I'm not sure that anyone could envy Pat Shurmur right now. Besides being a first-time NFL head coach, Shurmur is assuming control of a team full of players that he barely knew existed a year ago, while navigating through an insanely restricted window of post-lockout time as training camps draw near. Without having the legal consent to do so previously, Shurmur now has to introduce both himself and his system to a team that is still largely amorphous.
Good luck with all that.
However, small steps first. Shurmur's initial task as Browns coach will be simply to evaluate what was left to him.
And I can only imagine the look on Shurmur's face when he does so.
1. Kicking Game
My token line when describing the Browns to different media outlets or distant observers is that no matter what, the Browns are in good hands – or foot – with Reggie Hodges. The same can be said for Phil Dawson, who for the first time in a few training camps will not be making any Viva Zapata-esque contract demands. Also, let's hope that Shurmur caught tape of Hodges against New Orleans last season.
2. Tight Ends
Depending on the talent that was available to him in St. Louis, Shurmur often alternated two-tight end packages with five-receiver sets – giving the Rams multiple offensive looks. In Cleveland, Shurmur appears to have a nice assortment of pass catching tight ends in Ben Watson, Evan Moore and a rookie project in Jordan Cameron. However, when it comes to a more traditional blocking tight end, such a player is not currently on the Browns' roster.
3. Young, Developing Secondary
There are many holes among the defensive roster that Shurmur will turn over to defensive coordinator Dick Jauron – including overall depth needs at cornerback and safety. However, the Browns have what appear to be two quality young players in Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. While not exactly traditional roster building blocks, at least Haden and Ward are two of the only sure things on defense.
4. QB on the Cheap
Much has been written regarding Colt McCoy's prospects as a starting quarterback. Seriously, every week a new Cleveland media source produces the exact same clichéd story on McCoy. Anyway, the reality is that Shurmur is inheriting a third-round quarterback who could become either a bargain franchise cornerstone or some nice gap filler until the next in line emerges in 2012. And whichever occurs will not have catastrophic first round implications on the franchise.
1. Special Teams Coverage
Although such a move was out of Shurmur's realm, the Browns lost an excellent special teams coordinator in Brad Seely. Seely's replacement, Chris Tabor, will be charged with maintaining what have been elite and mostly penalty free kick coverage units. Of course, figuring out exactly who will play on these units beyond Blake Costanzo is completely impossible at this stage of a prepubescent offseason.
2. New Kickoff Rules
Adding to Tabor's troubles and eventually Shurmur's offense's field position are the new draconian kick return rules put in place by the league earlier in the year. In an attempt to basically placate the elite teams of the league and prevent a high profile championship game from ending on a special teams play, teams like the Browns are now being victimized. Despite Josh Cribbs' hopeful healthy return, the Browns' return game is already at a disadvantage.
3. Linebacker Health
Again, it doesn't initially appear that Shurmur will invest much time in the Browns' defense – at least considering the manic crush that the first-time head coach will soon endure. However, the Browns' depth at linebacker is dangerously superficial. In order for the Browns to succeed under Jauron's scheme, both Scott Fujita and D'Qwell Jackson will have to reverse recent history and stay healthy. If not, start scanning the lists of current undrafted free agents – or get ready for another year of Jason Trusnik.
4. Offensive Line Depth
A similar situation can be found along the offensive line, where either Tony Pashos or perhaps free agent Floyd Womack will be counted on to start. Pashos has not been healthy for a few seasons, while Womack's grinding play will eventually wear out. Complicating matters is the advanced age and huge salary cap number of left guard Eric Steinbach. With three potential starters over the age of 30, recent draft picks Shaun Lauvao or Jason Pinkston have to provide some insurance.
1. Running Back Depth
Let's get this one out of the way: there is no Madden Curse. However, there is the curse of a 250 lb. battering ram surviving an entire year of sick collisions and hurdling defenders. Or, as the latter part of the 2010 season proved – as Peyton Hillis goes, so goes the Browns offense. After Hillis, the Browns are left with Montario Hardesty, whose 24 year-old knees have to resemble gravel at this point.
2. Wide Receivers
We'll see what happens here. I've had a vision that one of Mangini's 2009 wideouts will not survive to the regular season. However, such a move would have to be predicated on the Browns making a free agent move. In any case, wide receiver is probably the most unsettled position on the roster – and could also prove to be the one that offers the most preseason surprises. Revelations could be found with rookie Greg Little and virtual rookie Carlton Mitchell.
3. Defensive Line
Even during a normal NFL offseason, the Browns would have been challenged to find a decent starting defensive line. Although Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor appear to be fits inside, currently the best defensive end options are 2010 mystery man Jayme Mitchell, 3-4 outcast Marcus Benard and the Brian Schaefering All-Stars. Behind all of these players is basically air – as the transition to a 4-3 defense has left the Browns' defensive line depth unusually thin.