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Cleveland Browns 2014 NFL offseason preview

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com


Who will be under center for the Browns in 2014?. (USATSI)
Who will be under center for the Browns in 2014? (USATSI)

2014 OFFSEASON TEAM PREVIEWS: ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CHI | CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | HOU | JAX | KC | MIA | MIN | NE | NYG | NYJ | OAK | PHI | PIT | SD | SEA | SF | STL | TB | WAS

With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. First up: The Cleveland Browns.

Hired last offseason, Rob Chudzinski was the Browns' seventh coach since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999 and its fourth since 2005. Chud, who was born in Toledo, Ohio, and had previously served as a Browns assistant, returned to Cleveland fully aware of the organization's historical ineptitude as well as the heightened expectations from new owner Jimmy Haslam.

And through the first five weeks of the season, everything was going to plan. After an 0-2 start, the Browns reeled off three straight wins that coincided with quarterback Brian Hoyer moving into the starting lineup. Second-year quarterback and 2012 first-rounder Brandon Weeden might not be the long-term answer but Hoyer, the Ohio native, Michigan State star and former Tom Brady backup in New England, looked every bit the part. For the first time in a long time he gave Browns fans something rarely seen around these parts: hope.

It was a nice, warm, weird feeling that lasted until a freak knee injury against the Bills in Week 5 prematurely ended Hoyer's season. The combination of journeyman backup Jason Campbell and the aforementioned Weeden led to just one win over the final 13 games and ultimately cost Chudzinski his job less than a year after he was hired.

If you were looking for a slogan to put on the 2014 offseason media guide it might be "The front-office faces may change the but the results remain the same."

What went right

Brian Hoyer provided an early season glimmer of hope, taking over for Weeden in Week 3. In three starts, he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 615 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and, most importantly, helped the Browns to a 3-0 record.

Of course, this is Cleveland, where the sports gods won't stand for sustained success; Hoyer blew out his knee in Week 5, forcing Weeden back into the lineup and returning the Browns to NFL-laughingstock status.

Hoyer has plans to be the Browns' starter in 2014 and new coach Mike Pettine sounded impressed last month when talking about the former undrafted free agent.

"I think he's a winner," said Pettine two weeks ago, according to Cleveland.com. "I think the intangibles with Brian are off the charts. I think he's a football junky and I think you can tell he loves the game. He came from a system where he learned from the best in the game and that showed on the field. A lot of people, based on his background, kind of fall asleep on him a little bit. I think he's a winning quarterback in this league."

The Browns also have the the No. 4 pick in May's NFL Draft and finding a franchise quarterback will be atop the offseason to-do list. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is a popular choice and Pettine won't rule him out.

"I'm not taking him off the board," he said, laughing. "But I'm definitely not saying it's been decided."

Josxh Gordon is already one of the league's elite receivers. (USATSI)
Josh Gordon is already one of the league's elite receivers. (USATSI)

Whoever ends up under center, he will be throwing to one of the league's most dynamic young wide receivers in Josh Gordon. For an idea of just how explosive Gordon was in 2013, consider this: In Week 13 against the Jaguars, he set a franchise record with 261 receiving yards on 10 catches, including two touchdowns. And in a two-game span that included the Steelers the week before, Gordon totaled an NFL record 498 receiving yards, eclipsing Calvin Johnson's previous two-week mark of 484 yards.

For the season, Gordon had seven games with more than 125 receiving yards and ended the season with 87 receptions, 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns, all with some combination of Weeden, Hoyer and Campbell throwing him the ball.

It didn't help that the Browns were one-dimensional for much of the season, but they did land another 2014 first-round pick when they shipped running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis in September. And while the Colts insist that the trade was worth making, there's no denying that Richardson was dreadful in Indy, so much so that he was eventually benched for Donald Brown, previously thought to be a former first-round retread until Richardson showed up.

On the offensive line, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack were dominant (both were named to the Pro Bowl), and on the other side of the ball second-year defensive end John Hughes quietly dominated in the run game while T.J. Ward emerged as one of the game's best safeties.

Unfortunately, Ward and Mack could be headed for free agency in the coming weeks.

Oh, and in the make-believe world of Hollywood movies, Denis Leary is the Browns' head coach, Kevin Costner is the general manager and Jennifer Garner is the salary-cap guru. That's something, right?

What went wrong

This is no great revelation, but every NFL team can trace its success or failure to its quarterback. The same holds for Cleveland. Neither Weeden nor Campbell is the answer, and we don't yet know enough about Hoyer. And while three-fifths of the offensive line had a solid season (In addition to Thomas and Mack, Mitchell Schwartz finished with a positive grade, according to ProFootballFocus.com), questions remain at both guard positions.

