2014 NFL Offseason: Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns (Last Year: 4-12)

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2014 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, S Donte Whitner.
Draft Picks:
CB Justin Gilbert, QB Johnny Manziel, OT/G Joel Bitonio, ILB Christian Kirksey, RB Terrance West, CB Pierre Desir. Browns Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess, G Shawn Lauvao, G Oniel Cousins, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, CB Chris Owens, S T.J. Ward.

2014 Cleveland Browns Offense:
Browns’ fans have to believe that they are cursed. Hours after everyone in the city of Cleveland was jumping for joy in the wake of the Johnny Manziel selection, it was revealed that Josh Gordon was facing a year-long suspension for marijuana use. And just like that, all of the excitement died down. The Browns sold thousands of season tickets in a span of about 20 hours, but they were probably fielding calls from people demanding their money back.

The Browns should still be fun to watch because of Manziel alone. Of course, there’s no guarantee he’ll win the starting job. Manziel has been criticized for partying too much in Vegas this offseason. Meanwhile, Brian Hoyer was solid in two starts last year, winning a pair of games against the Vikings and Bengals, before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. However, Hoyer is small and injury-prone, so even if he gets the nod, it’s unlikely that he’ll last very long. The same could actually be said for Manziel, but perhaps he and Hoyer will be able to combine for 16 starts.

The issue, however, is that neither Hoyer nor Manziel will have anyone to throw to, aside from tight end Jordan Cameron. He’s the obvious No. 1 target on the team because all of the receivers stink. With Gordon gone, the two starting wideouts are projected to be Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins. The latter has some potential; he’s small – 5-foot-7, 180 pounds – but very speedy. Austin, however, is completely done. All of the injuries he has sustained over the years have sapped his ability.

One name to watch out for is Charles Johnson. The 2013 undrafted free agent was coveted by the Packers, but Cleveland snatched him as he hit injury waivers in the summer. He’s a 6-foot-2, 215-pound athletic receiver who might have played last year had he not torn his ACL.

While the receivers won’t help the quarterbacks very much, Manziel and Hoyer should at least be happy that the running game has improved. Ben Tate, the top free agent running back on the market, was signed over from Houston. Tate fits perfectly into Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, and he could compile a ton of rushing yardage if he stays healthy. That, of course, is the main concern. Tate has missed 24 games in his 4-year professional career, and he has been banged up in many others. He’ll probably miss some time. If he does, third-round rookie Terrance West will be asked to step in.

The Browns used another earlier selection on some offensive help. That was spent on Joel Bitonio, who will upgrade the left guard position. Shawn Lauvao occupied that spot, but he was brutal. Bitonio will start inside with Alex Mack, one of the top centers in the NFL, and Jason Pinkston, who can’t be counted on to stay healthy. Pinkston has played in just nine games the past couple of seasons, thanks to various injuries. He’ll probably be a liability again.

Mack is terrific – he was re-signed to a 5-year, $42 million contract this spring – but the best lineman Cleveland has is Joe Thomas, one of the premier left tackles in the league. He’s bookended by Mitchell Schwartz, a third-year right tackle. Schwartz began the 2013 season by allowing a ridiculous seven sacks in his first four games, but he improved, allowing just four sacks the rest way.

2014 Cleveland Browns Defense:
Many have criticized the Browns for choosing cornerback Justin Gilbert with their initial first-round pick when they knew that Josh Gordon was going to be suspended. They could have obtained Sammy Watkins, an ultra-talented receiving prospect. They traded down, however, taking Gilbert and picking up a 2015 first-round choice in the progress. The result is that the Cleveland quarterbacks won’t have anyone to throw to – but opposing teams won’t be able to pass either.

Gilbert was the consensus No. 1 corner in the talented 2014 class. He was exceptional this past season. He would have been fine as a top cornerback anywhere, but he’ll cover No. 2 targets because the Browns have Joe Haden to take care of the elite receivers. Haden is one of the better corners in the NFL, so he and Gilbert project to be a terrific tandem.

