Monday, July 24, 2017

Special teams, odds & ends, fill in the blank

The most overlooked phase of football by fans is special teams. What teams do to move the football and stop the opposition from doing the same is more prominently in their focus.

Coaches, however, realize the importance of the punting and kicking games and the defensive side of that aspect of the game.

That said, we take a look at what awaits the Browns in 2017 in the form of questions seeking (and getting) answers.

What is the most important aspect of specials teams?

With punting and kickoffs, it is all about field position. Same with defending in all phases of the kicking game. Pin the opposition as deep in their territory as possible when punting and kicking; shorten the field in the return game.

And where did the Browns rank last season?

They were average in the National Football League when it came to special teams. They ranked roughly in the middle of the pack when ranking that phase of the game.

So how does that bode for this season?

It will change dramatically this season with the arrival of Jabrill Peppers, who dazzled fans at the University of Michigan the last two seasons with his skills in the return game, averaging 13 yards on punt returns and 26.8 yards on kickoffs.

How does that compare with what the Browns did last season?

Duke Johnson Jr., the primary punt returner last season, averaged 6.5 yards per return. Mario Alford averaged 8.5. The club overall averaged 6.7 yards on 30 returns.

Kickoff returns, handled mainly by Ricardo Louis, George Atkinson III and Alford, weren’t much better with a club average of 18.6 yards on 34 returns with a long of 36 yards. The Browns clearly missed Travis Benjamin in those departments.

So theoretically, it appears as though the Browns have solved their return problems with Peppers.

Theoretically yes. But this is the NFL, where there is much more emphasis on special teams than in college. That’s a challenge Peppers, who owns wonderful instincts in the return game, will face.

And if successful, how will that impact the Cleveland offense?

It all goes back to field position. A successful return game shortens the field. It is always better to begin drives as close to the opponent’s goal line as possible. Last season, the Browns began many drives after kickoff returns around their 20-yard line. The goal this season should be stretching that average start much closer to the 30 or 35.

As for punt returns, doubling last season’s average of 6.7 yards should be a minimal goal for special teams coach Chris Tabor. And with Peppers, that appears to be a goal that can achieved.

But won’t his performance as a returner be diminished somewhat by his role as the starting strong safety?

It shouldn’t. He is young and most likely eager to show the coaches how valuable he can be with his versatility. In addition, coach Hue Jackson might draw up a few plays for Peppers as a running back.

So how many touchdowns will he score?

Let’s see. How about two as a returner, another pair as the strong safety and at least one as a running back. How’s that for blatant optimism?

What about kickoffs and punts?

Britton Colquitt returns unchallenged as the punter. He figures to be less busy than last season – 83 punts and a 45.3-yard average with no blocks – if only because the offense is marginally better than last season.

The placekicker will be the winner of the Cody Parkey-Zane Gonzalez duel with the latter, a seventh-round pick in the last draft, the favorite. Parkey joined the Browns last season after an early-season injury to Patrick Murray and performed well.

But the Browns did not choose Gonzalez to just challenge Parkey. They picked him because he was college’s best kicker last season for Arizona State. He has a powerful leg that can reach the end zone with a large degree of consistency on kickoffs.

Last season’s Lou Groza Award winner – a definite plus in Cleveland – also nailed all but two of his field goal attempts, including a seven-of-nine performance beyond 50 yards. But that was in the rarefied Arizona air. He will find late fall and early winter weather much more challenging in Cleveland.

Odds and ends

If the Browns get off to a bad start again, does Jackson survive the season? It all depends on how well – or poorly – they play. Three of their first four games are against division rivals, two at home.

The key will be game five at home against the awful New York Jets, who have cleared the decks in order to beat the Browns to the top pick in the 2018 college draft. Lose that game and Jackson’s sweat glands spring into action.

Who will lead the team in receptions at the end of the season? Believe it or not, Duke Johnson Jr. It wouldn’t surprise if Jackson uses the versatile running back as a slot receiver occasionally because of his sure hands and ability to break tackles in the open field. He’s got better hands than any of the wide receivers.

Which of the two rookie defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley or Larry Ogunjobi, becomes a major contributor? Fans, of course, want both to step up and contribute. Ogunjobi, a higher draft pick than Brantley, probably will get the first shot. But Brantley stood out at a more high profile program at Florida and could surprise.

Over/under on how many sacks the team records this season. An optimist would say 40, which would be 14 more than last season. I feel somewhat optimistic with the new scheme up front and change of attitude.

Over/under on how many sacks the offensive line will surrender this season? An optimist would say 48, 18 fewer than allowed last season. I feel somewhat optimistic there, too, but only if the offensive line stays healthy.

Over/under on how many games offensive linemen Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter play. Based on their injury history. Eight would be the number. And that is being optimistic.

When will the Browns win their first game of the season? Presupposing they lose their first four games, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that is a strong possibility, sign up the Jets as the Browns’ first victim in game five.

Who benefits most from the switch to a four-man defensive front? Definitely Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard and Carl Nassib. Each excelled as down linemen in college and now each has a better chance than last season to get up close and personal with opposing quarterbacks in Gregg Williams’ scheme.

How many interceptions can Browns fans expect this season? They had 10 last season. With an improved pass rush, that figure could reach at least 16.

Fill in the blank

The team strength is . . . ostensibly the offensive line.

The team’s biggest weakness is . . . clearly the secondary.

DeShone Kizer will make his starting debut as a professional in game number . . . three in Indianapolis against the Colts.

The most important newcomer to the Browns is . . . defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The rookie who makes the biggest impact will be . . . defensive end Myles Garrett.

He will wind up with . . . sacks. Nine

The leading tackler will be . . . Tie between linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey with more than 120 each..

Jason McCourty, a career cornerback, opens the season as the starting . . . cornerback opposite Joe Haden.

Duke Johnson Jr. will have (more or fewer) touches than last season. More.

Kenny Britt will have (more or fewer) receptions than Terrelle Pryor had last season. Fewer. Pryor had 77. Britt had a career-high 68 last season. His previous best was 48.

The season-opening quarterback will be . . . Brock Osweiler.

The biggest surprise on the roster in the season opener will be  . . . Brock Osweiler.

The Browns will win . . . games this season. You fill in that blank.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Questions seeking answers: Part Deux

Rarely is a coach the most important addition to any football team on any level. But it’s hard not to point to Gregg Williams as the Browns’ most important addition this season.

The voluble and very much out there new defensive coordinator of the club will bring qualities to the Cleveland defense that have been missing for way, way, way too long: Nastiness and attitude.

If the players play with the same intensity Williams coaches, if they channel his in-your-face aggression, if they embody everything he stands for when it comes to playing the game of football, Browns fans are in for a treat this season.

Not since the days of Marty Schottenheimer more than a generation ago have Cleveland pro football fans been treated to the kind of defense that reflects the blue-collar ethos the city used to be famous for in the early days of the Dawg Pound.

The Browns under Schottenheimer, as a defensive coordinator and head coach, played smart, aggressive football. Mistakes were rare. Victories were plentiful. And the fans became spoiled with good reason.

In part two of our overview of the 2017 Browns, we take a look at the defense, at Gregg Williams’ defense and what we can expect.

As we did with the offense, we start with the guys up front, the grunts who do not get nearly enough credit and set the table for those who labor behind them.

