Saturday, March 23, 2019

Will he or won’t he?

 So the Browns have assigned only 15 players with first-round grades in next month’s college football draft. Because they had a much-better-than-expected record last season, they were scheduled to draft 17th in the opening round.

But since they sent that selection to the New York Giants in the Odell Beckham Jr. blockbuster deal, they now have to wait until midway through the second round to dip into the college lottery.

Meaning, of course, that even if they had held on to that 17th pick, they probably wouldn’t have used it because all of those 15 would theoretically be gone. A convenient excuse to be only spectators on opening night of the three-day extravaganza.

It’s also an interesting way of rationalizing shipping that pick to the Giants. It’s like saying, “We had the 17th pick and awarded first-round grades to only 15 prospects, so why not deal it because it would have been second-round talent, anyway?”

Logic suggests there is no way the Browns will participate in the opening round, watching instead as the top players fall, giving the club’s fans, who are no doubt sick and tired of watching their cub drafting so high on an annual basis, the night off.

Unless, that is, General Manager John Dorsey, whose star has now risen to celestial heights, somehow finds a way to move up to grab one of those 15 prospects who falls unexpectedly into his crosshairs.

It won’t take much. The rhythm of a draft is such that it can be upset by just one major surprise in the top five. One shocker can create a domino effect and knock everyone else down.

The only problem there is Dorsey, who loves to deal, does not own enough trade capital with his personnel. After unloading Kevin Zeitler and Jabrill Peppers to the Giants, he has little to work with beyond the growing array of core players he won’t deal.

The only weapon he can wield is next year’s first-round pick. The likelihood of that eventuating, however, ranks somewhere between “no way” and “is he crazy?” Or does it?

Dorsey’s expected non-participation the first night is the price he has paid to mold the Cleveland offense into one of the strongest and scariest in the National Football League. In other words, it was well worth it.

No sense is pushing the envelope unless someone he has totally fallen in love with tumbles and pushes him to search for a trade partner. Considering his reputation as a risk taker, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him swing into action.

It potentially gives the expression “stay tuned” an entirely different meaning

Monday, March 18, 2019

Pressure cooker 

In the midst of the glee and euphoria surrounding the trade that set the National Football League aflame a few days comes a caveat with regard to the immediate future of the Browns.

There is no question General Manager John Dorsey has cobbled together a roster in just 15 months that qualifies as one of the best in the NFL. The talent quotient is right there with Kansas City, New England and the Los Angels Rams.

The big question is whether the coaching staff under rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens is seasoned enough to handle this vast array of talent, the likes of which hasn’t graced the Cleveland football landscape in a very long time.

Dorsey believes so. “From a planning standpoint, you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels,” he told the Cleveland media last week. “I think we’ve done that. Surround him with a strong coaching staff.”

Kitchens’ star has risen so rapidly, so majestically, the fact he has never been the lead whistle of a football team on any level has been shunted to the background in light of all the personnel moves.

There is no question whatsoever the new boss of the locker room has the chops to handle an offense. That was more than evident in the second half of last season when he transformed the Cleveland offense into one of the league’s most dangerous.

But there is more, a lot more, to being a head coach than shepherding just one side of the football. It is an entirely different world because he now has the ears of the entire team. He is the man who sets the tone for everything going forward.

Initial observations from listening to Kitchens indicate he will be a players’ coach. Instead of separating himself from the players in a somewhat aloof manner, he genuinely cares about them on a personal basis.

The NFL head coaching landscape is dotted with coaches who prefer their relationships with the players to be strictly on a coach-player plane, a business basis. Kitchens is too down home to bend in that direction.

I get the impression he believes his success will be determined on how close he gets to the players, planting seeds in an effort to get them to play that much harder for him because they really want to.

As a neophyte to the head coaching ranks, he has to straddle a fine line as he tries to please his many bosses in the Ivory Tower and, at the same time, maintain a close relationship with his team.

He has to identify and then put out fires that are bound to occasionally erupt in the locker room. With strong and somewhat unpredictable personalities like Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. in that room, anything is possible.

That’s not to say trouble will always be lurking. But part of Kitchens’ job entails sniffing out the fire before it becomes a blaze and snuffing it out. Establishing harmony in a room of 53 players is quintessential to the performance of the end product.

Kitchens obviously has the ringing endorsement of his general manager. “This head coach is very direct, very honest,” Dorsey said. “He’s going to tell it like it is. . . . He will hold players accountable. He’ll let players express themselves as he should do.”

