Deciding whether to spend the fourth pick in the draft on a quarterback could be the biggest decision Tom Heckert makes as general manager of the Browns, even if he holds onto the job for 10 more years.
From now until the draft -- if the team doesn't answer the question in free agency first -- debate will continue about whether Colt McCoy is the quarterback to lead the Browns not just to the playoffs but to their first Super Bowl.
Eight quarterbacks in the playoffs this year were first-round draft picks, and three of those eight -- the Lions' Matthew Stafford, the Giants' Eli Manning and the 49ers' Alex Smith -- were picked first overall. Manning was drafted by the Chargers and traded to the Giants in 2004, but he was still the first overall pick that year.
Historically, Cleveland team president Mike Holmgren doesn't draft quarterbacks in the first round. The highest he picked a quarterback when he was in charge of the Seahawks' draft was Brock Huard in the third round in 1999. He drafted Josh Booty in the sixth round in 2001 and Jeff Kelly in the seventh round in 2002. Holmgren was stripped of his general manager title by the time the Seahawks drafted Seneca Wallace in the fourth round in 2003.
The only quarterback picked by the Eagles when Heckert was the GM in Philadelphia from 2006-09 was Kevin Kolb in the second round in 2007. With Donovan McNabb entrenched as the starter beginning in 1999, the Eagles never worried about quarterback for almost a decade. The only quarterbacks they drafted between McNabb and Kolb were A.J. Feeley in the fifth round in 2001 and Andy Hall in the sixth round in 2004. Both were viewed strictly as backups.
Obviously, the Browns have never been in that enviable position. When they take a stab at a quarterback, they do so with the hope he could start. But if they spend a first-round pick on Robert Griffin III of Baylor or Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, it would be with the idea of him starting.
Early draft projections have Tannehill as a late first- or early second-round pick, but the quarterback crop in 2012 is thin because USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones elected to return to school. That means some team desperate for Griffin or Tannehill is likely to overpay to trade up.
Fans don't want to think about it, but it would not be a shock if the Browns trade the fourth pick if Griffin is available and they decide they don't want him.
"We have a lot of evaluations to do, and we're going to get the best players we can at any positions," Heckert said. "If we do it at a certain position early in the draft, then that guy is going to be the guy for us, probably. We have a lot of time to think about what we want to do in the draft and free agency, but if we think a guy will help us, we'll go ahead and do it."
The Browns have taken two quarterbacks in the first round since returning to the NFL. Neither worked out. They took Tim Couch first overall in 1999 and Brady Quinn 21st in 2007.
--Eleven players on the Browns' roster will be unrestricted free agents when the league year begins March 12 if they do not sign new contracts before then. The most prominent in the group are running back Peyton Hillis, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and kicker Phil Dawson.
General manager Tom Heckert has said the Browns want to re-sign Jackson and Dawson, but the team has been intentionally noncommittal about Hillis. Jackson was the Browns' leading tackler in 2011, and Dawson said this past season was the best of his 13-year career with the Browns. The Browns gave Dawson the franchise tag last year and could do the same again.
Adams made $1.1 million in 2011. The Browns could re-sign him without breaking the bank. The larger question is whether they want to turn the job over to 2011 seventh-round draft pick Eric Hagg. They could also decide Adams is a more reliable backup than Young and re-sign Adams to keep him in the rotation.
--The Browns failed to score a touchdown in four games in 2011. In two games against the Steelers, they scored a total of four field goals.
--Joshua Cribbs had his best season as a receiver by far in 2011. He caught a career high 41 passes and had a career-high four touchdown catches. Cribbs caught 10 passes from Seneca Wallace in the last three games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Every player that we have here, I expect that they are going to improve, develop and produce. That is what I expect from (Colt McCoy). If you produce well enough, you become elite." -- Browns coach Pat Shurmur.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Coach Pat Shurmur plans no changes on his staff with the huge exception of adding an offensive coordinator. Shurmur doubled as offensive coordinator this season in his first year as a head coach. Shurmur said calling plays on Sunday is a fun part of the job, but if the Browns hire a coordinator who can do it better, Shurmur will relinquish the role.
"I think it's important that I get the best coordinator I can for us," Shurmur said. "I think that's one of the details that will get worked out as we go through the process."
Possibilities include Brad Childress and current quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple. Childress and Shurmur worked together on Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia.
The Browns were 30th in points scored (218) in 2011. It was their lowest output since they scored 217 in 2000.
