Did the draft really help the Browns?
Part two 0f a five-part series
Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer told us he has improved his team. He believes his team can contend in the National Football League in 2015. He has a good number of fans believing in what he’s done this offseason.
I don’t buy it. I believe what he’s done is put a new paint job on a jalopy and convince you it’s a brand new car. I don’t believe this team is even as good as the 2014 edition that was 7-4 after 11 games and pulled on O-fer over the final five weeks.To that end, I want to take a look at each position on the roster.
2014 depth chart: Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw
2015 depth chart: Josh McCown, Manziel, Thad Lewis, Shaw
The situation: Hoyer wasn’t great in 2014, but letting him go in favor of a career backup in McCown based on McCown’s eight games in Chicago in 2013, as head coach Mike Pettine has stated as the basis for his signing, is misguided. At one point, the Browns should have been 6-2 under Hoyer. He had them at 7-4. He was hailed as a candidate for NFL MVP before the offensive line fell apart and the Browns couldn’t run the football.
The shortcomings in the Browns were not Hoyer’s shortcomings. He had earned a second season as the starter. He earned the chance to lead an improved team in 2015.
The Browns made several mistakes here. First, they forced Johnny Manziel into the starting lineup late in 2014, alienating Hoyer in the process. Second, they judged Hoyer on the last two or three games he started in Cleveland. Third, they judged McCown on eight games at the end of 2013.
Manziel, as we all know, was not prepared to take the reins of the offense. The coaching staff knew this. It has to be assumed they passed this information to the front office. In the meantime, Hoyer also knew this. And he knows he lost his job because the coaching staff was overruled by Farmer for whatever reasons Farmer believed Manziel was the answer.
Hoyer played the good soldier. He supported the decision, supported Manziel. But he filed it away for when he negotiated for his contract in the offseason. He wanted assurances it wouldn’t happen again – a completely understandable stance, given the circus that ensued around Manziel and Farmer’s suspension based on the incident. He didn’t get those assurances and refused to sign a contract.
Judging Hoyer on his final games in a Browns’ uniform is unfair in that he was leading a team at the time that couldn’t run the ball because of the issues on the offensive line. His two best weapons in the receiving game were non-existent as tight end Jordan Cameron spent the majority of the season nursing concussions and Josh Gordon missed 10 games before returning and being a non-threat. The remainder of the receivers were not gamebreakers.
No quarterback in the league could win under those circumstances. Not one of them would put points on the board.
Hoyer should’ve been judged on what he can do with a strong line and running game. He should’ve been judged on a time he had serviceable receivers instead of on the time he was at his worst through no fault of his own.
For comparison’s sake, with center Alex Mack healthy and on the field, Hoyer completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,224 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception. Over those first five games, he attempted an average of 29.8 passes per game. After Mack was injured against Pittsburgh in Week 5, he completed just 50.8 percent of his attempts for 2,102 yards. He threw for five touchdowns and was intercepted 12 times while attempting an average of
42.7 passes per game.
To even the untrained eye, it’s not a fair comparison. Losing Mack clearly hurt Hoyer and the entire Browns’ offense. Hoyer was a good quarterback with a healthy line and a running game. He was decidedly bad without them.
On the flip side, Farmer judged McCown on eight games at the end of 2013 while he was leading the Chicago Bears. McCown was extremely good during those eight games, passing for 13 touchdowns and throwing one interception. What was overlooked was McCown started just 14 games once in his career (2004) and that season he passed for 11 scores and 10 interceptions. In 2014, he started 11 games for Tampa Bay, the worst team in the league. He threw for 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
McCown has started eight games twice in his 10-year career to this point, nine games twice, 11 games once and 14 games once. He passed for 2,500 yards once (2004). His career touchdowns-interceptions is 61-59. He is going to be 36 years old during the season.
The argument McCown was brought in as a mentor to Manziel and Shaw doesn’t hold water. Pettine has said McCown was brought in to play. And this team needs players, not coaches.
The idea McCown is more of a team player than Hoyer also has holes. Hoyer was the first to throw support in Manziel’s direction when he was named starter, though he didn’t like it. His demands to avoid the 2014 situation were warranted given the circus that surrounded the team because of it. Even he understood it wasn’t good for him and Manziel or the team in general.
Manziel was in rehab in the offseason and nobody has any idea if he can actually lead the team in 2015. There are questions about his physical skills translating to the NFL and whether he is serious enough about being an NFL quarterback to do the necessary preparation.
Thad Lewis, a career backup, has been brought back. He can win games off the bench, but an extended run as a starter is likely to end disastrously.
Connor Shaw has shown he is capable of doing the necessary preparation and had a slight level of success in his stint at the end of 2014. However, nobody knows what his ceiling might be.
Better or worse: Worse. None of the four have proven to be able to be as good as Hoyer was in the early part of 2014. It’s a serious downgrade from Hoyer to McCown, who is the likely starter heading into training camp next month.