That includes Beckman, whose unpredictability in New York greased the slide that saw him dealt to the Browns. “(Kitchens) will tell Odell like it is,” the GM said. “. . . We really like Odell. He’s passionate, He’s competitive. He wants to be great. You can’t have enough of those guys. . . . We’re thrilled to have him.”

There is also no question Mayfield loves his new head coach. He has made that clear since the appointment in January. It will be interesting, maybe even fascinating, to see how much of an influence he can be on the rest of the offense in that regard.

At the tail end of last season, members of the offensive line practically rhapsodized in their praise of the rookie quarterback. The trickle down effect was astounding. That bears watching in 2019.

This is a football team that is loaded with talent, especially on offense. You can bet Dorsey, along with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III, and the fans expect positive results almost immediately.

All this is new to Kitchens, who will matriculate through his rookie season as a head coach under as much, maybe even more, pressure to succeed than any Browns head coach since, well, since Bill Belichick took over back in 1991. How he handles it will be a determining factor on how successful the 2019 Browns are.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Dealing Duke a mistake

 Now that the Browns know they won’t have the services of running back Kareem Hunt until the second half of the 2019 season, it’s time for Browns General Manager John Dorsey to stop shopping Duke Johnson Jr.

There is no logical reason to continue to solicit any kind of activity that would land the versatile running back/wide receiver on the roster of another National Football League team.

Besides, there is no guarantee Hunt, who received an eight-game suspension by the NFL Friday and will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season, will return to the Browns for the 2020 season.

The Browns rescued the Willoughby native after the Kansas City Chiefs cut him late last season following violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. He obviously is grateful, the Browns signed him, but in the business world, that goes just so far.

Unless Dorsey, who drafted Hunt as the Chiefs’ general manager, can extract a promise from Hunt that he will sign a long-term contract with Cleveland after this season, it makes no sense to deal Johnson now. That’s not going to happen.

It’s difficult to understand why Dorsey is thinking of dealing Johnson when he says, “Duke Johnson is a really good player. He’s a very valuable asset on this team.” And “you can never have enough talent on a team.”

Now that Odell Beckham Jr. is aboard, that virtually eliminates Johnson from being part of the pass offense. All of which pigeonholes him at running back and he is a decided No. 3 behind Nick Chubb and Hunt, once he returns from suspension.

Now Dorsey is clearly gambling – so what else is new? – that Hunt will see the light and remain with the team that tossed him a lifeline. Then again, there is a chance he just might say adios next year when a team looking for a stud running back with the résumé he owns and offers him more money than the Browns are willing to match.

Also take into consideration Hunt, once he returns, will share reps with Chubb, a situation he might not like considering he was the man in Kansas City and rarely missed plays.

That’s part of the conundrum. There are too many possibilities of losing Hunt next year for Dorsey with regard to dealing Johnson. Unless, of course, he genuinely does not believe Johnson is a fit with this team.

Unfortunately, the last two Browns coaching staffs have not maximized his talents. So if Dorsey insists on looking for a trade partner, a team like the New England Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be a perfect fit.

About the best the Cleveland GM can hope for in return is a fifth-round draft pick or a marginal player best suited for special teams.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The future has arrived

At the recent National Football League Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the media asked Browns General Manager John Dorsey about his team and what the future looked like.

The question, prompted by the club’s surprisingly good showing last season, drew the following answer: “I don’t think we’re a team yet to go for it.  We have a young, talented team. Let’s build a foundation here. Let’s build a team of substance, OK?”

Now maybe Dorsey was being overly modest about what the Browns accomplished in his first full season as GM. Then again, maybe he knew what the immediate future held and was merely pretending.

After stunning the NFL – and the entire sports world, for that matter – by trading for New York Giants superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, Tuesday, it turned out the audacious Dorsey clearly was playing his cards close to the vest.

When the blockbuster news arrived shortly before 8 o’clock Tuesday night that the Browns had shipped their first-round pick and the lower of two third-round choices in next month’s college draft and safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants for the peerless Beckham, it shook the NFL Universe to its core.

The future is clearly bright now in Berea and Dorsey, even more clearly, is as all in as a poker player sitting with a straight flush and equally straight face.

His aim is higher, a whole lot higher, than the AFC North championship, which seemed like an achievement just a few short months ago. The championship thoughts now coursing through his mind are much closer to the Super Bowl.

