Saturday, March 30, 2013

How Badly do the Browns REALLY Need Receivers?

 For years, the Cleveland Browns have been short on wide receivers. Somehow they have managed to whiff on wide receivers such as Brian Robiskie, Mohamad Massaquoi, despite their allegedly great potential.  Anyone remember Syndric Steptoe, Carlton Mitchell or Paul Hubbard?  I didn't think so. 

In addition, the Browns lost Josh Cribbs to free agency.  Cribbs' best year as a receiver was 2011 when he caught 41 balls for 518 yards.  On the Browns never like to play Cribbs as a receiver, perhaps because they wanted to keep him fresh for special teams duty, where he was All-Pro.  When they did use him, they tended to send him on sideline patterns, even though his physical attributes are better suited for the slot.  In addition, Ben Watson accounted for 500 receiving yards last year, and he was let go. For that reason, many of us expected that the Browns would heavily pursue a big name wide receiver, but this did not happen.  Was this a ghastly mistake?  Perhaps not.  If you really look at the Browns roster, and forgetting about "jinxes" and evil magic, they may not be as thin as you might have thought. 

This year, they really do have at least one guy with great potential in Josh Gordon, who came on at the end of the year and hauled in 50 passes for 805 yards.  If he can continue to deal with his off the field issues (namely, an affinity for smoking pot) that got him suspended from the NCAA two years ago, the Browns may have a number one wide receiver.  

Josh Gordon blew past a few defensive backs last year.  Photo credit:  Matt Sullivan, Getty Images,

On the other side, most depth charts list the inimitable Greg Little as first string.  Little had something like the 68th highest receiving yards in the NFL in 2012.  His yardage total was actually a little lower in 2012 than in 2011, and for his career he is averaging about 40 yards per game.  He improved a little as the season went on, but was among league leaders in dropped passes in 2011 and didn't do much better in 2012.  He also specializes in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for excessive celebrations, which is hard to believe considering how little cause he has to celebrate.  
     In the NFL, it is rare for a player to become a consistent 1000 yard receiver if he has not established himself by his third year.  Thus, although many fans think Little is an emerging star, the Village Elliot  thinks that time might be running out, and if he does not break through this year, he may be on his way out. 

    The Browns may have two other alternative candidates for the job.  Jordan Norwood was actually among the best Browns receivers early last year, but went out with an ACL tear.  He had been adjusting well to life as a slot receiver.  If he is back physically, he could be a starter and could be a competent short to intermediate range receiver.  

Jordan Norwood had some good games early last year before getting hurt.

In addition, Travis Benjamin, an undersized kid with blazing speed, started to make a few big catches last year.  He is expected to replace Josh Cribbs as the return specialist but may see extensive action as a receiver also.  The Browns used Benjamin as a split end most of the time, but he can also play the slot, and many of us fans felt he was perhaps best suited for the slot because of his elusiveness and potential for yards after the catch.  Finally, Josh Cooper was signed as a rookie free agent  last year, and will probably back up the slot position.  

   Thus, one could imagine the Browns starting the season with Cooper as one wideout.   Greg Little is probably the consensus favorite to start alongside Cooper, but the Village Elliot thinks that he may have to fight for playing time. A platoon of Jordan Norwood and Travis Benjamin may be a better answer if Little doesn't appear headed for a breakout year.  Perhaps Cooper, Norwood and Benjamin might appear together  when they play 3 wide receiver sets.    If the Browns add another quality receiver either via free agency or the draft, that would help the depth issue, but it may not be possible to add a 1000 yard guy at this point.  
    Moreover, the Browns may play a fullback and one or even two tight ends frequently in 2013, as they seek to establish a run-first offense featuring Trent Richardson.   If so, it may be more important to get help at the fullback position, not to mention offensive guard, both of which were weaknesses in 2012.  The Browns have a tight end with pass catching skill in Jordan Cameron, and they signed two free agents with a reputation for being good blockers in Kellen Davis, as well and Gary Barnidge.  Thus operating out of a two tight end set is a realistic possibility.  This would not necessarily make the football world forget Gronkowski and Hernandez, but halfback over right tackle might gain a few yards. 
    So perhaps the Kiddie Korps receivers are good enough to for the Browns to win with, even if they don't add a stud receiver in the NFL draft.  Or at least there may be other needs that are more pressing than wide receiver.  Currently, the greatest need may be at fullback, where Owen Marecic is the current incumbent, despite lack of enthusiasm about  his blocking.  Also, the Browns will probably try to bring in some competition on the offensive line, particularly for offensive guards Jason Pinkston and Shaun Lauvao.  And the defensive backfield is still trying to recruit a cornerback or two.  

