Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's all up to the defense
If the Browns expect to make strides on defense this season, they must complete two tasks: Flat out stop the run, then get up close and very personal with opposing quarterbacks.

That’s all. It’s that simple.

The offense, as we already know, will take baby steps before we find out what personality emerges. That could take at least half the season as Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson acclimate themselves to the National Football League.

The defense, meanwhile, needs to keep the team in games this season, much as it did last season when the offense resembled something out of high school.

That defense ranked a very deceptive 10th overall in the NFL last season, thanks in large part to the No. 2 ranking against the forward pass. That was more than balanced by their No. 30 rank against the run.

Same old, same old vs. the run. No matter who they bring in, opposing teams run almost at will against them. Been that way for a very long time.  Opponents don’t need to throw the ball in order to be effective.
A closer examination reveals the Browns were thrown against last season fewer times than just one team. Is it any wonder they wound up with a very deceiving No. 2 ranking?

So what did Tom Heckert Jr. do to rectify the situation? Dipped into the free-agent market for defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Yes he did. Whoop-dee-do. Order your playoff tickets now.

Rucker is supposed to help the pass rush. Only one problem, He’s much better against the run. The Browns expect him to be a whole lot better than Jayme Mitchell, last season’s disappointment on the flank. Parker, a lot closer to the end of his career than just about anyone on the roster, is an over-the-hill third-down pass-rush specialist.

The general manager then drafted defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn, both of whom will have trouble arriving in the same zip code as the opposing quarterback. Once again, Heckert seems to have loaded up on run stuffers who have trouble stuffing the run.

It’s almost as though Heckert is throwing as much run-stopping stuff against the board as he can in hopes of coming up with one or two guys who might actually force the opposition to throw the ball more.

As for the pass rush, the Browns last season had 32 sacks, a modest number that needs to increase substantially. In the last 10 seasons, they have cracked the 35-sack barrier just once. That was in 2009, when they racked up 40 in Eric Mangini’s first season as coach with crazy Rob Ryan as his defensive coordinator.

In order for the Browns to have a shot at respectability this season, they must reach a happy medium on defense. They cannot continue to give up 145-150 yards of real estate on a weekly basis. And they cannot continue to allow quarterbacks to scan the field for 8-10 seconds and play dial-a-receiver.

That has got to change. If it doesn’t, it makes no difference how quickly Weeden & Co. adjust to the professional game. It’s going to be yet another long season.

Men far smarter than I have said offense is all about finesse and timing, and defense is all about aggression. No argument here. It’s also been said that offense win games and defense wins championships. Again, no argument.

How the Cleveland defense performs this season will determine just where the club will be on that late December Sunday in Pittsburgh when the Steelers most likely will try to put a bow on another successful season.

That’ll undoubtedly be because of a well-balanced offense and a solid, aggressive and opportunistic defense, qualities to which the Browns should aspire.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

There's no controversy

What controversy?

There is no controversy.

Elements of the media community have attempted to label the Browns’ quarterback situation a controversy.

It’s not.

Really, it’s not.

It isn’t chiseled in granite yet, but Brandon Weeden will be under center, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, on Sept. 9 at Cleveland Stadium when the Philadelphia Eagles come to town.

Now Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. say they want Weeden to be in that place on that Sunday afternoon, but won’t come out and say it is definite.

That’s because they are walking a fine line of trust with Colt McCoy. And because of that, just about everyone in the media community scares up the word “controversy” when discussing the Cleveland quarterback situation.

All Holmgren and Heckert are doing is fanning the flames.

The club, of course, will say there’s no controversy. There will be the other C word: competition.

Coach Pat Shurmur has been placed in the uncomfortable position of having to mollify McCoy, who no doubt will force the issue at some point in training camp when it becomes apparent there is no competition.

That is if he is still with the club.

The only controversy regarding the quarterbacks is which style of offense the Browns choose to use this season with a quarterback who is a virtual stranger when placing his hands under center.

Oh sure, we heard Weeden looked good when working under center during OTAs. But when there is no pass rush and everyone is in shorts and a helmet, you’d look good under center, too.

So the Browns are faced with a dilemma. Do they try to put Weeden on the fast track to learn the pro-style offense? Or do they attempt to make him more comfortable in his rookie season by incorporating the spread offense he ran so successfully at Oklahoma State?

