding that the Browns find themselves in. Also, any true measure of a player’s value has to reflect the importance of his position – which could explain why Ryan Pontbriand narrowly missed the cut.
1. Joe Thomas – This is both the most obvious and boring pick to be made, but also the most necessary. Or, for a perspective, just think of all the tackles paraded in and out of Cleveland before Thomas’ arrival in 2007. As for his actual play, Thomas is probably the league’s best run blocker at his position and more than adequate in pass protection.
2. Joe Haden – It’s not often that a cornerback ranks this high on a team’s list of most valuable players, but Haden brings both consistency and playmaking ability to a defense that has lacked both in recent years. Beyond Haden’s solid coverage skills and knack for being around the ball, the second-year corner ranked as one of the top tackling cornerbacks in the league in 2010.
3. Peyton Hillis – It’s amazing to think that Hillis was viewed as nothing more than a special teams contributor this time last year. However, Hillis’ amazing blend of power and agility helped to give the Browns’ offense an identity last season. In non-football terms, Hillis has also brought Cleveland a badly-needed sense of PR. Or to borrow from Jim Brown’s 2009 characterization of Josh Cribbs, perhaps Hillis has become the “spiritual, transcendent force” of the Browns.
4. Phil Taylor – It’s hard to project a rookie this high, but Taylor could finally solve the team’s decade-long run defense deficiencies. Taylor adds the bulk, strength and most importantly, the youth that the Browns have not had inside since the team’s expansion return. Additionally, adding Taylor alongside Ahtyba Rubin should help propel and extend both players’ careers.
5. T.J. Ward – Ward had an up and down rookie campaign, but managed to progress as the season wore on. At the moment, Ward is the only Browns’ defender who can truly alter an opposing team’s game plan – or at the least, create some hesitation in the mind of a wide receiver cutting across the middle of the field.
6. Alex Mack – Mack’s position isn’t one that is typically glorified by NFL followers, yet the third-year center has been ultra-reliable since his debut in 2009. Similar to Thomas, Mack has solidified a position of weakness and rarely is overmatched by opponents.
7. Colt McCoy – Don’t mistake the lower ranking as an indicator of McCoy’s talents. Rather, a number seven ranking correlates to the team’s lack of offensive weapons. If the last two drafts have taught us anything, it is that this current front office realizes that for a quarterback to succeed, surrounding pieces have to be first added.
8. Ben Watson – Speaking of which, Pat Shurmur’s designated “weapon” will remain McCoy’s safety net, at least until the young wide receiving talent matures. And if such a development occurs, Watson will only become more of a threat.
9. Scott Fujita/D’Qwell Jackson/Tony Pashos – I’m cheating a bit here, but the health of these three injury-prone veterans will be keys to the Browns’ 2011 success. The 2010 defense suffered after Fujita’s season-ending injury, while the running game declined thanks to John St. Clair’s extended playing time at right tackle. As for Jackson, after two injury-ravaged seasons, he remains the Browns’ only athletic and rangy linebacker.
10. Josh Cribbs – Although Cribbs has never found a perfect match for his talents on offense, the Kent State product still is a threat on special teams – despite the new rule changes that will limit the return game. Still, Cribbs is a vital member of the locker room and should be ready for a rebound once he recovers from his 2010 toe injury.
Who currently is the Browns’ most valuable player? It’s a tough call. It appears the roster’s talent level is increasing, but with such a long road ahead, any of the following 10 players could be ranked No. 1.
1. Colt McCoy – It’s cliché, but quarterback is the most important position on the field. For far too long the Browns have struggled to find their franchise quarterback. McCoy could go a long way in not only solidifying that moniker, but also helping the Browns win games in 2011. If McCoy falters, so, too will the Browns’ season.
2. Joe Haden – Finally, the Browns defense showed it had a playmaker. In 2010, Haden had six interceptions. More importantly, it seemed as if those interceptions came at key moments. The better defenses in this league have speed and playmakers. The Browns lack a lot of players with those skills. Haden has both.
3. Joe Thomas – It is no coincidence the two best first-round draft picks the Browns have had since 1999 are so high up on this list. When teams do right early in the draft, this is the result. Thomas struggled in pass protection at times last season. Regardless, he’s still among the best in the game pass blocking and run blocking, which brings us to…
4. Peyton Hillis – Madden Curse be damned. Hillis should have some help in the backfield this season with a healthy Montario Hardesty. As a result, Hillis will be expected to produce and make plays throughout the season.
5. T.J. Ward – Let’s start collecting fine money now. Ward needs to perpetuate the fear that opposing wide receivers do not want to come across the middle. In addition, Ward showed he could provide run support. This defense is sorely in need of a Troy Polamalu-like safety.
6. Josh Cribbs – The rule changes for kickoffs have diminished Cribbs’ role on special teams, so he’ll need to do it on offense. What is it? Make plays. Yeah, same as Haden, Hillis and Ward. See a theme? The Browns need more guys step up to be playmakers.
7. Phil Taylor/Ahtyba Rubin – I’m cheating, too, but DK did it first so I’m simply following along. The Browns’ two defensive tackles need to finally help this team stop opponents’ ability to run the ball. Since 1999, the Browns have consistently ranked toward the bottom of the league against the run. It is no coincidence they have also ranked toward the bottom of the league in wins.
8. Ben Watson – He was the team’s leading receiver last year as a tight end. In the new West Coast offense, he again needs to be a reliable target for McCoy. Yet, it would be a shame if a tight end is the Browns’ leading receiver for the second consecutive season. Which brings us to…
9. Greg Little – It is tough to put such an inexperienced rookie on this list, but the fact remains the Browns need edge pass catchers. Watson is great, but Little has a chance to become a legit No. 1 wide receiver on this team, something the Browns desperately need.
10. Phil Dawson – A kicker? Yeah, a kicker. Look, the guy has made some clutch kicks throughout the years and just before the lockout occurred, the Browns locked him up for another season. Close games happen in the NFL and the Browns need Dawson’s accuracy in weather that ranges from 85 degrees and sunny in early September to blizzard conditions in late December.
Editor's Note: Check Back to the OBR for Part Two.