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.

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