First of all, how much of a problem will the defense have shifting from a hybrid 3-4 scheme last season to what most likely will be a 4-2-5 look this season?

Not much at all because the Browns last season utilized college pass rushers as outside linebackers for the most part. Players like Emmanuel Ogbah and Nate Orchard now move back to defensive end, where they are more comfortable and productive.

And what makes them more effective there?

Ogbah and Orchard, along with returnees Carl Nassib, Cam Johnson and Xavier Cooper (who can also play tackle) and top draft choice Myles Garrett can concentrate on doing what they do best and that’s attacking the quarterback, a trait Browns fans haven’t been treated to in many seasons. Look for the Browns to significantly improve on their 26-sack season a year ago.

It’s not all about sacking the quarterback. What about stopping the run, something they haven’t been successful at for many seasons?

That’s the good part. Switching to a four-man front enables Danny Shelton to be the player the club thought it drafted a couple of years ago. While he improved last season as a nose tackle, he is much better suited to play next to a fellow tackle, avoiding much of the double and triple teams he faced in his first two seasons.

When facing one-on-one blocking, Shelton has proved to be almost impossible to handle. He clearly will be the greatest beneficiary of Williams’ defensive philosophy, improving his pass rush as well as stopping the run.

And who will play next to him?

That’s the intriguing part. Right now, veteran Jamie Meder has the inside track. But rookies Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley, both extremely explosive off the ball and owning the nastiness Williams likes, should give Meder stiff competition in what could be the best battle in training camp.

What about Garrett? Where does he fit in?

In the starting lineup, of course. You don’t sit the overall No. 1 draft pick. He is good enough to be a three-down player. His biggest problem will be adjusting to the speed and quickness of the National Football League after dominating on the college level.

Seems to be an awfully young defensive line with three rookies, a couple of pro sophomores and three third-year guys. How much of a concern will that be?

Not much. Better to work with a talented young group and let them develop. Anyway, chances are one or two of the youngsters might not make the cut unless Williams wants to have more than eight linemen at his disposal.

Okay, let us turn to the linebackers, a role that will be diminished somewhat by the Williams’ scheme, which focuses on the pass rush and a mostly nickel look in the secondary. Who stands out there?

Right now, it appears as though Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey have a lock on that role. Both are coming off solid seasons and there is no reason for Williams to do anything more than cheer them on. Both are aggressive, smart and have a nose for the football.

And with 10 linebackers in training camp, it will be interesting to see how many Williams keeps. The favorites appear to be returnees Tank Carder, Dominique Alexander and Joe Schobert.

That takes care of the front seven. What about the secondary, an area a lot of people point to as the weakest on the team?

And it’s with good reason they do. The defensive backfield was absolutely hammered last season. It didn’t help that the defensive line was unable to drop opposing quarterbacks, who merrily strafed almost at will. Converting third-and-longs became commonplace against the Browns to the tune of 45.1% of the time.  

That secondary surrendered 261 yards a game, 36 touchdowns, three 400-yard games, five 300-yard games, picked off only 10 passes and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 64% of their passes. It was an offensive free for all in the Cleveland defensive backfield. And it is still the club’s Achilles’ heel.

Okay, let’s break it down. There are whopping 19 defensive backs in camp (or will be when Jabrill Peppers signs his rookie contract). (Update: He did Sunday.) That’s more than 20% of the roster. First, the cornerbacks.

There are a dozen of them. And none really stick out to the point where fans can rely on them. Brien Boddy-Calhoun and Jamar Taylor were minor surprises at the position last season, but both were prone to occasionally giving up big plays.

So where does Joe Haden fit into this picture? Now in his eighth season, this veteran is arguably on the downside of a career that began so promisingly. Nagged by injuries the last couple of seasons, Haden needs to be completely healthy in order to play the kind of aggressive defense demanded by Williams.

At one time regarded as one of the best press cornerbacks in the NFL, he needs to get back to that style, Williams should provide him with that opportunity. If he’s healthy and works hard, he is young enough – he’s only 28 – to once again become the corner Browns fans appreciated a few years ago.

The Browns signed Jason McCourty, an eight-year veteran, to bolster their cornerback roster. If he doesn’t beat out Taylor or Boddy-Calhoun to play opposite Haden, he could man the slot in Williams’ 4-2-5 look. Other possibilities are Marcus Burley, Trey Caldwell and Darius Hillary.

And the safeties?

Seven of them: four strong, three free. The most intriguing, of course, is Peppers, who probably will begin the season as the strong safety, where his main duties would be run support and checking the tight end and running back out of the backfield.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Williams uses Peppers as a walkup linebacker in certain pass situations, much the same way the Pittsburgh Steelers used Troy Polamalu and Arizona Cardinals occasionally use Deone Bucannon, who splits his time between linebacker and safety. Returnees Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell provide veteran backup.

Free safety probably will wind up as a fight between Ed Reynolds II and Calvin Pryor III in a battle of Roman numerals with Pryor owning the edge.  Reynolds started seven games for Cleveland last season after injuries racked the position. Pryor, obtained from the New York Jets for Demario Davis, has started 38 games in his three-year career.

And finally, can it be assumed head coach Hue Jackson will cede complete authority of the defense to Williams?

Guess here is he better. Any interference likely will cause more friction and inner turmoil than Jackson, who had enough of that last season at 1-15, is willing to take on. If the defense goes sour this season, don’t blame Jackson, who has enough problems with the offense.

Tomorrow:  Special teams, odds and ends and fill in the blank.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Questions seeking (and getting) answers

The 2017 season officially gets under way for the Browns Sunday in Berea when rookies report to training camp. Three days later, coach Hue Jackson and his staff welcome the veterans and preparations for the season begin in earnest.

The first few days will be spent getting acquainted with 37 new faces occupying spots on the 90-man roster. That’s a radical turnover from last season’s unforgettable 1-15 season.

That includes 20 rookies as the Browns begin phase two of their plan to almost totally reshape the team. They will field one of the youngest teams in the National Football League this season.

And with youth, of course, comes struggle. Fans bore witness to that last season with a roster littered with first-year professionals. All of which provokes many questions. Here are answers to some of them.

In the first of a two-part look at the 20117 Cleveland Browns, we feature the offense . . .

Let’s start with the offensive line. Better than last season’s?

By far. Then again, it doesn’t take much to be better. Last season’s group surrendered an embarrassing 66 sacks, a club record that most likely will never be broken.

Adding (right guard) Kevin Zeitler and (center) JC Tretter in free agency and getting left guard Joel Bitonio back from injury helps immensely. It would help even more if Bitonio and Tretter can remain healthy for 16 games, which has proven difficult in the past.

Joe Thomas returns at left tackle, of course. Who plays right tackle?

It had better be second-year man Shon Coleman, who will battle Cameron Erving for the job. If Erving wins out, it will be a turnstile to the quarterback in the passing game.

What about the depth along the OL?

Definitely better than last season with the acquisitions of Zeitler and Tretter. John Greco and Spencer Drango coming off the bench in the event of an injury is a definite upgrade from last season. Can’t say the same for Erving, though.

Odds the offensive line will cut in half those 66 sacks?

Not in half. That’s way too optimistic. But look for a significant reduction like around 40 to 45, an improvement of a little less than a sack and a half a game.

Jackson is zeroing in on a more balanced offense this season. What are the odds he will be successful in his effort achieve that goal?

