Cleveland Browns Preseason Thoughts and Cut Watch

The Cleveland Browns continue their preseason journey and not much has been learned about their identity and direction. But it’s still early, and they have shown some signs of what type of team they might be in 2016 if you look at a couple of key areas.

I’m not and haven’t been very optimistic for 2016, so measuring success this season will be much different for the Browns than other franchises. Winning more than three games is (sadly) a good barometer for the direction of the team.

That’s something every team should aspire to. Yep, we have reached the full acceptance stage of grief. For much of 2016 we’re probably going to be seeing glimpses of the competitive team we’ll see in 2017—at least we hope, because another two failed seasons by another regime will be two more lost seasons for a storied franchise that has completely lost its way.

But that isn’t going to happen. These Browns are an enigma, so come along with me in trying to make sense of what we’re seeing on the field.

 

Things I think

  1. Nothing Has Changed

Nothing I saw against Green Bay changed my mind on anything one way or the other. I wanted to see some big performances, or some disappointing ones, to make me have any kind of feeling, but everything was very bland in game one.

Jamie Meder made another big play in a preseason game, and most of the team’s starting secondary was watching from the sidelines or not on the field. Déjà vu from a previous failed organization isn’t the best way for Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson to start anew.

 

  1. One surprise

While everything else resembled a status quo Browns performance, running back Raheem Mostert, the only player who really “WOWed” me, looked juiced on offense after fumbling a free kick following Meder’s safety stuff and dropped a pass in the flat. Getting the ball into his hands and having it stay there looks like an important challenge holding him back from being a potential contributor.

 

  1. Quarterback

Robert Griffin III looked pretty crisp on the team’s first drive, but an interception on a slightly overthrown post to Gary Barnidge at the goal line and some hesitancy in the pocket were some of his significant negative marks. He did stick in the pocket, and Jackson didn’t get him on the move intentionally. But that’s to be expected, this was the first preseason game and there’s little chance we’ll see much intricacy in the next few weeks.

Griffin’s road to redemption isn’t going to be easy in Cleveland. For the first four weeks he’ll be missing Josh Gordon, but he does have the arm and skills to be a respectable quarterback. Do I expect him to lead a surprise playoff surge? Not even close.

But with expectations at an all-time low, there’s a high probability the former Rookie of the Year outperforms his very low expectations. Griffin will be better than people are predicting. Jackson will have him prepared enough to at least be serviceable while the organization contemplates its future.

If RG3 has a resurgence as I’m expecting under Jackson, the Browns’ quarterback problem fixes itself. And if he doesn’t, they’re no farther away from being a contender than they were when they signed him to that heavily incentive-laden contract last spring.

 

  1. Cam Erving is still Cam Erving

Only now he’s in the middle of the Browns offensive line. Erving allowed two hurries/hits on Griffin, one he looked befuddled on as he chipped then released inside linebacker Blake Martinez—presumably because he thought running back Isaiah Crowell would pick him up—who ended up hurrying a throwaway from Griffin.

More on Erving to follow.

 

Things I Know

  1. Speed Kills

I know Duke Johnson and Terrelle Pryor are going to allow the Browns’ offense to compete, or at least provide some entertainment in between opposing touchdown drives. Coach Jackson knows how to space the field to give these guys opportunities to make plays with the ball in and out of their hands.

We saw it with Pryor already on the team’s first play from scrimmage. He called a pretty simple concept and asked his big and fast receiver to make a play. Defenses having to respect that will help the Browns in so many ways.

Johnson’s lone rush, an outside sweep, stiff-arm and scamper for 11 yards was an encouraging sign. The blocking wasn’t all there, but it won’t be often for him, so it’s a good sign seeing him make those type of plays.

 

  1. Tackling

Jim O’Neil’s undisciplined defense from 2015 showed up early on in Green Bay, slipping off Eddie Lacy and allowing the Packers to extend drives on the ground with Joe Callahan at quarterback.

People might suggest coaching here, but Hue Jackson has been running physical practices, so let’s not pretend they aren’t trying to emphasize tackling. We’ll see how they progress during the next couple weeks to see how worried we need to be.

 

Cut Watch

I’ll do this after every game, and by this I mean name one or two players I think are on the chopping block as cuts come at us quick over the next few weeks.

This week my guys are Barkevious Mingo and Cam Erving.

Mingo is on the last year of his rookie contract, and is relatively inexpensive, but he’s not in the team’s long-term plans and contributes very little for the money he is earning. The Browns have been drafting edge players to improve that spot and have been toying with the idea of trying him at inside linebacker. Weird. Very disappointing player who although he has the speed to rush the passer, he has failed to get bigger and stronger.

