The NFL’s lockout has robbed the new Browns coaches of opportunities to become familiar with their players and install their schemes.
Compensating for lost minicamps and offseason workouts will be a daunting mission. But on a positive note, the lockout has also given the coaching staff ample time to help the front office determine whom to target in free agency.
This offseason, the assistants were assigned to study potential free agents, write reports about them and discuss their evaluations with General Manager Tom Heckert, President Mike Holmgren and coach Pat Shurmur. Their homework has been completed for some time, but their findings have remained closely guarded during the wait for labor peace.
More than four months after the lockout began, they are now seemingly on the brink of being rewarded for their patience.
Barring the dreaded false-alarm factor, a new collective bargaining agreement and the start of free agency appear to be on the horizon. Reports of encouraging signs on the labor front have sparked hope that the lockout could finally end next week.
Although Heckert has said the Browns won’t be “gung-ho in free agency,” he’ll probably pull some all-nighters once the work stoppage concludes and transactions are allowed. The Browns aided their switch to a 4-3 defense and a West Coast offense in April’s draft, but they still have plenty of holes to plug and positions deprived of depth.
Adding a defensive end to start opposite rookie second-round pick Jabaal Sheard should be a top priority. Because most offenses usually place a tight end on the defense's left side, the left end in a 4-3 system is typically known as a run stopper. His counterpart on the right side is usually more of a pass rusher.
If Sheard, 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, can create pressure the way the Browns believe he can, he’ll probably be a better fit on the right side. The Browns know Marcus Benard, 6-2, 256 pounds, can rack up sacks, but they aren’t sure whether he can convert from a 3-4 linebacker and become an every-down 4-3 end.
Their solution on the left side could be re-signing Jayme Mitchell. The 6-6, 285-pound Mitchell didn’t appear in a game last season after the Browns acquired him in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings. Mitchell, though, is best suited for a four-man front, and Heckert has said he wants him back.
The Browns, however, have not given any indication that they think the same way about free-agent safety Abram Elam. Heckert has mentioned Mike Adams as a candidate to start alongside T.J. Ward, but he also suggested the Browns are interested in pursuing a safety in free agency. In other words, the eventual starter is probably not on the roster yet.
The secondary could use more help at cornerback, too, especially if Eric Wright doesn’t return. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that all players with expired contracts and four or more years of experience are expected to become unrestricted free agents when a new labor deal is reached unless they have the franchise player tag. If that scenario unfolds, Wright would be unrestricted despite receiving a restricted-free agent tender from the Browns in March.
Mammoth defensive tackles like Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor, the Browns’ first-round pick this year, don’t usually play every down, so even more 4-3 linemen will likely be sought. The Browns might want to re-sign Robaire Smith, a defensive captain in 2010 who has previous 4-3 experience, if they're convinced he has recovered from a season-ending back injury.
The linebackers also could use quality backups to serve as insurance. D’Qwell Jackson and Scott Fujita are coming off season-ending injuries, leaving Chris Gocong as the only projected starter who remained healthy throughout 2010.
Jackson has missed the Browns’ past 26 games because of torn pectoral muscles, and Fujita was sidelined for the final seven games of last season with a torn MCL in his left knee that did not require surgery. Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron likes backup Kaluka Maiava, but he presents a durability concern, too. Last season, Maiava had surgery to repair a torn right ACL.
On offense, the needs aren't as pressing.
Securing safety valves for projected starting right tackle Tony Pashos and running back Montario Hardesty should be the top goals. Pashos finished the past two seasons on injured reserve, and Shawn Lauvao, a candidate to top the depth chart at right guard, has started only once in the NFL, so signing a versatile backup — perhaps even re-signing Floyd Womack would do the trick — is in order. Hardesty missed last season with a torn left ACL and is expected to share the workload with Peyton Hillis, though he can't be considered reliable at this point.
Picking up a veteran wide receiver to mentor the likes of Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie and rookie second-round pick Greg Little is not as urgent. Still, it certainly would be wise.
Of course, not every item on the wish list will be completely crossed off. Those that are addressed, though, will represent a welcome return to business.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.