That depends almost entirely on how successful the Browns’ running game is. It sure wasn’t last season, although it averaged 107 yards a game, thanks mainly to a 231-yard game in the season finale in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rested many starters.

The running game last season went through a terrible eight-game stretch midway through the season, seven of which produced ground games of 27, 40, 68, 45, 33, 33 and 58 yards.

If the offensive line can provide enough running room for Isaiah Crowell, who came thisclose to a 1,000-yard season in 2016, Duke Johnson Jr. and, maybe, rookie Matthew Dayes, then Jackson’s 50-50 goal has a chance at becoming a reality and strengthens the club’s ability to prolong drives and keep the defense rested.

How many touches will Johnson average and how much of a factor will he be in the passing game?

If Jackson truly wants to diversify his offense, Johnson has to be a big part of it. He has arguably the surest hands on the team and is the team’s most effective runner in the open field.

Problem is Jackson still runs him between the tackles on occasion. Johnson is more of a slasher who is more effective as a cutback runner. He needs at least 15 touches a game to be effective.

Enough about running backs. What about the wide receivers? Is the current corps better or worse than last season’s?

Worse. It might be the worst in the NFL. Well maybe the New York Jets’ wideouts are a bit worse. But there is no argument that can honestly disprove that notion with regard to the Browns, especially after the departure of Terrelle Pryor, the only legitimately dangerous wide receiver on the roster last season.

Is there anyone on the roster now who can duplicate Pryor’s 77-catch, 1,007-yard effort in 2016?

No. Pryor caught 45.8% of the club’s completed passes last season and accumulated 49.6% of the total yards by the position.

Well, what about Kenny Britt, who was signed as a free agent after Pryor left for Washington? Didn’t he have 68 receptions for 1,002 yards last season with Los Angeles last season?

Sure did. But which Kenny Britt did the Browns sign? The one who had a career year last season or the one who averaged 34.4 receptions and 554 yards in his first seven NFL seasons?

With an extremely young and inexperienced corps behind Britt, odds are he will come a lot closer to the numbers in his first seven seasons than the ones he put up last season.

But don’t wide receivers take longer to develop?

Yes, but Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton had such poor rookie seasons, it’s hard to imagine any of them making up for considerably lost ground. And Corey Coleman couldn’t stay healthy long enough to be reliable.

Is Coleman brittle or a star on the horizon?

Brittle wide receivers do not go far in the NFL. Perhaps it’s a bit premature to label Coleman as brittle right now, but he isn’t exactly off to a blazing start from an injury standpoint as a professional.

What about Josh Gordon?

Can’t discuss him until – or if – Commissioner Roger Goodell unshackles him. He may have already destroyed his career.

The tight end picture changed with Gary Barnidge’s departure and the drafting of David Njoku. How much of a factor are Njoku, Seth DeValve and Randall Telfer (if he can stay healthy long enough) in Jackson’s offensive scheme?

They will play a large part in both phases of the offense. Expect to see a lot of a two-tight end looks, especially in the running game. Njoku most likely will be a three-down tight end who will get plenty of looks in the passing game.

And whose passes are these young receivers going to catch? Who will be under center in the season opener against Pittsburgh?

The guess here is Brock Osweiler to begin with unless he is so abysmally bad in exhibition games that Jackson opts for either Cody Kessler or DeShone Kizer.

Kessler is a concussion – he had two last season as a rookie – waiting to happen. And throwing Kizer in there against the Steelers in the season opener would be – trying to be kind here – not advisable.

If Jackson wants to get anything out of Kizer, he must initially shackle him to the bench for several games, put a clipboard in his hand and let him learn all about the NFL from a safe place. Otherwise, the coach is messing with the kid’s future.

When Kizer does start, whether it’s through injury or incompetence, how much will Jackson dumb down his game plans?

If he is smart and really cares about his young quarterback, he will keep it as simple as possible.

Odds Osweiler will be on the roster at the end of the season?

Very good unless he suffers a season-ending injury early on.

Tomorrow: The defense and special teams

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Berea shutdown

Shhhhhh . . .

It sure is eerily quiet at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. these days.

It’s so quiet, in fact, one can almost hear air slowly escaping from the hundreds of footballs at the site.

Just about everyone who is anyone is gone. Off to enjoy that rarity in the NFL world: A vacation. A chance to escape and enjoy a normal life for a couple of weeks.

It is what counts as the offseason in the National Football League. That time when those who run the Browns actually take time off to recharge the batteries and begin a countdown to training camp.

It’s the time when all the plans that have been made for the 2017 season are shelved temporarily and just about everyone takes a well-deserved break before gearing up for the new season.

About the only news coming out of Berea these days centers around why rookie safety/return specialist Jabrill Peppers has not signed a contract.

Some fans are getting a little bent out of shape, which keeps those who cover the team from forgetting about professional football for even a little bit and enjoying a little R&R themselves.

Peppers will sign a contract. Count on it.

His representatives and the Browns just need to iron out some language and the amount of guaranteed money they disagree on in the contract to nail his signature.

Peppers’ representatives also fronted for Joey Bosa last year and held him out of the San Diego Chargers’ training camp until just before the start of the 2016 season. The former Ohio State defensive end went on to become the NFL defensive rookie of the year.

Bosa’s recalcitrance to sign last year cannot be compared to the Peppers situation. He was the third overall draft. Peppers was the 25th overall selection in the 2017 lottery. Negotiations parameters are not the same.

What you cannot count on from Peppers is when he will sign. Odds are he will do so sometime between now and the season opener in early September against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

OK, just messing with you. It most likely will happen between the time the club opens training camp on July 23 (when rookies report) and July 26 (when the rest of the club reports).

Sometime in those four days, when Peppers sees his fellow rookies in camp and in uniform and being coached up, he will develop an itch that needs to be scratched.

He is too important a piece in the revamped Browns secondary and he knows it. The sooner he reports to camp, the better it is for all involved.

It would not be wise for the Browns to be pound foolish, especially with someone they expect to be an impact player.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Browns’ offensive line second-best?

Pro Football Focus, an Internet statistical bible to many followers of the National Football League, recently paid the Browns’ new and improved offensive line a huge compliment, ranking it the second-best unit in the league.

With a caveat.

The headline read, ”Ranking all 32 offensive units heading into the 2017 season.” PFF’s Mike Renner broke down all 32 units before a snap has been made with money on the line.

And therein lies the delicate little tease that gets the attention of Browns fans, many of whom glom on to anything positive as if it were gospel. After 18 seasons of futility, who can blame them?

This was Renner’s surprising assessment of the Browns’ offensive line, now the league’s highest paid unit, for the upcoming campaign:

“The offseason free-agent spending spree could pay huge dividends in Cleveland. JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler bring well-above-average grades from a season ago at center and guard, respectively. The only question mark comes at right tackle, where Shon Coleman looked at least competent in his 62 snaps as a rookie.”

Renner had the Browns sandwiched between the top-ranked Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. He stated his conclusions were arrived at on “a multi-year grade based off snap counts and performance.”

There is no question Cleveland’s offensive line is improved over last season, when that unit surrendered a club record 66 sacks. It would have been worse if not for perennial All-Pro Joe Thomas at left tackle. Anything would be an improvement over that unit.