What is there to say about Erving at this point? Will he actually get cut from the roster? Probably not, but it wouldn’t faze me if it happened. He’s not the smartest player and his technique lapses are still hurting him.

 

 

 

Josh Gordon’s Reinstatement is No-Brainer for Roger Goodell

News of Josh Gordon’s recent meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and potential reinstatement on August 1 has the Cleveland Browns on the verge of gaining or permanently losing one of the most gifted receivers in the league. After missing the majority of the last two seasons because of drug and alcohol violations, Gordon unsurprisingly failed another drug test in March before he could apply for reinstatement at the start of the new league year in April.

With so much on the line, the failure is the latest example of the pure stupidity and completely inexcusable behavior exhibited by Gordon throughout his football career. Because he’s a repeat offender it’s hard to imagine the NFL giving in and allowing him back, but we’re living in a world that mostly defies common sense.

Outside of broken promises, Gordon has done very little to prove he has learned from those multiple suspensions, and that’s pretty clear after that failed drug test in March. Goodell didn’t sound like a guy ready to show mercy, either, when he spoke on the receiver during a Super Bowl 50 media availability in February.

“The process is that we’ll go back and we’ll look at how he’s conducted himself over the last several months, what he’s done to make sure it’s consistent with the terms of a suspension and at some stage, we’ll have a report on that and I will engage with our people to understand where he is, where he’s been but most importantly where he’s going. When these things happen, it’s about trying to avoid them in the future. Our number one issue here is to prevent these things from happening. I’m hopeful that Josh understands that he’s going to have to conduct himself differently going forward to be a member of the NFL and to be representing the Cleveland Browns, or any team in the NFL.”

So why could Gordon get a pardon by a commissioner whose grasp continues to stifle nonconformity around the league? Gordon is a repeat offender, both as a student athlete in college and as a professional in Goodell’s league. He has been punished to every possible degree, was kicked out of the league entirely, and THEN he failed ANOTHER drug test.

Let me be clear, Josh Gordon probably doesn’t deserve another chance. He has been the definition of what the league is attempting to move away from. His defiance and continued presence would be a big smudge on the image it’s trying to portray. Enabling him like many others is probably not a good idea, and it makes sense for Goodell to uphold his suspension indefinitely.

But the league would also look really, really good and ultimately benefit from having a reformed Gordon on the field and producing at a high level. When on the field, Gordon changes outcomes and makes the type of game-altering plays that make headlines and sell merchandise. That’s why there’s still hope for him and the Browns. The bottom line of the league’s brand is the most powerful decision maker in the business.

What could be better for business than showing the world the prowess of the league’s excessive authoritarian model? See, suspensions and excessive fines really do yield results and change lives!

And if he does drugs and fails another test? The NFL can easily wash their hands of him forever. The next time you’d hear the name Josh Gordon would be during the eventual “30 for 30” on ESPN.

Reinstating him is no-brainer that’s all upside for the NFL, the Browns, and for Josh Gordon.

Cleveland Browns 7-Round Mock Draft and Predictions

I hate mock drafts and by draft day the last thing I want to do is read another one. But it’s also the day I reserve to release my yearly 7-round Cleveland Browns mock draft.

There’s no point, other than clicks, to release 10 versions of a mock draft. It’s fun for a while, but I prefer to find my guys throughout the pre-draft process and then present my work.

Before we get to the picks, here are some things I think, in no particular order:

  • Laquon Treadwell will be their pick if Joey Bosa is off the board, or if they trade down
  • I don’t like Paxton Lynch, and I’ll be shocked if the Browns pick him
  • Myles Jack will slide out of the Top 10
  • I don’t believe Sashi Brown when he said he doesn’t want to take a young passer
  • There’s a 0% chance the Browns draft an offensive lineman in the first 2 rounds
  • Ezekiel Elliott will not be their pick, at any pick number
  • Carson Wentz is still going No.-1 overall to St. Louis

 

Consider them “hot takes” or “what-have-yous,” but those are my thoughts heading into tonight’s draft. And now, let’s get rolling with my non-traded 12-selection mock draft–although, I don’t think Brown and his cohorts end up using all 12 picks.

 

 

  1. Joey Bosa, EDGE, Ohio State

Dropping down to pick No. 8 and still getting their likely top target would be a big win for the new Browns brain trust.

In-state defender Joey Bosa is well-known in Northeast Ohio, but he has much more appeal for the Cleveland Browns than his place of birth. He creates multiple problems for edge blockers and is capable of dictating where and how offenses attack his unit. His versatility would also give Ray Horton’s multiple-front scheme would a huge boost.

If Bosa is still on the board here, he should be the pick.