All of which makes the almost-miraculous transformation of this franchise in the last 15 months, or since Dorsey took charge, as remarkable as any in recent NFL memory.

This franchise was setting numerous records for futility as recently as a couple of years ago. They became only the second team in league history to lose all 16 games in one season (2017) and won only once in 32 games in consecutive campaigns.

The Cleveland Browns were an embarrassment to the league, wandering aimlessly. Finishing in the basement was an annual event. Fans jumped off the bandwagon in droves.

Then along came Dorsey, who keeps topping himself, with a simple objective. Change the culture. He methodically dismantled half the roster he inherited and went to work shaping the immediate future in his image.

And now comes the piece de résistance. Landing one of the genuine superstars of the NFL at a time when doing so was merely a pipe dream, a thought bubble that kept exploding because it was not doable.

After signing him to a new five-year, $98.5 million contract last summer the Giants maintained they would not trade Beckham, but would certainly listen to offers. Giants GM Dave Gettleman repeatedly told the media, as recently as the Scouting Combine, “We didn’t sign Odell to trade him, OK?”

As much as Browns Nation dreamed of such a deal, they realistically couldn’t help but think it had no chance of happening.

Until it did. And it instantaneously labels the Browns relevant in a spectacular way.

Helping Dorsey pry Beckham loose might have been a story floating around New York that Beckham was not a favorite of Giants coach Pat Shurmur, who would not be unhappy to see him leave. Gettleman ostensibly had two choices: Trade Beckman or fire his coach.

Dorsey and Gettleman, who successfully negotiated the Kevin Zeitler-Olivier Vernon trade just a few days ago, probably expanded their discussions to Beckham before agreeing on the second swap.

To make matters a little easier logistically, the clubs have agreed to combine the two deals, making it Zeitler, Peppers, a one and a three for Beckham and Vernon. That’s outright thievery in broad daylight either way.

I was of the belief it would cost at least a pair of ones, a two and a higher profile player than Peppers, who has not lived up to expectations, although he did appear to put together a much stronger second half last season after being totally misused as a rookie.

The King’s ransom thought to be the key to dislodging Beckham from the Giants’ roster turned out to be a pawn’s ransom by comparison as Christmas and New Year’s arrived in Cleveland 10 months early.

The gravitas Beckham brings to Cleveland, added to that of Baker Mayfield, now places the Browns in the upper echelon of relevance from a media standpoint. Networks will scramble to land as many nationally televised Browns games as they can.

With the likes of Beckham, his college buddy Jarvis Landry, Mayfield, Nick Chubb, the distinct possibility of Kareem Hunt, emerging tight end David Njoku and a defense that ultimately could be the most improved in the league this season, Browns fans should have no problem getting used to the national spotlight.

The acrobatic and highly entertaining Beckham, who has averaged 93 yards a game and scored 44 touchdowns in five seasons, legitimizes a Cleveland offense that flirted with being one of the most dangerous in the league in the second half of last season. Some national media observers are calling the Browns “scary good.”

Keeping the mercurial Beckham happy in his new environment should not be a problem, Besides rejoining his former Louisiana State teammate Landry, he also will be coached by Adam Henry, their position coach at LSU.

The domino effect on offense should be felt almost immediately and serve as a supreme challenge to the creative minds of new head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

The mind boggles at what these guys can do with the talents of Mayfield, Beckham, Landry, Antonio Callaway, Njoku, Chubb, Hunt, etc. There is so much talent on that side of the football now, the only problem might be keeping everyone engaged and happy.

The deals have also had an immediate impact on betting odds for this season. The team that annually scraped the bottom of the NFL for nearly two decades went from 25-1 to 14-1 to win the next Super Bowl and from 12-1 to 7-1, behind only New England and Kansas City, to win the AFC championship.

Social media exploded with the news as prominent athletes around the sports world chimed in. Former Cavaliers great LeBron James, a Dallas Cowboys fan, tweeted: “OH!!!! S*#% just got REAL!!” Might he be thinking of switching allegiances?

“Movement.” was all Mayfield needed to tweet. Added Dez Bryant, “The whole New York Giants fan base just switched to Cleveland . . . SMH”.

The seismic aftershocks of this deal will be felt for quite a while, dominating the headlines before simmering down and then firing up again as teams prepare for the upcoming season with OTAs, minicamps and then summer camps.

The Browns and their fans had better get used go the national attention this team is certain to attract. The whole new culture in Berea also will take some getting used to after all these years of futility and frustration and being ignored. It’s pretty safe to say now the Factory of Sadness that sits by the lakefront will take on a brand new name.

