When an organization hires a new head coach, the change in philosophy leads to near certain roster turnover. In less than two seasons on the job, head coach Eric Mangini's roster has been one of change. That change appears to have the Browns headed in the right direction.
Over the past 16 games, the Browns are a respectable 9-7. The Browns started the 2009 season 1-11. It is just short of amazing this team, with questions riddled throughout the roster, would achieve at the level demonstrated since the 13th game a season ago.
Mangini is criticized for his disappointing 2009 college player draft, one in which he was front and center in securing talent. Yet nobody can realistically challenge the fact this team, despite a talent disparity when compared to many teams in the league, plays hard. And they play hard for a head coach that often is believed to be disliked by the men lining-up on Sundays.
The success of this team is because of the hard work and leadership. Yes, leadership coming from the head coach. But, whereas Mangini is evolving as a coach, the greatest move of this organization comes in the form of the two men in charge of building upon the numerous changes following a disappointing 2008 season and confusing 2009 campaign.
Enter team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert.
While Holmgren gains the accolades because of a solid coaching career in the NFL, the addition of Heckert is the piece of the puzzle that may ultimately solidify the constant turnover of personnel on the playing field, which has led to instability throughout the organization for 11 years.
A year ago, Mangini, along with former general George Kokinis, netted three starters through the draft. Only one, center Alex Mack, has proven to be a key component. Mack, in his second season, is already mentioned as one of the better players at the position.
With three players (David Veikune, Don Carey and James Davis) from the 2009 draft not on the Browns roster, another (Coye Francies) released and recently re-signed and another player (Kaluka Maivia) on injured-reserve, the impact of the 2009 draft appears minimal. The Browns needed to capitalize on their excellent position in the draft.
Making matters increasingly difficult has been the pedestrian type play of wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Both were second-round selections a season ago and neither has made an impact in a Browns uniform, though Massaquoi has shown brilliance on occasion.
Until the Browns can gain an legitimate No. 1-type receiver to line-up opposite Massaquoi and Robiskie, the Cleveland passing game is likely to remain the inconsistent presence it is today.
Because of failures in the 2009 draft , the Browns organization must continue to retool at positions of need. Most notably, fill the holes in the roster created by Mangini's 2009 draft.
From the 2010 draft, the Browns have secured two starting positions with rookies playing at a high level. Cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward have stepped into the starting lineup and played at a level higher than most rookies have in recent memory across the league.
The recent play of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy has eased some tension for an organization seeking stability at the position, while the team views wide receiver Carlton Mitchell and offensive lineman Shawn Lauvao as potential high-reward developmental talent.
But, the Browns 2010 draft hasn't come with its share of misses. Safety Larry Asante was placed on the practice squad by the team, only to see the developing defensive back plucked off the squad by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Outside linebacker/defensive end Clifton Geathers was released by the Browns, while second round draft pick, running back Montario Hardesty, was lost for the season after suffering a sernios knee injury in a preseason game.
Heading into an offseason of uncertainty because of labor issues, which affects the free agent player market, the Browns remain with their backs against the wall. Many free agent players, past and present, don't view Cleveland as a truly viable option because of years of inadequate play, concerns in playing for Mangini, and the overall perception of Cleveland.
With a quarter of the season remaining, the issues on the offensive side of the ball are fairly easy to note. The defense's positional issues are coming soon.
Running Back: While Peyton Hillis has played exceptionally for the Browns, in this his first true opportunity to be a starting RB in the NFL, the depth at the position is a concern. Hardesty, the 2010 second-round draft selection, has the size, speed and make-up to be a player in this league, but injury issues with his knees raise a red flag. After suffering yet another major knee injury — also suffered one while at college in Tennessee — Hardesty must be looked at as a player who cannot be depended upon until he proves to be healthy for an extended period of time.
Wide Receiver: The immediate major players at the position are Massaquoi and Robiskie. The development process has been a slow and trying ordeal. A revolving door at the quarterback position has slowed the process, as has a questionable offensive scheme that provides little help in keeping the opposition from pressing the receivers. To help those two, the organization must stabilize the quarterback position, secure a legitimate No. 1-type wide receiver to add a true presence and employ an offensive scheme that removes predictability.
Left Guard, Right Guard and Right Tackle: Eric Steinbach's play has declined steadily since 2007 and nagging injuries have prohibited the veteran offensive lineman from the opportunity to regain his past form. Steinbach relies on being technically sound, but he has been pushed back by defensive linemen at an alarming rate. He remains an ill-fit for a Browns power-based offensive line. Rookie Shawn Lauvao has taken reps at left guard and right guard in practice sessions and the coaching staff is high on his ability to compete and fill a role next season.
The Browns right guard and right tackle positions have been a revolving door in Cleveland for years. Free agent acquisitions John St. Clair and Floyd Womack haven't exactly solved the issues on the right-side of the line. To be fair, Womack has played well when healthy. In his 11th season, Womack has battled knee issues and isn't going to be part of the long-term plan in Cleveland. St. Clair hasn't played well, he has battled injury issues throughout his year-plus with the Browns and the line plays at a lower level when he anchors the right-side.
Quarterback: The path is being laid for McCoy to take the reigns of the Browns offense. His early struggles in camp sessions raised concerns that McCoy was too short, his arm strength too inadequate and his build too frail to handle the pounding at the professional level. Because of injuries to veteran quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, McCoy got an opportunity. Arguably, McCoy outplayed his veteran teammates when called upon and his on-field play quieted concerns about his ability, as the team rallied around him. With McCoy appearing to be the starter in waiting, the organization must identify the depth at the position heading into the 2011 season. Delhomme has been vocal in his support for McCoy, and he shares a strong personal and professional relationship with the rookie, while Wallace was vocal in sharing his opinion that he should be under center.
Place Kicker: For the first time since the return to the NFL in 1999, the Browns may be looking for a replacement for veteran Phil Dawson. Dawson and the organization have not seen eye-to-eye regarding his contract, with subtle indications pointing toward Dawson not returning in the 2011 season. Because of his accuracy and dependability, Dawson won't have a problem finding work next season and the Browns organization will have a difficult chore ahead in locating a reliable kicker like Dawson.