By Paul Wanecski
As is no surprise, Cleveland is in the midst of another coaching change. Being labelled the “worst owners in the NFL” is a pretty tall order; however, you would be hard-pressed to find any fan of the team saying otherwise. Since Bill Belichick was fired in 1995 (to be fair, his record was 36-44 and the team relocated to Baltimore then next season), no coach has had a tenure of longer than 3 years (actually, only Romeo Crennel has had 3 complete seasons as head coach since that time). Recently hired Hue Jackson makes the 9th coach hired since 1999, which was when the league brought the Browns back via expansion. So, without exception, the Browns have perennially made awful decisions leading into 2016, but, with a new General Manager in Sashi Brown, is this the year they finally start to figure it out?
Head Coach: Hue Jackson
Career Record: 8-8
Offensive Coordinator (Rank): Pep Hamilton
25th YPG, 21st Pass, 22nd Run
Defensive Coordinator (Rank): Ray Horton
27th YPG, 22nd Pass, 30th Run
Haven’t we all learned at this point not to be surprised by anything that leaks out of Cleveland? They have (as of the date this article is written) yet to release any player, which isn’t a major problem for a team that is looking at over $50 million dollars in 2016 salary cap space. They are in line for a lot of draft selections in this upcoming draft, all of which they will need. With as many holes as they currently have, along with the hole that will be created by the impending opt-out of center Alex Mack, things for the Browns are going to get worse before they get better.
As with any coaching change, especially when a new general manager takes charge, expect a mass exodus with the roster. While the team has plenty of salary cap space to work with, examining the long and short term goals is critical. Of several mistakes new general managers make is the hesitance to retain quality players. Above that is the swashbuckler who extends players who will financially drag your team through the mud the following season.
Dwayne Bowe (WR) – The signing of Bowe was among the worst contracts we have seen in a long time. He advanced statistics proved to be accurate when he lacked the ability to shake coverage. Releasing Bowe does ultimately save them money, but part of his salary was guaranteed ($2.85m) so the Browns are on the hook to pay him even upon release.
Alex Mack (C) – The Browns should have traded him when they had the chance last year. Without a doubt he will be opting out of his contract. Without Mack, the line becomes a focus for rebuilding, as his exit could prompt others to leave as well. His contract is very affordable for his age, position and caliber of player. They can afford to, and should, make him think long and hard about leaving money on the table. His opt-out will free up $8m
Justin Gilbert (CB) – You will hear chatter about Gilbert’s performance being cause for his release. He actually wasn’t all that bad on the field (edit added 2/11/16 - allow me to be more clear. Gilbert was able to keep pace while in man coverage, which is all he played in college. When he was asked to do things outside of that, he was in trouble. Gilbert admits that he depends on his skill, which translates to "I don't really understand assignments or scheme". With that being said, being inactive at the end of the season is a bad look, but, when asked to simply play man, he did not look lost. Was he what you expect from the 8th overall pick? Absolutely not and I won't excuse his play. Perhaps a change in leadership will make a difference). Off the field is a different story. It would cost the Browns a little over $4m to say goodbye to him and unless he is a franchise-tanking headache, that will not be happening. He stays.
Johnny Manziel (QB) – Do we really need to beat this one up any more than the rest of the media? The reality is he has problems. It will cost the Browns about $2m to release him at this point.
Donte Whitner (S) – Whitner is making about $5m too much for what his value actually is. He could be released, or, the team works out moving some of that base salary into incentives.
Karlos Dansby (LB) – At 34 years old, you have to assume that he becomes a target to release or restructure. Does he carry any trade value? Well, his base salary for any team that acquires him will be $5m, a steep price to pay. Now, if he is productive, he does have one year after this one in his contract at the same rate. Good inside linebackers are hard to find but age is definitely a cause for concern here.
Mitchell Schwartz (RT) – If Mack does indeed leave, Schwartz could walk as well. Offensive line units are built a lot off of chemistry. Once teams start replacing players, the production typically doesn’t last long. If Mack and Schwartz leave, the Browns would have no reason to retain Joe Thomas at left tackle and can look for a trade partner. The only wrinkle in that plan is if you indeed on finding a franchise quarterback, usually it is in an organization’s best interest to make sure that the offensive line isn’t a total disaster. Losing Schwartz and Mack would be that disaster. The Browns have plenty of space to overpay him.
Travis Benjamin (WR) – Standing at 5’10”, he isn’t what you would consider anything more than a complimentary piece. How valuable he is truly depends on if Josh Gordon comes back on the final year of his contract. He was able to put up big days even considering all the quarterbacks he played with, but, he is not a #1
Tashaun Gipson (S) – He is ready to get paid. Now, luckily, the market for safeties is usually pretty dry. They are easy to find in the NFL draft and the position in the last few years has pretty high turnover with respect to other teams. If they lose Gipson, his production will be missed but they will have plenty of options.
Terrelle Pryor (WR/QB) – Ok, I really only put this here for my amusement. He should play the Powerball lottery, it’s the only way he will be getting any money out of the state of Ohio.
Amazingly enough, drafting second is the highest pick the Browns have had since 2000. As mentioned before, they hold seven selections (2nd, 32nd, 65th, 96th, 129th, 158th, and 191st) and with compensatory picks, may add another 4 selections on top of that (most in the 5th round and later).
Now the obvious selection is to just pull the trigger (yes, again) on a quarterback. Carson Wentz is this year’s big name, but he, much like Paxton Lynch (the prototypical body type) and Jared Goff (likely the most “NFL ready”, if you believe that is even a term) , are not “must-have” talent. Would the look at trading? Honestly, trading down is not really that bad an option for Cleveland, especially since they have a team loaded with veterans that will not be serviceable in two years. Targets will include:
Joey Bosa, DE Ohio State (6’5, 278lbs) – Speed and power around the edge, along with the size to compete in this 3-4 system. If not taken at 2, no way he slips to 5th like Khalil Mack did in in 2014. If you need a comparison, think Cameron Jordan.
Ronnie Stanley, OT Notre Dame (6’5”, 315lbs ) or LaremyTunsil, OT Ole’ Miss (6’5”, 315lbs ) with the pending loss of offensive line help, no time better than to try and rebuild that here. The line between Tunsil could widen as we get closer to the NFL draft, but it is still reasonable that Cleveland, if they decide they NEED offensive line could pull the trigger on this.
Marvin Jones or Alshon Jeffery should be targets for the Browns given the Josh Gordon situation. Both with be expensive (and overpaid), but this signing isn’t about winning this year. The draft is sprinkled with solid wide receiver talent, but the team just has too many other needs to worry about that.
Riley Cooper was recently released. Yes, they have Brian Hartline already, however, he will be cheap and easy to release if it doesn’t work out.
Mohammed Sanu could also make sense in Cleveland, simply from a depth issue.
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