At the same time, I cannot adequately describe how utterly strange it seems to be typing Super Bowl and Cleveland Browns in the same sentence. It’s a strange and somewhat surreal feeling.

And that rapidly shrinking bandwagon is loading up again and should reach capacity, if there is such a thing considering the international reach of Browns Nation, well before the start of the 2019 season as visions of a return to the glory days of this once-proud franchise dance around.

Fans who have stuck around and been patient through the last two decades despite all the losing will now be rewarded for their patience and loyalty with the kind of football team they expected when the NFL allowed it to return in 1999 after an undeserved three-year absence.

Bottom line: OBJ in Cleveland is one of the most joyous OMG moments in not just Cleveland Browns history, but Cleveland sports history, ranking right up there with the LeBron James era. Two transcendent, generational athletes performing for the great sports fans of Cleveland.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Defensive line sports new look

 John Dorsey, the mad scientist of Berea, emerged from his underground laboratory Tuesday with yet another piece of the puzzle along the Browns’ defensive line.

In agreeing with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson on a three-year, $39 million contract, which will be announced officially Wednesday, Dorsey all but assured the 2019 revamped defensive line will look nothing like the one that performed in 2018, especially from a quality standpoint.

With newly-acquired Olivier Vernon partnering with Myles Garrett on the edges and Richardson lining up next to Larry Ogunjobi, journeys deep into to the offensive backfields of opponents should ostensibly become much more frequent and productive.

The question, however, is what Sheldon Richardson have the Browns signed? The one who played defensive end so well for four seasons with the New York Jets? Or the one whose production fell off after being switched to tackle the last two seasons in Seattle and Minnesota?

Does he still have the skills that earned him defensive Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the National Football League? Or have they eroded to the point where he has become an NFL vagabond, playing with his fourth team in four years?

Dorsey is clearly gambling (shocking, I know) that Richardson, same age as Vernon at 28, sill has plenty left and playing with a team clearly on the rise will serve as motivation. Theoretically, both men are in the prime of their careers. Playing with Garrett certainly won’t hurt.

The big problem on defense last season was the inability – with Garrett the lone exception – to make life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. Add the inability to stop the run game and fixing the defensive trench all added up and became priority No. 1.

There is no reason to believe Dorsey will stop there. The college draft is loaded this season with quality defensive linemen and it would not surprise to see the Cleveland general manager attempt to strengthen the depth there.

Enough skill players taken early in the draft should push a high quality defensive lineman or two down to the Browns’ slot at No. 17. Unless, of course, Dorsey feels the need to move up and grab someone he has identified as a must-get.

The two latest moves, in addition to the continuing growth of second-year hybrid linebacker Genard Avery, relegate second-year disappointment Trevon Coley to a situational role inside and seriously jeopardize Emmanuel Ogbah’s stay in Cleveland.  

It will also give new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and his staff a chance to unlock the mystery of why Chad Thomas, a third-round draft pick last year, all but disappeared during the season and contributed less than zero.

The 67th overall selection in the lottery should not become a cipher in the grand scheme of things with a professional football team. His team biography says he is “a working music producer when not playing football and produced tracks for (several) recording artists.” The Browns need him to produce . . . on a football field.
*       *       *
One less concern on offense: Breshad Perriman somewhat surprisingly signed a one-year, $4 million contract Tuesday, 24 hours before his contract would have expired.

The former first-round draft choice by Baltimore, whose career took off with the Browns last season after three disappointing seasons with the Ravens, was rumored to be using last season’s success as a reason to test free agency.

It is being labeled a prove-it signing, as in prove last season – the speedy wide receiver caught 16 passes for 340 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 10 games – was no fluke and further success this season would act as a bridge to a much more lucrative future contract.

It is widely believed Perriman had become one of quarterback Baker Mayfield’s favorite receivers, averaging 21.3 yards a reception, but he was targeted just 25 times in his 10 games.

The Perriman signing might also influence Rashard Higgins, more of a possession receiver whose production increased markedly in his third year last season, to re-up with the club.

There is no question the contributions of Perriman and Higgins were significant as the Browns displayed one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses in the second half of last season.

Together with veteran Jarvis Landry and rookie Antonio Callaway, what once was a club weakness at wide receiver has arguably become a strength. And if Dorsey somehow manages to land free agent Tyrell Williams, Mayfield becomes that much more dangerous.