Cleveland lost stud safety T.J. Ward in free agency, but managed to acquire Donte Whitner in response. Whitner isn’t as good as Ward, but he’s still a very talented safety coming off a strong 2013 campaign. There’s no reason to think he’ll decline either, given that he’ll be just 29 at the end of the month. He’ll start next to the one potential liability in the secondary, Tashaun Gipson. The former Wyoming defensive back had an up-and-down 2013 campaign, but given that he’s just entering his third year, he could improve.

The secondary will be even better if the Browns can get more pressure on the quarterback. They struggled to do so this past season, as the leader in sacks was Jabaal Sheard, who had 5.5. Cleveland will be hoping that Barkevious Mingo, last year’s first-round pick, can improve on his pass-rushing abilities. He posted five sacks, but three of them came in the first quarter of the season, so the lack of improvement can’t be encouraging. There’s also Paul Kruger, whom the Browns paid $40.5 million over five years last March. However, Kruger just proved to be yet another example of a player taking the money and running from a superior team to an inferior franchise. Kruger showed that his football career is not a priority, so it’s no surprise that he was a bust signing. He’s unlikely to improve in 2014.

One other example of this is Karlos Dansby, who was added this spring. Dansby had an awesome 2013 campaign for Arizona, but like Kruger, he left a superior team to sign with the sorry Browns. Dansby, 33 in November, is bound to decline tremendously as D’Qwell Jackson’s replacement. He’ll start next to either Craig Robertson or third-round rookie Christian Kirksey. The Browns will be hoping the latter shows enough to get the nod because Robertson was absolutely brutal last year.

Cleveland’s defensive line remains intact, as the starters will once again be Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor. Both Rubin and Taylor don’t get to the quarterback at all, but they’re excellent run-stuffers. Bryant, meanwhile, provides a decent pass rush, but he missed the final four games of the season because of an irregular heartbeat.

2014 Cleveland Browns Schedule and Intangibles:
The Dawg Pound is just not an intimidating place to play. Since their expansion year in 1999, the Browns are a dreadful 44-76 as hosts (17-31 the past six seasons).

Billy Cundiff took over for long-time Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson. He was just OK, hitting 21-of-26 attempts, including 2-of-4 from 50-plus.

Spencer Lanning had one of the league’s worst net punting averages this past season, ranking 28th in the league. He’ll be back as the team’s punter.

Thanks to Travis Benjamin and Fozzy Whittaker, the Browns outgained their opponents on punt and kickoffs. Benjamin scored once.

Here are some of the winnable games Cleveland has on its schedule: all three home divisional games, Titans (road), Jaguars (road), Raiders (home), Buccaneers (home), Texans (home), Bills (road) and Panthers (road).

2014 Cleveland Browns Rookies:
Go here for the Browns Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2014 Cleveland Browns Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2014 Cleveland Browns Analysis: The Browns are the Browns, and that’s why they’ll continue to struggle to achieve victories. They have Johnny Manziel now, but of course they already began sabotaging his career by not providing him with any receiving talent. He may not even start this year, but if he does, Cleveland will at least be entertaining to watch for a change.

Projection: 6-10 (4th in AFC North)

2014 Fantasy Football Rankings

More 2014 NFL Season Previews

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

NFL Draft Team Grade: C+ Grade
Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since the 2002 season. They also haven’t had a franchise quarterback since their franchise reentered the NFL in 1999. It’s time for that to change. They have to find a signal-caller who can transform them into a perennial playoff contender. Otherwise, they need to find another offensive play-maker, upgrade the offensive line and bolster a couple of positions on the defense.

