Friday, November 27, 2015

Grading Ray Farmer's Free Agent Moves

      A big aspect of the General Manager's jobs is the signing of free agents.  How has Ray Farmer done with the Browns.   It's not an easy question to answer, especially in view of the salary cap.  You can't just sign All Pros at each position, and you are obliged to play several guys with low salaries.

    Moreover, if a player wants to leave, this may not be preventable.  The GM can try structure the right deal, but the player might reject it anyway.  That goes with the territory when a team has established a record of losing like the Browns have.     

    Nevertheless, let's take a look at what the Browns have done the past two years.  For a team that supposedly has no talent, some impressive players have gone on to have good careers elsewhere.  I've listed the average salary as a rough indicator of what they are worth, but of course in the NFL things are never simple. 

      S    T. J. Ward, Pro Bowler for the Broncos        $5.6 M
      LB  D Qwell Jackson, Pro Bowler for the Colts   $5.5 M
     DE  Jabal Sheard, starter for New England         $5.5 M
     CB  Buster Skrine, starter for the  New York Jets $6.2 M
     DT  Ahtyba Rubin, starter for the  Seahawks       $2.6 M
     QB  Brian Hoyer, starter for the Texans               $5.2 M
     WR  Willie Snead starter for the Saints                $0.5 M 
     RB Dion Lewis, starter for the Patriots (IR)           $1.3 M
     WR  Charles Johnson, 2014 starter for  Vikings   $0.5 M
     QB  Brandon Weeden, backup for the Texans     $0.6 M

A few players were signed and then cut or released:
     WR  Miles Austin, Eagles
     RB   Ben Tate
     TE   Rob Housler
      It can also be mentioned that Farmer has been able to use the free agent system to his advantage.  For example, he created a front loaded deal for Andrew Hawkins that the Bengals couldn't match, and also created a "transition tag" for Alex Mack that allowed the Browns to keep him after all the sportswriters were sure that he would not stay.   In general, Farmer does not use back loaded contracts that will mortgage the teams future.  I give him high marks for that.   

    OK, so let's take a look at the major players we signed and who are still on the roster:
    LB   Karlos Dansby   starter                                 $6.0 M
    S     Donte Whitner starter                                   $7.0 M
    QB  Josh McCown, starter (I think)                      $4.7 M
    DE  Desmond Bryant, starter                               $6.8 M
    DE  Randy Starks, starter                                    $3.3 M
    CB  Tramon Williams, starter                               $7.0 M
    WR Andrew Hawkins  starter                               $3.4 M
    WR Dwayne Bowe backup                                  $6.3 M
    WR Brian Hartline, backup                                  $3.0 M
    TE  Jim Dray, backup                                          $1.9 M
    QB  Austin Davis, backup                                    $1.8 M

      Here again, these guys are good players and appear to be hard workers and good teammates.  Of these seven free agent starters, four of them have been selected to at least one Pro Bowl, but not last year's.  So one crude metric is that ex-Browns Jackson and Ward are getting less than their replacements (Dansby and Whitner) who needless to say did not make the 2015 Pro Bowl.  

   The Browns are definitely paying higher 2015 salaries, although as noted previously the contracts are not back loaded.  We'll be able to keep these players a while.  

    A few players don't look great right now, notably Bowe, but overall I would say that the Browns have had reasonable success with free agents.  Overall, it seems to me that the lack of team success is not explainable by performance in signing the right free agents.   It has to be that there are flaws in the coaching of these players.   

Not a Crisis with Manziel, Let's Move On

    Johnny Manziel apparently had a relapse in his recovery from substance abuse and lied about it to the coaching staff. For this reason he has been demoted to third on the depth chart.  Naturally, the sports media is going crazy either demanding that he be re-installed as the starter or else cut.  

The Browns quarterback cadre of Austin Davis, Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw is deep if not overly talented.  They'll be home for the holidays, don't worry.  

    This is all over-reaction, in my view.  Relapsing is a serious matter but it is not a crime.  Nor, for that matter, is Johnny's re-assignment considered cruel and unusual punishment.   The Browns are dealing with an employee that has a medical issue, and the recovery has been generally good but now there is a relapse.  

    In reality, the pressure to make a decision soon is mainly psychological.  Manziel is under contract through 2017 and they have an option for 2018.    

     Currently Josh McCown is the 13th ranked NFL quarterback despite playing on an inept team with an underperforming line and nonexistent running game.  They also have Austin Davis, who had three wins as a starter in 2014 for the Rams, and Connor Shaw who looked good in 2014 in a start for the Browns.  So the Browns might draft a kid to compete for one of three roster spots (hopefully Connor Shaw can be on the Practice Squad, for a fourth option at quarterback), but they really don't have to.  There are other parts of the team that need to be fixed, not just quarterback.  