 

  1. Josh Doctson, WR, TCU

Wide receivers might not touch the ball every play, but when they do they need to be able to produce at the NFL level. Don’t let it fool you that Josh Doctson is hailing from a conference that spreads the field and plays little defense. Doctston is a well-rounded player with size and speed who has No. 1 receiver potential for whoever the Cleveland Browns deploy at quarterback in the coming years.

 

  1. Darian Thompson, S, Boise St.

The Browns need a playmaker in their secondary, and Thompson has shown flashes.

 

  1. Dak Prescott, QB, Miss St.

Barring injury or a change of events, Bob Griffin appears to be on track to lead Hue Jackson’s offense, at least in the near term. But Jackson and the Browns have been scouring the draft board for his backup and potential replacement.

Dak Prescott is a guy I have really liked throughout this year’s draft process, and is my third-ranked quarterback behind Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. He does everything well and is more polished from the pocket than I originally thought given his impressive mobility.

His arm is also plenty strong. When he sets and drives the ball properly, he can make every NFL throw.

 

  1. C.J. Prosise, RB, Notre Dame

Former Irish receiver C.J. Prosise is an all-around athlete who has every-down-back potential in the NFL. He has size, vision, plus pass-protect skills and is a proven commodity as a receiver.

 

  1. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame

Round 4 will be referred to henceforth as The Golden Domer round. Will all the unknowns in the Browns secondary–both starting safeties from 2015 are gone, and the depth behind Joe Haden and Tramon Williams was torched and embarrassed throughout much of 2015–this is a no-brainer. Russell is a polished player who could potentially surpass Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir before Week 1.

 

  1. Matt Ioannidis, DE, Temple

The Cleveland Browns need toughness on their defensive line, and Matt Ioannidis brings that if nothing else to the table. He can be coached up to be an eventual starter.

 

  1. Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia

Injuries have kept Malcolm Mitchell in school, but he finally appears to be over them and ready to make an impact in the NFL. He tests well, plays the position well and catches everything thrown at him. Like Ioannidis, Mitchell is one of my “bang-the-table-for” prospects in this year’s class.

 

  1. Antonio Morrison, ILB, Florida

Inside linebacker will be a continual need area for the Browns, so adding a promising depth player who can contribute early on special teams is ideal here. Antonio Morrison is an instinctive downhill tackler who has potential to be an eventual starter alongside Chris Kirksey.

 

  1. Aaron Wallace, OLB, UCLA

Aaron Wallace came on strong in 2015 as a senior pass-rusher, totaling 65 tackles, 12.5 TFL and 7 sacks. His best days of football are definitely ahead of him.

 

  1. Kyle Murphy, OT, Stanford

Injury caused Murphy to miss workouts this draft season. The Browns can hope the talented lineman lost some of his luster and will be available in the sixth round.

 

  1. Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio St.

Playmaker with untapped potential.

The Cleveland Browns are meeting with free agent linebacker Demario Davis.

Cleveland Browns Sign LB Demario Davis to 2-year Deal

The Cleveland Browns signed free agent inside linebacker Demario Davis to a two-year, $8 million contract with $4.2 million guaranteed, the team announced Wednesday. The Wednesday morning signing followed Davis’s Tuesday visit to Berea, Ohio.

Davis spent the last four seasons with the New York Jets and was a starter for the last three years.

“There’s a lot of positive energy in this building,” Davis said, per Andrew Gribble of ClevelandBrowns.com. “It seems like they’re ready to take this organization in the right direction. I felt nothing but positive vibes from (executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown) all the way down to the defensive coordinator and the head coach. I just felt like this was the best fit for me and my family. I wanted to be a part of what was going on here so I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Hearing the words positive and Browns in the same sentence may seem strange at this point given the unique approach new management has taken. But Davis’ comments and quick commitment after his one day meeting with the organization shows a glimpse behind the shroud of secrecy that gives some hope that the team isn’t on a collision course with rock bottom.

It was first reported on Tuesday that Davis was visiting with the team, according to Newsday’s New York Jets beat writer Kimberley Martin:

AP’s Tom Withers verified the meeting shortly after.

With veteran Karlos Danbsy inching closer to 40, and Craig Robertson testing the market, the inside linebacker position is one of dire need for the Browns. Not addressing it and rolling with Chris Kirksey, Dansby and Tank Carder into the draft isn’t a favorable situation.

Last week, it was reported as many as eight teams were interested in meeting with Davis, but there has been little chatter since the start of free agency.

In another offseason, negotiating with Davis one week into the new league year would be looked at as a solid move after the big money deals had already shaped the market. But after losing four key players and making seemingly little effort at replacing them, negativity has skyrocketed around the team’s new front office.

Davis, 27, was drafted by the Jets in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. While he struggled some in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus, he still finished second in tackles for the Jets. Despite playing heavily during the first 10 games, Davis slowly fell out of favor with the team down the stretch. He played just 16 snaps in the team’s pivotal season finale against Buffalo.

