Sunday, September 3, 2017

Greco, Coates and waivers

(The following might be updated pending results of waivers claims.)

The lifeblood of an offense in football flows along the offensive line. They are the five plug uglies who toil anonymously.

If the right pieces and parts are there, chances are that offense will be successful. They pave the way for the skill guys.

Last season, the Browns had one of the worst offensive lines in the National Football League. Maybe the worst. It struggled for 20 straight games, winning only one.

The front office did something about that during the offseason, picking up center JC Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler in the free-agent market and extending the contract of guard Joel Bitonio, who sat out most of last season with a foot injury.

On paper, this line has a chance to be one of the best since the NFL allowed the Browns to return in 1999. The only possible weak link is at right tackle, where second-year man Shon Coleman pretty much won the job by default.

The single most important quality about an offensive line is the ability to remain healthy for all 16 games. Developing a rhythm and knowing what each other is going to do in a given situation requires extreme health.

Bust up that synergy – and that is easy to do in a job that requires knocking the daylights out of the opposition at great risk of getting hurt – and the result is obvious unless there is quality depth on the bench.

Last season, one man came off the bench to fill three different slots along the line at one point or another during the season, providing solid play at left guard, center and right guard. He was the proverbial utility man.

And Friday, the front office cut that quality utility pro. The versatile John Greco, the second-longest tenured Brown after fellow offensive lineman Joe Thomas, was cashiered as the club began trimming its roster to the required 53 players.

What made that decision so surprising and puzzling is the fragile nature of the new line. Tretter and Bitonio have a history of injury problems. Odds are at least one of them will not survive the season.

Greco missed the final month of last season when he suffered the same kind of foot injury that sidelined Bitonio, but returned healthy this season and was thought to be safe from being cut.

When Bitonio was injured slightly in the opening exhibition against New Orleans, the coaches called on Greco to take over at left guard, where he was solid in the final three games. His reward? See ya.

With the reliable Greco gone, who will be in there to jump off the bench and come in with no dropoff in quality play? No one on the Cleveland bench this season can provide the kind of quality insurance the 10-year veteran can.

The only plausible reason for letting the Youngstown native go was his age. At 32, he is at least five years older than any other lineman except Thomas. If it is the front office’s intent to get younger all over the roster, then this move makes sense. Otherwise, it makes no sense whatsoever because the quality level dips significantly.

So who becomes the next quality utility guy? It appears as though three-year [pro Marcus Martin, who survived the cut to 53, will be first man off the bench if either of the guards goes down. Martin, who can play center and guard, is also nine years younger than Greco. Hmmmm.
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Don’t get too excited about the rare intra-division trade that beings wide receiver Sammie Coates to the Browns from Pittsburgh. The Browns definitely need more help at the position, but Coates is not the man who can fulfill any of those hopes.

He’s big at 6-2 and nearly 215 pounds and can fly, two requisites for a Hue Jackson offense at wide receiver. His biggest problem is not the ability to be deep downfield when the football arrives, but the ability to actually catch it.

He seems to have an uncomfortable relationship with the football on impact. His hands appear to be made of something resembling concrete. He belongs to the ever-growing club of current and former NFL receivers called Drops R Us.

Coates, who was a year ahead of Browns wideout Ricardo Louis at Auburn, played sparingly as a rookie in Pittsburgh, but had 21 receptions for 435 yards and two touchdowns last season.

He was so well thought of by the Steelers, he all but disappeared on the depth chart when Martavis Bryant returned from suspension and was easily dispensable. If the Browns had waited, they might have been able to pluck Coates from the waiver list.

As it is, they surrender the sixth-round pick they got when they sent cornerback Justin Gilbert to the Steelers last season and pick up a seventh-rounder in the 2019 lottery. Maybe this is the Steelers payback for whiffing on Gilbert, too.
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The final breakdown to the 53-man roster shows the Browns chose to keep only three running backs, five wide receivers, three very young tight ends and a robust 10 offensive linemen.

That almost surely indicates Jackson has every intention of following through on his quest to highlight the running game this season after virtually abandoning it last season.

That might prove difficult with only three running backs, however, especially if he utilizes Duke Johnson Jr. as a receiver as much he does as a running back. Rookie Matthew Dayes most likely will give Isaiah Crowell some rest on occasion in the running game.

But unless Jackson plans on using Crowell on a full-time basis, he probably will have the need for a fourth running back before too long unless he wants to wear out his starters by midseason.
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Weakest area on offense is clearly, once again, wide receivers. Of the five who were kept, none is good enough to genuinely frighten the opposition.

There is not one major threat among three of the four wideouts drafted last year (Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins and Ricardo Louis). Kenny Britt, who will not make fans forget Terrelle Pryor, and Coates are not the kind of receivers who worry defensive coordinators.

For whatever reason, the thinking minds in Berea seem to have a problem recognizing talent when it comes to the nuances of receiving a forward pass. It began when former General Manager refused to draft wide receivers. And it continues in a different vein with the current braintrust.

The Browns do not have a legitimate threat at the position unless Coleman, who made a couple of spectacular catches in the third exhibition against Tampa Bay, finally blossoms into the receiver the club thought it was getting when it took him in the first round of the draft last year.

If he stays healthy, and there is no guarantee after an injury-filled rookie season, he’s got a shot at being a legitimate No. 1. It took him a year to learn the route tree. Maybe he is a late bloomer. The Browns are counting on it.
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On defense, the weakest area remains the secondary. There are 10 bodies back there (five cornerbacks and five safeties), so there is strength in numbers. But unless the pass rush becomes one of the best in the NFL, the defensive backfield will see plenty of footballs flying through the air this season.

And it’s in pass coverage where the Browns are the weakest. It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Gregg Williams utilizes his coverages this season. With the kind of quarterback pressure he wants up front, man coverage is generally the course of action.

But since he has no corners or safeties who excel at tight coverage, there is a chance fans might see more zone this season. Then again, he might use one of his favorite ploys to flummox opposing teams. Fans saw it during the exhibition season.

Williams was not bashful about using members of the secondary to blitz the quarterback. His exotic packages caused enough confusion to rack up 16 sacks in four games and serve as a warning there is more to come in the regular season.
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Never let it be said the Browns’ front office did not show favoritism toward draft picks it has made over the last two seasons. A closer look at the final 53 (final at least for now) shows 20 of the last 24 draft picks are still with the club. A 21st, cornerback Howard Wilson, was placed on injured reserve with a busted kneecap.

It appears as though the Browns will have one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the NFL this season and the one probably suffering the most growing pains.
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Finally . . . A couple of thoughts after watching the final exhibition between the Browns and Chicago Bears: Placekicker Zane Gonzalez sure has one extraordinarily strong kicking leg. His 53-yard field goal against the Bears in the 25-0 victory would have been good from 63 yards. . . . And if linebacker Kenneth Olugbode and defensive lineman Karter Schult clear waivers, they would make the practice squad strong immediately. Both were very active – and productive – in the fake games, Olugbode with a dozen tackles (eight solo) and Schult with 11 tackles (seven by himself) and a sack and a half. . . . Other than the latest draft class of 10 that made the roster, there are 11 new faces this season with probably one or two more when the roster finally settles after the waiver wire is massaged. . . . Final penalty stats: 47 penalties (nearly 12 a game) for 314 yards (78.5 a game). That does not include penalties called, but not enforced when declined by the opposition. A serious lack of discipline. 

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