     It's not like Manziel's 2015 performance dictate whether we draft a qb or not in 2016.  If the right guy is available, the Browns should take him, Manziel or no Manziel.  But this rookie, whoever he is, would probably not be better in 2016 than fourth stringer Connor Shaw, who knows the playbook inside out by now.  Any rookie would be more likely to have an impact in 2017 or 2018.  

     If we learned anything in 2015, it's that Manziel remains a highly talented but risky proposition.  He's definitely good enough right now to have a roster spot, but maybe not mature enough to be first string.  That's okay, we can afford to wait. 

     Nothing bad happens to the Browns if JFB remains on the bench another year.  It doesn't mean we have to be desperate to replace McCown or even Davis.

   We have talent at the quarterback position, but at the same time we are:
   worst in the NFL in rush defense
   worst in the NFL rushing offense
   worst at giving up sacks
   bottom five in defensive sacks
   bottom five in overall defense

    That says to me that there are a number of positions that need to be upgraded.   I can't look at that and think that quarterback is the only position needing major help, even if Manziel is 100% unavailable in 2016   We need to continue to develop the guys we alread have, while  having a balanced slate of draft picks and free agents in 2016, not place all our chips on one key quarterback prospect.  



Thursday, November 19, 2015

Seven Ex-Browns Starting for Other NFL Teams on Defense

The Browns Defense is Terrible Despite Having Talented Players.  How is This Possible?  (Dawg Pound Daily Photo). 

   The Browns defense has been getting good players, as evidenced by the fact that when they leave the Browns they go on to have good careers.    Amazingly, seven ex-Browns are starters for other NFL teams, including three players that made the Pro Bowl last year.   

    The Browns never liked Jabaal Sheard, who was a standout 4-3 defensive end in Dick Jauron's defense.   They sought to convert him to outside 3-4 linebacker and then replace him with another converted defensive end in perpetual prospect Barkevious Mingo.   Sheard has 4 sacks for New England so far.  

    Ahtyba Rubin had a huge contract with the Browns but had trouble staying healthy.   Now with Seattle, he's got 7 sacks so far.

    Old friend Frostee Rucker is starting for Arizona, another defensive powerhouse.   Rucker has 2 sacks.   Let's see, that's 13 sacks from ex-Brown defensive line personnel. That's not half bad.  The 2015 Browns entire TEAM has only 16 sacks through game 10.  

   Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson made the Pro Bowl last year for the Colts, along with Safety Mike Adams.  
    T. J. Ward also made the Pro Bowl at Safety, playing for the top rated Broncos defense.  

   Buster Skrine is starting for the Jets at Cornerback. 

    The Browns replaced these players with credible players. Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson and Tramon WIlliams were all selected for at least one Pro Bowl.  With holdover Joe Haden, that makes six Browns that have made at least one Pro Bowl.   Other additions such as Danny Shelton, Chris Kirksey and free agent Paul Kruger are highly regarded as well.  But the sum total is a bottom five defense (29th as of mid-November).  

Could it be that something is wrong with the Browns coaching staff if they are unable to get performance from the highest paid defensive players in the NFL?   The signs point towards a continuous supply of quality players on the Browns' Defense but disappointing team play.  


DE  Jabaal Sheard  Patriots
NT Ahtyba Rubin   Seahawks
DE Frostee Rucker   Cardinals
LB D'Qwell Jackson  Colts 2015 Pro Bowl
CB Buster Skrine   Broncos
S TJ Ward  Broncos 2015 Pro Bowl
S Mike Adams, Colts 2015 Pro Bowl

DE Randy Starks 
NT Danny Shelton
DE  Desmond Bryant
LB Karlos Dansby
CB Tramon Williams
S Donte Whitner
S  Tashaun Gipson

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Can Manziel Party and Play Football at the Same Time?

   Joe Namath did it.  Ken Stabler did it.   But can Johnny Manziel do it?  Namely, can Johnny combine a party boy lifestyle with the demands of being an NFL quarterback? A normal guy should be able to handle some partying.  But Johnny may not be all that normal as evidenced by a 10 week stint in rehab. My guess is that ultimately Manziel will find out that he can not play quarterback effectively while also playing party animal.

    Reportedly, Johnny was back at Texas A&M over the weekend, and seems to have had some fun with the ladies, and seems to have been photographed with a beer in his hand.  Nothing noteworthy about that, of course, except that it is surprising 
that completing rehab in the off-season, Manziel is still apparently allowed to consume alcohol.  I'm not an expert, but within my narrow experience, rehabilitation specialists do not recommend recovering substance abusers to consume alcoholic beverages. 

