Sunday, February 15, 2015

Browns Off-Season 2015--What Farmer Should Do

   It's off season for the Browns!  A lot of fans are down because the Browns ended the season with a losing streak, and their quarterback of the future is currently in rehab.   But if you look at the season as a whole, there is a big difference between the 2013 squad at 5-11 and this year's team at 7-9.   The Browns have improved, and there is every reason to expect that they will continue to improve if they add payroll.   I like Ray Farmer as GM and respect his judgment, but that doesn't mean I won't try to do his job.  So here is what I would do if I were him:  

   Let's talk about payroll.   The Browns have $31 M in 2015 cap room, plus another $19 M in "carryover."  Carryover money is money you are allowed to overspend based on underspending the previous few years.   So you can say that the true cap limit is $50 M, but realistically the Browns will likely not spend the spend their carryover money this year.  Also you have to allow for about $7 M of 2015 bucks for the draft picks.   Plus if they extend "tenders" to keep Pro Bowler Tashaun Gipson and Craig Robertson, that will cost another $4 to $5 M.   Perhaps I am more ruthless than Farmer, but I would make salary cap cuts to Phil Taylor, Paul McQuistan (already gone) and Jim Dray, which would net another $7 M. In all I think the Browns can spend about  $31 - $7- $5+$7 = $26 M on free agents.  

    On the other hand, the Browns are losing free agents, who got paid a total of $21 M in 2014.  These include former Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, as well as starters Buster Skrine, Brian Hoyer, Miles Austin, and punter Spencer Lanning. 

   Other key players and sometimes starters include Jabaal Sheard, Ismaa'ily Kitchen and Ahtyba Rubin and special teams players Marlon Moore and Johnson Bademosi.  The Browns will be without Pro Bowler Josh Gordon, who is enjoying a year of sabbatical while researching the effects of drug addiction. 

     Tashaun Gipson is a restricted free agent.  That means the Browns will offer him $3.1 M dollars as a "first round tender" and if he signs with another team they will get a first round pick in return. We'll probably be able to keep Tashaun. 

    However, Craig Robertson is probably not worth as much as Tashaun, and the Browns may elect to let him go rather than ante $2.1 M for a second round tender.

   The Browns need to sign about 7 or 8 players in free agency, not just one key guy.   My theory is that football is a team game, and it really matters how good your 11th best man is on the field. The other team is coming after him!  I don't like the idea of using the draft to fill positional needs for the most part. In the draft generally you really do try to take the best players available, and let them develop for a few years.  Positional needs might be a tiebreaker if two players are ranked about the same, and maybe you can trade up or down a bit to get the positions to match up.  But you do not take untalented players ahead of talent in the draft. At any rate, in order, I think the Browns need to fill the following positions in 2015:

    Defensive end.  The Browns were last in the NFL in stopping the run and other than Desmond Bryant, the defensive line didn't sack anyone.  Let's not defend them. They were among the worst in the NFL and were simply pushed around and beaten up.  I would definitely cut Phil Taylor, which would give the Browns $5.5 million in additional money for free agents.  Taylor has had only 3 sacks in the past 3 years, and perhaps he will never return to his rookie form of 2011.   Browns fans complain that the Steelers have Roethlisberger and the Ravens have Flacco.  Okay, so let's get someone who can knock them on their butts.  Maybe not a big investment in Ndamukong Suh because of his tendency to get suspended, but definitely get a guy who can sack a quarterback and play the run.  I would try to do a contract similar to Desmond Bryant's.

Jared Odrick, seen here squishing Geno Smith of the Jets, did a great job for Miami, maybe he would like living in real football town like Cleveland.  
Nose tackle.  Ahtyba Rubin is gone, and frankly I'm surprised he was not a salary cap casualty last year because he had a contract suitable for a Pro Bowler.   If the players are there, I would be willing to blow half of my free agent stash on defensive linemen!

Someone like Dan Williams of Arizona might look nice in Brown and Orange.  

