Thursday, April 30, 2015

Good start

Say hello, Browns fans, to your new nose tackle and new offensive right tackle who will be your starting center in 2016.

Say hello to Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving – two intelligent selections for a change.

In making common-sense picks with his first two cracks in the first round of the annual National Football League college draft Thursday night in Chicago, Cleveland General Manager Ray Farmer went trenching for talent and struck it rich.

It was a statement that indicates the GM realizes his two lines needed help. Resisting – or least seemingly resisting – the temptation to trade up in order to address the skilled areas of the team, it appears he finally gets it.

Shelton, the boulder-sized defensive tackle from Washington, can’t help but improve the team’s shocking inability to stop the run and, at the same time, improve the interior pass rush.

His entrance on stage with Commissioner Roger Goodell provided the highlight of the evening. Dressed in his native Samoan garb, the academic All-America bear-hugged the much smaller commissioner, then joyously lifted him off the floor for a few seconds.

With this addition to the roster, the Browns’ annual slide to the bottom of the league while defending the run should stop.

The wide body 6-2, 335-pound Shelton, whose short-area quickness is his greatest asset, is a shorter version of Haloti Ngata, who tormented Cleveland offenses for many years with the Baltimore Ravens before being traded to Detroit in March.

He should have no trouble supplanting Phil Taylor in the middle of the defensive line in coach Mike Pettine’s 3-4 hybrid scheme, mainly because Taylor can’t stay healthy. Look for Taylor to move outside.
Shelton is not your standard two-down run stuffer who trots to the sideline on third down. Asked by the NFL Network’s Deion Sanders what the Browns should expect from him, he replied, “The best defensive tackle. The best run-stopping defensive tackle. The best pass-rushing defensive tackle.” In other words, he stays on the field.
His ability to penetrate on obvious passing downs enabled him to record nine sacks last season at Washington. With Shelton on board and a healthier defensive line overall, it will be difficult for the Browns to land again at the bottom of the league’s rankings against the run.
The selection of Erving, another smart move, was to a certain extent made out of necessity. His versatility – he has played all five positions along the offensive line – will allow the Browns to move him into the pivot when Alex Mack leaves following the 2015 season.
So while it appears as though the Erving selection was a hedge against Mack’s departure, that is hardly the case. He is considered the second-best interior lineman in this lottery and should fit in nicely, giving the right side of the offensive line some needed toughness.
For right now, though, look for him to start at right tackle, moving Mitchell Schwartz inside at right guard where he should be more effective. No need to worry about Erving’s pass protection skills. He was good enough to play left tackle and protect Jameis Winston’s blind side at Florida State.
In selecting Erving, Farmer passed up Kentucky’s Bud Dupree, an edge rusher who went to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Central Florida wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who was grabbed by the Baltimore Ravens.
Nevertheless, it was somewhat gratifying he did not overdraft for a wide receiver after the last of the top three wideouts fell off the board two picks after the Shelton selection. The Trader Ray Farmer of last year's draft was missing in action.
So now with two vital areas addressed, the GM goes back to work Friday night in rounds two (pick No. 43) and three (pick No. 77), where the wide receiver situation should finally be addressed. Jaelen Strong of Arizona State and Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham are still on the board.
So are outside linebacker Randy Gregory from Nebraska, Alabama safety Landon Collins, offensive tackles T. J. Clemmings from Pittsburgh and Oregon’s Jake Fisher, Virginia outside linebacker Eli Harold, Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams and cornerback Jalen Collins from LSU. All are need positions.
If Farmer is as successful in the next couple of rounds as he was Thursday night, then the uniforms won’t be the only things new in Berea.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Farmer needs to look at the big picture

Good to be back on the planet. Not much on the interstellar news front.

Now then, what’s new? Oh yeah, the college draft is Thursday and the Browns still have two selections in the first round.

That, in and off itself, is a minor miracle given Ray Farmer’s predilection of playing trading games with his fellow National Football League general managers. And wouldn’t you know it, rumors persist Farmer has a deal or two he’d like to make.

His main target, according to those rumors, is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, with whom has had a love affair (strictly professional, of course) the last two years. And he’d like to continue it in Cleveland.

Unless the Cleveland GM is willing to surrender both of his first-round picks (Nos. 12 and 19) in an effort to get into position to draft Mariota, Browns fans will have to settle for Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel as the club’s quarterbacks this season while Mariota lands elsewhere.

There are those who fully endorse shipping those first-round picks and a whole lot more for the opportunity to select Mariota. That would be insane and only add to the blunders this team has made in the draft for the last 16 years.

Surrendering all those picks is too stiff a price to pay for a quarterback whose success – albeit one that helped him win the last Heisman Trophy – was predicated on a system that is 180 degrees the opposite of a pro style scheme.