Farmer needed to do everything in his power to upgrade here or stick with Hoyer. He didn’t have a chance to drat the two best players at the position, but there were other options available later. He had to do SOMETHING. In a case like this, you draft somebody. You bring in free agents. You contact the Canadian Football League and extend tryouts to the two or three
best at the position. You leave no stone unturned in trying to find SOMEBODY who can effectively play the position as quarterback is the single-most important position on a team.
If he was unwilling to go the distance to improve the situation, he should have stuck with Hoyer.
2014 depth chart: Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West
2015 depth chart: Crowell, West, Duke Johnson, Shaun Draughn
The situation: Crowell and West proved capable at times to move the ball on the ground behind a healthy offensive line. Drafting Johnson, the all-time leading rusher at the University of Miami added a legitimate weapon to the offense, but questions remain regarding whether West and Crowell can carry the load of the run-heavy offense the Browns are intent on using in 2015. Johnson’s true value to the offense remains to be seen, but he clearly has talent.
Better or worse: Better. The addition of Johnson and the return of West and Crowell assure that as long as the line blocks, the Browns will be able to move the ball on the ground. At least until the passing game fails and teams focus on stopping the run.
2014 depth chart: Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, Josh Gordon
2015 depth chart: Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, Hawkins, Gabriel, Vince Mayle, Benjamin
The situation: Combined, the Browns caught 274 passes on 502 targets for 3,678 yards and 12 touchdowns. The receivers accounted for 188 receptions on 347 targets for 2,630 yards and eight touchdowns.
Austin, who caught 47 passes for 568 yards and two touchdowns, left in free agency. Gordon (24 catches, 47 targets, 303 yards, 0 TDs in five games) is suspended for the season. Meaning a subpar group to begin with lost 37.8 percent of its receptions, 33.1 percent of its yards and 25 percent of its touchdowns. Add in the departure of tight end Jordan Cameron and 50.5 percent of the Browns’ 2014 receptions has left the team. They lost 49.2 percent of its passing yardage and 50 percent of its touchdowns.
Bowe and Hartline were brought in to replace Austin and Gordon.
Bowe (60 receptions, 754 yards) didn’t catch a single touchdown pass in 2014 and hasn’t caught more than 60 passes since 2011. Hartline had just 39 catches for 474 yards and two scores last year. The most touchdowns he’s ever had was four in his rookie season and he only has two seasons in which he’s caught more than two touchdown passes.
Hawkins is a rare talent and makes plays in the passing game as a receiver from the slot.
Gabriel showed promise in 2014 with 36 receptions for 621 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. The question about him is can he do more, or is that as good as it gets? Only time will tell, but he is sure to get his opportunities to provide the answer.
Mayle, a rookie fourth-round pick in the draft doesn’t quite have a position as of right now. He runs a 4.6 40-yard dash, which is slow by most standards involving receivers. He isn’t big enough to be a tight end.
Benjamin is on his way out of town, now considered a longshot to make the roster.
Better or worse: A bad unit got worse. Losing a talent like Gordon for the season cripples the receiving corps and addressing it with two guys on the wrong side of the hill in terms of age and a rookie who was the 15th guy at his position to be drafted certainly doesn’t make this group any better.
The Houston Texans ran on about 51 percent of its offensive plays, the most of any team in the league. That means they passed on 49 percent of their plays. The Browns will be throwing the ball about half the time with three positions, including tight end, that regressed from last season.
Teams will stack the box against the run and force the Browns to throw. Trouble will ensue.
2014 depth chart: Jordan Cameron, Gary Barnidge, Jim Dray
2015 depth chart: Barnidge, Dray, Rob Housler, Randall Telfer
The situation: Cameron fled in free agency leaving the Browns with a combination of Dray, Housler, Barnidge and the two sixth-round draft picks – Telfer, who is injured and may not play in 2015 and Malcolm Johnson, who will serve in a fullback/tight end role.
In four seasons, Housler has one touchdown reception. He caught nine passes a season ago and was targeted just 17 times in 15 games. Dray has three touchdowns in five seasons. A year ago, he caught 17 passes on 28 targets for 242 yards and one a single touchdown. Barnidge has three touchdowns in four years. He had 13 receptions on 25 targets for 156 yards and no touchdowns.
Cameron, in contrast, was healthy for parts of 10 games in 2014. He caught 24 balls for 424 yards and two touchdowns. When fully healthy in 2013, he caught 80 balls for 917 yards and seven scores.
Dray and Barnidge are best described as offensive tackles wearing tight ends’ jerseys. Telfer is thought to be of the same mold. Having four run-blocking tight ends, including Johnson, on a roster is simply ridiculous. Tight ends in a run-heavy offense need to be strong in the passing game every bit as much, if not more than, the receivers. The play-action passing game revolves around tight ends who can both block and make plays in the passing game.