     Famous last words are, "But I'll be different!"  Let's hope so Johnny.  

     To me this return to partying lifestyle shows he may not have the all-consuming drive to play football that's necessary to succeed at the highest level.   It's just one's person opinion, but I would rather he stay clear of alcohol.  Bad things seem to happen to him when he drinks.  From a purely football viewpoint, Manziel had an excellent start while not drinking, but his more recent start, after an alcohol-related incident with his girlfriend, did not go well.  Not enough data for a trend, certainly, but I've seen enough to doubt whether Drunk Johnny can play at the same level as Sober Johnny.  

     For every Namath or Stabler, there is a huge list of athletes that flopped while living a hard partying lifestyle.   There's the ultimate fiasco, Ryan Leaf, and then guys like Jamarcus Russell, Todd Marinovich, Art Schlichter and many many others.  I still say that Jefferson Joe Gilliam was one of the most talented quarterbacks I've ever seen, and I've heard Terry Bradshaw say the same thing. This is a very rough road that Manziel seems intent upon trodding.  

Hanging out with the ladies is fine, just find some ladies that are not party animals.  

    Say, Bengals backup QB A. J. McCarron did ok with the former Miss Alabama, Kathryn Webb.  Johnny, why don't you give A. J. and Kathryn a call, maybe they'll set you up with someone nice? 

    Until he straightens up, I think the Browns have to continue to look at Josh McCown as well as third stringer Austin Davis.   But we'll see.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Why Everyone is Wrong About Johnny Manziel

  The whole world is crazy because of Johnny Manziel. Should the Browns cut him because he is a drug abuser? Should we fire General Manager Ray Farmer for drafting him in the first place?   Or should he be promoted to the starter's position in place of "boring" veteran Josh McCown? Is Manziel a superstar in the making?  

    I think all this is nonsense and Manziel is going to develop more or less like any other young quarterback.  People who expect instant results, good or bad, are wrong.  I think more than anything else he needs time to develop and trying to accelerate the process isn't going to work. 
    Manziel came out of college not one but two years early. He is actually a few months younger than Cardale Jones. Normal quarterback development results in starting by the second year after graduation, and sometimes during the rookie year.  If the Browns wanted instant results they should not have taken a guy who is so young.  Moving to the NFL did not necessarily accelerate his football development. He's still only 22 years old. The guy wound up in rehab, so apparently his personal development is not all that advanced either.  

     Based on his graduating class, 2016 should be his rookie season, and if didn't start his first year, 2017 might be his first year to put up numbers.  Anything that happens earlier than that is strictly a bonus.   The whole idea that his development is going to be accelerated because he came of college early is ridiculous, and I might add it's never been done before, because the NFL only recently allowed sophomores to be drafted. More than likely, he isn't going to develop any faster than Cardale Jones, and the expectation for instant success is completely fictitious.  That doesn't mean he is terrible.

   Most quarterbacks improve greatly from their first to second year, and don't emerge as a star until about age 23 or 24.  It would be great if Manziel would be a superstar right now, but that is not expected.  Normal development is for him to become a competent NFL starter in 2016 or 2017.   That's the track he should be on.   This business of needing to make a decision on starting him or cutting him immediately at age 22 is ABSURD and PATHOLOGICALLY STUPID.      

   Manziel did  some very stupid things in his rookie year.   It should have been his junior season at Texas A&M.  He's a kid, and not a very mature one at that.  Why would anyone expect a college junior to be a big and immediate success in the NFL?

   The Browns do not need to be in a hurry to "find out what they have."   This is just total fabrication by the sports media, because they would be the ones who would benefit.  First of all, football teams need to play to win every game, and if they play for next year they will not be able to attract players to their team. It's ridiculous to not field the best starting quarterback and to start the 2016 pre-season in 2015. If Manziel gives us the best chance to win, go for it.  But if not, let's hold off.

     Second, if we do rush him into action Manziel would probably struggle on a team with no running game and only one deep ball threat among wide receivers in Travis Benjamin.  Will that tell you how to set up your draft priorities in 2016?  I doubt it.  

    Even if he looks great, would we ever reach the point where we consider him to be irreplacable and quit looking for quarterbacks in the draft?  I doubt it.  And anyway Jerry Jones would outbid us in 2019 when Manziel becomes a free agent.  So just forget about making a ten year commitment to a young Peyton Manning.  That is just not going to happen.  The whole debate is insipid.

    Nothing really great happens by playing Manziel unless he is really the best option on a given Sunday.  

 Manziel is under contract through 2017 with an option year for 2018. Maybe Texas A&M would have been the ideal situation for him, and maybe the Browns should have taken him in a later round, but that's over the dam now.   He's here and practicing and getting better and also getting some game experience, though limited so far.  

