With the majority of the NFL's transaction action behind us, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar hand out grades for each team's off-season.
Chief among the Browns' goals this off-season were 1) figuring out their quarterback situation, 2) adding a few playmakers on offense and 3) stiffening up a defense that finished dead last against the run in 2014.
Go ahead and check off No. 3 for the time being. Cleveland picked up wholly underrated defensive tackle Randy Starks early in free agency, then further addressed their porous front by drafting 339-pound behemoth Danny Shelton. Those are two big steps in the right direction.
As for the whole issue of becoming more dangerous on offense, well ... the Browns tried. Leading the charge was a two-year, $12.5 million deal for wide receiver Dwayne Bowe—a potential bargain if Bowe's lack of production over the last three seasons (including a scoreless 2014) turn out to be Alex Smith-induced. Odds are, some combination of the Chiefs' overall issues in the passing game and Bowe's declining skills led to the letdown.
Cleveland is still going to ask Bowe to be its No. 1 threat, with fellow new arrival Brian Hartline handling the gig opposite him as Andrew Hawkins mans the slot. Is that enough to anchor the passing game?
“It doesn't matter if they're No. 1 or No. 2 as long as everyone is contributing,” said Bowe after signing his deal. “They just want to win. That's something the organization definitely needs now is winning, and they're putting in the right pieces to make that happen.”
The wide receivers' success, obviously, relies on what Cleveland can piece together at quarterback. Johnny Manziel attended the club's recent OTAs following a rehab stint, but veteran Josh McCown is penciled in as the starter coming off a horrendous 2014 stint with the Bucs. Neither option is all that appealing three months away from the season opener.
The Browns' most high-profile pickup came back in mid-March when they signed ex-Packers cornerback Tramon Williams for $21 million over three years. Williams's age (32) did not keep Cleveland from throwing cash his way, and he and Joe Haden together could be problematic for opposing offenses. That pairing relieves any pressure on Justin Gilbert to take a massive leap in his second year.
It has been a long, uphill climb for Cleveland, which has not finished above .500 since 2007 and has not reached the postseason since 2002. While the tweaks ought to be helpful, the finished product is still a while away.
Best acquisition: Danny Shelton, DT
The Browns surrendered 141.6 rushing yards per game last season, allowing 12 of their 16 opponents to top the century mark on the ground (and three teams to go for 200-plus yards). They were mentioned as a possible landing spot for coveted free agent Ndamukong Suh, if for no other reason than that he seemed the quickest way back to respectability along the line.
Instead, Cleveland scored Starks and Shelton, two likely starters for far less than the price of one Suh. Shelton is powerful enough to handle run-stuffing duties, but GM Ray Farmer recently said the hulking Washington product might be a three-down guy.
“He’s gone against elite competition and played well,” coach Mike Pettine told the team's website. “I think he’s an example of you believe the tape more than you believe the stopwatch or tape measure.”
Facing an AFC North slate in which Le'Veon Bell, a Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard tandem and the resurgent Justin Forsett are all capable of dominating between the tackles, the Browns had to fortify themselves at the point of attack. After Ahtyba Rubin left for Seattle following a disappointing, injury-plagued year, none of the remaining interior options stood out as obvious upgrades.
Shelton is, or at least he should be.
Biggest loss: Jordan Cameron, TE
Cameron caught all of 24 balls in 2014 and missed more than a quarter of the season because of a concussion. So the Browns may not feel his absence as badly in 2015 as they did last season, when they were counting on Cameron as a go-to weapon.
[daily_cut.nfl]Nevertheless, a healthy Cameron would have been right there with Bowe—and probably a step ahead of him—as the team's toughest coverage assignment had he opted to re-sign. The Browns are counting on Rob Housler to step into Cameron's vacated role. Housler spent last year as an afterthought in Arizona, finishing with just nine receptions.
Even in a perfect world, Housler will be hard-pressed to challenge the 80 catches, 917 yards and seven touchdowns Cameron delivered back in 2013. Until Housler proves himself a bit as a pass catcher, defenses will not adjust to his presence on the field the way they did when Cameron was cooking.
Underrated draft pick: Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern (round 4, pick No. 115)
Amid all the discussion of this draft's thin safety class, players like Campbell slipped under the radar. He was a 45-game, four-year starter at Northwestern and has the skills to be a versatile contributor at the next level.
There may not be a ton of playing time available for Campbell early, what with Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner locked into the starting lineup. But Campbell can drop down and cover running backs or tight ends, so the Browns could have space for him on passing downs. At worst, he'll be a missile on special teams with the potential to develop into far more.
The Browns also used a late pick on Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, once a projected first-round talent who shredded his knee just before the Rose Bowl. Should he ever regain his pre-injury form, that selection could go down as one of the bigger steals in franchise history.
Looming question for training camp: How will offensive coordinator John DeFilipo share the wealth in the backfield?
En route to a surprising 7–4 start, Cleveland discovered part of its future at running back. Third-round pick Terrance West and undrafted signee Isaiah Crowell combined for 1,280 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns to send anticipated starter Ben Tate to the sidelines. They'll be joined this year by another third-round selection, Duke Johnson.
Already, Johnson has opened some eyes.
“There was one of the runs in the team period that unless we were playing flag football that would have been a 40- or 50-yard chunk,” coach Mike Pettine said after a recent OTA practice, via Ohio.com. “He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s probably a typical rookie where he is right now. I think we’ve all seen what he can bring—the explosiveness and how we can turn a handoff or a short pass into a significant gain with a back like that.”
How many touches will be available for Johnson, and at whose expense? Of the Browns' combined 751 rushing attempts and receptions last season, 339 came via either West or Crowell—a 45% usage rate. The offense ran the ball 477 times overall, sixth most in the league, so that number does not figure to climb much, if at all.
Johnson's best shot at early playing time should come through the passing game. He caught 38 passes last season at Miami, averaging 11.1 yards per catch; West and Crowell combined for 20 grabs, and West finished at a measly 5.8 yards per catch.
DeFilipo and Pettine could go to a revolving door for carries. That's more or less how Cleveland played it last season: Crowell had nine games with double-digit rushing attempts to West's eight.
The good news for the Browns is they have talent to spare. Now they just have to get everyone on the field.