In a locked-out NFL, pieces like the following will either quickly become recycled news or will retain an expiration date far beyond their natural life span. In either case, recent reports have suggested that the NFL’s protracted labor dispute may be coming to a resolution in the next several days – or at least before the next phantom deadline is reached.
If such is the case, then the following is an example of how the Browns can navigate the first few weeks of the league’s official offseason. Or, if the labor dispute continues to trickle into August, everything contained here becomes wishful thinking.
1. Sign the Rookies.
This one seems simple enough. GM Tom Heckert’s mega-tradedown with the Falcons relieved the Browns of having to chase dollars with a Top Ten draft pick. In a year where getting rookies signed and delivered to training camp takes on a whole new level of urgency, the Browns should have an easier time with a largely pre-slotted Phil Taylor deal.
Taylor, taken with the draft’s 21st overall pick, is sandwiched between fellow linemen Adrian Clayborn and Anthony Costanzo. Taylor’s rookie deal should be set by Clayborn and may be slightly more than what 2010’s 21st overall draft pick, Jermaine Gresham, received. Gresham signed a five-year deal with guaranteed money in the 10 million dollar range.
After Taylor, the rest of the Browns’ draft picks should fall into place. Although obscene rookie salaries have been a cornerstone of the league’s labor negotiations, most draft picks beyond the first round settle into an easy to follow slotting system – something that probably drives Drew Rosenhaus crazy. This system should allow for the quick signing of Jabaal Sheard and Greg Little – each of whom could challenge for early playing time.
2. Reevaluate Free Agency.
Depending on what a new collective bargaining agreement actually looks like, some players could suddenly find themselves as free agents in what will be a frenzied week or two of auctioneering. The Browns’ D’Qwell Jackson could become one of those players, along with about a few dozen others around the league. Once an afterthought earlier in the offseason, free agency could prove to be a salvation for the eternally rebuilding Browns.
Some of the bigger names available include Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Joseph Addai, Sidney Rice and DeAngelo Williams. More importantly, some of the names who could fill a major void among the Browns’ roster are Ray Edwards, Stephen Tulloch, Jeromy Clary, James Jones and Darren Colledge – or insert your own free agent name here.
Again, assuming that free agency is opened up towards the middle of July, the Browns – like every other league team – have to establish their priorities. Since multiple team visits will be lessened, the Browns will likely have to target players from teams already familiar with the Browns and their coaching staff. Or, in an oddly contradictory manner, introduce themselves to the likes of Matt Roth, Lawrence Vickers and Abe Elam.
3. Find a free safety.
It seems like years ago, but after April’s draft, Tom Heckert offered the following regarding the Browns’ safety situation.
"Right now, Mike Adams is penciled in as a guy who's going to play almost all safety for us, but we'll see. There's a few guys in free agency and we'll see what happens with the undrafted rookies, so we still have a couple of options out there."
Mike Adams has been one of my favorite Browns since his arrival in 2007. Adams has served as a solid Special Teams and Dime defender, and has played capably when asked to start – both at safety and cornerback. However, Adams is not a full-time starter and the Browns’ secondary depth is worn thin during the times that he is.
Earlier in the offseason – back before football optimism was swallowed up by a league of litigators – some Browns’ talk was focused on adding a player such as Buffalo’s Donte Whitner to replace Elam. Whitner’s connection to the Browns was evident, as he was one of Dick Jauron’s first Buffalo draft picks. However, other names such as Roman Harper, Melvin Bullitt and Eric Smith could also be available depending on what the new CBA looks like.
Also, in an idyllic framework, the Bengals may have given the rest of the league a gift by placing a high tender on cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Since restricted free agency could become non-existent, Joseph could become unrestricted. A Browns’ addition of Joseph could solve both cornerback and safety issues, as Sheldon Brown could shift to free safety.
4. Name a starting quarterback. And settle the backups.
As I wrote last week, Pat Shurmur needs to distinguish himself from the litany of expansion era Browns’ coaches who have mindlessly shuffled through quarterbacks. Regardless of his eventual choice, Shurmur needs to make a statement from the start of training camp. If Colt McCoy is the guy, then so be it. If not, Shurmur needs to move on to someone else.
From a front office perspective, both Heckert and Mike Holmgren need to follow suit. Since Shurmur is tackling a nearly impossible situation in assuming control of the Browns after the lockout, all parties need to be mindful of the cohesion required to achieve any early success. Having said all this, let’s hope that Heckert was genuine in stating the following.
"Whenever the thing opens up, we'll sit down with Jake and talk to him and decide what's the best for him and for our organization. We have to wait until that happens."
Regardless of the names involved, another return to indecision will again derail a coaching switch in Cleveland. Even harmless statements that Holmgren may make about quarterbacks around the league can kill any momentum that Shurmur – hopefully – creates for himself.