The addition of Zeitler and Tretter is, indeed, an improvement, as is the return from injury of left guard Joel Bitonio. But it’s also time to be realistic.

Tretter and Bitonio are quality linemen. When healthy. Their apparent fragility cannot be discounted. The question is whether they can book a 16-game season.

Based on their histories, they are injuries waiting to happen. Tretter has never played a full NFL season. And Bitonio, since playing all 16 games as a rookie in 2014, has missed more games due to injury than he has played healthy in the last two seasons.

Speaking of 2014, that was when the Browns actually had a quality offensive line with center Alex Mack anchoring Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz at the tackles and Bitonio and John Greco at the guards.

Browns fans surely recall that season when the Browns got off to a 6-3 start in Mike Pettine’s first season as head coach – enjoying the rarefied air of first place in the AFC North for a fleeting moment – before losing six of the last seven games to finish 7-9. The collapse began shortly after Mack broke a leg in game five.

The weakness on the current offensive line clearly resides at right tackle, where Coleman and Cameron Erving will battle this summer to replace the departed Austin Pasztor, who was a turnstile in pass protection last season.

As Renner noted, Coleman was competent last season in limited snaps (62). If he beats out Erving – and he should – he might see that many snaps in the season-opening game against Pittsburgh.

Tretter and Zeitler, who has avoided injury problems in the NFL, will have to make the biggest adjustments, coming over from teams that boast good offensive lines and know how to win.

Summing up . . . Thomas, the mainstay on the offensive line ever since his arrival in 2007, is not getting any younger. Bitonio and Tretter are injury risks. Zeitler, now the league’s highest-paid guard after agreeing to a five-year, $60 million contract, is solid despite never having been named to the Pro Bowl. And whoever wins at right tackle mans the weak spot on the line.

It’s nice to boast of having the NFL’s second-best offensive line, according to one reputable Internet site. With an offense that is at best suspect with regard to skill players, it will be interesting to see how much clout the revamped offensive line can deliver.

Coach Hue Jackson has indicated his offense will be much more balanced this season, which means the line, at least theoretically, will not be called upon to pass protect nearly as often as last season. That right there is a step in the right direction.

The two main areas of concern following the 2016 season -- and addressed by the front office -- were the offensive and defensive lines, an acknowledgment to the long-held notion that games are won and lost in the trenches.

Win the battles there and your chances of winning games improve exponentially. Based strictly on health – and that path is fraught with danger in a 16-game season – the Browns’ offensive line deserves the accolades awarded by PFF.

It should be interesting to see how much, if at all, realism and 16 football games during the regular season tinker with the pre-season optimism.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Browns need to be embarrassingly bad again

Let us be perfectly honest here about the 2017 Cleveland Browns.

The National Football League has become a quarterbacks league. If you have a quarterback who ranks anywhere from very good to exceptional, you have a great shot at not only making the playoffs, but advancing into February.

Teams that do not have a quarterback who fits that description, there will be no postseason. Only hope, in most cases, for the future. Color the Browns one of those teams.

That is why they must come close to replicating their disastrous 2016 season. It is their only chance to draft a quarterback whose collegiate credentials give them a chance to finally land their elusive franchise quarterback.

Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer are merely warming the job until that quarterback is ready to step onto the professional football stage. They are not the future of this team.

All three will play this season. The nature of the position, especially with this team, strongly suggests that is inevitable. A combination of injuries and poor play virtually guarantees it.

In order to be in position to draft their quarterback of the future, the Browns absolutely must lose as many games as possible in the upcoming season to insure qualifying for the top pick once again.

There are three quarterbacks in the next college draft who will sport far better credentials and talent than the top three in the most recent draft. And yes, that includes Kizer, who isn’t nearly ready to step in and be a pro and whose selection this year will be considered a mistake in the future.

Of those three college quarterbacks, only one stands out. His name is Sam Darnold from USC. And while UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Josh Allen of Wyoming present strong credentials, Darnold is clearly the top dog in this class.

All you have to do is look at what he did to Penn State in the last Rose Bowl as ample evidence. Yes, it was only one game, but sneak a peek at what he did after taking over as the Trojans’ No. 1 quarterback early in the 2016 season and you’ll have all the proof you need to see why he is special.

Right now, it looks very much as though three teams with dramatic quarterback needs will battle for Darnold’s services. You root for one of those teams. The others are the Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets, franchises located in major NFL markets, both figuratively frothing at the prospect of drafting him.

Those are the teams the Browns have to beat in the race to the bottom of the league and the top of the draft. They host the Jets in game four on Oct. 1, a game they must lose in the event tiebreakers are required to decide draft position.

The Rams and Jets are bad teams. The Browns are awful, especially on offense, but getting better, especially on defense. The downside is if they experience another season like the last one, it is highly likely coach Hue Jackson’s job will be in jeopardy.

Owner Jimmy Haslam III is renown for his knee-jerk reactions in the past with regard to his head coaches. A second straight embarrassing season could trigger another of those knee jerks.

That would be a mistake.

Jackson deserves a chance to work with a quarterback who gives him an honest chance at success in Cleveland. He didn’t have that chance last season and this season’s quarterbacks class in Berea does not provide much hope, either.

This franchise has waited long enough for its franchise quarterback to come along. One more season of abject futility won’t hurt any more than the 18 that preceded it, especially with a Sam Darnold lurking.

Friday, May 26, 2017

One goal in mind for Osweiler

If he weren’t so serious about it, one might think Brock Osweiler was joking his about chances of being the Browns’ starting quarterback against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener on Sept. 10.

As recently as a month ago, the big quarterback was still rumored to be on his way out of Cleveland, the pawn in an earlier trade with the Houston Texans that added another second-round choice in next year’s college draft.

From the day the trade was announced, the general feeling was Osweiler would never take a snap with the Browns. The club somehow would find a way to unload his extraordinarily corpulent contract.

So the fact he is still with the team is somewhat of an upset. Not only that, but in the conversation as a viable candidate to not only play well enough to make the final roster, but possibly start.

Earlier this week at the team’s OTAs in Berea, Osweiler said he expects to be the man under center against the Steelers. And why not?

First of all, he is certainly not going to come out and say submissively he is conceding the job to Cody Kessler, coach Hue Jackson’s first choice to win the job. Like he said, “If I came out here and told you guys I wanted to be the backup, I’m in the wrong business.”

Certainly not the kind of attitude a coach – or his teammates, for that matter – want to see from someone playing the most important position on the team.

“The facts are I’m here,” Osweiler told reporters. “I’m playing football. I love being a Cleveland Brown and it has been great to work with coach Jackson and  (quarterbacks) coach (David) Lee. I’ve grown so much this spring.”

He said all the right things about Cleveland and the team’s organization, probably because he is thrilled to be out of Houston and as far away as he can be from Texans coach Bill O’Brien, with whom he battled before being benched last year in his lone season with the Texans.

Jackson, meanwhile, is taking a conservative approach with Osweiler, compared to his much more positive stance with regard to Kessler and rookie DeShone Kizer. “His role is to come in here every day, compete, get better, learn our system, fit into our culture and try to make it better that what it has been,” he said.

The five-year National Football League veteran has been around long enough to know what to say and when to say it and more important, when to keep his mouth shut and stick to football.

He is still a long way from his goal of becoming the Browns’ starting quarterback, though, but apparently heading in the right direction. From this point on, what happens on the field (in minicamps, training camp and exhibition games) will be the great dictator in Jackson’s final decision.

