Note: This is the second of a two-part series by fan commentator Joe Brownlee. Part one: The offense.
The Browns have not run well or stopped the run since The Return. Finally, at the start of this season, we saw a Browns team that could stop the run. It didn't last, though, due to injuries and lack of depth. Once the Browns could no longer stop the run, the games became much harder and teams ran and ate the clock, especially in December. On top of this, the Browns got less pressure on the quarterback than last year. To get pressure often meant all out blitzes and the defense was burned numerous times because of it. Too many times, the Browns got to the quarterback but could not get them down.
Ahtyba Rubin took his play to another level for most of the year before wearing down. He is the one player in this group I don't have many reservations about. Rubin hustles and makes plays downfield if necessary. He got pressure on passing plays, which isn't easy from the nose, and also was good against the run. The Browns can't let him play 80% of the snaps, though, and expect him to stay effective.
Robaire Smith has been a valuable veteran presence since he came to the Browns. He was having another solid year when he got injured. This is Smith's second major injury since becoming a Brown. He had an excellent recovery from Achilles surgery and has played at a high level, but one has to wonder if Smith is willing to rehab through this and come back. Once Smith was out, a lot of the load had to be picked up by other players, and it was part of the reason Rubin wore down. Smith will be hard to replace should he retire.
Shaun Rogers is a very talented fellow, but he is older and went through a season where he missed camp, practiced rarely, and moved slowly. Rogers did make some plays, such as the blocked field goal in Miami in a game the Browns won by three. But Rogers didn't always seem to be giving a lot of effort. I'll grant that Rogers was not healthy. Inconsistent might be the best word to describe his year. If Rogers is to return, the Browns need to decide if they can live with someone with these limitations. To me, Rogers just isn't contributing at a high enough level to overlook the inability to practice, and I'm not convinced he is giving it his all.
Kenyon Coleman had a solid season despite battling injuries. Coleman is older and not a top-level talent, but he plays hard. He was a valuable contributor and was missed when he did not play. Coleman could continue to play a role, but it might be time to look at someone younger.
Brian Schaefering is an interesting project player. For an undrafted player, he has done well. He gives effort and I love his attitude. The question going forward is he had anymore upside and if the skill deficits he has can be worked around. Schaefering played a lot of snaps, which he would not have done if players like Smith and Coleman had been healthier. I think he deserves at least another chance and he could develop into a valuable rotation player.
Derreck Robinson was a veteran signing during camp. He did an OK job as a rotation player, but he could be shoved around at times. I'd give him another shot assuming the Browns don't draft someone at the position that would be an upgrade.
Travis Ivey was signed off a practice squad late in the year. His fresh legs and wide body were helpful in the Ravens game when many of the line players had worn down. I saw enough that I'd like to see more. Perhaps Ivey and Rubin could become a nice rotation in the middle of the line. The only question is why the Browns did not even activate him for the season finale?
The Browns traded for Jayme Mitchell during the season, but he never saw the field. One can only assume he is not ready for prime time yet. With a lot of worn down players, it does not inspire me with confidence that he could not get on the field.
The Browns had some other developmental players that did play. Brian Sanford made some nice plays in the preseason and might have potential. I liked Titus Adams in limited action in 2009 and he had a few good moments in the preseason before getting injured. He is another wide body, but he and Ivey might be fighting for the same roster spot. Kwaku Danso is a purely a project.
Keepers: Rubin, Ivey
One More Shot: Schaefering, Robinson, Adams
Stay, Go, Whatever: Rogers, Coleman
Let's Move On:
Hard To Tell: Smith, Mitchell, Sanford, Danso
Needs: Youth and depth, this position is the biggest need on the team
The Browns have now played the 3-4 for six years. They still don't have the personnel for it. One of the reasons the Browns went to the 3-4 in the 1980's was to take advantage of the talent they had at linebacker at that time. For six years, the Browns have not had the players you need at linebacker to make the 3-4 work, though 2010 was the closest the Browns have come. Considering the state of the front seven, perhaps a change in scheme is in order?