The rookie ran nearly 100% no huddle at OSU. After too many seasons of stodgy, almost predictable, offensive football, could a no-huddle approach be in Cleveland’s football future? The thought titillates.

With a guy like Weeden, whose comfort and confidence level rises when he’s in the shotgun, that’s a distinct possibility. It worked in Carolina last season when Cam Newton shocked the National Football League with a sensational rookie season.

For that to happen with the Browns, however, the offensive coaching staff would have to swallow hard and throw conventional football out the window. It’s an old dog/new tricks kind of thing.

Now that would be controversial.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fair competition? Really? 
Colt McCoy is being played by the hierarchy of the Browns and he knows it. Right now, he’s being a good soldier.

At the current full-team OTAs bring conducted by the Browns, the young quarterback is saying all the right things even though he knows what will soon unfold.

He has been told there will be an open competition for the starting quarterback job this season. After drafting Brandon Weeden, the Browns, according to McCoy, told him to “just come in here and compete.”

McCoy says that’s what he wanted to hear. “As a competitor, that’s all you need to hear,” he told reporters Tuesday. “As long as I’m given an opportunity to compete, it’s a fair competition.”

But he has to know this is nothing more than a sham. He has to know Weeden will be given every opportunity to win the job and he and Seneca Wallace will just be bystanders as they watch that little scenario unfold.

It’s not going to be fair at all. You don’t draft a soon-to-be 29-year-old quarterback who reinvented himself after a failed professional baseball career and assign him to clipboard patrol.

McCoy is no dummy. Pressed by the media to respond to an ESPN report that indicated the Browns told him they wouldn’t take a quarterback in the first round of the college draft, he demurred.

“I don’t want to get onto that he-said, she-said stuff,” he said. “I’m here, I’m excited to be here and we had a great first day of OTAs.”

Brave front from McCoy, who deserves much better treatment from his front office than he has received. What else could he say after being hung out to dry by his bosses?

Sure, he could lash out and call them what they are: a bunch of prevaricators. They have no more intention of giving him a fair shot at a winning a starting job than Wallace. It’s not going to happen.

Weeden will get the majority of snaps once training camp begins in late July. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it has to be if the Browns are going to make any noise in the AFC North this season.

And when it becomes apparent that the open competition is not really open, McCoy, if he’s still with the club, might not be so diplomatic. He probably will shed the good-soldier garb for something much more dramatic.

For the time being, though, he’s trying to cool down what many fans and members of the media (including yours truly) consider a hot button. It could be because he hopes there is another team out there that might want to take a chance with him.

Continue playing the good soldier is the correct path to take. Don’t become the center of attention in a negative way. Deflect all the controversy in another direction. That’s the smart thing to do.

It would be so tempting to lash out at Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr.  But sometimes, you have to remain above the fray. This is one of those times and McCoy will be better off for it even though he knows fair competition will have nothing to do with it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not quite yet for the OL
In light of some of the platitudes being handed out to the Browns’ relatively new-look offensive line, time to take a different look at the men up front.

Different as in more realistic. Different as in let’s not get too carried away.

There is no question the Cleveland offensive line will be better this season. But in relative terms, that’s not saying very much because that group of plug uglies up front was bad last season. So there’s nowhere to go but up.

They had problems protecting their quarterback. They had problems opening holes for their running backs. It started early in the season and remained throughout. Their ineffectiveness was their only consistency.

Losing guard Eric Steinbach for the season to back surgery didn’t help. He and tackle Joe Thomas formed a formidable left side of the line. Playing next to rookie Jason Pinkston had a detrimental effect on Thomas’ performance last season.

Yes, he was elected to the Pro Bowl team again and was named on a few All-Pro teams. That’s what a solid reputation will do for a player.

But Thomas was not the best offensive tackle in the National Football League last season. While he is far and away the Browns’ best offensive lineman, his play has leveled off the last couple of seasons.

Jason Peters of Philadelphia, Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo, Jake Long of Miami and the Tennessee Titans’ David Stewart had better seasons with Cincinnati’s Andrew Whitworth and Branden Albert of Kansas City not far behind.

We have a tendency to be loyal to our own to an almost total disregard to everyone else. Thomas was beaten several times last by quick pass rushers and picked up a few false start penalties, a problem he avoided his first few seasons.

Reason for the optimism this season is the return of veteran center Alex Mack, Pinkston and fellow guard Shawn Lauvao, and the drafting of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Pinkston and Lauvao, coming off their first season as a starter, are ostensibly one year smarter and one year better.