All Osweiler wants is a fair shot even though it appears his coach is currently leaning, if one correctly reads between the lines, toward Kessler, the pro sophomore. How much -- or whether -- that changes depends strictly on what happens in the next three months.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why not Boldin?

Following up on the notion the Browns need at least one more veteran wide receiver to help the young kids on the roster adjust quicker to the National Football League, four names fit that profile.

In no particular order they are Victor Cruz, Stevie Johnson, Anquan Boldin and Vincent Jackson. Of the four, only one has escaped injury problems throughout his career.

The NFL careers of Cruz, Johnson and Jackson have been short-circuited at one time or another by injuries well into those careers.

Boldin, on the other hand, has been a rock-solid receiver, missing only four games while playing for four teams in his 14-year career during which he has maintained an excellence that has gone largely unrewarded (only three Pro Bowls).

Consistency and dependability are his main virtues. He would be the ideal choice should Hue Jackson see a need for at least one more wise head in the room besides Kenny Britt.

Never mind Boldin will turn 37 in October. He is surprisingly spry for his age right now. The 6-1, 220-pounder would also bring sagacity and pugnacity to the wide receivers room along with a large dose of professionalism that is missing.

He is still one of the best third-down receivers in the NFL despite his age. With the Detroit Lions last season, he caught 67 passes and scored eight touchdowns. He is the kind of receiver who keeps drives moving.

If there is one aspect of the Cleveland offense that seriously needs upgrading, it’s the ability to own the football for long stretches and keep the defense on the bench and well-rested.

His ability to get open, especially on third down, has enabled him to rack up nearly 13,800 yards and post seven seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards. He clearly belies his age at a position that normally sees players retire at an earlier age.

The 6-5, 240-pound Jackson, who has six 1,000-yard seasons, is 34 years old and clearly on the downside of his career. A knee injury derailed his season five games into the schedule for Tampa Bay in 2016.

Cruz, 30, has not been an effective performer since tearing a patellar tendon in 2014 and missing the following season with an injured calf. He is no longer the explosive receiver he was with the New York Giants for several seasons.

Johnson, 31, missed the entire 2016 season with the San Diego Chargers after a torn meniscus. The owner of three 1,000-yard seasons hasn’t been the same player since recording the last one in 2012 with Buffalo.

So if the Browns somehow, some way decide it would be wise to add a veteran presence to the Kiddie Korps in the receivers room, the addition of Anquan Boldin would seem to be the correct move.

He is the NFL’s version of the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going . . . and going . . . and going . . . and . . .

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Kenny Britt and the Kids

In the most recent college football draft, the Browns’ braintrust chose to ignore two positions: Linebacker and wide receiver.

Considering the move from a 3-4 look to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, it is understandable why there was no need to address the linebackers. It’s also why, because of a need to build up the front four, they selected three defensive linemen.

What is not understandable is why wide receivers were given no thought whatsoever. Heading into the draft, it was the weakest position (barely beating out the offensive line) on that side of the football.

In the lamentable 1-15 season last year, only Terrelle Pryor stood out among the wideouts. He was the Browns’ passing offense last season.

Wide receivers accounted for 2,029 of the club’s passing yardage in 2016. Pryor owned 1,007 of those yards, an astounding 49.6% of the production. And now he is gone, replaced by free-agent signee Kenny Britt, an eight-year veteran with mediocre credentials.

Britt arrives on the heels of what can be considered a career year with the Los Angeles Rams, putting up similar numbers to Pryor. After slogging around the National Football League in near anonymity for seven seasons, averaging 34 catches, 555 yards and 3½ touchdowns a season, he was 68-1,002 and five TD last season.

It obviously caught the Browns’ attention, firing up the argument as to whether this was, indeed, a career year (an aberration?) that will never be duplicated. Or maybe it was the light finally going on with still plenty of electricity left.

The difference there is that Pryor made his mark last season while still learning the position after failing as a quarterback and is clearly on the rise. Britt is a career wide receiver who had classically underachieved before last season.

Unless the front office sees the error of its ways with regard to wide receivers (there are 10 on the roster), it will be Kenny Britt and the Kids as the main targets of whoever winds up as the starting quarterback. And Britt is not good enough to handle being the No. 1 target with so little support.

With one exception, the remaining wideouts have no more than one season of NFL experience. Four are draftees from last season: Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton.

That quartet combined for 58 receptions for 698 yards and three touchdowns, the oft-injured Coleman leading the way with 33 of those grabs for 413 yards and the three scores.

The Browns will not frighten secondaries this season. With the exception of three-year veteran James Wright (a long shot to make the team), all the others are second-year men or holdovers from the practice squad. That is it. The lack of experience is alarming.

(The status of Josh Gordon, in limbo courtesy of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, is not a factor here. At least not yet. Until a final decision is rendered the commissioner, Gordon is merely an X factor.)

One of the weak links of last season’s team is now even weaker with the departure of Pryor. Coach Hue Jackson again faces the same problems with less talent than 2016.

It is entirely possible Jackson again will attempt to place a major emphasis on the running game, thus cutting down on the number of times his quarterbacks are forced to resort to the aerial game.

Last season, Jackson indicated one of his goals was to run the ball as much as throw it. In other words, let the run set up the pass. He didn’t quite make it. Check that. He didn’t come close.

The Cleveland offense ran the ball 38.2% of the time last season and heaved it 61.8%. Much of that disparity was due to a defense that bled points at a near record pace and put the team so far behind that throwing the ball became a necessity.

Jackson’s goal of a well-balanced offense is anathema to the passing league the NFL has become in the last several seasons. But when you have limited talent on the offensive side of the ball, the tendency is to go with something less risky. In other words, throw the football less frequently.

What was it that Woody (Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust) Hayes said all those years ago as he was becoming a coaching legend at Ohio State? “Three things can happen when you throw the football and two of them are bad.”

Jackson needs help with his wide receivers. Coaching goes only so far. Outside of Britt (and that’s an iffy situation), there are no wise heads in the wide receivers room. No veteran who can shepherd these youngsters through tough times. Teach them the ins and outs and nuances of the game while contributing themselves.

They are out there, but the Browns’ apparent stubbornness that accompanies their belief they are in good shape will in the end produce the same results, maybe worse, than last season.

The Cleveland front office seems to be sanguine about the wide receivers. They shouldn’t be.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Don’t bet on Kessler

Here we are on May 14 and Browns coach Hue Jackson all but anoints Cody Kessler as his starting quarterback for the 2017 season.

With less than four months between now and the season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson appears to have made up his mind. Plenty can happen in those four months and yet, Jackson can’t help himself.

“Obviously, Cody will start this out,” Jackson said Saturday. “He deserves the opportunity to.”

And then the coach temporarily sidetracked himself, declaring that “this thing is open, it really is” before adding it’s Kessler job to lose. “They’ve got to take it away from him.”

This is not the time of the year teams reveal their depth charts. It is the time when coaches keep the media guessing on who starts, especially since many of the final decisions won’t be made until the week leading up to the opening game. No need to make declarations now. Let it all play out.

Why the rush? Why put unnecessary pressure on those involved in the quarterback competition? Is there any question the quarterbacks room this season – at least based on those currently on the roster – will be filled with mediocrity?

