The Browns spent 2013 building for 2014, whether the front office will admit it.
The philosophy became evident during the NFL Draft in April and continued throughout the season as CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi failed to plug personnel holes for coach Rob Chudzinski before firing him Dec. 29.
Now that 2014 is upon us, here’s what I would do if I were the Browns’ general manager. My list does not include anything relating to the ongoing coaching search.
1. Sign Alex Mack. The five-year veteran center becomes a free agent March 11 and will command a salary higher than Banner and Lombardi believe is fitting for the position. But in Mack’s case, I wouldn’t care. He’s never missed a game since being selected 21st overall in 2009. He’s played for three coaches, yet remained consistent. He’s been selected to two Pro Bowls, including this season. He was the highest-rated center in the AFC and fourth in the NFL by ProFootballFocus.com and was chosen second team All-Pro by the Associated Press. The Browns could move left guard John Greco to center, which might have been one reason he received a five-year contract extension in July, but he’s never been more than an emergency fill-in. Creating another question mark at the second-most important spot on the offensive line would provide another worry for the new coach. I’d sign Mack (providing he’s amenable to staying), no matter what it costs.
2. Franchise T.J. Ward. I wasn’t a huge fan of Ward during his early career, believing the strong safety should be a game-changer in the mold of Troy Polamalu. I find it hard to believe Ward has only five forced fumbles in four years, none in 2013. But Ward turned in arguably his best season. He finished second on the team in tackles with a career-high 129 and tied his career best with two interceptions, one for a touchdown, and returned a fumble 51 yards. ProFootballFocus.com rated Ward the third-best safety, No. 1 against the run and No. 12 against the pass, after ranking him sixth overall in 2012. A franchise tag (the average of the five highest salaries at his position, reportedly about $8 million for 2014) would be far cheaper than tagging Mack (because those five salaries include left tackles).
3. Draft a quarterback in the first round. In recent days, I’ve considered using the No. 4 pick on South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. He would instantly give the Browns a pass rush not seen since the early ’90s. But his questionable motor and work ethic worries me, even with his rare combination of size, strength and athleticism. That would also mean using the first-round pick acquired from the Indianapolis Colts in the Trent Richardson deal on a quarterback or trying to trade up from there. The Colts’ spot will not be determined until they are eliminated from the playoffs, but it will be no higher than 21st. The best quarterbacks in recent years have been selected in the top four, but the Green Bay Packers tabbed Aaron Rodgers 24th in 2005. I’d forget Clowney and trade up for the St. Louis Rams’ No. 2 choice, which according to the Draft Value Chart would cost a second-, third- and seventh-rounder this year. Instead of dealing those picks, I’d strongly consider giving up a first-rounder in 2015, using this draft as the linchpin of the franchise’s turnaround. Already irrelevant, the Browns must find the quarterback of the future before the fan base bails.
4. Cut/trade Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell and add another quarterback. Weeden’s $1.12 million base salary for 2014 seems a bargain for a big-armed backup who would benefit from a change of scenery. Campbell has another year left on his contract, but clearly doesn’t possess the toughness or leadership to match his decent 2013 statistics. He’s due a $250,000 roster bonus in March, according to Rotoworld.com. With 10 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, the Browns have the ammunition to draft two quarterbacks. NFLDraftScout.com projects Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois as a third-round pick. If he moves up, I would target Ohio State’s Kenny Guiton, a better passer and better leader than Braxton Miller. There’s also the possibility of going after a young quarterback like the New England Patriots’ Ryan Mallett or the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins in a trade or through free agency. I’d save those dollars/draft picks for other needs.
5. Upgrade the linebacking corps. I highly respect D’Qwell Jackson, but based on last season’s performance the Browns might not have a linebacker who could start on a Super Bowl contender. Paul Kruger was a free-agent bust, managing just 4.5 sacks after signing a five-year, $40 million deal. His sack total was one less than Jabaal Sheard, who made the transition from defensive end and missed three games with a knee injury. First-round pick Barkevious Mingo was a situational pass rusher who had a sack in each of the first three games and finished with five. He must bulk up and develop more moves. Jackson and Craig Robertson lack speed and played below average nearly half the season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. On that site, Jackson tied for 43rd among 3-4 inside linebackers, while Robertson was 52nd. This position needs major attention.
6. Use the second-round pick on a pass rusher. I’d go quarterback and wide receiver in the first round and take a pass rusher in the second round. If Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is there, I’d jump at him, even if the Browns switch back to a 4-3 defense. Mack consistently showed up against Ohio State’s top-flight offensive line on Aug. 31.
7. Find a starting running back. The Texans’ Ben Tate could be an option in free agency, but the Browns also have two third-round picks. This might seem low to some, but the league’s devaluation of the position could drop OSU’s Carlos Hyde into round two, so there will be talented backs available at the top of the third round. I’d get one who’s also a threat in the passing game.
8. Cut Greg Little and Davone Bess. Bess’ 14 dropped passes and undisclosed off-the-field issue (including his Instagram ramblings) are bizarre. Little is a physical specimen who loves to block, but isn’t reliable. The Browns need speed, and they can’t rely on injury-prone Travis “The Rabbit” Benjamin. Even with other issues, I would take a receiver in the first and third rounds. The Browns devoted all their assets to defense in 2013; this year, they need to go to the offense.
9. Develop a special-teams core. The constant flux at the bottom of the roster played havoc with the coverage teams, along with the season-ending ankle injury to special teams captain Quentin Groves. This area can’t be an afterthought with the next coaching staff or front office. There’s no better illustration than Fozzy Whittaker’s confusion on what to do on the onside kick at New England.
10. Find better starting guards. The Browns could compound their problem here by letting Mack go and moving Greco. But even if Mack stays, the Browns need an upgrade over right guard Shawn Lauvao. They could already have him in Garrett Gilkey, a seventh-round pick in 2013. Jason Pinkston could also make strides in the offseason after missing the final 10 games in 2012 with a life-threatening blood clot. The Browns could be disillusioned with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and move him inside, but I’d wait another year and sign or draft one or two guards.
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.