Cleveland Browns Already Taking Steps to Make 2014 a Winning Season

The Cleveland Browns ended the 2013 NFL season with their seventh straight loss. On Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Not long afterwards, the Browns surprised many by firing first year head coach Rob Chudzinski after Cleveland lost their seventh straight game and twelfth of the season.

After defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in week nine to pull to four-and-five and a bye week, the Browns had a chance to move within a half-game of first place by going into Cincinnati and making a statement against the Bengals.  Instead, the entire season turned on this game. After jumping to a 13-0 lead after the first quarter the Browns completely imploded.

A 31 point second quarter by the Bengals was highlighted by special teams breakdowns (punt deflected and another blocked and returned for a touchdown) and an interception and fumble. Suddenly it was 31-13 at halftime and the Browns playoff chances were over.  Six more losses later and the Browns were four-and-twelve and looking for answers.

Former head coach Rob Chudzinski certainly made his share of rookie mistakes, but those should be expected of any rookie. He had a terrible quarterback in Brandon Weeden thrust upon him and–after there appeared to be a solution with quarterback Brian Hoyer–the Browns were forced to turn to ineffective and inconsistent veteran Jason Campbell.  Suddenly the head coach who a year ago was lauded by owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner, and general manager Mike Lombardi was taking the fall.

Whoever is hired to take over as head coach will then bring in yet another coaching staff for the players to adapt to in 2014.  In addition to the multiple first round draft picks the team possesses, there is reportedly almost $30 million in cap space currently expected for the Browns front office to spend to add players to whatever offensive and defensive schemes come along with the new head coach.

The Browns did make a number of good moves in 2013: they traded running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first round draft pick; they also did not trade wide receiver Josh Gordon.  Gordon had a breakout season and was simply spectacular even with being suspended the first two games of the season. With 87 receptions for 1,646 yards and 9 touchdowns Gordon established himself as one of the most dynamic wide receivers in football.

The Browns need to find help for Gordon at wide receiver as neither Greg Little nor Davone Bess were able to provide the necessary complement. One player who did make a positive impact was young tight end Jordan Cameron who had a stellar season despite a rough stretch in the second half of the year. He still finished with 80 receptions for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns.

At running back, the Browns were a mess. Trent Richardson, taken number three overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, was jettisoned early and the Browns struggled to find a replacement. The best replacement came from the Houston Texans practice squad in Edwin Baker who had three straight quality performances to end the season.  Veteran Willis McGahee was terrible and neither Fozzy Whittaker or Chris Ogbonnaya showed enough to warrant a role beyond that of a backup.

At quarterback much depends upon who the new head coach will be as far as who is retained and what route the team goes in acquiring a new quarterback. There are few quality free agents so the Browns need to determine if their next quarterback comes from the NFL Draft or is already on the roster.

Former first round draft pick Brandon Weeden was terrible in 2013 (in fairness, he was terrible as a rookie in 2012 as well) and will be lucky to be invited back to compete as a backup. Bad decision-making, poor accuracy, and an inability to learn from past mistakes doomed Weeden. Veteran Jason Campbell had an up-and-down performance, but he is not really a starter and should never had been counted on for more than a game or two of spot duty.  Quarterback Brian Hoyer came off the scrap heap and was by far the best quarterback in Cleveland before injuring his knee and being lost for the season.

On the offensive line, the Browns have three positions set with dynamic left tackle Joe Thomas, excellent center Alex Mack, and a right tackle in Mitchell Schwartz who came on strong after a rough start.  Guard John Greco was inconsistent, but he finished the season strong and could be a future starter. Guards Shawn Lauvao and Oniel Cousins were terrible and will be fortunate to last as backups next season.

On defense, Cleveland started strong but were worn down by injuries and lack of depth in the second half of the season. Outstanding safety T.J. Ward is a free agent and the Browns will likely use a chunk of their cap space in keeping the playmaker. He teamed with cornerback Joe Haden to give the secondary a one-two punch that was among the best in the NFL. Unfortunately, the rest of the secondary was ineffective and needs an upgrade.  Cornerback Buster Skrine was picked on all season long. Chris Owens was adequate, but Tashaun Gipson was below average as well. Losing Ward would be a big blow and a big step backwards.

At linebacker, the Browns had a mixed bag as well. After a slow start free agent outside linebacker Paul Kruger had a decent season and led the team with 39 quarterback hurries. Fellow outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard was the most consistent pass rusher and finished with a team leading six sacks in addition to holding up against the run.  Rookie first round draft pick Barkevious Mingo suffered through a tough first season and needs to build upon it and emerge as a pass rushing threat in 2014.

At inside linebacker the team struggled as both D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson struggled against the run. While Jackson did surprisingly well in the passing game in coverage, Robertson was exploited often. Robertson per ProFootballFocus.com allowed opposing offensive players in coverage to catch 50 of 58 passes thrown their way for an 11.1 yards per completion and opposing quarterbacks had a 128.1 quarterback rating on passes in his direction.

On the defensive line, the Browns found their strength in the 3-4 defense. Free agent signing Desmond Bryant had a strong season that was derailed by his landing on injured reserve with an irregular heartbeat and heart surgery (cardiac ablation). Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, John Hughes, and Billy Winn were ferocious in run defense and played a major role in the Browns early season success. Although not strong in the pass rush, the quartet gives the Browns a strong base which–again dependent upon what defensive style Cleveland plays in 2014–should be a strength. If Bryant returns strong in 2014, the Browns may again have a strong defensive line.

The Browns need to straighten out their coaching situation first and foremost at this point. Once the team is in place, quarterback and running back will be a priority to add to via the draft and free agency. The offensive line needs help at guard to give whoever runs the ball space or whoever is back in the pocket time to throw.  Another receiver or two to complement Josh Gordon is a necessity.

On defense, middle linebacker needs attention whether the team stays in a 3-4 base defense or a new coaching staff switches the team to a 4-3 alignment. The secondary needs help at cornerback and safety.  Re-signing safety T.J. Ward should be a priority for the front office as well. Whoever comes in to coach the defense will also be tasked with getting more out of outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo.

No matter what happens with the offseason, the Browns are positioned to improve in 2014. There is a solid core of young players to continue to build around and plenty of salary cap space to address the team’s needs. A new coach will need to build upon the early season success of the Browns and prevent a late season collapse that doomed the 2013 Cleveland Browns. The offseason has already started, and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner, and general manager Mike Lombardi have made it clear that failure will no longer be an option.

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By: Hal Bent