How can anyone get excited about Brock Osweiler, a journeyman (at the tender age of 26) who might have peaked in Denver a couple of seasons ago?

Or Kessler, who rang up zero victories in eight attempts in his rookie season? Granted it was behind arguably the worst offensive line in the National Football League, a unit that can’t help but be better this season.

Or Kevin Hogan, whose best shot is the practice squad?

Or DeShone Kizer, a wet-behind-the-ears flamethrower who will be taking baby steps well into his rookie season?

This is what Jackson and quarterbacks coach David Lee – especially Lee – face as they attempt to right an offense that was abysmally awful last season. Then it was Robert Griffin III, Kessler, Josh McCown, Charlie Whitehurst, Hogan and, for a few plays, the departed Terrelle Pryor.

It was a gallery of mediocrity at the most important position on the team that could not prevent, although they had plenty of help from the defense, the embarrassing 1-15 record.

And there is no evidence that would lead one to believe this season will be any better, even though Jackson generously heaps praise on Kessler.

“Cody has done a great job and that’s the reason I brought up his name first,” he told the media. “He’s really improved. He’s worked his tail off and deserves the right and opportunity to walk in this building and walk out there first."

Opportunity? No argument there. Right? Well, that’s an entirely different matter. Nothing Kessler did last season gives him the right to be designated the leader in the clubhouse. Not even “earned” works here.

“They’ve got to take (the starting job) from him. . . ." Jackson said. "They better take it from him because I know him and he’s not going to give it up.” Wow, a pep talk even before the OTAs, mandatory minicamp and training camp this summer.

At the same time he boosted Kessler, Jackson allowed there would be competition. “They’ll all get reps,” he said, including Kizer. “. . . I’ve been through this before a few times, so we’ll get these guys reps and (Kizer) has to take some because I’ve got to continue to evaluate him.”

For what it’s worth (take your best shot, I’ve got thick skin), I believe Osweiler (assuming he is still with the club) will take the job from Kessler and wind up under center against the Steelers in the opener after all this bullroar quiets down.

Why? Simply because he is the most experienced quarterback in the room (the only one to record an NFL victory). I can’t imagine the Browns will start the season with a quarterbacks room with no victories.

And, most important, because he gives the Browns the best shot at winning. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Watch out for Brock

While it is way too early to even think about it, conversation regarding the possibility of DeShone Kizer becoming the Browns’ starting quarterback lingers in the wake of the college draft.

Which, when you think about it, is not terribly out of whack. After all, Kizer’s foes in the battle to start are Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan. Not exactly a who’s who of wonderful quarterbacks about whom to get excited.

Osweiler has become a National Football League vagabond at the ripe young age of 26; Kessler hung up an O-fer in eight games, was tossed around like a rag doll in his rookie season last year and has already booked one concussion; and Hogan most likely will wind up either cut or shipped to the practice squad.

Kessler, it is being written and discussed, will be crowned the starter entering training camp this summer. And why not? He’s that much more familiar and comfortable with coach Hue Jackson’s offense.

The question, then, is how long will he be able to hang on to the job with Osweiler and, yes, Kizer lurking? If he is still with the club, Osweiler will be given a shot at starting, something he did in Denver two years ago and last year in Houston.

He is by far the most experienced starting quarterback with professional experience on the roster. So it stands to reason Jackson will want to take a long look at his 6-7 quarterback before making a command decision on whom he wants to kick off the 2017 season.

Kizer, meanwhile, is the wild card. And while he doesn’t possess the requisite talent – at least not yet – to step right in and take over an NFL offense, anything is possible. After all, if a Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott can do it as rookies and perform like veterans, why not Kizer?

No, I’m not making a case for Kizer to start. Fact is he is not nearly ready to pull off a Wilson or Prescott.

So unless the Browns between now and training camp sign a veteran free-agent quarterback now on the street to come in and challenge for a job, Osweiler has to be considered the frontrunner to open the season as the starter against Pittsburgh in September.

If that turns out to be the case, it would drip with irony that a player the Browns took off Houston’s hands in order to obtain a future second-round draft pick and was a pawn in the deal and heavily rumored to be gone shortly after it was made is the starting quarterback.

After all, Osweiler is 13-8 as a starter with 26 touchdown passes and a 60% completion rate. And then you take a look at the 22 interceptions (15 last season) and red flags shoot up.

And that is why Kizer’s name, still fresh in the memory of Browns fans, is linked to the Cleveland starting job. Osweiler right now is a relative afterthought.

He shouldn’t be. Not yet.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Browns coach Hue Jackson has a memory problem when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks he has coached in the past.

With regard to DeShone Kizer, his newest quarterback, the so-called quarterback whisperer said Thursday, “I don’t know that I’ve coached a guy with his kind of skill set.”

Time to jog the whisperer’s very selective memory.

Like when he was quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator at Southern California in 1998 and 1999, when a 6-5, 230-pound kid named Carson Palmer arrived at USC. 

Jackson later met up with Palmer when he was wide receivers coach with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2004 to 2006. And became his head coach in Oakland when the Bengals traded Palmer to the Raiders in 2011.

In 2008, Jackson became the quarterbacks coach of the Baltimore Ravens and shepherded a young kid from the University of Delaware named Joe Flacco through his first two seasons. Flacco is 6-6 and 235 pounds and later went on to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl XLVII title in 2013.

Two quarterbacks with skill sets that have produced numerous victories in the National Football League coached at one time by one Hue Jackson, who also developed 6-2 Andy Dalton into a pretty good NFL quarterback at Cincinnati. He came with some nice skill sets, too.

So that’s Palmer, Flacco and Dalton, who have been shoved way back in Jackson’s memory bank and, at least according to him, do not own the skill sets possessed by Kizer, one of the Browns’ second-round selections in last weekend’s college draft.

Kizer, a very healthy 6-4½ and around 235 pounds, has a rocket attached to his right shoulder. That is unquestioned. Palmer, when he was younger, and Flacco (still to this day) own a similar weapon.

Jackson went on to say Kizer “is a big, powerful man, so I know he’s going to get compared to another guy on another team in our division.” An obvious reference to 6-5, 240-pound Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has led the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles and is a sure-fire future Hall of Famer when he retires.

“I’m not going to talk about (Roethlisberger) because he’s that big and he has that kind of arm,” said Jackson. “He’s very mobile. . . . I don’t like to compare players and I know people will, but he (Kizer) has got to come in and do what he can do and be the best version of him and that’s what we’re going to allow him to do.”

Huh? Really? Jackson might not like to compare players, but that’s exactly what he did. Talk about putting pressure on a young kid. Using Kizer in the same breath with Roethlisberger is sort of like saying Rembrandt was a pretty good painter.

The whisperer and his selective memory would be much better off wandering into more benign territory to avoid inserting show leather in a most uncomfortable place.

Monday, May 1, 2017

As the mind turns, Part 2

More random thoughts on the National Football League college draft . . .

What makes this annual flesh market one of the sports events I most look forward to every year?

To understand, all you have to do is remember the look on Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky’s face when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called his name after the Chicago Bears moved up one slot to take him with the second overall pick.

The look on his countenance was priceless. Stunned doesn’t begin to describe the look. Puzzled works. So does flabbergasted. As in, “Didn’t see that coming.”