Schwartz, on the other hand, arrives with a reputation of playing with attitude, which can never be mistaken for a weakness. He brings size (6-6, 320 pounds) and is thought to be the missing piece to the offensive line puzzle.

For the first time in way too many years, the Browns will start the season with at least 80% of the offensive line intact from the previous season. In the world of professional football, unit familiarity is extremely important.

In order to be effective, an offensive line needs to be cohesive in all aspects. All the parts need to be working in unison. One slipup, one mistake and it all falls apart. All it takes is one error.

That’s why it is important that Pinkston and Lauvao must avoid the inconsistencies of 2011. They need to improve their games substantially in order for the line to have a chance at living up to expectations.

Frankly, I don’t see that happening. There weren’t enough glimpses of hope from the play of Pinkston and Lauvao last season to lead me to believe that’s going to happen this season. Unless, of course, they surprise everyone and hike their games to unexpected levels.

Schwartz will run into typical rookie problems. Playing the strong-side tackle, he’ll face his share of quick edge rushers. And that’s the weakest part of his game. He’s a grinder in the ground game, but his footwork in pass protection leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s difficult to see where all that optimism about the offensive line comes from. Perhaps it’s that the Browns’ line is one of the youngest in the NFL, averaging 24½ years old. Thomas is the graybeard at 27, Mack is 26, Pinkston and Lauvao are 24 and Schwartz is 22.

With youth, however, come mistakes. Along with those mistakes, especially on the offensive line, come losses. How quickly this line matures will go a long way in stemming the losing tide that has gripped Browns Nation.

This might be the unit that eventually leads the way to bigger and better things. But it might just take a little longer than most people think or want to believe.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Weak wideouts still a problem
If the Browns are honest with themselves, they’ll admit the weakest area on the team after the college draft and free-agent signings is wide receiver.

Mike Holmgren is in the middle of an extended stay in the blissful state of denial about his team’s wideouts, believing the coming change at quarterback will solve most, if not all, the problems.

The club president has taken General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. and coach Pat Shurmur along on this little ride into fantasyland. That’s clearly obvious since neither the GM nor coach has talked his notion back.

OK, so Holmgren knows quarterbacks. At least he did until coming to Cleveland, where his track record is taking somewhat of a beating. He is clearly gambling that rookie Brandon Weeden will step right in and help validate his assessment of the wide receivers.

He expects Weeden to turn Greg Little, Mo Massaquoi, Joshua Cribbs, Jordan Norwood and the tight ends into something other than what they were last season: mediocre at best.

Never mind the fact that they nearly led the National Football League in dropped passes last season. Or that they ran lazy routes. Or that they often times ran the wrong routes. Or, in the case of Massaquoi, had trouble getting off the line of scrimmage.

That’s not all the fault of the quarterback. In those cases, they made Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace look worse than they actually were.

If Little, Massaquoi, Cribbs, Norwood, rookie Travis Benjamin and the tight ends play anywhere near  the same way this season, Weeden’s baptism in the NFL is going to be awfully painful.

It is incumbent on assistant coaches Mike Wilson (wide receivers) and Steve Hagen (tight ends) to correct the flaws that hampered the receivers last season. They must eliminate the little, nagging mistakes that prevented McCoy and Wallace from putting up better numbers in 2011.

Weeden will have enough pressure stepping into the starting role as a rookie. And this time, he won’t have Justin Blackmon to bail him out as he did at Oklahoma State the last couple of seasons.

The new quarterback will need all the help he can get with an offense that requires precision. As displayed last season in the Browns' first dalliance with the west coast offense, bad timing was a major factor.

Optimists say it can’t be any worse than last season. Oh yes it can, especially with a rookie who has never operated in this offensive system. It’s going to take time – and a massive amount of patience – before the new Cleveland offensive motor hums quietly and efficiently.

But it’ll never happen unless the receivers on this team start playing the kind of football that makes opposing defensive coordinators take notice.

Having Trent Richardson behind Weeden and an improved offensive line will go just so far in resurrecting the moribund Cleveland offense. If the ghosts of last season’s receiving corps show up, Weeden’s rookie season will be memorable in a most unkind way.

So let’s not get too comfortable with that corps until we see more than just marginal improvement. They’ve got a lot of ground to make up and very little time in which to do it.