    Equally ridculous are those who insist Manziel should be cut.  We should be sensitive to the fact that he is fighting a life threatening situation with drug addiction, and he simply can not play if he reverts back to active using.  There was a warning signal when he was apparently acting erratically last month.  However, nothing good would happen if Manziel is cut.  His bonus money would be taken out of the salary cap immediately. Why would the Browns want to do that  unless they are forced?  Meantime he is good enough to at least be a backup quarterback, as evidenced by his winning start against Tennessee in September.  

      Looking at the numbers, he is clearly improving after a disastrous 2014 rookie season.  He already has a win which is no small achievement for a backup quarterback.  How can anyone conclude that he is near his peak after two starts in 2015?  No, it is much more logical to believe that he will continue to improve in the next two or three years.  If he has a poor 2015, it doesn't mean he won't be better next year and the year after.

     The Browns are well stocked at quarterback with established starters Josh McCown and Austin Davis.  Neither are likely to be good enough to turn around a bad offense with no running game, but they would be okay if there were more help on offense.  Draft another wide receiver and a running back and let's see how it goes.  

      Cris Carter tells the parable of the muffins, and it goes something like this:  "Muffins come out of the oven when they are ready.  Sometimes it's ten minutes, sometimes fifteen.  If the muffin isn't ready after ten minutes, it doesn't mean it is a bad muffin.  Wait till its ready, then judge."  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Grading Ray Farmer's Drafts for the Browns, 2014 - 2015

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How good has Ray Farmer been at drafting players?

One of my football acquaintances,  Shawn Start   of Dawg Pound Nation is leading a petition drive to fire Cleveland Browns GM Ray Farmer.  I’m among those that feels that the Browns’ failures on defense are too great to overlook, given Coach Pettine’s defensive background.  So I’m on record as favoring a coaching change even though I like Pettine personally.  

What about GM Farmer?  How good a job has he done at getting talent for th team?   In particular, we need a guy who is a draft guru.  One thing the Browns are good at is nailing draft position year after year after year.  

Farmer has had two drafts so far. In 2014 he traded up and also acquired some 2015 picks.   First round pick Justin GIlbert has been an underachiever, but has recently played well enough on special teams that the Browns can actually use him.  Manziel is promising but has substantial off-the-field baggage that threatens his career.  Bitonio is a solid starter, but not as good as his rookie year, for unknown reasons.  Kirksey is an average starter, and Desir might continue to develop into a starter.  West was good his rookie year but showed up this year out of shape and was traded.   In all, the Browns got two average starters, a developmental quarterback, a special teams player and a developmental defensive back.  That’s okay but not spectacular for a team that had extra picks (ten,  I think, at the start of the draft).   

1st Round (#8): CB Justin Gilbert
1st Round (#22): QB Johnny Manziel
2nd Round (#35): OG Joel Bitonio
3rd Round (#71): ILB Christian Kirksey
3rd Round (#94): RB Terrance West
4th Round (#127): CB Pierre Desir

In 2015, the Browns took a terrifically strong nose tackle but one of the slowest players in team history. I mean, he works out a Glacier National Park instead of a running track.   He is starting but not doing particularly well.  The other number one pick was Cameron Erving, who is sort of a utility infielder and developmental center if Alex Mack leaves.  2nd Round pick Nate Orchard is contributing but not starting for the worst run defense in the NFL.  The same is true of DT Xavier Cooper.   3rd round pick Duke Johnson has been good at receiving passes coming out of the backfield, but can’t run the ball.  Vince Mayle was so bad he was cut.  Charles Gaines has made zero contribution so far.  TE Randall Telfer is out with an injury along with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu who had a career ending knee surgery but was drafted by the Browns anyway.  Malcolm Johnson plays fullback.  Hayes Pullard has no stats so far.    So in total, the Browns have one fellow who is starting and about six guys that are developmental types.   

1st Round (#12): NT Danny Shelton
1st Round (#19): OL Cameron Erving
2nd Round (#51): OLB Nate Orchard
3rd Round (#77): RB Duke Johnson
3rd Round (#96): DT Xavier Cooper
4th Round (#115): S Ibraheim Campbell
4th Round (#123): WR Vince Mayle
6th Round (#189): CB Charles Gaines
6th Round (#195): FB Malcolm Johnson
6th Round (#198): TE Randall Telfer
7th Round (#219): ILB Hayes Pullard
7th Round (#241): CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

So in two years we have zero impact players, three starters and about six contributors, some of who might develop into starters later on. That's not particularly good. In the next article, I'll take a look at free agent signings.