This week we will be running a series on teams of the AFC North starting with the Cleveland Browns, complements of the S/R staff.
It’s amazing to believe that the Cleveland Browns could both rise from the ashes and completely crash and burn within a few months. Yet, the once 7-3 Browns – a frontrunner in the AFC – crumbled down the stretch with a 6-game losing streak. Into November, they were a playoff bound, dark-horse menace with an unconventional but successful offense and an impressive defensive unit. Into January, serious concerns surround the Browns’ top and future stars heading into the offseason.
Gm Ray Farmer’s first draft with the Browns would turn out to provide a very solid contribution to the team’s progression through the season, but through unlikely sources. His rookie of the year would undoubtedly be second round G Joel Bitonio, who has solidified his spot as the starting left guard and shone alongside Pro Bowl OT Joe Thomas. Lower round selections LB Chris Kirksey and RB Terrance West both contributed in their limited game-time; particularly West, who had occasional strong performances on the ground during the midseason. The major disappointments are their two first round picks: QB Johnny Manziel and CB Justin Gilbert.
Manziel was bought in too quickly for Brian Hoyer, at a time where too much postseason implication was at stake. Gilbert was outplayed early on by Buster Skrine and never made the starting lineup. The fact that the Browns’ organization has hinged its future on young stars with very controversial personalities (Manziel, Gilbert and WR Josh Gordon) questions the lack of big-name signings from the free agency market last season, as well as player evaluation in the draft. OC Kyle Shanahan recently parted ways with the Browns’ organization amidst the off-field troubles surrounding their high-profile players
Team Needs: QB, RB, 3-4 DE, ILB, OLB, Offensive Coordinator
A Browns team who are 7-9 certainly closed out the year like they were 4-12. Nonetheless, they hold the 12th pick in the draft, as well as 19 through Buffalo. Comforting Johnny Manziel is a must in order for him to progress after his disastrous outing in 2014. With Josh Gordon at a crossroads with his future in the organization, look for WR Devonte Parker to be open within that window through the draft. There is also depth within the defensive line this year, especially in versatile defensive tackles. Current NT Ahtyba Rubin is set to hit free agency and the rushing defense is in critical need of improvement. DTs Eddie Goldman or Danny Shelton would walk in and fill that void immediately.
Free agency will be the landing spot to address the LB situation. With Dansby coming off an serious injury, and lacking veteran presence, interior LBs such as David Harris and Rey Maualuga will be key assets towards stuffing the run in 2015. Despite their reliance on free agent OLB Jabaal Sheard, his injury-plagued year could open the possibility for a high profile signing off the edge to compliment Paul Kruger. Stealing Parnell McPhee from the Ravens would be a big addition to the defense, for he generated several multi-sack games in 2014, and is an oversized presence at 285 lbs.
Within house, retaining Buster Skrine is top priority. Skrine soared in 2014, essentially demoting 1st-round rookie Justin Gilbert in the process. He teamed up with Joe Haden to form one of the better CB duos in the league, and his contributions to the defense are too valuable to lose at a time where he lacks the status as a big-money signing. And despite his horrific collapse in December, retaining Brian Hoyer is key. Under a new offensive scheme, don’t rule out Hoyer to open 2015 as the starting QB. Pettine’s style will be firm but fair towards Manziel.
X-factor Acquisition RB Ahmad Bradshaw
Ahmad Bradshaw would be the ideal running back for both the Browns’ offense as a whole, as well as for Johnny Manziel’s development as a passing quarterback. His 2014 campaign with the Colts showcased Bradshaw’s ability to work within a rotation of running backs; splitting the load with Donald Brown yet earning the majority of the spoils between them. Bradshaw won’t be one of the high-money running backs on the market. He’s a solid, second tier RB, because of which, he stands as the dark horse acquisition, who could explode into a feature, all-purpose running back to rival Le’Veon Bell in the AFC North.
XX-factor Acquisition: Bill Callahan as Offensive Coordinator
The only downside to this move would be for Johnny Manziel to adjust to a West Coast system. Other than that, Callahan’s methods are set to hit the strengths of the Browns offense. An offensive-line guru, Callahan will propel the stature of Joel Bitonio into a Pro-Bowl calibre player, and will take the running game to heights unseen since Jamal Lewis. Just look at what he’s done to Demarco Murray since being in Dallas. Having arguably the best offensive line in the AFC will help remove additional blitz pressure off Johnny Manziel. Manziel should be able to fit well in the quick-passing philosophy within the West Coast style, as well as utilise his rushing capabilities when opening up the defense downfield.