Sunday, May 31, 2015

Statistically speaking

Having fun with the Browns’ roster . . .

It currently consists of 90 men and right now has a small degree of fluidity. Some pieces and parts, usually those who are nothing more than training camp fodder, are released occasionally and replaced by others who eventually will become pieces and parts who will be released.

When training camp begins in late July or early August, the degree of roster fluidity will intensify as the coaching staff begins to seriously break down how it wants that roster to look by the start of the regular season.

The breakdown right now: 43 men on offense, 43 men on defense and the remaining four are special teamers (two placekickers, a punter and a long snapper).

Further breakdown:  The offense has four quarterbacks, seven running backs, 11 wide receivers, six tight ends and 15 offensive linemen; the defense has 13 linemen, 12 linebackers and 18 defensive backs.

That’s a rather large preponderance of players in the secondary, which probably will lead the team in roster cuts with no more than 10 eventually surviving. Next hardest hit most likely will be the offensive and defensive lines with nine making the cut on offense and seven, maybe eight on defense.

With the team offensive philosophy skewing heavily toward the running game, it wouldn’t be surprising if all but two of the seven running backs stick and five of the 11 wide receivers are trimmed.

Sixty-one will survive entering the regular season in September – 53 on the regular team and eight more on the practice squad, which means 29 names currently on the roster will disappear before the Sept. 12 season opener in New Jersey against the New York Jets.

Of the 90 men on the roster, 24 are rookies. That’s 26.7%. Eleven more have one year’s experience, 14 have two years, 10 have logged three years and 11 more have four years.

So of the 90, 70 have no more than four years’ experience in the National Football League. That’s a whopping 77.7%. In other words, three of every four members on the team is relatively inexperienced.

The average age of this team is 25.5 years, which has to put it near the top of the list of youngest NFL teams.

On the low end of the age range is rookie running back Duke Johnson, who won’t be 22 until the third game of the regular season. On the opposite end, we find (surprise!!) quarterback Josh McCown, who will be 36 on the Fourth of July.

The other graybeards are linebacker Karlos Dansby (33), defensive back Tramon Williams (32), defensive lineman Randy Starks (31), and offensive tackle Joe Thomas, guard John Greco and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, all 30.

The tallest Brown? Tie at 6-6 with Thomas, fellow offensive lineman Andrew McDonald, tight end Gary Barnidge and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant. The Smurf award goes to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins at 5-7.

Who is the beefiest? Rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton at 339 pounds. Wideout Taylor Gabriel is at the other end of the scale at 167 pounds. He's sort of a half Shelton. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Will Mack be back?

So Alex Mack has chosen to keep Browns fans prisoners with regard to his future plans.

Will the Pro Bowl center remain with the club after the upcoming season? Or will he bolt?

His contract forces him to play at least one more season with the team that drafted him seven years ago. It also permits him to leave following this season as an unrestricted free agent should he choose to.

There are those who say, “Who can blame him?” if he opts to depart. After all, playing for one of the losingest teams in the National Football League can be awfully depressing.

The Browns’ front office, while hopeful Mack will choose to remain loyal, must be more pessimistic privately. Why else draft Cameron Erving in the first round of the recent college football draft?

Sure, he was an offensive left tackle at Florida State. A very good one, too. But when the Seminoles’ starting center went down midway through last season, Erving moved over and played the pivot as though he had played it his whole life.

Speculation immediately rose that the selection of Erving was insurance against Mack departing Cleveland following this season. Understandable deduction. Basically, General Manager Ray Farmer was hedging his bets on Mack’s decision.

If Mack stays, Erving is locked into a position that suits his strengths better. And if Mack leaves, the rookie merely shifts over to anchor the offensive line. Win-win.

But that does not answer the main question. What will Mack, whose departure with a broken leg in game five last season coincided with the demise of the Cleveland offensive line, finally do?

He partially answered that the other day at the club’s organized team activities session in Berea. “I’m going to defer,” he told reporters. “I’ll talk about that at the end of the season.”

He said he has not made up his mind. “No,” he insisted. “Absolutely not, Let’s play the games. Let’s see how the season goes. I’m really not interested in talking about that until after the season.”

So it appears as though how the Browns fare this season will factor into his Mack’s decision. “I definitely want to win games,” he said. “It’s very important to me. No one likes losing. Across any job, anything, at all times. It’s tough without a doubt.”

And what else will it take? “What you always do,” Mack said. “You just want to come out here, play the games, play well and win games. That’s what every person in this building’s goal is.”

So all the Browns need to do, at least according to Mack, is win. Win more than they lose. Beyond that, he was vague, if not non-committal.

Okay, let’s break this down and figure out how much of a chance the Browns have at equaling Mack’s standards regarding his future with the club.

Defensively, they can’t be any worse at stopping the run than they were last season, when they were the NFL’s caboose in the category. Adding top draft choice Danny Shelton and free agent Randy Starks and larger doses of health can’t hurt.

Dropping opposing passers, another huge problem last season, ostensibly got better with the drafting of outside linebacker Nate Orchard, who will join fellow Utah alum Paul Kruger in an effort to improve those numbers.

