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2012 Record: 5-11 Key Pending Free Agents: Sheldon Brown, DB; Josh Cribbs, WR; Phil Dawson, K; Scott Fujita, LB; Reggie Hodges, P; Kaluka Maiava, LB; Mohamed Massaquoi, WR; Juqua Parker, DL; Ben Watson, TE List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (6), 3 (68), 4 (101), 5 (132), 6 (165), 7 (196) Available Cap Space: $48 million GM/Coaching Moves: On Jan. 11, Rob Chudzinski was hired as the 14th full-time head coach in franchise history and the sixth since 1999; he had been the Panthers' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. ... NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi was named vice president of player personnel a week later; he previously worked for the Browns from 1987-95 in the personnel department. ... Former Chargers head coach Norv Turner was hired as the offensive coordinator. ... Former Cardinals coordinator Ray Horton will oversee the defense.
2012 Season Recap
The Browns haven't had a winning record since 2007, finishing no better than 5-11 in the past five seasons. They've had three head coaches during that span and finished in last place four times in the AFC North. The 2012 season was simply The Browns Way, which is a euphemism for utter dysfunction.
Rookie Brandon Weeden threw more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (14), and despite being 6-foot-4 had more passes batted down at the line of scrimmage (21) than any other quarterback in the league. The offense ranked 24th in points and 25th in yards, picking up fewer first downs than all but three other teams.
Cleveland opened with a heartbreaking 17-16 loss to the Eagles, with Michael Vick orchestrating a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, and things only got worse from there. The Browns committed 12 turnovers (nearly half of the season's 26) during an 0-5 start. They had just one winning streak, stringing together three victories from Week 12 to Week 14 over the struggling Steelers, Raiders and Chiefs. But the momentum quickly shifted. They closed the slate with a three-game skid, finishing 5-11 and in last place. Ahem, The Browns Way.
Stat To Feel Good About
3. The league ranking for the Browns' punt return average last season. Cleveland averaged 14.8 yards per return, better than the NFL average (9.7) and what playoff teams averaged (10). Josh Cribbs returned 38 of the 41 punts for 457 yards (12.03 per). Rookie Travis Benjamin handled the other three, taking one back for a 93-yard touchdown and averaging 49.7 yards per return. If Cribbs isn't retained in free agency, his replacement is evident.
If It Ain't Broke ...
Rookie running backs Alfred Morris of the Redskins and Doug Martin of the Buccaneers finished among the league's top 10 rushers last season, making it easy to forget about Trent Richardson. Taken by the Browns with the third overall pick last April, Richardson rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 51 passes for 367 yards and another TD. Had he picked up another 50 yards on the ground, he would have been the league's 17th back to rush for at least 1,000. Imagine what his production could have been with improved circumstances: he played nine games with broken ribs and ran behind a line that ranked 14th in run blocking efficiency, according to a Pro Football Focus analytics model. He was also a focal point for defenses. Excluding runs by quarterbacks, Richardson got the ball 73.4 percent of the time when Cleveland kept it on the ground.
The Browns should improve up front this offseason, and Richardson should get a boost next fall from new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Three players have led the league in rushing while playing for Turner. Emmitt Smith did it from 1991-93, when Turner was the offensive coordinator in Dallas. Ricky Williams did it in 2002, when Turner was the coordinator in Miami. LaDainian Tomlinson also did it in 2007 when Turner was the head coach in San Diego. Could Richardson blossom into one of the league's best backs?
52.2 percent. Opponents' conversion rate on third down against the Browns' defense in the red zone, the worst such mark in the NFL. For comparison, the league average was 38.8 percent.
Must Fix It
New defensive coordinator Ray Horton interviewed for head coaching positions this offseason, and he'll be a sure hire in 2014 if he can turn around the Browns' struggling unit. Where to begin? The Browns surrendered 3,923 passing yards, 25th in the league. The secondary did so despite being helped by a decent pass rush: The Browns ranked 11th with 38 sacks and held opposing quarterbacks to a 66.16 passer rating in blitz situations (the league average was 83.48). Signing a lockdown corner should be a priority.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cleveland had the league's second lowest percentage (15.6) of runs stopped for a loss or no gain. The unit struggled to get off the field -- opponents had a longer time of possession against the Browns than all but two other defenses allowed. The unit hardly ever set a tone (it ranked 30th in points allowed on the first possession of a half) and often failed in pressure-packed situations (it also ranked 30th in points allowed in the final two minutes of a half). The defense was ultimately liable to crumple at any moment: It ranked 27th in opponent quick strike drives, allowing 59 points on drives that lasted fewer than four plays.
More On The To-Do List
1. Don't draft another quarterback. Pulling the plug on Brandon Weeden, who experienced growing pains as a rookie last season and who turns 30 in October, wouldn't be a smart move. Is he the quarterback of the future? Maybe not. But in a draft that's weak on QBs, why waste a pick when Weeden (a first-rounder in 2012) and backup Colt McCoy can compete for the job? If not McCoy, then find another quarterback in free agency to challenge Weeden. At the very least, give Weeden a chance to grow in the new offense being installed by head coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner.
2. Find a veteran wideout. Free agent Mohamed Massaquoi showed promise early in his career, but never surpassed his rookie totals of 624 receiving yards and three TDs. Next season will be his fifth in the NFL -- it shouldn't be in Cleveland. Josh Gordon, an undrafted free agent, led the team with 805 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season. Despite dropping seven passes, second-year wideout Greg Little finished second with 647 yards and four TDs. Tight end Ben Watson was third (501 and three), but the nine-year veteran is now a free agent. Rookie Travis Benjamin was fourth (298 and two). The Browns need to acquire a veteran receiver in free agency to lead this young, malleable group.
3. Don't take a Pro Bowl kicker for granted. An unrestricted free agent who has played all 14 of his NFL seasons in Cleveland, Phil Dawson hit on a career-high 93.5 percent of field goals and went to his first Pro Bowl last season. Reports indicate that he may want to play closer to his home in Texas, or for a winning team, but the Browns should try to keep him.
What We'll Be Saying In July
The Browns have had just one winning season in the past decade, so merely finishing .500 should be considered a success in 2013. The past two head coaches, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur, were each given just two years on the job, but the focus should now be more long-term. By the end of Rob Chudzinski's contract (a reported five years) this team should be a regular playoff contender. Patience, however, will be required. This year's two most important facets are the draft -- a topic that will be endlessly debated and graded throughout the summer -- and Brandon Weeden. The second-year quarterback isn't a lock to be the starter, but last year's first round pick should be given every opportunity to prove himself before the Browns write him off as a sunk cost.
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