Let's start with the player who never got on the field: D'Qwell Jackson. Jackson was a Mangini favorite in the 2009 training camp. Then he injured a pectoral muscle halfway through the season and went on injured reserve. By that time, the talk out of Berea was more negative regarding Jackson. During the offseason, the Browns did not offer Jackson a long-term contract. He once again injured a pectoral muscle and missed all of 2010. I do not expect Jackson to return, but stranger things have happened.
Perhaps the best offseason free agent pickup was Scott Fujita. He started slowly, but by the middle of the season, it was apparent that Fujita was the key to the defense. Once he was hurt, it was even more apparent. Suddenly, the Browns struggled against the run and the defense didn't seem to be in the right places as often. Fujita was sorely missed.
Matt Roth did not make the flashy plays we saw in 2009, but he still had a solid season. Teams schemed to neutralize him more often. The biggest knock on Roth has to be getting to the quarterback several times, but not getting him down. This was a pattern throughout the year. Roth says he wants to test the free agent market. I don't see it as a disaster if he departs, but all things being equal, I would like to see him return.
Chris Gocong played his best at the end of the season. I wondered if he was still learning the scheme early on. Gocong is a veteran, but he is still young. I think he has the potential to continue to improve.
Marcus Benard has been a nice find. He is mostly just a pass rusher, and has been effective in that role, but I think he was noticeably improved against the run as well. That's not to say that there is not room for improvement. In just over one full season of games in his career thus far, Benard has double digit sacks. The Browns need to continue to work with Benard and find ways to use him more effectively.
David Bowens openly questioned whether he would make the 2010 team. He did not play much early in the year. But after a career game in New Orleans with two interceptions for touchdowns, Bowens played more. He has lost a step and isn't the most athletic guy any more. But he makes up for it in veteran smarts. His deflection led to the game winning kick at Miami.
Titus Brown has played well in limited chances, but he just can't stay healthy. It's easy to forget that early in 2009, it was Brown who was starting at outside linebacker in front of Benard. If he could stay healthy, it would be interesting to see what he could do.
Eric Barton is one of the veterans brought over from New York by Eric Mangini. Despite his experience, I just don't see Barton as a player to carry forward. He did make more plays than I expected this year, but it still wasn't many as one would expect for the number of downs played. Barton was out of position many times, and some of those turned into big plays.
Blake Costanzo rarely plays defense, but he is a valuable contributor on special teams. The Browns felt his loss when he was injured and out for the year. The Browns replaced him with Eric Alexander who made a play or two on special teams. Steve Octavien was another special teams linebacker.
Jason Trusnick came over as a special teams player in the Braylon Edwards trade. He made some impact plays late in 2009 on defense. In 2010, Trusnick did not contribute as much on defense and was even a liability at times. I like his effort, but if I am keeping a linebacker purely for special teams, I'd go with Costanzo.
Kaluka Maiava missed the year with an injury. I have serious doubts that he will ever develop into anything more than a special teams player.
Keepers: Fujita, Gocong, Benard, Costanzo
One More Shot: Bowens, Brown, Maiava
Stay, Go, Whatever: Roth, Trusnick, Alexander, Octavien
Let's Move On: Barton
Hard To Tell: Jackson
Needs: An impact player, depth
The secondary was a big need at the end of 2009. The Browns addressed it by drafting three players, two of which made significant contributions, and by bringing in a veteran as well. Cornerback Brandon McDonald was released and ended up playing with both Arizona and Detroit.
First-round draft pick Joe Haden had a solid rookie year. He played a role early and eventually started when Eric Wright was injured. Haden improved consistently throughout the year and had a huge game at Miami. People criticized the pick, but it is looking like a great move so far.