The Browns, who need help in a multitude of areas, can ill afford to take such a gamble. Too many holes to fill elsewhere. Like the right side of the offensive line.  Or the secondary. Or the pass rush. Or the run defense. Or the secondary. Or the receiving corps.

If Farmer overcommits for just one position, he will surely disrupt the integrity of the roster. Football is a team game and right now, his team needs far outweigh the needs of one position.

Granted, McCown and Manziel are not the answer at quarterback. But improving the other moving parts of the offense and defense should help to erase any notions the GM has to weaken his team and hone in on Mariota.

There are too many terrific college players who do not write the word quarterback on their resumes to consider. This is a deep draft. Deeper, some say, than last year’s.

The most important area for Farmer to address is the trenches, where most games are won and lost. Win the battles up front and the likelihood of winning games grows exponentially.

The Browns, despite their predictable protestations, are a fragile football team.  They say they like where they are entering the lottery. All teams say that at this time of the season. And then you break it down. So let’s do that.

First the offense. The Browns have a decent offensive line that generally does a good job protecting the quarterback, but needs help on the right side, especially with the running game.

As for the ground game, second-year backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West had their moments in their rookie seasons, but need to become more involved in the passing game. If not, opposing defenses will ignore them and take dead aim on the quarterback.

The receiving corps is somewhat better than last season, but that’s not saying much since last season’s group might have been the worst in the entire NFL. Adding veterans Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline will not offset the season-long absence of Josh Gordon.

Farmer must fix that offense to take pressure off a defense that spent too much time on the field last season. The receiving corps, after being blatantly ignored last season, must receive more than token attention. McCown and Manziel need someone to rely on and that someone is not on the current roster.

If it’s coach Mike Pettine’s intention to play smashmouth football on offense, the run game needs to be addressed. As it stands now, it is anything but smashmouth worthy. This offensive line is not physical enough to be awarded that label.

Now the defense. Help is needed just about everywhere. It all starts up front with the plug uglies. Shut down the run and your chances of winning dramatically rise. Last season, the injury-riddled Cleveland defensive line shut down no one.

It didn’t help that the pass rush ranked among the lowest (27th) in the NFL. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger had more than one-third of the team’s 31 sacks. That’s got to improve.

The secondary, statistically speaking, caught a break last season, ranking in the top 25%. That’s because the opposition enjoyed too much success running against the Browns and didn’t need to put the ball up as often.

As for the special teams, the Browns need a return specialist, a new placekicker and a punter. I know, Captain Obvious.

Last season, no one stepped up in the return game and helped win the field-position battle. The punt game was erratic, while the club had to change placekickers in the middle of the season.

There is a ton of work Farmer needs to do with this team. If he believes otherwise, he is fooling only himself. Check out this season’s schedule. It is ridiculously more difficult than last season’s softie.

If Farmer honestly thinks mortgaging the future for a quarterback who won’t pay dividends for at least a couple of seasons is the road down which to travel, then he’s punching a ticket for his departure from Cleveland after just two seasons in the GM's chair.

And then they start all over again. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Third time charm for Francona?

Observations after watching the Indians play 16 exhibition games in Goodyear, Ariz., the past month . . .

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. This team, despite Sports Illustrated’s hair-brained notion the Tribe will win the 2015 World Series, will not win the 2015 World Series. It won’t get to the World Series.

It is a club with just enough flaws that playing extremely competitive and representative baseball will carry it a long way. It is not abundantly loaded with talent.

Their greatest strength is their manager. Terry Francona’s ability to squeeze out the maximum amount of talent from his players cannot be emphasized enough. They love playing for him.

There is something about Francona that transcends the normal manager-player relationship. Maybe it’s the fun-loving, loose clubhouse he runs. Then again, it might be the profound respect he shows his players.

Whatever it is, Francona’s success in his first two seasons with the Tribe is a testament to his prowess as a manager. Working with one of the (comparatively) lowest payrolls in baseball and nothing more than marginal talent, his Indians have won 177 games and surprisingly qualified for the playoffs in 2013.

It’s hard to figure out why SI believes the Indians will do something they haven’t done since 1948. The starting pitching is all right, not great; the defense should be better than last season, but that’s not saying much because last season’s defense was mediocre at best; and there is virtually no scary power.

Breaking that down . . .

The starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister and TJ House is adequate. Yes, I know Kluber is coming off a Cy Young season. And I know the light turned on for Carrasco the second half of last season. Both are late bloomers who should be able to continue their success.

But that’s where the success stops. The unpredictable Bauer is inconsistent, McAllister was slated for bullpen duty at the beginning of spring training and House is just getting started.

Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway (another team strength) have absolutely no idea what they are going to get from Bauer on a game-to-game basis. This season, though, they know he will not beat himself as he has in the past with walks. His control has been superb.

But by hitting the strike zone with more accuracy, he has been prone to surrendering home runs.

The monster back-to-back-to-back shots he gave up to Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant in the fourth inning of the March 10 exhibition against the Chicago Cubs were awe-inspiring from a Cubs standpoint. They traveled an estimated 1,300 feet.

McAllister arrived in camp and was penciled in for bullpen duty based on his success there last season. But after the failures of Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin in camp, the big right-hander was returned to the rotation and earned a spot with some solid pitching. The question is whether he can carry over that success to the regular season. The brass is hopeful he channels the success of Kluber and Carrasco.

The club’s biggest strength, without question, is its bullpen. Cody Allen anchors an eight-man pen (yikes!) that features five righties (Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Anthony Swarzak and Austin Adams) and three lefties (Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett). All throw hard.

It gives Francona, who uses the bullpen more than any other major league manager, all kinds of opportunities to mix and match. If the starters can get through six innings with the lead, advantage Cleveland with that bullpen.

As for the offense, don’t expect any 30-home run hitters. But don’t expect slumps, either. First baseman Carlos Santana (getting better defensively), right fielder Brandon Moss, left fielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes can provide some pop and are consistent enough hitters to withstand prolonged slumps.

Yes, I know Santana’s batting average has slipped the last couple of seasons, but he also owns perhaps the best batting eye on the team and draws a lot of walks.

The key to the Tribe offense this season, though, will be how the top of the batting order performs. Center fielder Michael Bourn and second baseman Jason Kipnis, coming off poor seasons, need to improve.

Bourn, whose on-base percentage screams for him to bat much lower in the lineup, had a terrific spring, spraying the ball all over the field. He still needs to work the pitcher harder for walks. Kipnis, healthier than last season, has lost some weight and looks quicker.

Francona needs to turn them loose on the basepaths. The Indians rarely tried to steal bases in spring training. Bourn, recovering from hamstring problems, tried only once and was gunned down. He used to be one of the best base stealers in baseball. Both men also looked better in the field.

So where are the Indians hurting? Third base defense and lack of a power right-handed bat.

Lonnie Chisenhall, who swings a nice bat, is not exactly a butcher with the glove at third base, but he’s close. He seems to have a problem with balls hit right at him, something you’d think would be easy. Most of his errors this spring were of that variety.

Chisenhall has no trouble diving into the hole and toward the foul line and displays a fairly accurate arm. His inconsistency has to alarm Francona.

As for a right-handed bat, I thought the signing of 27-year-old free agent Jerry Sands was a terrific move. The big former Dodger, who can play all three outfield positions and first base, had a solid spring. It included one of the longest home runs ever hit at Goodyear Ballpark, an estimated 470-foot shot over the batter’s eye in center field.

Francona chose instead to keep Ryan Raburn, perhaps hoping to recapture some of Raburn’s heroics from the 2013 season. But two sub-par seasons in the last three for the soon-to-be 34-year-old Raburn should serve as a warning sign.

Mike Aviles and David Murphy are back, too. Not a big fan of Murphy’s, but love Aviles’ versatility. Must be fun for him to report for a game, not really knowing where he’ll play, but knowing the fans are going to receive a solid performance. You’ll find the ultimate utilityman anywhere in the infield or outfield at any given time.

The 2015 Indians will be classic overachievers and seriously challenge the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox for the championship of the well-balanced American League Central Division, but fall agonizingly short.

Look for the slightly weakened Tigers, who have dominated the division the last several seasons, to come back to the field; the Royals to sustain the great run on their way to the World Series last season; and the vastly improved White Sox to hang in there until September.

It very well could wind up in a four-team race down the stretch with pitching the deciding factor. But Cleveland’s pitching, which provided the impetus for a strong finish last season, will fall short this season with a tired bullpen the chief culprit.

Miscellaneous: Best addition has to be Moss, whose power bat should produce at least 25 home runs this season. Plus, he’s versatile enough to play right field and first base. That’s what Nick Swisher did the last two seasons before injuries disabled him. Swisher, great in the clubhouse and on the bench, has been a huge disappointment on the field. Two bad knees did not help the situation. . . . Jose Ramirez provides a solid glove and adequate bat to hold down shortstop until Francisco Lindor is ready. . . . Francona has more pitchers (13) on the team than batters. . . . Roberto Perez had a nice spring and there should be little dropoff when he gives Gomes an occasional rest behind the plate. . . . Look for Salazar to join the rotation once he gets straightened out at Class AAA Columbus.