And you can bet Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur will be watching intently.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Good start
First impressions mean a lot. In life. In business. On a football field.

Make a good first impression and the rest kind of falls into place.

That’s why Browns fans are so sanguine after the club’s rookie minicamp last weekend in Berea. Just about everyone, based on reports, came way feeling awfully good about the 2012 season.

And why shouldn’t they.

Brandon Weeden threw the football as no quarterback has done for the Browns since the departure of Derek Anderson. Throws were sharp, traveled long distances and found their targets with a large degree of consistency.

Trent Richardson looked every bit the part of the new face of the franchise, unanimously impressing the assembled media and club personnel with his startling physical characteristics. Looks like a rookie-of-the-year in the making.

Mitchell Schwartz arrived as advertised. Big. Strong. Ready for the National Football League. Impressive young man. 

James-Michael Johnson did not look like a middle-round draft choice, placing his versatility on display by playing all three linebacker spots with equal comfort. Haven’t seen that since can’t remember when.

Travis Benjamin did not disappoint with three different speeds: Fast, faster and whoa, did you see that? Brings to the team a dimension it has missed since can’t remember when.

John Hughes said all the right things after learning Phil Taylor is done for the season and he might have a solid shot at starting. Prefers to let his actions do most of his talking. Gotta like that.

Brad Smelley, almost a draft afterthought, does not look like a late seventh-round pick. Probably because he comes from a college program at Alabama that prepares its players well for the NFL.

Billy Winn showed why many believe he was better than the sixth-round pick the Browns used to get him. He will provide a strong challenge for Hughes for the void at defensive tackle.

Then there are Josh Cooper and Bert Reed, a couple of wide receivers who are total opposites except for the fact they were signed as undrafted free agents. Cooper, Weeden’s second-favorite target at Oklahoma State, is a possession guy. Reed  is a burner. Both impressed in the minicamp.

And if there’s one area that definitely needs improvement, it’s wide receiver. That’s why both of these young men have a good shot at being on the receiving end of more than a few of Weeden’s passes this season.

Right now, just about everyone looks good. That’s because they strutted their stuff in shorts and a helmet. The same accolades are echoed in other NFL rookie minicamps. Expect more of the same when the veterans join the rookies in OTAs and the bigger minicamp.

We’ll know a whole lot more about these kids when the rest of the uniform is put on in summer training camp and the hitting commences. But for now, let’s enjoy what we see in anticipation of what’s to come.

Let’s see if Weeden can snap off those throws with arms and hands in his face and would-be sackers hanging on to him; if Richardson, with that almost-perfect mesamorph body of his, can shrug off tacklers as nothing more than nuisances; if the rail-thin Benjamin can actually get off the line of scrimmage; if Schwartz is quick enough to handle quicker defensive ends; if Johnson, Hughes and Winn can bring the attitude the Cleveland defense badly needs.

Let’s see whether Smelley and Cooper and Reed and someone who leaps up from out of nowhere and becomes the big surprise of training camp can make a difference once the full equipment is on.

That’s what makes this time of the year so fascinating. The unanswered questions. The unknown. All of which spawns optimism.

And why not? The Browns are tied for first place in the AFC North.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Piece of cake
C’mon down, John Hughes. You’re the next contestant on “Who Will Replace Phil Taylor at Defensive Tackle?”

That's right, John, In spite of all the criticism your new pro football team, the Cleveland Browns has received for drafting you way too early in last month's college football draft, you will get an immediate opportunity to prove how wrong they were.

They said you were what is termed in the biz as a reach when they grabbed you in the third round. No way you should have been picked that high.You were more like a fifth- or sixth-rounder at best. And what were the Browns thinking with much better players still on the board?

None of the draft gurus ranked you even close to the top part of your position class. One had to look in the bottom third to find you. And there were a few so-called experts who believed you had no shot at being drafted. Talk about the ultimate slap in the face.

And now, you come into OTAs and minicamp in the coming weeks as a clear underdog, albeit with the knowledge that you could upset the world and win a spot as a starting defensive tackle.

With Taylor out for who knows how long with a torn pectoral muscle after lifting weights, of all things, now is your opportunity to thumb your nose at the critics who raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders with a who’s-he look on their faces when your name was announced at the draft.

You come into camp wearing a king-sized bull’s-eye. You are now the man. All eyes will be on you, looking for the reasons Tom Heckert Jr. believed you could become a positive force for his football team.