Quarterback:  Of course everybody understands that the Browns need a quarterback.  Right now the best guy under contract and not in rehab is Connor Shaw, who is a tough competitor, but undersized and without a cannon for an arm.  Shaw is good enough to lead the Browns down the field in a run-first offense, but don't expect to see many 50 yard touchdown passes.  Hoyer played well at times, but if it turns out that Farmer dissed him in a text message, it may be impossible to re-sign him.  But I don't see that there is a franchise guy out there that we will throw lots of money at.  We're looking at the game manager type, maybe like  Mark Sanchez  or Ryan Mallett. It would be muh better to go into battle with Aaron Rodgers or Ryan Luck, but that is not to say you can't win without such guys.   Build the rest of the team and yes you can win.  Will the Browns try to make a trade to draft Marcus Mariota?  Probably.  In which case they will be asked to overpay with two or even three first round picks.  I hope they can maintain the discipline to avoid such foolishness.  Very few players are worth two first round picks, let alone three.  
Is Marcus Mariota the next "Franchise Quarterback?"  Many Ohio State Buckeyes were not convinced....

Linebacker:  The Browns are losing  Sheard (who played hurt last year, but was clearly superior to nominal starter Barkevious Mingo) and possibly Craig Robertson (restricted free agent). Drafting Mingo was a dubious decision from the get-go because the Browns didn't really need linebacker help in 2013. Mingo was great in the combine, but he had only 4.5 sacks in his senior year at LSU. Does that get you to the number four overall position in the NFL draft?  Really?  Mingo was one of the fastest linemen in the combine, but everyone knew he was too small to be a lineman.  In fact he is smallish for a linebacker and not athletic enough to play the inside. My friend Dennis Dice (a great football analyst, if I may say so) and I panned that pick at the time...we both said agreed that Mingo would have to be vastly superior to Sheard in order to justify the pick, and that did not happen.  

Cornerback:  Justin Gilbert truly had a miserable first year last year and was consistently outplayed by free agent K'Waun Williams. Pierre Desir ran fast at the combine was scarcely used in 2015. Hence losing Buster Skrine, a talented and improving corner, really hurts. Here's hoping we can re-sign him, but if not we may have to find some help for Williams, since Gilbert and Desir seem to be transitioning from prospects to suspects.  

Tight end.  If we can resign former Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, great.  He is a tremendous talent.  But he is a risky investment because of his health history, so I wouldn't offer him a franchise player's deal.  Maybe a contract that is backloaded with 30% guaranteed, so that if he plays two full years he gets paid like a premier tight end, but if not the Browns can ease out of it.  On the other other hand, a pass blocking tight end could fit because the Browns probably need to run the ball more than they did in 2014.  I would cut Jim Dray who wasn't able to outplay Gary Barnidge as a blocker or receiver.  Barnidge is a good all around tight end but not a monster blocker.   I want a guy who can fit in a two-tight end formation along with Barnidge and pancake a linebacker and catch one or two screen passes per game.   

Wide Receiver:  Sportswriters complained the Browns did not sign wide receivers last year, whereas they in fact signed three (Hawkins, Austin, and Nate Burleson, who got hurt). But with the under-performing and drug-obsessed Gordon out for at least 1 year (I don't expect him back till 2025 at the earliest) and Austin also gone, the Browns need to sign a professional wide receiver and maybe look for some help in the draft.    This seems to be a year in which there is a lot of depth at the position, so even some lesser ranked stars could be really good.   On the other hand, I have the opposite view of Ray Farmer on wideouts--the draft is a great way to get wide receivers because you can always use a good one. If he can run just a few routes he can catch some balls as the number three or four receiver and eventually work his way to a starting job. 

Fullback:  The Browns are not going to be Air Coryell in 2015, ok? Let's not try to be cute about it, the 2015 Browns are going to run the ball, so let's get a fullback.  Fullbacks are not expensive, and if you are not going to wow the opposition with four and five receiver sets, you should carry a fullback instead.  We're going to play power football in 2014 because we don't have Gordon and we don't have a rocket launcher arm quarterback.  We are going to be the big bad Cleveland Browns, we are running halfback over right tackle with the fullback as lead blocker, and what are you going to do about it?  

