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Monthly Archives: March 2013

NFL Owner Meetings, Free Agency, and Draft

Another Lull in the NFL Calendar

Last week was another slower time of year for the NFL; owners met in Arizona to discuss and (possibly) approve new rules changes.  Most notably, the “tuck rule” was overturned (which would have overjoyed Oakland Raider fans if this occurred thirteen years ago).  Should a quarterback pull the football inward towards his body and take it back out to throw, he will no longer be protected by this rule to disallow a fumble; should a defender jar the ball free.  Also, almost all franchise owners agreed to outlaw runners using their helmet as a weapon in the open field.  Rushers must now keep their heads up, when exiting the “tackle box” and venturing to the sidelines to meet defenders – or else a penalty and fine could occur.  Browns’ fans enjoy that hit Trent Richardson put on Kurt Coleman in last season’s opener; it will be his last legal one of his career.

Free Agency Review:

The owner meetings came at a time that followed a period where several free agents switched teams, in addition to a veteran or two being traded.  The NFL Draft does not occur for another month, but NFL front offices have pretty much solidified their rosters and are deciding where to focus their attention in April.  For the Browns (as it stands), it appears they wanted to immediately improve upon their solid front of their defense.  Their linemen and linebackers last season did adequate jobs, but a few available members were out there to improve the units.  Gary Barnidge is a wildcard – he was signed to a meager contract and is unknown by many.  However, if he can help out the team (as coach Chud is hoping), the tight end could be a steal.

Frankly, I support what the team did in free agency; they avoided “overspending” on one player, acquired relatively young (twenty-nine years and under) athletes who can excel over the next few seasons, and focused on areas of perceived weakness.  Conversely, only signing a few players who are not expected to be “game changers” puts a fair amount of pressure on the front office to find the right guys during (and following) the NFL Draft.

NFL Draft Preview:

It’s still premature to speculate about whom the Browns will target with their first selection (and that will come in the following weeks), but it’s safe to say the team is weighing all of its options.  Among the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine, and several Pro Days, the Browns have displayed due diligence regarding several players.  They could go one of many ways at number six, they just make sure they get the right athlete.  Not having their second-round selection (due to the Josh Gordon supplemental pick last season), and the front office must find a few gems in the later rounds as well as getting talented athletes early (assuming they do not trade back for more selections).

Finishing consistently last in the AFC North and drafting early, year after year, and the team must find a way to make a huge jump in the offseason. Veteran leadership helps with this (bringing in NFL-ready players), but more importantly, the younger players and coaching staff must think and act like winners.  A new, positive mentality off the field has to be transferred to Sundays in the fall.  2013 is a great opportunity for the Browns; especially with new leadership at multiple levels.  Also, the door is as wide-open as it has been for years – both the Ravens and Steelers’s rosters appear to be weakened during the offseason.

Cleveland Browns – Locker Room State of Mind:

During the Arizona meetings, owner Jimmy Haslam stated the Browns will “not go 13-3” in 2013, which will likely be the case – however, hopefully everyone in the organization feels they can win any, and every, game (regardless of opponent or situation).  Changing things up starts up top; Haslam and Alec Scheiner have commenced many aesthetic changes with the team  (involving the stadium, offices, and potential uniform upgrades).

Beginning in April when the team gets back together, the positive atmosphere surrounding the team falls upon the coaching staff.  Listening to Chud speak about the roster, he appears to be more open and upbeat (and also, less combative) than his predecessor was.  It also seems that the coach is ready and eager to get started with his players; I look forward to hearing about upcoming camps and meetings.  A solid program and way of thinking (while knowing how to deal with negatives appropriately) will be laid soon – before several rookies enter the facilities later in the month.

 

Free Agent Signings – Cleveland Browns

Getting to Know You – Cleveland Browns Free Agent Acquisitions – 1st Three

The Browns picked up a couple of solid defensive athletes in the first twenty-four hours of free agency.  Two of the pickups were expected (as mentioned in the “Options at Defense – 2013 NFL Free Agency” blog), while the other was a bit surprising.  Nonetheless, the 2013 defense for the Browns appears to be better than the 2012 one – Ray Horton’s “attacking” style got a few guys that should fit in.