It’s hard to say what caused Davis to seemingly slump in a contract season, but it could work out for the Browns financially as they look to bolster the interior of their linebacker corps. Getting a still relatively young and experienced player with something to prove is a good way to maximize their investment in free agency. Signing Davis likely wouldn’t preclude the team from drafting another linebacker or bringing in others to compete.

The Cleveland Browns' new front office, Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown.

Cleveland Browns’ New Front Office Honeymoon is Over

It appears that the media’s honeymoon is over with the new Cleveland Browns regime, and the Love Boat has sprung a few leaks. With everyone from former Browns safety Tashaun Gipson to Adam Schefter, and from “unnamed agents” to new-former Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz’s brother taking potshots at the Browns new Cum Laude Management Group, only new head coach Hue Jackson and his coaching staff seem safe from criticism.

Popular thinking at the moment goes something like this: the Browns, namely Paul DePodesta, Sashi Brown, Andrew Berry and owner Jimmy Haslam, are losing free agency because they have not signed big-name free agents or re-signed their own players. To recap, the Browns are coming off a 3–13 season, and are sporting a new front office and coaching staff.

The ink one the players they have lost in free agency so far—Gipson, Schwartz, Alex Mack, Travis Benjamin and Johnson Bademosi—has barely had a chance to dry, but here we are.

Just last season there was popular sentiment advocating not just letting Schwartz walk, but cutting him since the Browns drafted Cam Erving in the first round. Schwartz had been the “weak-link” of the line since his second season. While he’s a solid player, the Browns aren’t better for letting him leave, but he is not and never was considered a “core member” of the Browns.

As for Gipson, during a 16-game span he was one of the best safeties in football. Unfortunately for him, those 16 games were during two seasons. Last year, Gipson was a ghost of himself with only two interceptions—one was ripped from his hands and secured in the redzone by Brandon Marshall—in his return to action after suffering a serious knee injury. Why pay him like he’s coming off a Pro Bowl season? He wasn’t. He was coming off a mediocre performance after having a devastating injury. For all the talk of his “ball-hawking” ability, Jim Leonhard looked just as good when he filled in for the injured Gipson a season ago. He seems like a great person, and he deserves his payday, but the 3–13 Browns do not need to overpay him.

Mack is in the same boat as Gipson. He had a so-so year after a devastating knee injury. By the way, when Mack signed his contract with Jacksonville last season it was obvious he didn’t want to be in Cleveland and wasn’t going to re-sign with the Browns. Articles were written about it at the time. As recently as a week and a half ago, an article stating: “if Mack opts-out of his contract, he won’t return to Cleveland” was published on a national sporting news site, yet there is surprise and outrage he left for Atlanta for a similar price as it would have taken to retain him. DePodesta and Brown inherited that mess, they didn’t create it. (Remember the Transition Tag fiasco former GM Ray Farmer caused?) It was obvious then, and it was just as obvious when he opted out that he wasn’t interested in the Browns, unless they were the highest bidder. Truth be told, he probably has a few Pro Bowl seasons left, but not in Cleveland. Bottom line, Mack didn’t want to be a Cleveland Brown.

Benjamin is the other “key” player who left via free agency. He had a really good year in 2015, but of his 10 career receiving touchdowns and 109 career receptions, five and 68 of those were last season, in a contract year. The Browns haven’t had a lot of depth at wide receiver in those four years, so you do the math. Congratulations to him, but the Browns need a more complete receiver.

Just a few weeks ago, articles surfaced about Jackson’s power within the Browns organization and how the team would rely on his experience for the new rebuild. Apparently, from the reactions we are seeing, Brown and DePodesta are holding him hostage threatening to beat him with their degrees if he contacts any potential free agents.

The truth is what the owner, front office, and coaching staff have said all along, “you build a winning team through the draft”, but nobody wanted to hear that as four “key” players walked out the door last week. They saw free agency, salary cap space, a new regime, and an owner with a quick-temper, and thought the Browns would go all out in free agency to try to buy a winner, or at least overpay for two unproductive players coming off major knee injuries and two players who have finally raised their game to passable in their contract seasons. The old 3–13 Browns would’ve done that, like outbidding themselves for Dwayne Bowe.

Ask yourselves if the Browns would be better if they were to overbid to keep Mack, Schwartz, Gipson, and Benjamin? For the upcoming season, maybe, but, in a year or two those contracts would seem like an anchor, pulling the team farther down into mediocrity. The Browns would be in the same position the Indians were in with Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, overpaying for underperforming players, saddled with bloated contracts to pay for what players did, not are doing and going to do. This new front office and coach seem to understand the Browns are far from being competitive, not a player or two away from competing—which is what good teams use free agency for, bad teams rely on free agency to cover up for poor draft picks—and have accepted that some of their players will leave for more money or a seemingly brighter future. Remember, winning free agency doesn’t equate to winning games.

