For the next two months, likely soon-to-be ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith will dominate the conversations of Browns fans.
Hopefully that is not the case in the second-floor offices at Browns headquarters.
With the massive undertaking new coach Rob Chudzinski and defensive coordinator Ray Horton are embarking on to revamp the Browns’ defense, the team’s resources should be devoted to that side of the ball.
That means the majority of its six draft picks — including No. 6 overall. That means its salary cap space — $48.9 million at last measure, according to ESPN’s John Clayton — enough to make a splash in free agency, which begins March 12. That means possible trades. That could also mean jeopardizing the re-signing of its own free agents, like kicker Phil Dawson.
I continue to wonder why the Browns would abandon the 4-3 defense, even though Horton has been a 3-4 devotee for his 19-year coaching life. Especially when that could spell the end for some members of a defensive line that ex-General Manager Tom Heckert spent three years building into one of the team’s few strengths.
But if an attacking, multiple-front hybrid or 3-4 or whatever Chudzinkski and Horton have agreed to call it is what best serves the Browns in the long term, go for it. But without an all-out commitment, the Browns seem destined to take a step back in the win-loss column in 2013. And there’s not too far to step without falling off the ledge.
I’m not so sure that won’t happen even if the Browns go all-in on defense. Last Tuesday, Horton and Chudzinski talked about versatility and players moving around and lining up in unpredictable positions. Not only must they learn a new scheme, but it also appears they will be asked to learn new wrinkles that even outside-the-box ex-coordinator Rob Ryan never dreamed of.
When asked how long it takes to get up to speed to play multiple fronts, Horton said, “Hopefully not long. I would hope the biggest transition is terminology because if I’m a nose tackle, I’m somewhere in the vicinity of the center. If I’m an end, I’m somewhere in the vicinity of the guard or the tackle. Now, whether you line up on the outside shade, head up or the inside shade, you’ve played football before. All I’m asking my players to do is trust us as a coaching staff that we’ll put them in great positions.”
At this point, “all’’ sounds like a tall order. Horton and Chudzinski might eventually discover this transition needs to come in stages. They could find out that too much too soon might spell opening day disaster. Or perhaps they’ll try to outscore everyone until the defense matures and figures it out.
To blitz as much as Horton prefers will make another top cover cornerback a high priority, perhaps the No. 1 priority. But that’s just one of several holes the Browns must fill and questions they must answer.
They also must find a starting free safety, several linebackers and a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher. They must decide if third-year defensive end Jabaal Sheard can play outside linebacker, if linebacker Chris Gocong, who ruptured his Achilles Aug. 4, can be counted on and figure out what to do with massive defensive tackle Phil Taylor.
Using Horton’s criteria of “big men who can run and little men who can hit,” the Browns might field half a lineup at best. Those who most fit that bill are Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn, Sheard and T.J. Ward, not counting special-teamer Johnson Bademosi. Joe Haden can tackle, but he’s not a hitter.
The linebacker positions are the biggest concern, especially with the man in the middle, D’Qwell Jackson, returning to a spot inside where he was less effective under former coach Eric Mangini. Rookie or first-year players Craig Robertson, L.J. Fort and Tank Carder, the first two undrafted, combined to start five games last season in the absence of Gocong and Scott Fujita, limited to four games with a career-threatening neck/shoulder injury.
Chudzinski hedged on the strength of the linebacking corps and whether it needed upgrading, saying, “We need to see where we project guys, where they’re going to fit, and we’ll go from there in terms of how we will address the draft and free agency.”
When asked if he needed more outside linebackers, Horton’s reply sounded ominous, at least in regards to making defense a priority.
“I can’t control who leaves or who comes in during free agency and who you draft, but I’m ready to work with the men who finished the season last year,” Horton said.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and VP of player personnel Mike Lombardi are trying to find a franchise quarterback and deciding whether to give up on Brandon Weeden, last year’s 22nd overall pick. No one knows what Chudzinski told offensive coordinator Norv Turner about that decision to lure Turner to Cleveland.
That is the position most holding the Browns back, but they’re searching in a year bereft of projected first-round draft picks.
Smith, if released, would be the best of the free-agent class and could ignite a bidding war the Browns might not win. With his big arm, Weeden seems a natural for Chudzinski’s vertical passing game and deserves another season.
Especially when the Browns’ defensive upheaval leaves so much to be done.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.