Paul Kruger – OLB

There have been some concerns raised about the few starts by Kruger over his four-year career (just seven).  However, his tackle and sack totals have increased each season to a career-high of forty-two and nine, respectively, in 2012.  Having linebacker depth in Baltimore last year, the Ravens were able to employ Kruger as a starter when Terell Suggs was injured.  With Jabaal Sheard already on the roster and the other signing at outside linebacker (Groves), the Browns will not have to rely on Kruger being the face of the defense and playing every down.  The outside linebacker will be called upon to blitz the quarterback, but the team has other capable players (and can add more in the draft) to complete this task as well.  This regime is determined to succeed where previous Browns’ regimes have failed – i.e. signing a guy to a larger role than he can assume.   Kruger might be able to make that jump in the coming years (as he appears to be hitting his prime now), but I really like the approach the front office is taking in not putting too much pressure on the newly acquired veteran.

Desmond Bryant – DT

Selecting four defensive linemen in the last two drafts, as well as switching to a 3-4 defense (which requires fewer defensive linemen), and it was a bit surprising to see the Browns select one early in free agency.  However, Michael Lombardi seemed to have his eyes on the athlete immediately; many touted Desmond Bryant as one of the best available defensive linemen.  The former Oakland Raider started all but one game in his four years in the league – clearly he is talented enough to be given the job and hold onto it.  Additionally, the lineman has accrued nine sacks over the past few seasons – given an opportunity in a defensive line with Phil Taylor and Athyba Rubin, and I believe he can be successful in being disruptive in the opponent’s backfield.  Several dominant linemen (including second-year pros Billy Winn and John Hughes) will make things difficult for offenses to game plan against the Browns.  This includes decisions about who to double-team and how to utilize blocking schemes, including using help from running backs and tight ends.

Quentin Groves – OLB

Being in the league for five years, Groves has bounced around a few times – from Jacksonville to Oakland and playing for Horton in Arizona last season.   The veteran has been a part-time starter over that time period (averaging just under five starts per season since 2009).  I believe he will be used in certain situations, while Kruger and Sheard  (and possibly a draft pick) will be lined up on the outside a majority of games.  Following three years without a sack on the quarterback, Groves got to opposing quarterbacks four times last season.  His tackle total of forty-six in 2012 was more than Kruger’s; perhaps the former Raven will be better used in passing situations while Groves participates in likely rushing downs.  He was another solid selection who was rather inexpensive and expectations are not extremely high for the veteran.  However, he will make the linebacker corps better and I am looking forward to seeing him play in Cleveland.

Conclusion:  I think both Browns fans and media have reasonable expectations regarding these pick-ups.  Many do not feel any of the three will be perennial Pro-Bowlers but will be solid, dependable players for several years.  Also, the franchise will likely not be a multiple Super Bowl champion over the next few seasons because they made a few moves; it will come down to pairing these athletes with dominant draft picks (as well as having great quarterback play).  However, after not seeing a season that has had more than five wins since 2007, the fan base of the Browns is yearning for some excitement – these moves provides optimism.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in Free Agency

 

Options at Defense – 2013 NFL Free Agency

Free Agency Period – Options at Defense

In continuing with the free agency period, the focus of attention now turns to the defense.  (I omitted the punter and kicker positions for the Browns – the team will likely go in a different direction from Reggie Hodges and Phil Dawson, but it is extremely hard to speculate if or whom they would target in free agency).  Although they played well as a unit at times in 2012, the Browns’ defense was far from excellent.  This new regime is looking for a more aggressive group and will seek players that will fit the bill.

Areas of Need:  The Browns’ defense helped the team rank 12th in the league in turnover margin (+3), and was 19th in points allowed, 23rd in yardage allowed, and 21st in both rushing and passing touchdowns surrendered.  These rankings are slightly better (compared to their counterparts), but the switch to the 3-4 scheme will create turnover in Berea. It appeared that the passing defense was the Browns’ Achilles heel, but as the stats bear out – improvements should be made to all parts of the defense.

The Browns went 0 – 5 in contests where Joe Haden was not active last season; the former first round athlete from Florida has been dominant but his teammates could not pick up the slack.  Secondary should be targeted heavily in free agency (provided the team drafts elsewhere in the first round of the draft), while players like Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade, and Johnson Bademosi can be put in the best position to succeed.