NFL free agency target Brandon Brooks.

NFL Free Agency 2016: No-Brainer Targets for Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson said he wants to add two or three starters through NFL free agency in 2016. That’s not a sign that the team’s new regime plans on splurging or frivolously setting fire to their growing cap dollars.

Teams need to add quality players when they can, and finding those types—especially familiar faces from former locations who have succeeded in their system—in the prime of their career is a solid option. After all, the team is going to lose a couple starters who will not be re-signed, so Lewis’ comment doesn’t signal a drastic shift in the team’s philosophy of obtaining its core players though the draft.

It’s a conservative approach, if nothing else.

Adding a couple new starters, and replacing a couple that left, could look something like this for the Browns in a week or two once the dust settles on the NFL free agency market. I prioritized them in order of importance and dollars.

 

  1. Marvin Jones, WR, Bengals

There’s not much needing said here. Since January I have thought this was a fit that made too much sense not to happen. Jones meets an obvious need, is young and promising, and has the obvious connection to Jackson.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that Cleveland.com beat writer Mary Kay Cabot is reporting the team will pursue Jones in free agency.

Jones is just 25 years old and emerged last season after missing all of 2014 with an ankle injury. You could certainly argue his 65 receptions, four touchdowns and 816 yards could be amplified in Jackson’s system without standout receiver A.J. Green commanding the lion’s share of targets.

We’ll see if the Jackson connection is enough to lure the talented youngster away from Marvin Lewis and the success he enjoyed.

 

  1. Brandon Brooks, OG, Texans and Stefen Wisniewski, C, Jaguars

Brooks might command a big salary—potentially in the $6-$8 million range by my estimates—but he’d be a smart pick-up if Alex Mack does take a large contract elsewhere.

Despite having an uneven 2015 season, Brooks is arguably the best Texans interior offensive lineman. Bringing him in could allow the team to move John Greco to center, a position he has played for them in the past. Cleveland is also reportedly interested in former Oakland and Jacksonville center Stefen Wisniewski, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Clevleand.com.

Signing both Brooks and Wisniewski in NFL free agency could lower the blow of losing Mack and would be a positive step toward creating a more effective rushing attack. It would also make sense financially to get two intriguing 26-year-olds whose careers are still on the rise, for close to the same amount they’d spend on Mack as he begins to trend down in his 30s.

 

  1. Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Ravens

Upshaw didn’t light up the stat sheet during his four seasons with Baltimore from a pass-rushing perspective. But he did prove to be a tireless worker who missed no practices or games last season.

His two-sack contract year performance—a career high for him—will likely keep his price tag down, so it’d be wise for the Browns to at least arrange a meeting to try to steal him away from their divisional rivals. He has the ability to set the edge, and has played effectively in that role for some time now. That skill set is something that’s been absent on the Browns defense in recent years.

Scott Solomon, Barkevious Mingo, Nate Orchard and Paul Kruger make up a crowded group for Ray Horton’s outside linebacker position, but outside of Kruger none are proven and they have not lived up to their supposed talent levels.

I don’t think anyone would hate seeing Upshaw light up Ben Roethlisberger like he did in 2014, either:

 

  1. Zach Brown, ILB, Titans

Brown is flying low also in the lead up to NFL free agency and hasn’t really warranted as much attention as I thought he’d garner. There’s the connection to Horton and the Browns’ clear need for help at their interior linebacker position that makes me a bit intrigued by the former Tar Heel.

He’s been hyped in the past and hasn’t really emerged to live up to his potential. With another season under Horton, it’s possible he can bring it all together as he enters the prime of his career. Adding this versatile and still promising player to the mix with Karlos Dansby, Chris Kirksey and Tank Carder would be wise, especially if Craig Robertson is not re-signed. That group hardly inspires confidence.

Don’t be surprised if another linebacker is targeted as well, either in free agency or the upcoming draft. Another name that intrigues me is Demario Davis. He had, by most accounts, a “down year” for the Jets in 2015.

 

  1. Rhett Ellison, TE/FB, Vikings

Ellison is a guy I really covet who’s been used as a versatile H-back since his USC days. He’s useful as a lead blocker or in-line. Part of the problems the Browns’ running game faced last season were directly related to poor blocking from their rotational tight ends.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Ellison tore the patellar tendon in his right knee in early January. Teammate Adam Thielen weighed in soon after to laud his leadership and value to the Vikings.

“It’s huge. He’s a heck of a player. He’s a great leader. He does the dirty work that nobody else can do,” Thielen said. “He’s a tough guy to replace, but we’ll do our best.”

