Offseason Report Card: Cleveland Browns
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
Another year, another upheaval in Cleveland. For the third straight season, the Browns enter a campaign with a new head coach (former Bills defensive coordinator and longtime Jets assistant Mike Pettine), and for the third straight season, there's a new front office in tow, with general manager Ray Farmer essentially replacing team president Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi, who replaced team president Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert the year before. With an owner in Jimmy Haslam who has seen more than his share of federal inquiries for his non-football business endeavors, and may want to make more football decisions than he is qualified to do, it's hard not to see the Browns' moves as a recycling of the strategies that have netted the franchise just two winning seasons since the NFL put a team back in Cleveland in 1999, and no more than five wins in a season since 2007. Still, Farmer seems resolute -- and optimistic -- in the face of all potential issues, including the recent revelation that franchise receiver Josh Gordon has failed yet another drug test and might not play at all in 2014 as a result.
"It's all about winning," Farmer said when he was promoted from assistant GM in February. "We need to find a way to win games and develop a championship-level football team. I know, trust and believe in Jimmy Haslam ... and that we are going to make Cleveland proud going forward ... We need to get away from the negativity and get to the point where people are proud of the Cleveland Browns and what the organization stands for."
Such relentless positivity would seem to be a prerequisite for a team that doesn't appear to have a rudder, and definitively has had more than its share of problems in recent years. The Browns have talent on their roster, and Pettine is a go-getter, but is there enough to crawl out of the basement in the AFC North?
The Browns had the cap space to be aggressive in free agency, and they were, with linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner among the more notable additions. They also matched center Alex Mack's lucrative offer sheet and signed cornerback Joe Haden to a contract extension, both major priorities. They then made Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel the centerpieces of their draft, trading a third-round pick to the Eagles to move up to take Manziel 26th overall. But the lack of receivers brought in through any channel when the team knew of Gordon's potential plight has to be a major debit.
Offseason grade: D
Best acquisition: Karlos Dansby, LB.
It's safe to say that after Daryl Washington's long suspension, the Cardinals wish they hadn't been so cavalier about Danby's future -- now, they have neither of their excellent inside linebackers from the 2013 season, and the Browns have Dansby, which will be a great improvement for their defense. Dansby ranked fifth among all inside linebackers last season, regardless of scheme, and he logged career-highs in tackles (114), interceptions (four) and passes defensed (19). Though he'll be 33 in November, Dansby has a lot left in the tank, and he'll be a major factor in Pettine's hybrid defenses.
Biggest loss: Josh Gordon, WR.
It's not yet known how long Gordon will be suspended after his latest failed drug test, but he's already in Stage Three of the NFL's substance abuse program, and the future does not look bright. And it doesn't look bright for Cleveland's passing game either, because Gordon was talented enough to have caught 87 passes for a league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns despite a decidedly mediocre quarterback rotation. The Browns didn't do much to prepare for Gordon's absence, and that leaves Cleveland's quarterback du jour, whoever he may be, in the lurch.
Underrated draft pick: Pierre Desir, CB.
It's possible that Desir was more undervalued than underrated in this draft -- the Division II star from Lindenwood University dominated lesser competition, and showed up very well at the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl weeks.
“What I’ve been telling people is that I did play in Division II, but I made a lot of plays, and I was able to translate that to the All-Star Games,” Desir told me in May. “Making plays in practice [at the East-West Shrine Game] and then getting invited to the Senior Bowl, and getting an interception in the Senior Bowl. For me, whether I was playing against D-II guys or D-I guys, I was still going to make plays. My level of competition was not an issue.”
With Haden and Gilbert as the starting cornerbacks, Desir may have to find his home in the slot, but he has the talent and size to make that a reality. Over time, those teams that passed on him may learn to regret it.
Looming question for training camp: Can anybody play quarterback around here? The move to select Manziel illustrated that the franchise understands it doesn't have a quarterback that was believable as a long-term solution. Former first-round bust Brandon Weeden signed with the Cowboys, Brian Hoyer is trying to come back from the torn ACL that shortened his 2013 season, and though word is that Hoyer is ahead of Manziel in OTAs, that's to be expected at this point. If Manziel isn't the Week 1 starter, it would be a major surprise -- and then, it will be up to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to try to move his offense in sync with Manziel's mobility and sometimes random play, as he did with Robert Griffin III in 2012.