It was almost surreal as Trubisky floated down the stairs to meet Goodell after the announcement and hold a Bears jersey for the first time. He appeared to have a this-isn’t-really-happening look on his face.

He admitted in on-camera interviews he had not received a congratulatory call from the Bears prior to the announcement on stage. That is the normal protocol for teams. At least it would have given him time to compose himself.

And because it happened so early in the lottery, it served to scramble all the mock drafts around the country that had Trubisky all but in the Browns’ back pocket. It also forced other teams to quickly adjust their plans.

This is why I love the NFL college draft. Its unpredictability is almost intoxicating. You never know what is going to happen next. Just when you think you have it figured out next time, think of Trubisky.
*       *       *
Barring unforeseen circumstances, you can pencil in David Njoku as the Browns’ starting tight end this season. The release of veteran Gary Barnidge virtually assures the Browns will have at least three rookie starters (along with Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers) this season.

The timing of Barnidge’s departure (the morning following Njoku’s selection in the draft Thursday night) was not exactly a coincidence. It signaled a philosophical change for the team with a decided turn toward youth and speed.

Barnidge, the Browns’ second leading receiver last season, will be 32 years old a couple of months after Njoku turns 21. Youth definitely will be served this season with Njoku, Seth DeValve (24), Randall Telfer (25) and J. P Holtz (23) battling for what probably will be three spots.

Njoku and DeValve are the front-runners to stick around all season with the rookie getting the majority of the reps. Telfer has encountered problems staying healthy. The healthiest when the season opens most likely will make the final roster.
*       *       *
The Browns’ most intriguing draft choice unquestionably is third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi. The defensive tackle, whose real first name is Olumide, was sort of a “who’s he?” choice out of North Carolina Charlotte. His given name means “God has come.”

The son of Nigerian parents did not play football until his sophomore year in high school when he was an obese 350-pounder. Now a chiseled 6-3, 305 pounds, he is still a relative baby when it comes to playing the game.

Undersized at 305 pounds for a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, Ogunjobi appears to be close to a perfect fit for a three-technique tackle in the Browns’ new 4-3 look, playing off the opposing guard’s outside shoulder. No doubt the Browns will want to take a long look at him next to Danny Shelton.

Pending the outcome of the sixth-round pick Caleb Brantley’s domestic violence case in Gainesville, Fla., it is possible Ogunjobi and returnees Jamie Meder, Xavier Cooper and Gabe Wright will battle to determine who plays next to Shelton.

Ogunjobi and Brantley are very much alike in that both are extremely quick off the ball and very strong against the run, an area that has plagued the Browns for way too long. If Brantley is not cleared of the charges against him, the Browns most likely will renounce his selection.
*       *       *
My favorite pick was Zane Gonzalez, one of college’s best placekickers for the last several years. The seventh-rounder will make a big difference with his powerful leg, especially on kickoffs, where he displayed consistency on reaching the end zone.

So what’s the big deal about that, you ask. Better to start drives at the 25-yard line than further upfield.  From a strategic and tactical standpoint, defensive coordinators would much rather see the beginning of drives as close to the goal line as possible.

And head coaches love kickers who connect with a large degree of regularity on long-range field goals, something Gonzalez did seven times last season at Arizona State, including a 59-yarder.

But how will he do in the swirling winds off Lake Erie in November and December? That will be Gonzalez’s biggest challenge. After watching him for four years at ASU, here’s betting that won't be much of a problem.
*       *       *
The most curious pick was offensive tackle Rod Johnson in the fifth round. The Browns traded up to select the big guy (6-7, 300 pounds) from Florida State. The Browns had already been bitten by another Florida State product, Cameron Erving, a first-rounder two years ago who appears to be a bust.

Johnson projects as a left tackle, a position owned and operated by Joe Thomas, who is just a few years away from sitting for his Hall of Fame bust. It was a curious selection because the Browns drafted Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango last year and there is just so much room on the offensive line.

The book on Johnson is he needs to work on his pass protection, but is an asset in the ground game. There is a good chance he will either wind up moving to guard or end up on the practice squad with the plethora of offensive linemen.
*       *       *
Took some flak when I suggested that the Browns should have taken Iowa cornerback/safety Desmond King with the fourth-round selection instead of Howard Wilson. King went to the Los Angeles Chargers in round five.

Wilson is a more natural cornerback and presumably faster than King, a four-year starter at Iowa. Wilson ran a 4.56 40-yard dash on his pro day. King ran a 4.5 flat on his pro day.

And when you start for four years for a school in a much tougher conference and are, according to some reports, a more instinctual back, one would think he would be assigned a higher draft grade than Wilson. Apparently not on the Browns’ board, though.

King is more effective in a zone defense, whereas Wilson is considered better on man coverage. The big negative on Wilson is his rail-thin size at 6-0, 180 pounds. He needs to put on at least 10-15 pounds. King is 5-10, 202 pounds and a more punishing tackler. This one bears casual watching.
*       *       *
Two areas of the team, one on each side of the ball were ignored in the draft. Apparently the coaches and front office believed eight linebackers (not counting two signed as street free agents) and 10 wide receivers (not counting Josh Gordon and three signed as street free agents) is sufficient and did not need help.
*       *       *
Questions in the wake of the draft: Will DeShone Kizer become the 27th different starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999? . . . Will Brock Osweiler be on the opening-day roster against Pittsburgh? . . . How many different quarterbacks will start a game for the Browns this season? . . . OK, enough quarterback questions. How many games will it take to better last season’s sack total of 26? The guess here is 10. . . . And how many of those will be owned by Myles Garrett? The over/under is 11. . . . How many different positions will Jabrill (Slash) Peppers play? . . . And finally, a yes or no question: Do you think Chicago Bears fans now know how it feels to be a Browns fan after their team selected Trubisky with the second overall pick of the draft?
*       *       *
Draft scraps: The Browns signed 17 street free agents – three wide receivers, two linebackers, three defensive linemen, two offensive linemen, six defensive backs and a punter. Who will be the next James Harrison, Wes Welker or Antonio Gates? . . . Mentioned every pick except running back Matthew Dayes, a seventh-rounder who most likely will wind up either on the practice squad or the street. . . . Next year will be the sixth since 1999 that the Browns will own two selections in the first round. Not something of which to be proud.
*       *       *
Time to wrap it up.

Best pick: Myles Garrett. Smartest pick: Jabrill Peppers after whiffing on Malik Hooker. Most unwise (trying to be nice here) pick: DeShone Kizer. Pick that will have the greatest impact: Garrett, of course, on defense; Gonzalez on offense (or is it special teams?). Biggest gamble: Sixth-rounder Caleb Brantley and his off-the-field problems. Most puzzling pick: Wilson over King, of course.

And now the final grade.

The Browns pronounced themselves “excited” about the outcome over the weekend. Of course they are undoubtedly quite pleased and feel very good about what they accomplished. That’s what they have to say. They are not going to sit down afterward and admit they did a terrible job. That doesn’t sell tickets.

They, in fact, did a much better job this year than last. Their first three selections (and maybe one or two more picks) will start and have an impact. That right there is a huge step in the right direction. The talent quotient of this year’s crop far exceeds that of a year ago. The right steps are finally being taken. And that rates a much higher grade than last year.

Final grade: A very solid B that could morph into A territory as the season unwinds.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

As the mind turns, Part 1

Random thoughts after the National Football League’s college draft . . .