The Vikes are likely trying to find a way to retain him, but they just tendered fullback Zach Line, and his recovery makes things difficult. At the time of his injury it was estimated he would be fully recovered in six months following surgery. We’ll see if he gets a deal from the Vikings, becomes a target in NFL free agency or if teams wait and see on his recovery.

Cleveland Browns

Playing ‘Deal or No Deal’ With Cleveland Browns Free Agents

Holding the No. 2 overall pick creates heaps of hype and promise, but the new Cleveland Browns regime must ace their first free agency period before they ever get to being on the clock.

In order to build a competitive NFL roster, teams have to find a balance between drafting and cultivating talent, finding hidden gems, and then retaining those players. The Browns find themselves in a difficult situation this season as many of those homegrown talents will hit the open market. They’re free to leave to pursue more lucrative, or what some might call more competitive ventures elsewhere.

Before their unrestricted free agents (UFAs), and eventually restricted players who aren’t tendered and extended offer sheets can sign with new or former teams on March 9, I’ll predict who gets a deal in this Browns version of Deal or No Deal.

 

 

Cleveland Browns Free Agents: Deal or No Deal

Jim Dray, TE (UFA)—No deal, released on Feb. 18

Time for the Browns to find a higher quality second tight end. Look for them to address the position in free agency. Some possibilities include Rhett Ellison, Coby Fleener and Clay Harbor.

 

Craig Robertson, ILB (UFA)—Deal

Robertson has been serviceable and has certainly outplayed his undrafted status that originally brought him to the Cleveland Browns in 2011. He started 14 games for Ray Horton in 2013 while totaling 57 solo tackles and one interception. That familiarity and relative production makes me believe he’s a good bet to be brought back with Horton returning.

But let’s not pretend he’s a top-tier player at the inside linebacker position. I expect him to sign a short-term deal with little guaranteed money.

 

Tashaun Gipson, FS (UFA)—Deal

After contributing minimally as a rookie in 2012, Tashaun Gipson thrived in his second season under Horton, the new—and former—Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator.

Gipson has missed time due to injuries, but when he’s healthy he’s arguably an All Pro safety who can provide his coaches with flexibility due to his roaming and recognition skills.

Finding an agreeable dollar amount with Gipson’s agent has plagued new Cleveland Browns EVP Sashi Brown, though. It was Brown who, in his previous role with the organization, was responsible for negotiating contract extensions.

Something tells me Gipson’s ability, familiarity with Horton, and the team’s dire need for defensive playmakers—assuming he bounces back from an injury-plagued and unspectacular 2015 season—will help get a deal between the two sides done. That’s assuming he’s committed to making that happen.

 

Mitchell Schwartz, OL (UFA)—Deal

Schwartz has easily been a Top 10 right tackle for much of his career and is one of the team’s most important free agents. While it’s debatable, analytical site Pro Football Focus rated him the best right tackle in the NFL for his play in 2015. Their rankings aren’t the end-all of offensive line play, but you can’t discount their work entirely. They are the ones in the weeds watching every snap of every player and assigning number grades to them.

From my perspective, Schwartz was adequate but not perfect last season. No players are, either, at that position. Some emotions run high at times when mistakes are made, but Schwartz is more likely than not getting the job done on most plays.

Being just 27 when the season starts, he’s a candidate for a multi-year contract that’s front-loaded due to the plethora of near-term cap space the Browns have at their disposal.

If he’s willing to sign, letting him walk would be a mistake.

 

Johnson Bademosi, DB (UFA)—Deal

Bademosi is a special teamer ace, but he has no business playing cornerback—and in no universe should he ever be lined up against Antonio Brown. Let’s pretend he was poorly miscast at corner in Jim O’Neil’s defense, laud him for his special teams prowess and hope the new Browns regime sees his special teams value enough to get him re-signed.

He does have potential in the defensive backfield, though, and the team could explore moving him back to safety in a depth role while trying to tap into that.

 

Scott Solomon, OLB (RFA)—Tender

Solomon was a fringe player who was favored by Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil. His lack of experience and proven ability may prevent the team from issuing a tender, but they could re-sign him after the one-year deal if he proves it on the field this season.

 

Tank Carder, ILB (UFA)—No deal

Special Teams coach Chris Tabor got his way and kept Carder again in 2015, but we all saw again he’s not fit or even serviceable when forced into playing linebacker snaps. They need to find a young player with upside who can play special teams and contribute slowly but effectively on defense.

 

Randy Starks, DE (UFA)—No Deal, released on Feb. 18

Time to get John Hughes III and Xavier Cooper on the field more often. Starks is an aging veteran who flashed with some impact plays but was inconsistent and a non-factor for the majority of his logged snaps.

