Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Browns, who need to make sure their big Moneyball experiment works in 2016. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to the draft.
Key free agents
C Alex Mack, RT Mitchell Schwartz, WR Travis Benjamin, FS Tashaun Gipson, CB Johnson Bademosi
Players that must be re-signed
Schwartz, Benjamin, Gipson, Bademosi: Mack may have been the Browns' second-best lineman over the last few years, but he's unlikely to return. He opted out of his contract, and Cleveland believes it has an able replacement in 2015 first-round lineman Cameron Erving. Schwartz is the more solveable problem—he had a great 2015 season after a couple of rough early years, and he'll now be one of the most coveted blockers on the open market. As the importance of the right tackle position increases in today's NFL, the Browns may find themselves in a position to overpay. But losing a guy who developed under your watch just as he's finally become one of the best at his position? It's worth going to the high side of Schwartz's market value to prevent that from happening.
Similarly, Benjamin will be seen as a prized free agent candidate as his type of player (the smaller speed receiver) becomes more popular with the league's adoption of more three- and four-receiver sets. And similarly, it would behoove the Browns to keep Benjamin, who caught 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns in a breakout campaign despite a quarterback situation that was average at best and execrable at worst. Benjamin is also a dynamic return man, and he'd be a huge benefit to new head coach Hue Jackson, who has to redefine Cleveland's passing game.
Gipson had a rough season last year and played through injuries, but he'll turn 26 in August, and he has all kinds of upside. He'd be a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who returns to Cleveland after two years in Tennessee. Horton was Cleveland's defensive coordinator in 2013, the year Gipson became an impact starter. Bademosi is a reserve defensive back who has proven to be dynamic on special teams.
Most important position to improve
Quarterback: Where do we begin? The Browns will likely release Johnny Manziel as soon as the new league year begins on Wednesday, and there's no blaming the team for that. Manziel has completely worn out his welcome. Josh McCown is 36 (37 in July), and he's coming off a broken collarbone. The Browns have taken two quarterbacks in the first round over the last few years (Manziel in 2014; Brandon Weeden in 2012), and this is one of the main reasons owner Jimmy Haslam has decided to completely redefine the structure of the front office. In their time in the NFL, neither Weeden nor Manziel have shown anything approaching long-term starting quarterback traits.
The good news for the Browns is that they have the second pick in the 2016 draft and the Titans, who hold the top spot, won't be taking a quarterback with that selection. So, whichever of the draftable quarterbacks they like the best, they can have, or they can decide to go the free agency route. Either way, whichever quarterback ends up in Cleveland will have an able coach and mentor in Jackson. McCown is also willing to serve as a guide for a young QB, so there's never been a better time for this franchise to get it right at the game's most important position.
Other positions to improve
Receiver, pass-rusher, offensive line: Especially if they lose Benjamin in free agency, the Browns' offensive cupboard is pretty bare. Josh Gordon's suspension due to multiple off-field issues is still in play, tight end Gary Barnidge is the only truly reliable every-game receiver currently under contract, and running back Duke Johnson was the team's third-leading receiver behind Barnidge and Benjamin. The Browns signed Dwayne Bowe to a two-year, $12.5 million contract with $9 million guaranteed last year. Bowe didn't catch his first pass for Cleveland until November, at which point he was pretty much a week-to-week healthy scratch who was only on the field because Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins were injured. He finished with five catches for 53 yards on the season, and it would be surprise if he has a place on the 2016 Browns roster.
30-year-old defensive end Desmond Bryant led the Browns in sacks with six last season. Linebacker Armonty Bryant finished second with 5.5, but between his December arrest for possession of Adderall and Oxycodone and his four-game suspension in March for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs (he'd miss the first four games of the 2016 season if he's kept around), it's hard to know what will happen there. Linebacker Paul Kruger was a pressure machine, but those pressures didn't often turn into sacks, and the 30-year-old has a $7.7 million cap hit in 2016. The Browns would have to eat just $2.4 million of that if they released Kruger outright. Second-round 2015 pick Nate Orchard has potential and linebacker Chris Kirksey is an underrated factor in blitz packages, but more is needed here.
As for the line, it's been one of the rare points of stability for this team, but losing Mack (who didn't have his best season in 2015) and possibly Schwartz puts the franchise back on that trail.
Overall priority this offseason
Make the Moneyball stuff work: The Browns are choosing a completely different direction for the 2016 season (and, hopefully for them, beyond). After their 3–13 disaster of a season last year, they hired former baseball executive Paul DePodesta as Chief Strategy Officer in January, and totally reworked the front office. Sashi Brown, the new Executive Vice President of Football Operations, will work in tandem with DePodesta and a new front office, and new coach Jackson will be expected to bring that more analytical bent to the field. When I asked Jackson about the use of analytics in football and how he sees that working, he seemed to have bought in completely.
“I think everybody's so concerned about it—to me, I'm not,” he said. “I think it's just another tool. It's another tool for us to use in order to make better football decisions as we move forward. It's not going to drive our organization. It's not going to be the only thing we do to make decisions. I think it's just another opportunity for us to use something that maybe thinks outside of the box to see if we can become better than what we've been in the past. I think that's outstanding and I think it's a great thought by our organization.”
Jackson also put forth a zero-tolerance policy regarding off-field offenses, which likely leaves guys like Johnny Manziel and Armonty Bryant in the dust. The Browns have tried all kinds of philosophies over the last few seasons, but this is the first time that there seems to be a clear thread through it all, from the top down. Now, the challenge will be to prove it right on the actual football field.