Better or worse: Worse. In no way is this team better at tight end. Four blocking tight ends and a receiving tight end who doesn’t get in the end zone doesn’t come close to matching what the Browns lost in Cameron.
2014 starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C Mack, RG John Greco, RT Mitchell Schwartz
2015 starters: LT Thomas, LG Bitonio, C Mack, RG Greco, RT Schwartz
The situation: Until Mack went down with a broken leg in the Week 5, this unit was mentioned among the best lines in the NFL. The only issue it had was depth, which was thrust into the spotlight immediately following the loss of Mack.
Farmer addressed this by drafting Cameron Erving with the 19th selection in the draft giving the team six starters on a unit that can only have five.
Since the selection of Thomas, the Browns have spent four first-round choices (Thomas, Schwartz, Mack and Erving) and a second-round selection (Bitonio) on the men in the trenches. They’ve also invested free agent money on Greco, who was also selected in the second round (by St. Louis).
Better or worse: Slightly better. They could only improve so much and only so many of these guys can be on the field at once. The depth, which was really the only problem with this group, is certainly better with Erving being able to play just about anywhere along the offensive front.
2014 ends: Desmond Bryant, Armonty Bryant, Billy Winn, John Hughes
2014 tackles: Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen
2015 ends: Randy Starks, D. Bryant, Winn, A. Bryant, Hughes, Xavier Cooper
2015 tackles: Danny Shelton, Taylor, Kitchen
The situation: The Browns’ run defense was the worst in the NFL in 2014. This unit deserves most of the blame. Injuries played a bit of a factor, of course, but this unit was bad even when healthy.
Farmer used the 12th selection in the draft to take Shelton, widely regarded as the best prospect at defensive tackle. He also brought in end Randy Starks and drafted end Xavier Cooper to bolster the defensive front.
Better or worse: Better. It couldn’t possibly get worse. Shelton will provide a much-needed boost. Starks is getting older and can only play so much, but will help. Cooper is a playmaker. He remainder of the line should improve simply because they move down the depth chart a bit. Shelton and the added depth were a key here.
2014 oustide LBs: Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, 2014 inside LBs: Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson, Chris Kirksey 2015 oustide LBs: Kruger, Mingo, Scott Solomon, Nate Orchard
2015 inside LBs: Dansby, Robertson, Kirksey, Hayes Pullard
The situation: The inside linebackers are the men responsible for making tackles in the running game. They were suspect at best in 2014. Dansby is 33 and was injured last season. Robertson and Kirksey show flashes of being decent linebackers at times, but nobody knows their true value because the defensive front was so porous.
Hayes Pullard was drafted late for depth and is thought to be capable of making plays.
Kruger and Mingo will still start on the outside. Second-round pick Nate Orchard replaces Sheard, who left via free agency and Scott Solomon joins the crew. This group was somewhat solid in 2014 and remains somewhat solid in 2015.
Better or worse: It’s a wash. Very little changed on the inside or the outside.
2014 cornerbacks: Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, K’waun Williams, Pierre Desir, Justin Gilbert, Aaron Berry
2014 safeties: Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson, Jordan Poyer, Jim Leonhard, Johnson Bademosi, Robert Nelson
2015 cornerbacks: Haden, Tramon Williams, Desir, Williams, Gilbert, Charles Gaines, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
2015 safeties: Whitner, Gipson, Poyer, Ibraheim Campbell, Bademosi
The situation: The Browns’ passing defense was stellar in 2014, even with Gilbert not providing much in the way of help as a first-round choice. Haden is one of the best in the league. Gipson led the league in interceptions. K’Waun Williams was a pleasant surprise.
However, Whitner is aging and it shows at times and Skrine was a liability as he was just as likely to commit a penalty as he was knock a ball away from a receiver.
Enter Tramon Williams as he replaces Skrine, who left in free agency. Williams is a stopgap until Desir, Gilbert and Gaines are ready to start as he is 32.
The wild card here is Ekpre-Olomu, who was a first-round talent before being injured in the College Football Playoffs last January. The Browns took him in the seventh round with the idea he could be a game-changer in 2016 as he will miss this season.
Better or worse: Again, it’s a wash. Which, in this case, isn’t exactly a bad thing. It’s hard difficult to improve a group that was already pretty good. The only concerns have to be age and readiness of the younger players.
The concerns and downgrades far outweigh the improvements. There are black holes at all three positions in the passing game. The defense should show drastic improvement against the run, but that will adversely affect the passing defense as teams will have to throw more than they did a year ago. Scoring defense and turnover ratio – two areas the Browns were pretty good – are two of the hardest areas to duplicate results year in and year out.
There are few reasons to think this team is capable of mustering any kind of season that even borders on successful.
Editor’s note: This was the second installment of a five-part series.
Up next: I’ll take a look at what the general manager Ray Farmer did to improve this team in free agency.