Who’s missing the boat?
Part three of a five-part series
In baseball, it’s easy to build a strong team through free agency and supplement a roster with a good minor league system. Winners can be built in that way pretty easily if a team has the money to spend.
In the NFL, however, building a winner through free agency doesn’t work. A team can come together quickly, but just as quickly it will fall apart. In this regard, I think I can agree with Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer.
Build through the draft and develop your own young players, supplement your depth and fill a hole or two in your starting lineup with free agents. If you’re right in assessing your weaknesses and prioritize the right way, you can turn even the worst of teams into a contender in the matter of no more than two seasons with the right draft picks and free agent signings. A mediocre team can be turned into a contender in a single offseason.
Farmer missed the boat in nearly every way during this offseason. As I discussed in the last installment, he blew the draft. He also swung and missed in a big way in free agency.
It started with letting go of players he already had on his own roster. He alienated tight end Jordan Cameron and quarterback Brian Hoyer. Neither player bought in to the way he is building this team. Cameron used Farmer and the Browns to swing a good deal with the Miami Dolphins. Hoyer was all but ignored by Farmer and the Browns and left town shaking his head.
Farmer had about $34.45 million to spend in free agency, which is no small sum. The biggest holes in the roster were at quarterback, receiver, tight end, defensive tackle, inside linebacker and depth on the offensive line and at outside linebacker, not necessarily in that order.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the most important holes were at defensive tackle because the Browns had the worst run defense in the league in 2014, and at receiver where the roster is devoid of playmakers at the position with Josh Gordon suspended for the 2015. Tight end, quarterback (better available options would move this up the list) and inside linebacker would slot in behind with depth at the other two positions least important.
Before we go any further, let me stress that I don’t believe depth to be unimportant. I simply believe that depth is a luxury the Browns can’t afford until they address serious deficiencies in the starting lineup. Guys who don’t start and play less than half the time are far less important than guys who start and play more than 60 percent of the time. It’s simple math.
It doesn’t matter how good your second team linebackers or offensive linemen are if you starters at receiver, quarterback and tight end are awful. Lack of depth will hurt you over 16 games, sure. But it won’t lose games for you at the rate bad starters will lose games for you. Lack of depth might cost you two or three games. Lack of quality starters will cost you 13-16 games.
Of course, the Browns had to address free agency before the draft. That’s the way the calendar works. My decisions in free agency would not affect my decisions in the draft, unless I had a glaring hole I was unable to address.
Farmer made seven signings and allowed a number of players go via free agency. Let’s take a look at the decisions he made.
The biggest free agents to leave town were Hoyer, Cameron, Buster Skrine and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard. Losing Skrine and Sheard doesn’t hurt. They wanted too much money for the types of players they were.
Josh McCown (3 years, $14 million) and Thad Lewis (1 year, $745,000) were signed at quarterback to replace Hoyer, who was pushed out of town.
McCown, 35 years old, is well-discussed fodder at this point. But let me reiterate a few points. He was signed to come in and play. The potential Farmer believes he saw in the final eight games of 2013 was the reason he is peddling for signing him while overlooking the rest of a very bad career. In 2014, he started 11 games for Tampa Bay, the worst team in the league, and threw for 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions
There were better available options than McCown and it starts right there in Cleveland with Hoyer. Again, it’s well-covered territory in this series, but it’s worth repeating. He completed
60.4 percent of his passes for 1,224 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception with a healthy offensive line and a strong running game.
Lewis was the backup in Cleveland already once in his career. It simply makes little sense to bring him back to town at this point with Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw in the fold.
If Farmer was looking for someone to come in and play, there was a starter who has had a far better career than McCown at this point and he is younger, though he’s struggled a bit in recent years.
Matt Schaub, at 33, signed a one-year deal for $2 million to be the backup for Baltimore. As recently as 2012, he passed for more than 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in Houston. He was trusted to lead a run-heavy offense with the Texans. He could’ve been had for less money than McCown is getting.