Possible Cornerback Targets:  Brent Grimes (Atlanta), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Philadelphia), Sean Smith (Miami), Cary Williams (Baltimore), Derek Cox (Jacksonville)

Analysis:  I would like the Browns to take a strong look at Rodgers-Cromartie, Smith, and Williams as possible starters opposite Haden.  Williams is coming off a sound year for the Super Bowl Champs, especially against the Browns (two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown).  I believe the team will not take Dee Milliner (cornerback from Alabama) at the sixth overall pick in April, therefore if the Browns do not sign a solid free agent – they will have to hope a late round selection (including Skrine and Wade) will develop into a star.

The office appears to support T.J. Ward and what he brings to the strong safety position, but the free safety spot could be added to; incumbent Usama Young has battled injuries and inconsistency since signing as a free agent two years ago.  The other option on the roster was Eric Hagg, who had an up-and-down 2012 season.

Possible Safety Targets:  Dashon Goldson (49ers), Kenny Phillips (N.Y. Giants), LaRon Landry (N.Y. Jets), Louis Delmas (Detroit)

Analysis:  Goldson and Phillips headline the class of free agent safeties; the odds are stacked against the Browns they sign either.  The franchise needs a fast athlete who can defend well in the secondary; perhaps if the team drafts or signs an excellent cornerback then they can convert Sheldon Brown to free safety (assuming he is re-signed).  If none of those options occur, I anticipate the team using a middle round draft selection to compete for the starting free safety spot.

Ray Horton’s new defense will require the Browns to obtain several (and hopefully talented) linebackers this offseason – all of the four positions are in play.  D’Qwell Jackson has put together a couple solid seasons in the middle and James-Michael Johnson played well considering the circumstances (a fourth round rookie who was forced to play due to injuries), but the front office may want competition along with the two.

Possible Inside Linebacker Targets:  Dannell Ellerbe (Baltimore), Chase Blackburn (N.Y. Giants), Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati)

Analysis:  Signing either Ellerbe or Maualuga would be a double-edge sword; the Browns’ linebacking corps would be strengthened while weakening their in-division rival’s unit.  Ellerbe would be my choice between the two; in three less games last season he averaged nearly as many tackles per game (7.10 to 7.62), but the veteran had 4.5 sacks compared to Mauluga’s one.  Blackburn is an alumnus of the University of Akron, but there is a fair chance he re-signs with the Giants.  Getting strength up the middle of the defense is important, as much as getting speed on the edges.

On the outside, Jabaal Sheard will likely be moved to one side in an attempt to display his ability to rush the passer.  The unknown statuses of Kaluka Maiava (a pending free agent) and Emmanuel Acho (a sixth round draft pick who was injured before his rookie season) could force the front office to add an outside linebacker next week.  Additionally, the team might pickup another athlete (in April) to play opposite Sheard; depth is never a bad thing.

Possible Outside Linebacker Targets:  Paul Kruger (Baltimore), Shaun Phillips (San Diego), Quentin Groves (Arizona)

Analysis:  Kruger notched nine sacks last season, while Phillips garnered nine.  Both would be instant upgrades to the pass rushing position.  Phillips has played under Browns’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner and may be inclined to join up with him.  Groves had a decent 2012 outing (forty-six tackles and four sacks), but would be less expensive and would feel a need.  Like Phillips, his familiarity with his former coach’s (Ray Horton) defense could sway the front office to offer him a deal.

Conclusion:  The Browns need to get a playmaker in the secondary – whether it is a cornerback or free safety.  If the team only signs one linebacker before the draft, I look for it to be someone in the middle.  A rush end could still be taken in the first round and their linebackers would be in good shape.  I purposely omitted the defensive line; the new schemes run by Horton will (at times) employ just three men upfront.  With the depth added over the past two seasons, the front office should feel confident in that area of the team.  A reliable veteran could be added, but I do not expect a high-priced free agent or early round draft pick to be added over the next two months.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in Free Agency

 

Options at Offense – 2013 NFL Free Agency

Free Agency Period – Options at Offense

After weeks of seeing professional football players released, the time has finally come for NFL franchises to add to their rosters for the 2013 season.  The previous regime (for the Browns) largely stayed away from signing “higher priced” individuals and selecting athletes requiring modest contracts who can still help the franchise.  However, many have speculated the current front office will invest more (currently the team has the most money under the salary cap to spend), but not to the point where they are attempting to sign many “expensive” pieces to their football team.

Areas of Need:

Reviewing the 2012 Cleveland Browns season and their output; both sides of the ball could be strengthened with additional talented athletes.  Offensively, the unit was ranked in the lower two-thirds of the league in several categories.  This includes points scored (24th of 32), yardage (25th), first downs (29th), and passing touchdowns (28th).  Getting into the end zone was a bit easier on the ground, as the Browns ranked 13th in that category.