Saturday, March 9, 2019


Catching up . . . again

 Let’s start with the fresh stuff and work back to recent events that have aged the last few weeks.


John Dorsey arrived in Cleveland about 16 months ago with the reputation of getting things done in a hurry.

It took him less than one season to overhaul the roster of the National Football League’s most moribund franchise and emerge with what can arguably be called the most surprising record in the league last season.

The fact that he labeled it unsatisfactory – it all depends on your perspective – was a clear signal it will not be any different this season.

Sending guard Kevin Zeitler, the club’s best offensive lineman the last two seasons and one of the best in the NFL overall, to the New York Giants for defensive end Olivier Vernon a few days ago proves it.

Shipping a high quality offensive lineman in his prime (he’s only 29) takes plenty of nerve and a gambling gene that constantly needs to be scratched. Never mind that Vernon is high quality, too, and fills a need.

What Dorsey has done in the process is weaken a unit that struggled with the ground game last season. It seems as though that was the only way he could justify taking Austin Corbett at the top of round two in last season’s college draft.

Corbett, who played just about every minute of the 2018 exhibition season and sat out just about all of the regular season, is not Zeitler. At least not yet. It is unfair to draw that comparison, and yet here we are.

With problems at left tackle – Greg Robinson struggled in the run game and excelled at protecting Baker Mayfield when he wasn’t holding the opponent – and now right guard, Dorsey is rolling the dice on a unit vital to the success on that side of the ball.

It is entirely possible the GM will go shopping in this year’s college lottery to help that unit in an effort to sustain the success it enjoyed in the second half of last season. Because right now, the quality quotient is well below last season’s with Zeitler’s absence.

Vernon, on the other hand, definitely fills a need and checks off one of areas that plagued the club last season – the pass rush. When one man (Myles Garrett) has 13½ of the team’s 37 sacks, you’ve got a problem.

Vernon, who labored last season playing in a 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker with the Giants, returns to end in the 4-3 look of new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and should finally take some of the pressure off Garrett.

Emmanuel Ogbah certainly hasn’t the last two seasons and most likely will see more time inside if he makes the final cut or survives long enough to make it to summer camp.

This could very well turn out to be one of those unusual trades that helps both teams. Zeitler will fit in nicely with the Giants, whose offensive line has struggled the last couple of seasons. Vernon will help the sack total rise. It all depends on Corbett.


Rampant speculation that Duke Johnson Jr. might not be a member of the Browns this year is troubling. Rumors that refuse to go away suggest numerous NFL clubs would love to have the running back on their roster.

Why in the world would Dorsey risk losing one of the best playmakers on the club by trading him? He says he isn’t trying to do that, but would not refuse to take calls from other clubs with that in mind. In other words, Johnson is not untouchable.

Dorsey dances gingerly down that two-way street with a player who would look great on a team that knows how to best utilize this talents. Something the Browns have had difficulty with.

Is Johnson a running back? Or is he a receiver? He’s both. He’s the kind of player you want to own the football because he makes good things happen with his feet. Get him the ball and watch him make plays.

If new head coach Freddie Kitchens is such an offensive genius, it shouldn’t be that difficult for him to scheme plays that best suit Johnson’s talents. That talent has been wasted far too long in Cleveland.


Can’t blame Dorsey for cutting Collins, whose inconsistent play last season contributed to the disappointing defensive showing last season. It wasn’t just him, to be sure, but the large contract that kept him in Cleveland strangled his chances of remaining.

Sashi Brown vastly overpaid Collins after he played very well for a half season after joining the team in a trade midway through the 2016 season. There was no way he was going to renegotiate the four-year, $50 million contract.

Keeping him did not justify the money he was set to make considering how far his game had fallen off. “There were some inconsistencies,” Dorsey said following Collins’ release. “He may have been nicked. All I know is he is a very talented football player. You can’t have enough of those guys on your team.”

A classic case of damning with faint praise.


Free agency lurks around the corner with the first day of the 2019 league year set to begin at 4 p.m. on Wednesday shortly after all 2018 player contracts expire. Contract negotiations with free agents are permitted on Monday with the trading period beginning Wednesday at 4.

The annual college draft will be conducted April 25-27 in Nashville. The Browns, barring unforeseen maneuvering by Dorsey, are scheduled to select 17th in the opening round with needs at defensive tackle, offensive line, linebacker (inside and outside), wide receiver and the secondary (in that order).