No pressure at all. After all, you’re just a rookie. With Ahtyba Rubin and Taylor manning the defensive tackle spots on a regular basis, you were expected to be the guy to come off the bench and give them an occasional rest.

You arrived with solid credentials, according to Heckert, on stopping the run, the Browns’ Achilles’ heel for the last dozen or so seasons. Sure, they were ranked 10th on defense last season, but that was because opposing teams didn’t have to throw the ball to beat them.

And that’s where you entered Heckert’s world. He wanted a run stuffer and determined you were that guy after a solid second half of the season down at the University of Cincinnati.

Only one problem. He envisioned you as a part-time player because he already had two guys he could count on. And perhaps it’s because you’re slightly undersized at 6-2, 310 pounds. Taylor, by comparison, is 6-4, 350-plus pounds.

This is the perfect stage for you now, John, No one expects you to come in and become an instant sensation No one expects you to tear up training camp and prove all your critics wrong.

In fact, most of those critics in the wake of Taylor’s injury no doubt will dismiss you and strongly suggest Heckert scan the free-agent market in an attempt to keep you in the role for which you were drafted.

This obviously is not how you thought your pro career was going to start. Your mind-set certainly has changed now that Taylor is on the shelf for at least the first half of the season, if not longer.

You were a starter at Cincinnati. You’re used to being in there on just about every play. And now, you get the opportunity to do the same thing with the Browns. Consider yourself extremely fortunate.

Fate has a way of altering the direction of lives. It looks as though the direction of your life has taken a sudden and most unexpected turn. Time to adjust. Time to take advantage.

This might be your only opportunity to prove Heckert knew exactly what he was doing and, at the same time, silence the critics, lowering those eyebrows and unshrugging those shoulders.

No sweat, John. No problem. All you have to do is be yourself. Come into camp, listen to your position coach, hustle all the time, strive for perfection, become a sponge and keep your nose clean.

That’s not so difficult, is it?

Piece of cake.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Name Weeden now
Pat Shurmur should end the mystery right now. Take charge and tell the public what is as obvious as the nose on his face.

The Browns’ head coach should come out and announce that his starting quarterback in the season opener against Philadelphia will be Brandon Weeden.

None of this it-will-be-an-open-competition bullroar. None of this may-the-best-man-win nonsense when just about everyone in Browns Nation knows who will stick his paws under center Alex Mack against the Eagles.

Don’t string along Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace (assuming they are still with the team) at training camp in late July. Let them know their roles. The best way to get ready for the season is to declare your starting quarterback and go from there.

Weeden is the quarterback who should get a majority of the repetitions. He’s the one who should work with the No. 1 wide receivers so when they play games for real, the timing is down pat.

You don’t do that by experimenting in training camp and exhibition games, especially with a rookie quarterback, rookie running back and rookie offensive right tackle.

That’s not the way you prepare a team that has scraped the bottom of the National Football League barrel for the better part of the last dozen seasons. Offense is all about timing. Without timing, offenses sputter.

The Browns, especially following last season’s embarrassingly atrocious offensive showing, need to come out in the season opener and look like a football team on offense, not the ragtag outfit that passed for a team last season.

You do that by eschewing the experimenting in training camp and exhibitions. In theory, all positions on offense have been determined. We all know the offensive line will consist of Joe Thomas, Jason Pinkston, Mack, Shawn Lauvao and Mitchell Schwartz.

And we all know Ben Watson and Evan Moore will be at tight end, Trent Richardson at running back and Greg Little, Mo Massaquoi and Joshua Cribbs will handle most of the wide receiver duties.

By giving them a majority of reps before the games mean something, the Browns’ coaches will get a good idea of just how much progress this group had made when it owns the football.

Weeden needs all the time he can get under center, an unfamiliar position for him since he was strictly a shotgun quarterback at Oklahoma State. It’s a whole different world when the snap hits his hands a split second before the play develops.

The world of the west coast offense is dependent almost entirely on precise timing. Taking reps away from Weeden hinders his ability to at least become acquainted with it, let alone be successful with it.

He might be 28 years old. And he might be mature for as rookie. But he’s wandering into a situation that will feel extremely foreign to him. That’s why he needs to get all the reps Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress can feed him. He can’t get enough.

And that’s why Shurmur needs to do what coaches Mike Shanahan in Washington and Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis did when they anointed Robert Griffin Triple Eye and Andrew Luck as their starting quarterbacks.