At the skill positions, there are few playmaking threats to take pressure off Gordon. Greg Little continues to struggle with consistency and Davone Bess is battling demons bigger than football. One bright spot: tight end Jordan Cameron, who ranked 10th among all tight ends, according to FootballOutsiders.com, but who was also a liability as a blocker. (There are worse fates, of course; Cameron could be a fantastic blocker and a liability as a pass catcher, which would make him another offensive lineman.)

Then there's the running game. It was nonexistent before Richardson was traded and that didn't change when the team signed over-the-hill Willis McGahee. Good news: Of all the positions on a roster that can be addressed quickly and cheaply, it's running back. Put differently: In the scheme of things, this isn't as big a concern as, well, everything else mentioned above.

MVP

Josh Gordon and there isn't a close second. He has game-changing abilities like Calvin Johnson and Alshon Jeffery but without the benefit of a top-15 quarterback throwing him the ball. (Remember back in September when the Browns were open to trading Gordon? Shipping him out of town right before his record-setting explosion would have been the most Browns thing ever. Maybe things are finally looking up.)

LVP

Owner Jimmy Haslam. It's easy to point and gawk at Weeden but the 30-year-old former baseball player didn't ask to be drafted in the first round. He was thrust into an untenable position and he obviously wasn't equipped to handle it. That's on the front office and, ultimately, the owner.

But whiffing on a franchise quarterback isn't Haslam's biggest football-related crime (there's also the non-football-related stuff). He fully supported hiring Chudzinski back in January 2013 -- based on the endorsements of president Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi -- only to fire him less than 12 months later.

It's not like Chud was brought in by the previous regime, and Haslam bought the team and wanted to move forward with his people. Chud was his people. But after a 4-12 season -- the Browns' third four-win season since 2008 -- Haslam dumped the guy he was convinced could lead the team out of the AFC North basement before a desperate search eventually led to Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

What has happened since the end of the season

See above. Gone are Chudzinski and two of the NFL's best assistants, offensive coordinator Norv Turner (he's now in Minnesota) and defensive coordinator Ray Horton (Tennessee). And after an exhaustive search for Chud's replacement that included plenty of "Thanks but no thanks" responses from possible candidates, Pettine eventually got the job. He hired offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who was recently run out of Washington for helping to orchestrate a 4-12 season with second-year franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III. And new defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil joins Pettine from Buffalo.

Impending free agents

The most notable unrestricted free agents are Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward and center Alex Mack. Ward said in December that he wants to return to Cleveland and Mack made it clear that he will "absolutely" give the Browns first crack at re-signing him.

Other free agents include guard Shawn Lauvao (unrestricted), guard/tackle Oniel Cousins (unrestricted), kicker Billy Cundiff (unrestricted) and running back Willis McGahee (unrestricted).

According to Spotrac.com, the Browns have plenty of cap space. As of this writing, they are approximately $21 million under the projected 2014 salary cap.

Free-agency game plan

Signing Ward and Mack is key, and during the season the team was reportedly interested in soon-to-be Texans free-agent running back Ben Tate. Tate played well in Arian Foster's absence in previous seasons but he won't come cheap. Other (relatively) big-name free-agent backs include Darren McFadden, Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew and Donald Brown, although, again, the Browns would probably be better off addressing this need via the second or third day of the draft.

The organization could also look to add a wide receiver to line up opposite Gordon. Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin and Emmanuel Sanders lead a decidedly mediocre class of pass catchers, but a player like Anquan Boldin could make sense, especially if it's a short-term, incentive-laden deal. His experience and leadership could be invaluable for an offense that sorely lacks both.

Other names include Hakeem Nicks (who has battled injuries) and Kenny Britt (who has battled everything), two of the most physically gifted players in the league who come with baggage, a reality the Browns would like to avoid.

Draft game plan

Mission No. 1: Deciding on a quarterback. Whether that means Hoyer is the future, or the bridge to the team's next franchise quarterback (much like the Chiefs have done with Alex Smith), or that Manziel, Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater will be the choice with the fourth overall pick.

(In their latest mock draft, NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have the Browns drafting Manziel at No. 4.)

Ultimately, the Browns' future will hinge on this. History has been unkind to Cleveland in this regard, going back to first-rounders Tim Couch in 1999, Brady Quinn in 2007 and Weeden in 2012.

The brief, sad history of Cleveland Browns quarterbacks. (via MadebySuperior)
The brief, sad history of Cleveland Browns quarterbacks. (via MadebySuperior)

Ridiculously premature prediction for 2014

A whole helluva lot has to go right this offseason for the Browns to be anything other than a six-win team in 2014. And this has little to do with a young, talented roster and everything to do with the front office not being able to get out of its own way. If the organization gets lucky and lands a franchise QB in the draft, and Manziel or Bortles or Bridgewater can transition to the NFL as quickly as Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck or RG3 (2012 version, obviously), then the Browns could be .500 or better in 2014. But in a division with the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers the Browns are at a distinct disadvantage, at least in the near term.

Predicted record: 6-10

 
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