Judging from these stats, it appears the passing game was the area that needs upgrading more (generally speaking).  This refers more to the quarterback and wide receivers; I would anticipate either status quo or a veteran backup from the signal caller position. With Alex Smith out of the running, likely the Browns would bring in competition for Weeden for the starting spot.

Possible Quarterback Targets:  Matt Moore (Miami), Derek Anderson (Carolina), Chase Daniel (New Orleans)

Analysis:  Should the Browns sign one of these targets, I do not anticipate any taking the job from Weeden and having a great season.  With the status of backup Colt McCoy unknown, one of these could become the new backup, while the team either sticks with Weeden or drafts another quarterback in April.

Greg Little and Josh Gordon made several great plays over the course of last season.  With the likely departure of free agent Mohammed Massaquoi, the Browns will need to acquire a third, reliable target for the passing offense.  Fortunately, there are a few solid professionals that could be had in free agency.

Possible Wide Receiver Targets:  Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh), Greg Jennings (Green Bay), Danny Amendola (St. Louis), Wes Welker (New England)

Analysis:  After Dwayne Bowe was re-signed, the pool of attractive free agents lessened by one.  Any of the above would be a solid addition to the receiving corps; however they will not come cheaply.  These athletes are looking for large salaries and will want to be paid among the top in their position group.  The Browns’ front office has to manage the value one of these players will bring versus the cost of acquiring them.  Personally, I would love to see one of these guys joining the franchise; they could not only help Gordon and Little by pulling coverage away (from the duo), but also give the quarterback another viable option during passing plays.

Not being able to garner first downs routinely, and it could be argued that the running attack faltered on third down and short – i.e. three yards or less (which was the case, especially early in the 2012 campaign).  Investing heavily in Trent Richardson, possessing an effective backup in Montario Hardesty, and knowing running backs have shorter professional careers, I believe the team will steer away from picking up a free agent here.

The other part of the running game, the offensive line, might be tinkered with however.  Center Alex Mack, and tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz are all high round picks who were solid last season.  That leaves the guard position, where starter Jason Pinkston missed time due to a blood clot – they then used Shawn Lauvao and John Greco (who played adequately).  However, if a dominant guard is available, I would not be surprised if they Browns made one an offer.

Possible Guard Targets:  Louis Vasquez (San Diego), Geoff Schwartz (Minnesota), Andy Levitre (Buffalo)

Analysis:  I would like to see competition brought in to solidify the interior of the offensive line for the Browns.  The team has ties to the first listed, as the Browns’ offensive coordinator worked with Vasquez during his entire four-year career.  Geoff is starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz’s brother; perhaps the duo will want to be reunited on the same NFL team.  Levitre is also young and can improve the team as well.  Should the Browns can secure one of these options, fans and those in the NFL will likely perceive this as an excellent move.

Potentially losing Alex Smith and Ben Watson to free agency, as well as it being the head coach’s former position, and there is a realistic chance the Browns may look to pick up a tight end to pair with Jordan Cameron.  Alongside a trio of very good wide outs (assuming one is picked up in free agency), the team would terrify defenses having a great tight end to match up inside.

Possible Tight End Targets:  Dustin Keller (N.Y. Jets), Martellus Bennett (N.Y Giants), Brandon Myers (Oakland), Jared Cook (Tennesse), Fred Davis (Washington)

Analysis:  Outside of Cook (whom will likely not sign with the Browns), there is not a whole lot of excitement in this group.  There are dependable options, but no game-changers are truly available.  However, if Brandon Myers can put up numbers similarly to what he did against the Browns (fourteen catches, 130 yards and a touchdown), the veteran could be a steal if he leaves the Raiders.  Bennett would be an intriguing option; he has all the measurable qualities and can be productive, but inconsistency has been an issue for the veteran.

Conclusion:  The next couple of weeks can be interesting for the Cleveland Browns – if they only take one player on offense, I hope it is a dominant wide receiver.  However, help at guard and tight end would be wise as well (do not rule out a trade or two).  I feel the team can stand pat at quarterback and running back currently, but it’s up to the front office to put the team in the best position possible headed into the 2013 season.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2013 in Free Agency

 

NFL Slow Period – Calm Before the Storm

The Calm Before the Storm

In the time period following the College Scouting Combine and the beginning of the NFL calendar year (along with free agency); teams have to do a ton of homework to help with the upgrading of their rosters.  Taking a look at the front office of the Cleveland Browns, and there a bunch of moving parts that will hopefully be in lockstep quickly.