Shurmur needs to declare Weeden is his man. Even if it hurts some feelings. It’s time to drop the charade and false pretenses and do the right thing.

For better of worse, name Brandon Weeden the starting Cleveland quarterback now and be done with it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Backpedaling Seneca

So Seneca Wallace wants to mentor new Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. How charitable of him.

Could it be that the club’s diminutive backup quarterback looks at the depth chart and sees his name planted firmly behind that of Weeden and Colt McCoy? Yep, the same McCoy Wallace declined to mentor last season.

“I know my job going into my 10th season of being in this (west coast) offense is to prepare Brandon Weeden to get him right and make sure he’s ready for day one,” Wallace told a local Cleveland sports talk station recently.

“This is a different beast. This is a first-rounder we drafted . . . and from a business standpoint, you know and everybody else knows and outsiders know this kid’s got to play. My job as a veteran guy is to make sure he’s ready.”

A neat 180 from a year ago when Wallace declared he’s “not a mentor” to McCoy even though it was obvious who the was going to start the season under center. Coming off a decent rookie season, McCoy was definitely the man.

Wallace didn’t see it that way. “Last year going into the season, there was an open competition with me and Colt McCoy,” he told the radio station. “I said if Colt was to ask me about anything I had related to the west coast system, I was willing to do that for him.”

In trying to earn the starting job, he said, “I couldn’t give him all my tips. I didn’t want to give them all away, but if he asked, I was willing to help.”

So we have to assume that because he’s more than willing to impart his vast knowledge of the west coast system to Weeden, he’s basically conceding he won’t be in the competition for the starting job this season.

In fact, his recalcitrant ways in his behavior toward McCoy could lead to the Browns cashiering him before training camp. Why do they need him when new offensive coordinator Brad Childress can introduce Weeden to the west coast?

Could it be that Wallace is trying to get on the front office’s good side because he sees his future in Cleveland in jeopardy? His backpedaling from last season’s stance is almost predictable.

Wallace is not a dummy. He knows what’s coming and is desperately clinging to his job. He knows this might be his last stop before retirement and wants to hang on as long as possible.

The only reason he was brought to the Browns by Mike Holmgren was to mentor McCoy’s conversion from the spread offense he ran his entire football career. It was not Jake Delhomme’s job to do that. It was Wallace’s.

He mistook last season’s open competition for the starting job because Holmgren and coach Pat Shurmur wanted to push McCoy. It was never really open.

Holmgren and Shurmur are doing to same thing this season by declaring the starting quarterback job is once again wide open. No it’s not. Unless he gets hurt, Weeden will be the opening-game quarterback for the Browns. By then, it’s very likely McCoy will be his backup.

The only way Wallace sticks with the club is if Tom Heckert Jr. can find a buyer for McCoy. There’s still plenty of time between now and training camp in late July. But if McCoy is still on the roster by then, Seneca Wallace is history in Cleveland.

No big loss.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Grading time

It’s time once again, Browns fans, for the fun part of the National Football League’s annual college draft. Yep, it’s time to grade how the Browns did last weekend in their 2012 venture into the unknown.

And before you get started on how silly and stupid it is to grade what any team does in the draft, know this: Of course it's silly and stupid, but it’s still a lot of fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

That said, let’s take a hard look at what Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. did this past weekend and slap a grade on it.

Just how well did the Browns do by drafting Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Mitchell Schwartz, John Hughes, Travis Benjamin, James-Michael Johnson, Ryan Miller, Emmanuel Acho, Billy Winn, Trevin Wade and fullback Brad Smelley?

As previously blogged, they got off to a great start by making certain Richardson would wind up in the Seal Brown and Orange. There is no question he will have a seriously profound effect on the Cleveland offense this season.

It was clearly a gigantic step in the right direction even though it cost them three picks. And I don’t care if Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman ran a bluff on them, which is entirely possible, Holmgren and Heckert did the right thing.

After that, they took a few stupid pills.

Drafting Weeden at #22 was a definitely a panic move. We’ll never know it, of course, but the 28-year-old gunslinger from Oklahoma State most likely would have been there with the Browns’ second-round pick at #37.

No team between #22 and #37 was going to take him to be a backup. Not at his age and certainly not as high in the draft. Maybe in the middle or later rounds, but not the first or second.