If you’re going to take a risk on an older veteran quarterback, you do it with one who has a proven track record as a starter and who had multiple seasons in which he was successful. Schaub is that guy. McCown is a proven backup, but he isn’t the guy you turn the keys to a franchise over to.
Brian Hartline (2 years, $6 million) and Dwayne Bowe (2 years, $12.5 million) were signed to lessen the sting of losing Gordon to the suspension and letting Miles Austin go.
Moves had to be made at this position. But these moves are baffling. Hartline is 28 and already showing drastic signs of decline and suffered a major injury recently. Bowe has been in a slide for several years now and is 30.
There were legitimate playmakers available at receiver and they were far better than these two. First, Jeremy Maclin signed a five-year, $55 million deal with Kansas City. He caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season in Philadelphia.
Maclin’s output is far better than the 60 receptions for 754 yards and zero touchdowns turned in by Bowe or the 39 catches for 474 yards and two scores that Hartline tallied and his cap hit in 2015 is $3.4 million.
In the other spot, an older receiver but a proven playmaker in Andre Johnson was available. Johnson, 33, signed with Indianapolis for $21 million over three years. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and three touchdowns.
Maclin, Johnson and a highly drafted rookie would be a formidable receiving corps when added to Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel. Hoyer or Schaub could win with that receiving corps. Even McCown might have a chance to win with those guys on the field.
Rob Housler (1 year, $1.76 million) is Farmer’s answer to Cameron splitting town.
In no way, shape or form should Cameron been allowed to leave. Whatever it took to sign him, they should have shelled out. The problem, though, is Cameron wanted no part in staying in Cleveland to watch the sideshow antics of Farmer and the front office. He wanted no part in continuing his career with an organization run the way the Browns are run.
Housler is a non-threat in the passing game in comparison to Cameron.
Cameron was dead set on leaving. Housler was surely not the best available option having caught just nine passes a year ago.
My choice would’ve been Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham, who remains unsigned at this point.
Bleacher Report had this to say about the 27-year-old tight end: “For what Gresham has lacked as a consistent, explosive receiving threat, he’s at least done his part as a run-blocker. That type of all-around game should be appealing, not to mention the fact that Gresham has something to prove in 2015 and beyond.”
Mind you, the inconsistency in the passing game still accounted for 62 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns in 2014.
He’s a much better all-around player than Housler, Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge combined and the Browns had money to spend.
There’s no way to justify making a move like that. Cameron was a playmaker who wants to win games and doesn’t want to play for the butt of league-wide jokes. You hand him a blank check, offer him assurances you will fix the problems in the front office and draft a playmaker just in case the concussions become a problem.
If that doesn’t happen, you sign Gresham to whatever kind of deal it takes to get him to play for you.
Randy Starks (2 years, $6.5 million) was added at defensive end to provide run support. This move is one that had to be made to help the run defense. Starks wasn’t a bad choice to do that.
Since depth on the offensive line is an was issue, Farmer should’ve gone out and signed a couple of able bodies. Center Stefen Wisniewski signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million with Jacksonville at the age of 26 and right tackle Michael Person signed a three-year, $3.35 million deal with Atlanta. That takes care of the offensive line as tackle Joe Thomas and guard Joel Bitonio are stable and durable on the left side and Mitchell Schwartz is capable of playing either guard or tackle on the right side.
Tramon Williams (3 years, $21 million) will be the answer to who fills the void left when Skrine signed with the New York Jets.
At 32, Williams could be a good signing, but he is showing signs of age. He is purely an addition for the short term in order for the youngsters waiting in the wings to grow a bit before they assume the role.
Of the seven signings made by Farmer, just two of them make any sense. Just those two actually improved any part of the roster. The others? Old pennies shined up and passed as new. None are the type you bring in to win games with.
There were plenty of options to truly improve the Browns’ roster. Farmer’s assessment of talent and his inadequacy as a GM chased players out of town and left the team adding players who don’t really help.
Editor’s note: This was the third 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 the draft.