5. Evaluate the defensive ends.
Much of what was stated earlier regarding the safety position and free agency can be applied here. However, there aren’t many defensive ends floating around the free agent market this year – simply because such players hold a tremendous value. Those who may be available, such as Ray Edwards and Ray McDonald, will soon find themselves signing extraordinarily inflated free agent deals.
Knowing this, the Browns have to figure out who on the current roster can actually play defensive end. Unfortunately, the prospects are pretty slim. Currently, Sheard and occasional pass-rusher Marcus Benard would appear to be 2011 starters. Add in a collection of 3-4 linemen left over from last season and the frightening prospects of Brian Schaefering and/or Robaire Smith starting the season is only a few months away.
6. Find a kick returner.
Did I just commit a sacrilegious act with that heading?
For those who didn’t notice last season, Josh Cribbs’ production plummeted due to a lingering toe and foot injury. In an ideal sense, Cribbs has healed and should return to his electrifying play of the past. However, the league’s rule committee hasn’t done Cribbs any favors, by moving up the kickoff spot five yards in an attempt to reduce the effectiveness of kick returns.
So, perhaps the third time will be the charm for Cribbs in finally establishing himself as an offensive threat. Or at the least, in terms of three, maybe Shurmur will be the first Browns’ coach to figure out how to best utilize Cribbs.
In the process, the Browns may finally have to look towards a future without Cribbs. The prospects of landing one of the fastest players in the draft in Buster Skrine could prove to be a revelation for a team that is still one of the slowest in the league in all three phases.
7. Pay Joe Thomas.
Remember the endless crusading that both players and fans performed in 2009 on behalf of Cribbs receiving a much-deserved new contract? Let’s hope that what Holmgren eventually gave Cribbs will be doubled or even tripled when it comes to paying the Browns’ most valuable player in Joe Thomas.
Thomas’ 2007 rookie contract features a sixth year, which can be voided – ultimately making him a free agent after the 2011 season. Thomas has proven to be one of the top left tackles in the league and more importantly, has solidified what was a glaring weakness prior to his arrival. Regardless of any progress the Browns make in 2011, keeping Thomas long-term should quickly become a high priority.
8. Find some backup linebackers.
Over the past few weeks, there was a local story written about 2009 draft pick Kaluka Maiava, detailing his injury rehabilitation. Because of the lockout and tri-annual coaching change, I had completely forgotten that Maiava was still on the Browns’ roster. However, since the Browns will likely operate with injury-prone starters Jackson and Scott Fujita, the value of Maiava skyrockets.
Although past Maiava – who played all of two games in 2010 – the linebacker depth is beyond thin. As of now, special teams talent such as Jason Trusnik, Eric Alexander and Blake Costanzo are all that stand between defensive respectability and complete chaos.
9. Raise the stakes for Greg Little.
Let’s see if Shurmur is a man of his word, or at least a follower of a local reporter’s tweets. A couple of months ago, it was implied that Little could become the Browns’ “number one receiver.” In theory, such an event is almost impossible in the NFL, as wide receivers normally take 2-3 years to fully develop. However, in Cleveland, Little may have a great chance to immediately contribute – especially given the limited resources currently available at his position.
Entering 2011, both Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie could experience the often mythical “third-year leap” that has historically occurred around the league. However, given the installation of yet another new offense, such a potential advantage could be negated. As for Little, he is beginning on the same page as his veteran counterparts and as such, could be expected to perform at a higher level than an average rookie wideout.
If such an idea is relevant, than it needs to be quickly expressed to Little.
9A. Or get some other receiving help.
Following April’s draft, Heckert gave the following slightly tepid response regarding his team’s pass catching talent.
"We added a tight end, and added a fullback that can catch the ball, so I think we did help our receiving as a group. But if we think somebody can improve us, we'll do it."
Unless anyone thinks the Browns’ current level of talent is comparable to past Super Bowl winners, I’m guessing that more improvement is needed. Only quantum leaps by Massaquoi, Robiskie and Carlton Mitchell can improve the Browns’ receiving production.
However, the risks involved in signing a free agent wide receiver complicates what could be viewed as an easy decision. While there is talent available, such as Malcolm Floyd, James Jones and Santonio Holmes, the price tag for even the most marginal of players will prove extraordinarily high.
10. Be realistic.
Browns fans know the drill by now.
A new head coach equates to a renewed sense of faith in the Browns. And for the fifth time in a dozen years, the Browns are once again starting over. However, in defense of the current version of management in charge, at least Shurmur is arriving a year after the installation of Holmgren and Heckert.
Yet, patience will once again become a virtue for Browns fans. The reality of the situation is that the Browns are installing both a new offense and defense in the warped training camp time frame of a post-lockout league. As of now, it’s not even clear which players will be in Berea over the next month or so, let alone who will break through once the season begins.
As a whole, the league will probably display a pattern in which defenses are further ahead of offenses – particularly those whose moving parts are not yet settled. In the Browns’ case, both phases of the game will be lacking.
So, before the howls for endless quarterback changes and coach and coordinator firings commence, we should all prepare ourselves now.