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.