 

Austin Pasztor, OL (RFA)—No tender

Pasztor won’t likely be tendered and will be free to look elsewhere. There’s a possibility, like with Solomon, that the Cleveland Browns bring him back after he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

 

Don Jones, FS (RFA)—No tender

Jones isn’t a good bet to get a tender from the Browns. He’ll likely be replaced.

 

Terrelle Pryor, WR (RFA)—Tender

It’d be smart to issue an original round tender on Pryor—third round, supplemental draft pick. His raw potential and athleticism could morph into production this season, and there’s a good chance Hue Jackson is hoping he can get something out of his new and talented but still developing wide receiver.

 

Pat Devlin, QB (RFA)—No tender

Devlin will surely not be tendered, but he could come back eventually and stick around long enough to throw some passes in training camp. But there are plenty of other “arms for hire” who could fill that role.

 

Travis Benjamin, WR (UFA)—No deal

Benjamin is a specialist, albeit one who came on strong last season in a more expanded role. I still say he is replaceable and a one-dimensional talent whose production can be improved by signing someone or with a draft pick.

Ask yourself if you’d rather retain Benjamin and then draft Michael Thomas in Round 2 of April’s draft, or part ways, sign Marvin Jones and then draft a more complete player like Will Fuller from Notre Dame to fill the gap left by Benjamin. Jones is a proven talent and Fuller is a more well-rounded receiver who possesses game-changing speed.

No brainer.

 

Alex Mack, C (UFA)—No deal

The Browns should allow Mack to test the FA waters and either find out the grass isn’t greener outside Cleveland, or to find another team that’ll overpay the aging offensive lineman. Sure, he’s a vital player in the middle of the Cleveland Browns offensive line and one of the Top 5 in the league at that position, but if he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland or wants to cash out there’s no sense in forcing the issue and paying his ransom to keep him.

Let’s not pretend Mack was back to 100 percent last season, either. The team’s run game was poor, at best, and he’s approaching his peak. It’d be unwise to shell out a large, multi-year deal on a player potentially approaching the downward arch of his career.

I think Brown and his analytics team will see things this way.

 

Stand by, tomorrow I’m posting my no-brainer Browns free agent targets.

Gary Barnidge Added to Pro Bowl Roster

Gary Barnidge was added to the Pro Bowl roster on January 25, one day after Rob Gronkowski suffered an injury in the AFC Championship Game that will preclude him from participating. Rosters will be drawn on Wednesday, January 27, and the game will return to Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

Barnidge led the Cleveland Browns with 79 receptions, 1,043 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns—including one caught with his buttocks.

That butt-grab was the beginning of what would become one of the most prolific seasons by a Browns tight end, ever. It’s shocking a 30-year-old, in his second season in Cleveland, could shatter franchise and personal records after not producing much at all during his first seven seasons in the NFL. Here’s how his 2015 season stacks up against franchise history, per the team’s official press release:

“I am very appreciative of this honor,” Barnidge said. “It is a privilege to be able to represent the Browns and our great fans at the Pro Bowl. One of the best things about this is that I get to share this experience with Joe and Alex.”

Barnidge led the team with 79 receptions, 1,043 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns. His 1,043 receiving yards were the second-most by a Browns tight end in a season and his 79 receptions were the sixth-most by a Browns tight end in a season. Barnidge’s nine receiving touchdowns tied Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome (1979) for the most touchdown receptions by a Browns tight end in a season. Among NFL tight ends, he finished tied for second in third-down receptions (24), third in receiving average (13.2), third in 25-yard receptions (nine), third in receiving yards (1,043), fourth in receptions (79) and tied for fourth in touchdowns (nine).

Barnidge joins Newsome (three), Milt Morin (two), Kellen Winslow and Jordan Cameron as the only Browns tight ends selected to the Pro Bowl.

Barnidge is the third Browns player to be named to the 2016 NFL Pro Bowl after offensive linemen and perennial all-pros Alex Mack and Joe Thomas earned those honors.

Browns clean house, fire Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine

The Cleveland Browns fired general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine Sunday night, hours after the team’s 28-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Owner Jimmy Haslam released the following statement along with the team’s announcement:

“We greatly appreciate Ray’s and Mike’s dedication and hard work while with the Cleveland Browns. We’ve made this decision because we don’t believe our football team was positioned well for the future. We are all disappointed with where we are and we take full responsibility. We will approach the search for our next football coach and executives to lead our football operations with a clear vision regarding what we need to do to build a successful organization. We will be methodical in looking for strong, smart leaders with high character who are relentlessly driven to improve our football team, willing to look at every resource possible to improve, and who embrace collaboration to ultimately make the best decisions for the Cleveland Browns. We are fully committed to bringing our fans the winning organization they so clearly deserve.”