2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Cleveland’s draft is very difficult to grade. On one hand, the Johnny Manziel selection was excellent. No one would have been too upset if the team had taken him at No. 4, but being able to secure him with the second choice was brilliant. The Browns sold 2,000 season tickets within the first 48 hours, and their franchise was in the national discussion for the first time in more than a decade. Manziel is the play-making superstar Cleveland desperately needed.

On the other hand, what the hell are the Browns going to do at receiver in the wake of Josh Gordon’s impending suspension? They shouldn’t have taken Sammy Watkins at No. 4 because they were able to obtain a 2015 first-round choice in the process – another terrific move – but why not grab Marqise Lee at No. 35? How about moving up from No. 71 to obtain Allen Robinson, Davante Adams or Jordan Matthews? Or, what about Martavis Bryant, Donte Moncrief, Cody Latimer or Paul Richardson at other junctures? It’s impossible that the Browns didn’t like a single wideout in this loaded class. Other teams took receivers, so why didn’t Cleveland, considering the circumstances?

Again, this is a tough grade. I was ready to give the Browns an “A” after the first day, but they bombed the rest of the process. They found some nice players like Terrence West and Pierre Desir, but they’ve ensured that their rookie signal-caller will struggle because he won’t have anyone to throw to.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

9. Justin Gibert, CB, Oklahoma State: C+ Grade

This is such a Cleveland Browns pick. Really. They had a chance to potentially turn their entire franchise around with Johnny Manziel. Instead, they take a cornerback? It doesn’t make much sense. But then again, this is a franchise that hasn’t been in the playoffs in more than 10 years for a reason.

I don’t hate Justin Gilbert. He was the No. 1 corner in this class, and he’ll be great across from Joe Haden. I also like how the Browns obtained Buffalo’s No. 1 pick in 2015. That’s what keeps this from being a C- or a D. I just don’t get the logic of passing on a franchise signal-caller and also moving up one spot to secure Gilbert. It just shows that the Browns only liked one player at this spot, so they didn’t have any sort of Plan B.

22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: A+ Grade

Wow. I was critical of the Browns passing on Johnny Manziel with their first pick, but it turns out that they may have come away with the best draft class of all the teams. They got themselves a stud defender and a potential franchise quarterback. Oh, and they also have a probable top-12 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

I obviously love this selection. Manziel is a leader and a winner, and he is exactly what the Browns need to energize their morbid franchise. He has a somewhat high bust rate because of his small frame, but the Browns will actually be interesting for the first time since 2002.

35. Joel Bitonio, OT/G, Nevada: B- Grade
Josh Gordon is likely done for the year, and the Browns take a right tackle? Well, it fills a need because Cleveland has a huge hole at guard. Bitonio could start at right tackle, which would move Mitchell Schwartz inside. Bitonio could be the starting guard as well. Still, considering the desperate need at wideout, and all of the talented players remaining at the position, it’s curious that the Browns didn’t find Johnny Manziel a weapon.

71. Christian Kirksey, ILB, Iowa: D Grade
I don’t have a big issue with Christian Kirksey. He’s fine in the third round, and the Browns had to find another linebacker after losing D’Qwell Jackson. But who the hell is Johnny Manziel going to throw to? The Browns created all of this excitement with Manziel; the least they could do is give him a functional receiver. As of now, Manziel’s starting wideouts are Andrew Hawkins and Greg Little. Blegh.

94. Terrance West, RB, Towson: B- Grade
I got an e-mail from a Cleveland fan as soon as this pick was made: “Browns are smoking dope with Gordon. I swear this is one of the worst drafts ever.” It’s shocking that the Browns haven’t addressed the receiver position yet, but I don’t mind this selection very much. This is the right range for Terrence West, and Cleveland had to obtain another running back because Ben Tate doesn’t have the best durability history.

127. Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood: C Grade
I really want to give the Browns a Millen because what they’re doing is ridiculous. Who the hell is Johnny Manziel going to throw to? Do they want him to bust? Why aren’t they getting him a wideout? Unfortunately, this isn’t a Millen because Pierre Desir provides great value in the fourth round. Desir could have gone at the top of the third. This doesn’t fill any sort of need, however.