Second-round draft pick T. J. Ward showed he was a hitter from the first game of the preseason. Ward faded a bit down the stretch, but he still had a very good rookie campaign. Early on, he got his hands on passes but could not come up with the interception. As the year went on, that changed. Ward was out of position at times, but improved as the year went on. Still, Ward has to improve at recognizing who to cover, as he seemed late coming over on several occasions.
Veteran corner Eric Wright had his worst year in 2010. He was picked on a lot early on, and the Browns were blitz-happy and left him on an island. Once teams saw his struggles, they started to pick on him. I was distressed by Wright bailing out on some tackles as time went on. Still, I think Wright can bounce back. The bigger question is if he will choose to return.
Abram Elam struggled early, but had some better games in the middle part of the year. He ran away from tackles at times and struggled in coverage. I'd say that Elam grew during the year, but I'm not convinced that he should start.
Veteran Sheldon Brown came over from the Eagles. He had problems from time to time, such as with Terrell Owens of the Bengals. But Brown was a needed veteran presence, and showed a lot of toughness. He played with an injured shoulder throughout the second half of the season. Brown made a lot of plays. The Browns could look at moving him from corner to safety.
Mike Adams has been a valuable backup player for the Browns for several years. He has largely played safety in the past, but the Browns used him at corner this year. Adams always gives a lot of effort. He was burned at times, but he also made the interception that allowed the Browns to win in Miami and he played hard right up to the end of the season. Adams is a valuable contributor.
Ray Ventrone played much more on defense this year than last year when he was a purely a special teamer. Ventrone got burned at times. I give him credit for playing hard, but he is not someone you want to see on defense. As a special teams player, it would be OK to have him back.
Nick Sorenson had a scary injury in the preseason, but was once again a valuable player on special teams. He played less on defense than in the past.
Sabby Piscatelli came over from Tampa Bay during the season and made some special teams plays. He saw some action at the end of the year on defense due to injuries.
2009 draft pick Coye Francies returned late in the year and played in the finale. It's hard to know if he might develop into a player.
Keepers: Haden, Ward, Wright, Brown, Adams
One More Shot: Elam
Stay, Go, Whatever: Ventrone, Sorenson, Piscatelli
Let's Move On:
Hard To Tell: Francies
Needs: A safety, depth
Veteran Phil Dawson has been around since 1999 and has had a great career. Dawson had a year that wasn't as good as some in the past. He missed more field goals than we have seen in the past (Kansas City, at Miami), and his failed onside kick against the Ravens was costly. Still, I think Dawson is a good veteran kicker who still plays at a high level. Dawson's contract is up and rumor has it he will not return. I think that would be a mistake. Dawson has meant a lot to this team and if the Browns are better next year, they will need a reliable kicker.
Reggie Hodges started the year much as he was last year: inconsistent. But starting in Pittsburgh, Hodges became the master of placing the ball inside the 10. From that point on, he was consistent and reliable. Enough so that the Browns released Dave Zastudil. Hodges also had an amazing 68-yard run off a fake punt in New Orleans. What a great year for Hodges!
Ryan Pointbriand had another solid year as the long snapper. There were a few snaps that were a bit off here and there, but Hodges generally corrected those.
After getting tons of mileage on kick returns in previous years, the Browns got little in 2010. Teams kicked away from Josh Cribbs, and then once Cribbs was injured, he was not able to do much. The Browns tried a series of replacements, but had little success. Joe Haden did a nice job on kickoffs, but with injuries in the devensive backfield, the Browns did not use him as a return man in the later part of the year. Chansi Stuckey had a disastrous turn as the punt return man in Pittsburgh. The Browns had a very memorable play off a Cribbs lateral to Eric Wright in New Orleans.
The kick coverage units had another great year, though they had a rough day in Cincinnati. When special teams ace Blake Costanzo was injured, it hurt the Browns.
Keepers: Dawson, Hodges, Pointbriand, Cribbs
One More Shot:
Stay, Go, Whatever:
Let's Move On:
Hard To Tell:
Needs: A credible backup to Cribbs on punt returns