And with offensive linemen Riley Reiff and David DeCastro still on the board at that point, Holmgren and Heckert (more Holmgren than Heckert) slapped on their blinders and lost sight of the fact their team needed a right tackle in a most serious way.

And that’s why they took Schwartz, clearly inferior to Reiff and DeCastro, in the second round. Basically, they got it backward. Reiff or DeCastro and then Weeden would have been the more prudent way to select.

In the next five or so years, we’ll get a first-hand comparative look at how this went down because DeCastro was snapped up by the Pittsburgh Steelers two picks later. Yes, he plays guard and Schwartz is a tackle, but DeCastro is versatile enough to move over one slot and be just as effective.

Now we get to the fun part of the H&H show: The third round that lifted the collective eyebrow of Browns Nation. Not that the club traded out of their original pick to pick up up the additional fourth-round selection they lost in the Richardson deal, but the player they selected.

When Hughes’ name was announced, puzzled looks adorned the pro football landscape. Check your pre-draft positional lists, all you gurus. See his name anywhere? No? Shocking.

So who is this guy Hughes? A run stuffer, the Browns proudly proclaimed. The first indication that Heckert finally realized his club still had problems stopping the run.

The reason the Cleveland defense against the pass was ranked second in the entire NFL last season was because few teams threw on it. Why not? Because they blasted cavernous holes against the Browns’ front seven practically the entire season.

That despite drafting defensive Phil Taylor last season. Taylor’s main job was to stuff the run. That really worked out well, didn’t it?

So Heckert, whose draft board apparently did not resemble most of the others around the league, went rogue and clearly reached when he reached out for Hughes. He redeemed himself in round six when he took Billy Winn, another defensive tackle, whose named appeared near the top of most lists. Predicition: Winn will be the better player and contribute a lot more than Hughes.

Another Heckert reach was Benjamin, a quick wide receiver who will improve team speed. He allowed the top 15 wideouts to come off the board before deciding to grab one. It was almost as though he said, “Hey, we need a wide receiver. Who’s left?”

Wisconsin’s Nick Toon, a much bigger receiver than the 5-10, 175-pound Benjamin, was left. The 6-2, 220-pound Badger, who went to New Orleans later in the round, is much better suited for the west coast offense.

It was almost as though Heckert reiterated the notion that the Browns’ wide receiver corps is not that bad. Bulletin: Yes it is. And Benjamin won’t help.

Johnson, the other fourth-rounder, is an interesting pick. He’s D’Qwell Jackson, but with a much more aggressive mind-set against the run. Jackson, who had some fine moments last season, still can be blown off the line of scrimmage.

The Browns need a middle linebacker who can make plays at or behind the LOS.And while Jackson made a nice comeback from injuries last season, Johnson has the strength to shed blocks and make plays.

Miller, a huge guard, will be nothing more than a backup initially. But if he’s better than advertised, he could unseat either Jason Pinkston or Shawn Lauvao, whose play last season fell far short of expectations.

Another interesting pick was Acho, whose older brother, Sam, had a solid rookie season last season with the Arizona Cardinals. Emmanuel is smaller than Sam, but plays the same instinctive game. He has a nose for the football and could surprise.

Another light went on in Heckert’s head in round seven. Probably something like, “We need a cornerback to go along with Joe Haden.” Yep, another who’s-left moment. And that’s how Wade wound up in Cleveland.

A couple of kickers in the waning moments of the lottery. When he considered Alabama fullback/tight end Brad Smelley with his final pick, Heckert reportedly solicited the advice of Richardson, Smelley’s Crimson Tide teammate. Richardson, of course gave a hearty thumbs up and voila, Smelley is a Cleveland Brown.

If I’m Owen Marecic, who disappointed last season as the club’s fullback, I’d take my game up several notches this season and make certain Mr. Smelley is relegated to the sidelines.

The other kicker? Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict was on the board at the time. Why not take a shot at him despite all the red flags he brings. What did Heckert have to lose by drafting him in the seventh round? They’ll find out soon enough. Burfict signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent.

So there you have it. Six of 11 picks on the offensive side of the ball; five on the defensive side. A great start with Richardson and Weeden, but it could have been even better with a Reiff or DeCastro.

Too many reaches and not enough possible sleepers can make this draft one we’ll point to in a few years and say, “Wow, that was a great draft. It helped turn around the fortunes of this franchise and head it in the right direction.”

For right now, the best grade I can give it is a solid C. Too bad. I was hoping for much more.