Season Summary:
The Browns actually had hope for a change. Brian Hoyer had been playing very well, but in typical Cleveland fashion, he was lost for the season with an injury. Now, it seems as though the Browns are in complete disarray. They fired their head coach after one year, as they had their sights set on Josh McDaniels, only to see McDaniels turn them down. It’s stuff that Cleveland fans are used to, but this can all change if the team drafts a franchise quarterback at No. 4 overall.

Offseason Moves:
  • Browns sign WR Miles Austin
  • Browns sign QB Vince Young
  • Browns sign WR Nate Burleson
  • Browns sign G Paul McQuistan
  • Chiefs sign CB Chris Owens
  • Bengals sign QB Jason Campbell
  • Browns sign WR Andrew Hawkins
  • Cowboys sign QB Brandon Weeden
  • Buccaneers sign G/OT Oniel Cousins
  • Browns sign RB Ben Tate
  • Browns sign TE Jim Dray
  • Browns cut QB Jason Campbell
  • Browns cut QB Brandon Weeden
  • Redskins sign G Shawn Lauvao
  • Browns sign S Donte Whitner
  • Broncos sign S T.J. Ward
  • Browns sign ILB Karlos Dansby
  • Browns re-sign K Billy Cundiff
  • Colts sign ILB D’Qwell Jackson
  • Browns cut WR Davone Bess
  • Browns transition tag C Alex Mack
  • Browns fire HC Rob Chudzinski

    Team Needs:
    1. New Ownership: What the hell are the Browns doing? Seriously. They brought in a CEO who hired a general manager, who then hired a coach and fired him after one year. The general manager chose a new coach, but then was fired after one year himself. The CEO was also dismissed. I guess this is what happens when a clueless owner with a dubious legal history is allowed to run the organization. The NFL needs to step in and get rid of Jimmy Haslam. He’s an incompetent, disgraceful buffoon who has no business being in the league.

    2. Quarterback: Brian Hoyer played well in limited action, but he’s not the long-term answer. The Browns need to find their first franchise quarterback. Perhaps they can do so by drafting Johnny Manziel No. 4, which most people seem to think will happen.

    3. Running Back: The Browns looked like fools when trading away Trent Richardson, but they apparently were geniuses all along. Still though, this team has nothing at running back. A second-round pick could be used on a back. Signed Ben Tate

    4. Wide Receiver: Brad Nessler dubbed Greg Little “Mr. Reliable” during a Thursday night broadcast. Nessler probably didn’t watch any Cleveland games; otherwise he would’ve seen Little drop countless passes. Cleveland needs a new No. 2 wideout. A slot option must be acquired as well. Davone Bess’ hands were even worse. I wonder if Nessler calls Bess “Mr. very Reliable.” Signed Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Earl Bennett and Nate Burleson

    5. Two Inside Linebackers: D’Qwell Jackson has been released. Craig Robertson was awful this past season. Fortunately for the Browns, they’ll have lots of options for inside linebackers on Day 2 of the 2014 NFL Draft. Signed Karlos Dansby

    6. Two Safeties: Re-signing or franchising T.J. Ward would fix one of the spots. The other must be an upgrade in free agency or the draft. Tashaun Gipson didn’t play very well in 2013. Signed Donte Whitner

    7. Right Guard: Shawn Lauvao is a free agent, but he needed to be upgraded anyway. Both he and Oniel Cousins stunk it up at this position. Signed Paul McQuistan

    8. Center: Retaining stud center Alex Mack is a priority. He’ll need to be re-signed. Transition tagged Alex Mack

    9. Cornerback: Buster Skrine isn’t terrible, but there’s room for improvement across from Joe Haden. Depth is needed here anyway.