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport first reported Farmer’s ouster happened before the team’s matchup with Pittsburgh—which is weird, because he sat in a luxury suite at FirstEnergy Stadium for the duration of the game—and then local media reporters confirmed the canning moments later Sunday evening.

Pettine finished with a 10-22 record in two seasons with the team and lost 18 of his last 21 games.

Although Haslam said before this season he didn’t plan to “blow things up” by firing everyone in a leadership position, it’s impossible not to see the direction of the team trending downward under its now-former management group.

The team’s new general manager will be its sixth to hold the position in the last eight years.

 

 

Browns’ Loss Vaults Steelers to Playoffs

The final game was like a summary of the season. The Browns missed opportunities and  failed to score a touchdown to lose for the 18th time in the last 21 games. Trailing by five in the fourth quarter, Austin Davis fumbled, giving the Steelers a first and goal- which Pittsburgh quickly turned into a touchdown to put the game out of reach to finish off a 28-12 win over the Browns.

Cleveland finishes the season with its worst record since 2000 (3-13) and in position for the #2 overall draft pick in the draft this spring. The Steelers advance to the playoffs as the #6 seed thanks to the Bills beating the Jets 22-17.

And with reports that owner Jimmy Haslam will fire coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, the Browns have an off-season of many questions ahead once again.

“We fought our tails off,” said Pettine. “For the men in that room, they deserve better.”

The first question was not about the game, but about Pettine’s future.

“It’s a pass/fail league, ” the coach said. “Nobody wants to hear it takes time. Nobody wants to hear it’s a process. But that’s the situation that we’re in. I feel that there’s a good, young nucleus here.”

“If it does go the wrong way for me, that’s my biggest regret is not being able to deliver for these fans that have suffered for a long time.”

Pettine also denied the report from Friday that he asked Jimmy Haslam about his future with the team.

Give the Browns some credit. The Steelers needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Playing with third string QB Austin Davis and down two starting defensive backs, they kept the game within one score into the fourth quarter. Davis finished 24-46 with 240 yards, two interceptions and a fumble.

The Browns intercepted Roethlisberger twice and forced a fumble, but also turned the ball over four times. In addition to the turnovers by Davis, Raheem Mostert fumbled a kick return.

The Steelers held the lead from start to finish. After fumbling on their opening possession, the Steelers took over on downs and marched 8 plays and 70 yards, capping it off with a Ben Roethlisberger (24-36, 349 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) pass from two yards to Heath Miller for a 7-0 lead.

The Browns got an interception from Jordan Poyer  to set up their first score: a Travis Coons 29 yard field goal to make it cut it to 7-3.

Coons added another field goal from 39 yards to make it 7-6 with just under 2:00 left in the half.

The Steelers ran the two-minute drill and cashed in with a 17-yard strike to Antonio Brown to take a 14-6 lead with :58 left. Antonio Brown had big catches on the drive and finished with 13 for 187 yards and the one TD.

The Browns came close to finding pay dirt before the break after Terrelle Pryor made his first catch of the season for 42 yards. But after three incomplete passes, Coons’ 33-yard field goal made it 14-9 at the break.

The teams traded field goals in the third quarter. The Browns mounted a 17-play drive and controlled the ball for 11:32 in the quarter, but still had only three points to show for it.

The Browns fell apart in the fourth. Taking over at the one yard line, Davis completed a pass to Gary Barnidge out to the 20. But Davis fumbled, giving the Steelers prime field position. Roethlisberger hit Markus Wheaton with an 8 yard pass, and with the two point conversion to Fitzgerald Toussaint, it was a 25-12 Steelers lead.

Raheem Mostert fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which turned into a 39-yard Boswell field goal to make it 28-12.  Davis was intercepted by William Gay on the next possession and by then the game was out of reach.

Pittsburgh advances to the playoffs.  The Browns advance to another offseason of speculation.

 

Notes

WR Terrelle Pryor made his first catch as a Brown- a 42 yard grab that set up a field goal before halftime.

WR Taylor Gabriel left the game in the first quarter after leaving with a fractured orbital socket and could require surgery.

Steelers RB Deangelo Williams left the game with a leg injury in the first half  and did not return.

Travis Coons became the first Browns player with 100 points in a season since Phil Dawson in 2012.

Gary Barnidge went over 1000 yards on the season. He becomes the third TE in team history to reach the milestone joining Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow II.

 

Browns Inactives

Dwayne Bowe WR
Armonty Bryant OLB
Charles Gaines CB (girlfriend went into labor)
Johnny Manziel QB (concussion)
Marlon Moore WR (concussion)
Tramon Williams CB (concussion)
Glenn Winston RB (concussion)