The secondary, which didn’t get picked on nearly as much because opponents were so successful on the ground, should be that much stronger than last season if we are to believe Justin Gilbert is a reformed young man in the commitment category.

Now then, let’s take a look at the offense, where Mack is expected to be a vital contributor. Let’s start with quarterback.

Mack will be snapping the ball to either Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel. Stop for a moment and think about that. One is journeyman who defines the very term. The other is a question mark at best.

The most important position on the offense, if not the entire team, is in the hands of, no matter who wins the starting job, the worst – by far – quarterback in the AFC North. If not the entire NFL.

With the exception of a brief period when he excelled a few years ago with the Chicago Bears when Jay Cutler was injured, McCown and mediocrity have traveled hand in hand down the same path.

And Manziel is a puzzlement wrapped in an enigma. No one, maybe not even him, knows what to expect from him when the Browns gather in Berea for training camp later this summer.

Maybe he can recapture his glory days at Texas A&M when he won the Heisman Trophy and became the darling of the college football crowd. Maybe he can overcome a substance abuse problem that required a long stay at a treatment facility.

There is always the possibility that maybe he can’t.

Now let’s look at the running game. Second-year running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, if they don’t suffer the sophomore jinx, should provide the Browns with a strong running game, especially now that Mack is back.

The addition of third-round choice Duke Johnson can’t hurt, especially in the passing game, where the return of the screen pass is highly anticipated.  The addition of Johnson definitely improves that position.

Up next the wide receivers corps. Not exactly a group that excites.

With Josh Gordon down for at least one year, the Browns own what might be the most non-threatening group of pass receivers in the entire NFL. There is not a single deep threat, unless you consider little Taylor Gabriel and brittle Travis Benjamin.

The addition of free agent Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline will not improve the speed. Both men are possession receivers. So are Andrew Hawkins and rookie Vince Mayle. The Browns might lead the NFL in possession receivers.

The tight ends will not be a major factor in the passing with the departure of the brittle Jordan Cameron. Good blockers in Jim Dray, Rob Housler and Gary Barnidge. That’s about it.

As for the offensive line, it should be one of the best now that Erving, a strong candidate to open at right tackle, has arrived. That move should push Mitchell Schwartz inside at guard, where he can be more effective.

The Cleveland offense, clearly bucking the NFL trend toward the forward pass, will be run centric. Their entire success on that side of the ball will be predicated on that phase of the game.

As for the special teams, it cant get any worse than last season for the return teams. The punter is boringly mediocre. And the Browns still can’t find a reliable placekicker.

Summing up: A good defense that can get better if the offense can stay on the field, an offense that most likely will be extremely one-dimensional and might have trouble remaining on the field and special teams that won’t excite anyone.

Now factor in a schedule that includes the tough NFC West (as opposed to last season’s weak NFC South) and only four games against teams that had losing seasons last season and you have a formula that mitigates against a winning record.

Mack hints he might stay if the Browns win games. He didn’t say how many, but one gets the impression it had better be more than last season’s seven.

Bottom line: He’s gone.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The final grade is in

Last year, Browns General Manager Ray Farmer entered the National Football League’s college draft with 10 picks. After a series of trades, he made just six selections.

This year, Farmer entered the lottery with 10 picks again and, after a series of trades, doubled his fun, ending the three-day event with a dozen new Brownies. And what an interesting group it is.

It includes a wide receiver (this is not a typo), a couple of tight ends (one undersized), two defensive linemen, three candidates for the secondary, a pair of linebackers, a running back and an offensive tackle. He hit every major position on the roster except quarterback. The man earned his keep.

It took him 13 attempts, but the stubborn GM finally pulled the trigger on a wide receiver when he (with no apparent weapon pointed at him) wrote Vince Mayle’s name on a piece of paper and submitted it for the league’s consideration.

The big wide receiver from Washington State, benefiting from a pass-heavy offense, led the PAC-12 in receptions and yardage, but developed a reputation for dropping passes, which might be considered understandable when you average 12½ targets a game. Just what the Browns need . . . another pass dropper. Shades of Greg Little.

Why he waited this long for a wideout is known only by Farmer, whose cache tilted slightly toward the defensive side of the ball with seven selections, ranging from a run-stuffing nose tackle with the opening selection to a surprising final pick as the draft wore down.

The GM wisely chose Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who probably would have been a first-round pick had he not torn up his knee preparing for the Rose Bowl late last year. The talented 5-9, 195-pound All-America might miss the entire 2015 season, but was worth the late-draft gamble.

Chances are he’ll be fully healthy and ready to compete for one of the starting jobs by the time the 2016 season rolls around. Talents like Ekpre-Olomu are worth waiting for. His selection helped elevate the final grade.

Following a very strong first round with nose tackle Danny Shelton and offensive tackle Cameron Erving, and so-so results in rounds two and three with edge rusher Nate Orchard, running back Duke Johnson and defensive end Xavier Cooper, Farmer went to work on the rest of the roster.

In fourth-round strong safety Ibraheim Campbell and seventh-round inside linebacker Hayes Pullard III, Farmer clearly went for the aggressive type, one of coach Mike Pettine’s favorite attributes. Both have a nose for the ball and are not bashful tacklers.