    10. Kicker: Billy Cundiff is a free agent. Re-signed Billy Cundiff

    11. Punter: Spencer Lanning was just 28th in net punting last year.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2014 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Karlos Dansby, ILB, Cardinals. Age: 32.
      Signed with Browns (4 years, $24 million; $14 million guaranteed)

      Karlos Dansby, who played all but five of Arizona’s defensive snaps this past season, was a beast in his first year back with the Cardinals. A force in every facet of the game, Dansby earned himself a big contract. The only downside is that he’ll be 33 in November.

    2. Donte Whitner, S, 49ers. Age: 29.
      Signed with Browns

      Donte Whitner gets into trouble for the occasional illegal hit, but he’s still an excellent strong safety. He has missed only one game in the past four seasons.

    3. Ben Tate, RB, Texans. Age: 26.
      Signed with Browns (2 years, $7 million)

      Ben Tate suffered a season-ending injury prior to his rookie campaign in 2010, allowing Arian Foster to take over as Houston’s primary running back. Had this never happened, Tate probably would’ve been an occasional Pro Bowler. Tate is a very talented runner, though he’s not nearly as effective on third down as Foster happens to be. He’s also injury-prone, which is why he’s not rated higher.

    4. Andrew Hawkins (RFA), WR, Bengals. Age: 28.
      Signed with Browns (4 years, $13.6 million)

      Andrew Hawkins is a speedy receiver who is coming off a lost 2013 campaign in which he missed the first eight games with an injured hamstring.

    5. Miles Austin-Jones, WR, Cowboys. Age: 30.
      Signed with Browns

      Miles Austin-Jones – or maybe just Miles Austin now, given that Jerry Jones finally cut him – is another big-name player who gets a write-up despite ranking at 1.5 stars. Austin-Jones has regressed terribly, thanks to numerous injuries. He’ll be 30 in June, so it’s unlikely he’ll ever be the same receiver he once was.

    6. Paul McQuistan, G, Seahawks. Age: 31. — Signed with Browns
    7. Nate Burleson, WR, Lions. Age: 33. — Signed with Browns (1 year)
    8. Earl Bennett, WR, Bears. Age: 27. — Signed with Browns (1 year)
    9. Jim Dray, TE, Cardinals. Age: 27. — Signed with Browns

    Cleveland Browns Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Alex Mack, C, Browns. Age: 28.
      Transition tagged by Browns (can match any offer)

      Alex Mack is a top-five NFL center in his prime. He needs to be paid accordingly.

    2. T.J. Ward, S, Browns. Age: 27.
      Signed with Broncos

      Known for knocking out Rob Gronkowski for the year with a torn ACL and MCL, T.J. Ward is a top safety. He thrives in run support and doesn’t have any weaknesses. He won’t be 28 until December.

    3. D’Qwell Jackson, ILB, Browns. Age: 30.
      Signed with Colts (4 years, $22 million)

      D’Qwell Jackson, 31 in September, has struggled in run support over the past few seasons, but has been strong in coverage. He has also applied solid pressure on the quarterback as a blitzer. Jackson can still play all three downs, so he should serve as a decent starter somewhere.

    4. Shawn Lauvao, G, Browns. Age: 26. — Signed with Redskins (4 years, $17 million)
    5. Chris Owens, CB, Browns. Age: 27. — Signed with Chiefs
    6. Billy Cundiff, K, Browns. Age: 34. — Re-signed with Browns (1 year)
    7. Jason Campbell, QB, Browns. Age: 32. — Signed with Bengals (1 year)
    8. Fozzy Whittaker, RB, Browns. Age: 25.
    9. Willis McGahee, RB, Browns. Age: 32.
    10. Oniel Cousins, G, Browns. Age: 30. — Signed with Buccaneers (1 year)
    11. Davone Bess, WR, Browns. Age: 28.
    12. Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns. Age: 30. — Signed with Cowboys (2 years)

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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