The Browns decidedly improved the talent quotient of their roster through this year’s draft to the point where they should be much more competitive this season than they were last season.

Winning games, of course, is the most important barometer to gauge how well a team is performing. Winning only one game last season told you all you need to know about that team and the effort to improve it..

All in all, it was a much better performance by the front office this year as opposed to last year’s fiasco that produced just one starter (Emmanuel Ogbah) in 14 bites of the apple.

This year’s 10-man class will definitely produce at least three starters – first-round selections Myles Garrett, hybrid safety Jabrill Peppers and tight end David Njoku – and perhaps one or two more when the season commences in September.

The 2017 season will render a distinct improvement in the quality of play, but the victory total might not reflect how much progress will be made. The perfect scenario is the Browns elevate their ability to compete and remain in games late, but play well enough to win just two or three games.

What makes it perfect? Because it will garner yet another opportunity to draft in the top five again next year, perhaps as high as one or two. With next year’s bumper crop of quarterbacks coming out, the Browns will finally have a legitimate shot at landing their franchise quarterback, the drafting of DeShone Kizer this year notwithstanding.

Losing out on Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky this year will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. They don’t know it yet, but they will a year from now when they grab that franchise quarterback – be it Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Josh Allen – and turn an important corner in the their quest to become relevant.
*       *       *
If Trubisky was, indeed, the Browns’ target in a trade-up after selecting Myles Garrett with the first overall pick, then bless the Chicago Bears from keeping the Browns from hurting themselves by stunning the entire professional football world and grabbing the kid from Mentor with the second overall pick.

We’ll never know, of course, how it would have turned out for the Browns had the Bears not made that move. Just as well. There’s just so much of the Trubisky-Browns connection I can handle.
*        *       *
Browns head honcho Sashi Brown had an interesting take on why the club didn’t take a quarterback in the first round of the draft Thursday night.

“We obviously value the position, but we won’t force certain situations,” he said. “Obviously we have guys here on the roster and we want to give them an opportunity and we will continue to look, but we wanted to make sure we got players we felt good about.

“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill on this roster, so this is just about making sure when we get the quarterback, it’s someone we all believe in and get behind and move forward.” A rambling and yet frank admission the Browns need to plug numerous gaps in the roster from a talent standpoint.

As for the position itself, Brown said, “We also know that until we get it solidified, we are going to continue looking for players all over the league and in college. That might be in next year’s draft. That might be in free agency. It might be via a trade. We won’t rest until we really solidify that position.”

It proved Brown and his minions finally figured out building the roster back up first was paramount before going after the franchise quarterback. And then they picked Kizer in the second round Friday night. Apparently, the quarterback position has been solidified with Kizer’s selection.
*       *       *
One more thought about Kizer before moving on.

Make no mistake about it, the kid from Toledo is a terrific athlete. He checks off all the boxes Jackson looks for in a quarterback. He’s big (a half inch shy of 6-5), strong, blessed with a great throwing arm, is smart outside the uniform, but he is nowhere ready to play in the National Football League.

He is the kind of quarterback, based on his uneven performance at Notre Dame, who will thrill you one minute and break your heart the next. That’s not the type of inconsistency the Browns need at the most important position on the team.

Scouts wonder whether Kizer is the quarterback who led Notre Dame to a 10-3 record in his first season as the starter. Or is he the quarterback who led the Fighting Irish to a 4-8 record in his second season.
*       *      *
Jackson suggested in the post-draft wrap-up that Kizer would get a shot in training camp at starting. “We’re going to give all our guys an opportunity to compete,” he said in classic coachspeak. “That’s what it’s all about.

“It’s not about who is the starter (it’s not?). Let’s let these guys get there and learn our offense and spend time with myself and (quarterbacks coach David) Lee and get out on the field and let’s see how it all turns out.”

The downside of Kizer’s development will be the lack of a mentor. That veteran quarterback on the downside of his career who is willing to impart valuable knowledge to the rookie. That player does not exist on the roster.

It will be up to Jackson and Lee to fill that void. Lee, in particular, because Jackson will have enough to worry about running an entire team, let alone devoting valuable time to developing a rookie quarterback. He is not a coordinator or position coach anymore.

Unless he shocks everyone in his transition to the pro game and performs beyond what anyone believed was possible, Kizer’s development promises to be slow and will require extreme patience. He clearly has what the industry likes to call a high upside. That means he is not nearly ready and his best days lie in the future.
*       *       *
The biggest mystery leading up to OTAs, minicamps and actual training camp is what role, if any, Brock Osweiler will play in the plans for the upcoming season.

He was brought to Cleveland from Houston a couple of months ago as merely a tool in a deal that was designed to gain another second-round draft pick next year. The thinking was the Browns were going to trade (dump?) his monstrous salary.

The front part worked. They got the pick from the Texans. The back part has failed thus far. Because he is still on the roster, it must be assumed no one wants Osweiler, whose dustup with Texans coach Bill O’Brien last season no doubt hastened his departure from Houston and did not sit well with coaches around the league.

Right now, he is the most experienced signal caller in the Cleveland quarterbacks room along with Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan and Kizer. Unless the Browns decide to take a large salary hit and just release him, it looks as though he and Kessler will battle for the starting job.
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Jackson says Peppers will also be given a chance to play some on offense as a running back. “First, we bring him in here to play defense and special teams,” the coach said. “He’s one of the premier special teams players in football. . . . But there is no question we’ll give him a chance over there on offense, too.”

The versatile Peppers, who participated in more than 50 offensive plays at Michigan last year, said he is “open to do whatever they ask me to do. I did some things that nobody else did. They are going to get 200% out of me.”

Most draft pundits gave the Peppers selection a B grade. But CBS’ Pete Prisco awarded the Browns an F – his only failing grade of the opening round – with the pick. He wondered just where the former Michigan star would fit into Cleveland’s defensive scheme. “”Where does he play?” Prisco questioned.

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams knows the correct answer to that one and must be licking his creative chops with the endless possibilities. Will the rookie play free safety, strong safety with occasional trips to the box, edge rusher, nickelback, the slot, or a combination of all five within a game?

Williams very well might wind up using him as the central figure in a game called “Where’s Peppers?” where he forces the opposition to identify where the rookie is situated before executing a play. He is talented enough to pull it off.

The only negative on Peppers résumé is his diluted sample at the NFL combine in February. He enters his rookie season in stage one of the league’s drug program.

He and Garrett join a defense that has youngsters Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton and Ogbah already in place and improving.
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Having a tough time trying to figure out why the Browns did not take Malik Hooker at No. 12 instead of trading out of the slot with Houston. They needed a center fielder for the secondary and the Ohio State star was the best free safety in the country last year.

The Browns were -12 in turnover ratio last season with only 10 interceptions. The defense had problems getting the ball back for the offense, one of the major reasons they won only one game last season.

The Indianapolis Colts, who wisely drafted Hooker three picks later, had only eight picks last season. Hooker had seven with the Buckeyes. This one was a definite head scratcher, although it eventually brought Peppers to Cleveland.
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The Browns reportedly tried again on Thursday to convince the New England Patriots to part with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and were rebuffed, No details on what they offered as a bribe. The guess here is they won’t quit trying for a while. They should. Give it up already. The franchise quarterback arrives next year. Be patient.
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That’s enough for today. Much more Monday, including the final draft grade.