Farmer, however, did not solve the dilemma at tight end. Malcolm Johnson and Randall Telfer, both sixth-round picks, are solid blockers with hands more suited for that aspect of the position.  The undersized (6-1, 230) Johnson might be utilized as a fullback in heavy packages on short-yardage plays or goal-line situations.

That means Cleveland's tight ends this season will not be option 1, 2, 3 and probably 4. There are no pass-catching tight ends on the roster. One less thing opposing defensive coordinators have to be concerned with.

Cornerback Charles Gaines, another sixth-rounder, should find his value on special teams

Shelton, Orchard, Campbell and Pullard definitely will be Pettine’s favorites with their belligerent approach to the game. The big question is how well each player’s particular talents translate to the pro game, Orchard in particular.

The moves that enabled him to rack up 18½ sacks at Utah last year will not work against NFL offensive linemen, who will be much larger and a whole lot quicker than the ones he faced on the collegiate level. Barkevious Mingo arrived in Cleveland with a similar reputation as an edge rusher and  failed to deliver.

Last season, Farmer’s six picks produced three starters in running back Terrance West, left guard Joel Bitonio and outside linebacker Christian Kirksey. First-round selections Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel failed miserably and fourth-round cornerback Pierre Desir watched most of the season.

This year, both first-rounders will start. So will Orchard. The other nine picks, barring a surprise, will either play complementary roles, play on special teams or, in a couple of cases, fail to make the team by the time the regular season commences.

Some teams get lucky when middle- and late-round picks surprise and become starters. The Browns have not been one of those teams for a very long time. One who has a chance is Ekpre-Olomu and they might have to wait until next year to find out.

Campbell, a possible heir apparent to Donte Whitner at strong safety, and Pullard, who could push Craig Robertson to start next to Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker, are brash overachievers and have a chance to break the mold.  

Overall, Farmer was headed for a final grade of C+ until he figured out that Ekpre-Olomu was worth the final pick even though his contributions will be delayed. That elevates the final grade to a B- and that’s being charitable.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Wronging a right

Well, that didn’t take long. The euphoric feeling following the Browns’ selections in the first round of the National Football League college draft Thursday night gave way Friday night to puzzlement.

After Friday night’s journey through the second and third rounds, it’s time to admit I have no idea what label to pin on Ray Farmer’s philosophy with regard to the annual lottery.

He was all over the place Friday night. Just when you expected him to zig, he zagged. When you thought he would certainly select what appeared to be an obvious choice, he went in a completely different direction.

There had to be several huh!, what-in-the-world-is-he-doing moments among the faithful.

The Cleveland general manager mystifyingly sidesteps every opportunity to draft a wide receiver. In doing so, one can only assume he is satisfied with his current corps of receivers. He shouldn’t be.

He had a chance to draft big Jaelen Strong of Arizona State or Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams in the second round and, after trading down eight spots, selected Utah defensive end Nate Orchard, who projects as an edge rusher. Strong went to Houston early in the third round and Williams to Baltimore in the second.

In the third round, Farmer turned his nose up at big Auburn wideout Sammie Coates, later taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and added Miami of Florida running back Duke Johnson to the roster. A late third-round trade with New England netted Washington State defensive end Xavier Cooper.

Farmer and his minions have no clue that the key components to the offense, the quarterbacks and receivers, are substandard. They obviously haven’t received the memo that the NFL has turned into a passing league.

It’s almost as though they believe Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel have been provided with the necessary tools to function in a winning manner. No they haven’t.

There are absolutely no threats at tight end. And there is no one of size on the flanks who can stretch a defense and open up the running game. They do not exist on the roster.

Johnson’s arrival will help the running game to a certain extent, particularly the passing aspect, which was a dismal failure last season. But he is not an every-down back. He’s a change-of-pace guy. He’ll do nothing more than complement Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. Third-round picks should be more than part-timers.

Farmer, who seems to be concentrating on bolstering the front seven of his defense, needs to step back and take a very long and very realistic look at what is clearly the worst offense in the AFC North. It won’t scare anyone.

Orchard, who compiled an astounding 18½ of his 25 career sacks last year, most likely will slide into the spot vacated by Jabaal Sheard, who bolted for New England in free agency. Sometimes, football people can be blinded by statistics that don’t tell the whole story.

Did Orchard all of a sudden become a pass-rushing demon? Where was he the first few years of his tenure at Utah? Maybe he’s one of those football players who seem   to get better as he matures. We’ll find out later this year.

Cooper’s selection merely adds depth to an area of the team that, if it can stay healthy, might be the strongest on the team. But enough already. Time to address the weakest skill position on the team that isn’t quarterback.

This year’s crop of wide receivers in the draft is stronger than last season’s excellent field, but time is running out. Still left are Florida State’s Rashad Greene, Tre McBride of William & Mary, Justin Hardy of East Carolina, Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Tony Lippett of Michigan State.

Surely, one will be available when the Browns have consecutive picks midway through round four Saturday. If Farmer makes a move in that direction, a small celebration is in order. Don’t hold your breath.