Offensive Line:  The Browns played like champs when all five starters were healthy, but were really damaged when All-Pro Alex Mack went down.  Clearly they need better backups (namely a guy who can play center and guard), but do they need a new starter?   I think if they have the opportunity to get a premier right tackle, that could create an awesome running attack.   Mitchell Schwartz and John Greco might compete at right guard in that case.  Another possibility might be to move Bitonio to right tackle and they can find a great guard (Mike Iupati?).  But if no changes are made to the front five, we'll be okay.  Put it this way, if there is a team that has Mitchell Schwartz as its biggest problem, that team will win the Super Bowl.   

Punter:  Sign a punter!  and a placekicker!

Here's a partial list of free agents from the Browns:

*Tashaun Gipson S (restricted, probably stays)
*Craig Robertson ILB (restricted, probably goes)
*Ishmaa’ily Kitchen DT (restricted, probably goes)
Buster Skrine CB
Jordan Cameron TE
Brian Hoyer QB
Jabaal Sheard 43DE or 34OLB
Miles Austin WR
Ahtyba Rubin NT
Spencer Lanning P
Marlon Moore WR
Johnson Bademosi S

Saturday, February 14, 2015

So How Good Was Ray Farmer in 2014?

Ray Farmer comes across as a pushy SOB, but a guy who really knows his football.  You know what?  I'm pretty much okay with that.  

   I like Ray Farmer and am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt even if he did mess up with breaking text message rules.   In my opinion he did great in last year's free agent market, using the transition tag as a way to bring Alex Mack to the table for a long term contract with the Browns that was fair to both sides.  Then he made mincemeat of Cincinnati, signing a good receiver in Andrew Hawkins, a fact that was widely ignored by Browns fans who assumed we signed no receivers in the off season.  In reality we signed three:  Hawkins, Miles Austin and also Nate Burleson who was injured in the pre-season.   We also signed some really good players in  ILB Karlos Dansby and S Donte Whitner, as well as questionable players in TE Jim Dray and OL Paul McQuistan.  
   In the draft, it's still too early to judge, but we can say early returns were good for ILB Chris Kirksey, RG Joel Bitonio, HB Terrance West.  Johnny Manziel is currently lost at sea, and CBs Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir are treading water.   But getting three starters is not bad for a draft, and we also got a number one pick in 2015 and a fouth rounder.   Overall it was a good draft.
    Undrafted rookie free agency was brilliant, as the Browns nabbed RB Isaiah Crowell, CB K'Waun Williams, WR Taylor Gabriel.

    Browns fans complain that the Browns should have drafted wide receivers.  Well, truth to tell if you let the fans have their way, they will draft a quarterback everytime, and a wide receiver next, and then a running back, just like fantasy football.  You can't do that.  Instead you should take the most talented players, and use trades or free agencies to plug a weakness.  Going into the season, the Browns plan was to have Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins as the wideouts until All-Pro Josh Gordon could return in November.  And that worked fine.  The problem was that when Gordon came back he was flabby and out of shape and did not know the plays, and soon got in more trouble with substance abuse.  
   Should the Browns have drafted Sammy Watkins?  I think that would be a good move if you play in a dome.  In that case, heck yeah, get the qb with the strongest arm and get the wide receivers who can run fastest on a perfect surface. But if you are going to play cold weather football on a sloppy field, get me guys who are big, tough and capable of playing POWER FOOTBALL.   I'd rather take big physical receivers to catch a pass in the snow of First Energy Stadium.     But I have no problem with taking a defensive back if he can really play.  That was the real problem, that Justin Gilbert had a difficult adjustment to Pro Football.

Justin Gilbert was said to be immature and disruptive off the field, and struggled on the field.   

   There are also nagging rumors that owner Jimmy Haslam made the call for drafting Johnny Manziel.   That would be a problem if it is true, as the owner cannot be a better evaluator of talent on a long term basis.  I did not like the Manziel move (I had him as the fifth best qb in a strong class), but I did not view it as insane at the time.  The only insane part is if the owner is intruding on the draft decisions.  
   In summary, the Browns make a huge number of moves in the off-season in 2014, and they accomplished a great deal.   Ray Farmer did a great job, and I hope he continues in 2014.