Where are the Browns blockers on this play?  So badly beaten, they are not even in the picture.  It might be that the Browns will seek to fix this first, rather than going after a big name wide receiver.    Photo credit:

    The bottom line is that while the Browns could use some help in the receiving corps, it may be in better shape than one might think.  Travis Benjamin and Justin Norwood lead the candidates to start alongside Josh Cooper.  It may not be Gary Collins and Paul Warfield, but they should be able to line up with guys who at least belong in the NFL, which has not the case in recent years. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cleveland Browns Defensive Off-Season Needs

    For the past two years the Browns have used a traditional 4-3-4 defense under the Holmgren regime, with Dick Jauron as Defensive Coordinator.   Everyone thought that it was going to be a difficult transition from Rob Ryan’s 3-4, but in 2011 that proved not to be the case.   The Browns has an amazingly good defense in 2011, despite a weak offense that usually gave Browns opponents good field position.  But in 2012, they slid back, partly because of injuries at key positions and a pathetically bad draft, especially from a defensive point of view.  After accumulating 14 draft picks for 2012,  the Browns were unable to add a major contributor on defense.  On offense, the Browns rookie of the year might have been Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Josh Gordon or Mitchell Schwartz.  But on defense, there is nobody at all.  Billy Winn might have been the best the Browns could do, as a part time defensive lineman. 

      This year,  Jauron is gone,  and now it is Ray Horton's turn to design a defense, going back to the 3-4-4 The likely outcome is that the Browns will go back to the 3-4-4 base defense. 

"3-4 or 4-3?  Who cares?  We know how the game is played."

    The defensive line is not so bad.  Ahtyba Rubin played nose tackle in the Mangini Regime  and Phil Taylor was  a nose tackle in college.  Taylor especially is very fast for a big man and can get after the passer.  It may be that the Browns will find a way to get both Rubin and Taylor on the field at the same time, and  Jabal Sheard and Frostee Rucker are capable defensive ends in addition to Wynn.  They might pick up a defensive end in the draft if there’s one available, but if the worst case is that they line up a 320 pounder at defensive end, is that really a weakness?

"Hey man, I CAN rush the passer, ok?"

The Browns lost  linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita to injury last year.  Plus they had to start the season without Joe Haden due to a suspension.   Nobody is sure if Gocong is going to be healthy or not, and Fujita may retire.  With Jackson as the only true talent in the linebacker corps, the Browns may have to add two or even three linebackers this off season.  


In the defensive backfield, the Browns have only two quality defensive backs:  Joe Haden at corner and T. J. Ward at safety.  Buster Skrine is the number two corner, and got picked on last year.   Sheldon Brown is a very tough player, but will not be back.  I think Sheldon may have lost a step, which is why the Browns have not made a serious effort to re-sign him.    Hence the Browns will need another corner and a safety.  Young fast corners are tough to find, and some of the mock drafts have the Browns selecting Demarcus Milliner with their number 6 overall pick (here’s hoping that they do, instead of picking another quarterback). 


A lot of my friends think the Browns have great young talent, making great progress, blah, blah, blah.  But as I see it the Browns are woefully short on both sides of the ball.  They will need to add four players on defense and another four on offense (TE, RG, LG, WR).  On the other hand, they have the salary cap space to add several players.  We’ll see how good Mike Lombardi is at judging talent and negotiating favorable contracts.