Owner Jimmy Haslam

After stepping from his post as CEO in Pilot Flying J in September, it appeared as though new Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam was fully invested in the franchise he just acquired.  He knew work had to be done; that was followed up with hirings of new CEO Joe Banner (in October 2012), president Alec Scheiner (in December 2012), and VP of Player Personnel Michael Lombardi (in January 2013).  With the front office in place, new coach Rob Chudzinski was also hired in the first month of 2013 – Chud quickly assembled the remainder of his coaching staff thereafter.

Perhaps it was the confidence the owner had in his hirings, or the yearning for his previous work (which was cited by Haslam) but the Browns owner’ resumed his role at Pilot Flying J in February.  Several fans worry that the team will have a similar owner to Randy Lerner – a guy who rarely spent time in Cleveland, let alone was involved in day-to-day transactions.  However, Haslam attempted to quell fears by stating he would accompany others in important decisions regarding personnel (draft, free agency, etc.)  Seeing this opposite end of the spectrum, now fans (of the delusional-sort) see Haslam more as a “hands-on” owner who could over-step his bounds ala Jerry Jones.  It seems the new owner cannot win over the fan base no matter what he does; the bottom line is the team must be successful in the fall and supporters will, in turn, back ownership.

President Alec Scheiner

The main tasks of new president will relate to off-the-field matters, such as improvements to the game day experience.  In January, Cleveland Browns Stadium was renamed to FirstEnergy Stadium (Home of the Cleveland Browns) – marking the first time the franchise has relinquished naming rights for their home venue.  Many will (likely) not hear about Scheiner over the next few months, as he will be a part of “under the radar” projects.  This includes concessions, security, scoreboard, Wi-Fi, and other amenities in downtown Cleveland.  There have been rumblings that season ticket holders will be paying more in 2013 than they have in 2012; expect the same of single game tickets as well.  Hopefully Scheiner’s improvements, as well as the product on the field, can justify the additional expenses.

CEO Joe Banner

Primarily working as a salary cap analyst with the Philadelphia Eagles, it was no surprise (under Banner’s watch) to see the Browns release a player to save money in the offseason.  During the 2012 campaign, it was Dimitri Patterson – in 2013 Frostee Rucker was the first casualty.  Fortunately, it appears that these departures went along with the philosophies of the new coaching staff (i.e. one that undervalues multiple defensive ends on the roster). Whether Rucker’s release was financially driven or if Banner and Chudzinski (and to a lesser extent, defensive coordinator Ray Horton) had determined it was a preliminary step heading into the offseason, remains to be seen. Things will likely become more apparent in the coming weeks however; obviously not all needs will be met in the free agency period but it will be interesting to see which positions get addressed (and the types of contracts awarded) before the draft commences.

 VP of Player Personnel Michael Lombardi

Reviewing and evaluating hundreds of players during his tenure at the NFL Network (along with being an NFL personnel guy prior to that), and Lombardi is familiar with scouting football talent.  I envision Lombardi being the middleman between Banner and Chudzinski in many personnel debates and discussions.  Chud may want a guy or two that could fit his offense, while Banner could point out that player’s cost and ramifications (including other available personnel).  I am not certain where Haslam will fit in with the front office decision-making; perhaps he and Lombardi can confer regularly.  Combining the VP’s experience in the league with personnel, along with Haslam’s first-hand knowledge of a successful franchise’s (the Steelers) way of doing things could be the key for the Browns.

Coach Rob Chudzinski

I fully anticipate coach Chud giving his input to his bosses – in terms of conveying what type of athletes would help the Browns the best.  Does he need a strong-armed quarterback who is less mobile (like a Brandon Weeden)? Should the team go after a quicker runner (a.k.a. Alex Smith)?  Additionally, working with both of his coordinators should help empower the new coach with Banner and Lombardi.  Both Horton and Norv Turner have had success as coordinators and prefer a certain style to be successful.  Along these lines, they may want younger guys in some spots and experienced veterans in others.  Chud may not get all (or even some) of his wishes, as there will always be give and take in these decisions.  I have faith that either side will manage when the team acquires an athlete that is not “their top choice”.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Offseason