The Browns will likely finish the season 4-12. It’s been 12 years since the Browns have made the playoffs and not since 2007 have they been competitive, or have had a winning record. But they’re not that far off from being competitive.
The Browns have many of the right, talented pieces in place. With a few free agent signings and a good draft, the Browns, for the first time in six years, could be a competitive football team. With the AFC North not what it used to be, the Browns could make the jump from worst to first.
But in order to do so, they need to fill all of their off-season needs, starting at the quarterback position. To make a quick jump to relevancy and finally finish the rebuilding process that’s been going on since 1999, the Browns need to do the following:
1. Draft a quarterback, and get it right. Since 1999, the Browns have had 20 different starting quarterbacks. While Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell will both be back next year, neither should be the starter. The Browns need to draft the quarterback of the future in the 2014 NFL Draft, but unlike in year’s past, they need to get this one right. Derek Carr of Fresno State, Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Blake Bortles of UCF, will all be possibilities when the Browns make the first of two first round selections come April, and which ever one they select, he needs to be the guy. He doesn’t have to be a superstar from day one, but he has to be the quarterback of the future, a starting NFL quarterback that can keep the Browns competitive in the regular season and playoffs for years to come, and one day, hopefully lead the Browns to the Super Bowl.
2. Re-sign T.J. Ward and Alex Mack. Currently ranked as Pro Football Focus’s No. 2 safety, Ward is having a spectacular season with 104 tackles, 2.0 sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and two touchdowns. Ward is the heart and soul of the Browns defense. Mack, on the other side of the ball, anchors the offensive line with tackle Joe Thomas. Mack, according to Bleacher Report, is one of the top 5 centers in the league. The Browns need to re-sign Ward and Mack to keep two of their best players at their respective positions.
3. Add another wide receiver. Whether it’s through the draft or via free agency, the Browns need another wide receiver to complement Josh Gordon and prevent him from getting double or triple covered on every play. Greg Little should not be with the team after the season, which leaves the Browns with Gordon, Davone Bess and Josh Cooper as the main wideouts, along with Jordan Cameron at tight end. A third receiver would open up the passing game for the Browns giving the future quarterback more options down field. If the Browns look towards free agency to sign a wideout, Eric Decker and Hakeem Nicks are possibilities. If the Browns decide to draft a receiver, Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Marquise Lee of USC and Mike Evans of Texas A&M are possibilities in the first round, while Odell Beckham Jr of LSU, Allen Robinson of Penn State and Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin are possibilities in the second and third rounds.
4. Add a running back. The Browns running game has been pitiful since Trent Richardson was traded. This year they only have four rushing touchdowns, less than some rushing quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Geno Smith. The Browns are ranked 27th in rushing in the NFL, averaging a meager 86.9 yards per game. Even with the NFL transitioning to a more wide open passing game, a rushing attack is important. Right now, the Browns have two running backs on the roster, that will be with the team next year, Dion Lewis, currently on the injured reserve, and Chris Ogbonnaya. The Browns need to go after a running back, whether it’s through the draft or via free agency. Many writers and insiders have speculated that the Browns will go after Maurice Jones-Drew or Ben Tate in free agency. If they elect to take one in the draft, Ka’Deem Carey of Arizona or Carlos Hyde of Ohio State are mid-round possibilities.
5. Add another offensive lineman. If the Browns re-sign Alex Mack, they still need to add another offensive lineman. Oniel Cousins and Shawn Lauvao are free agents and neither are expected nor should be re-signed. Looking at the Browns current roster, they should have 6 or 7 returning offensive lineman if Mack is re-signed. Mitchell Schwartz, a former second round pick, has been a weak spot along the line so adding a tackle, along with a guard to replace Lauvao would strengthen the depth of the offensive line. The Browns probably won’t sign a big name free agent as they will look to spend their money elsewhere, but will look to add a lineman in the middle rounds of the draft, such as Jack Mewhort of Ohio State, and/or a lower tier free agent. Additionally, Chris Faulk, an undrafted free agent who’s been on the injured reserve the entire year, and who’s been compared to Andrew Whitworth by CBSSports, could claim a place on the line when he returns.
6. Add a cornerback. While Buster Skrine has improved this season, the Browns still only have three cornerbacks on the roster: Joe Haden, Leon McFadden and Skrine and could use more depth and another playmaker at the position. Too often Skrine or another backup defensive back is beaten on third down, resulting in an opponent’s drive continuing. Another playmaker at defensive back would help to change this. They probably won’t add a top-flight free agent, but the Browns could look to add a top cornerback in the first few rounds of the draft, depending on where they find their offensive play makers. In the late first round, with the pick acquired from Indianapolis, Darqueze Denard of Michigan State or Ifo Ekpre-Olomu of Oregon are a possibilities, or Bradley Roby of Ohio State or Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State are mid-round possibilities.
7. Give Joe Haden, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron long-term contracts. Cameron and Gordon on offense, along with Haden on defense are key cogs of this team and excellent players. Both Haden and Cameron would be free agents in 2015 and Gordon in 2016. While it may seem far off, these three players, along with the future quarterback, are the face of this franchise. They need to be kept in Cleveland and given long-term contracts so that the Browns can keep their best players on the team. While these contracts don’t need to be done this offseason, it should be a priority to re-sign them all before their contract year.
If the Browns are able to fill all of these needs, with good players fit for their system, while re-signing the players they already have, the Browns should be competitive next year and remain competitive for years to come.