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Colt McCoy. Backups -- Seneca Wallace, Thaddeus Lewis.
The biggest question the front office has to answer is how much of the 4-9 record under McCoy was the quarterback's fault and how much of it can be attributed to a lack of support? Also, what is McCoy's ceiling if he is given another wideout, better protection and a more reliable run offense? McCoy rolled out into blitzes at times, but the Browns were among the league leaders in dropped passes. No one questions McCoy's leadership or toughness. Wallace will get the chance to compete for a starting job, but he isn't the answer. He makes the offense look good in spurts, but he is 1-6 in seven starts with the Browns. Lewis never took a snap. He throws the ball accurately.
Here is another moment of truth. The Browns have to decide whether they should try to re-sign Hillis or wash their hands of him. This is about more than money. There is a feeling Hillis let his teammates and coaches down in 2011. He seemed consumed by a contract stalemate, and on the advice of his agent, sat out the game against the Dolphins with strep throat. He is a loner in the locker room. Hillis finished the season with 587 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns after producing 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010. He missed five games with a hamstring injury. But if the Browns don't re-sign Hillis, they will have to get another back. Hardesty is injury-prone. He missed all of his rookie year recovering from knee surgery and missed six games in 2011 with a calf injury. He did finish 2011 healthy, but history is not on his side for getting through 2012 unscathed. Jackson missed all of 2011 on injured reserve (turf toe), so he is another unknown commodity. Ogbonnaya (334 yards), plucked from the Texans' practice squad in mid-October, did enough to go into next season as the backup. After Hillis, he has the best hands among the running backs. The coaches are enthusiastic about Marecic, but he did not lay out defenders with his blocking as his predecessor, Lawrence Vickers, did.
The Browns were deep at tight end when the season began, but by the end, Watson (three games) and Smith (two games) were on injured reserve. Tight end never materialized into the important weapon the position was supposed to be in the West Coast offense. Watson, after amassing 68 catches and three touchdowns in 2010, had only 37 passes and two touchdowns in 2011. Moore did not become a focal point of the offense until the last four weeks when he caught 13 of his 34 passes. More was expected of him after he signed a three-year, $9 million contract in August. He says he has to become a more complete player, which means becoming a better blocker. Smith has a feisty attitude that's contagious. He was on injured reserve the last two games with a shoulder injury. Cameron caught only six passes as a rookie but should be more involved in the offense next season. Gronkowski was signed for insurance after Watson and Smith went on IR.
This is definitely the weak link on the offense. McCoy completed only 16 passes of 25 yards or more. The Browns miscalculated by keeping Brian Robiskie and then cutting him in midseason. Massaquoi has to get tougher to be a starting receiver. He caught 31 passes and scored two touchdowns. He suffered a concussion for the second straight season and missed two games. Massaquoi has played three seasons and isn't going to get any better. Little, on the other hand, can get better if he dedicates himself in the offseason as he says he will. The rookie led the Browns with 61 catches, but there were times he had trouble in traffic. Still, for someone who didn't play football at North Carolina in 2010 because he was suspended by the NCAA for taking gifts from an agent, the season was a success. Cribbs had a career-best 41 catches. No one on the roster puts more heart into playing than Cribbs, but his value is in three-receiver sets. He would be even more effective if the Browns had two receivers like Mike Wallace pairing with Little. Norwood is one to watch next season. He caught two passes in the first six games and 21 in the next eight. He missed the last two games with concussion symptoms. He accelerates after making the catch better than any of the Browns' other receivers. Mitchell, a 2010 sixth-round draft choice, will never be more than a fifth receiver. He caught the first two passes of his career in the 15th game of 2011. Windsor was elevated to the active roster for the final game but did not play.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Joe Thomas, LG Jason Pinkston, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Tony Pashos. Backups -- T/G Artis Hicks, C Steve Vallos, G John Greco, T Oniel Cousins. Injured reserve -- G Eric Steinbach.
Thomas is headed to his fifth Pro Bowl in five years, and Mack was heroic when he played with appendicitis symptoms. Neither missed a snap. Otherwise, there are more questions than answers about the offensive line. Pinkston was a true rookie playing for Steinbach, who missed the entire season after undergoing back surgery in August. Lauvao was a virtual rookie after starting only one game in 2010. Their inexperience showed in protecting McCoy and in run-blocking. Pashos had his troubles on the corner. Right tackle is a position the Browns will try to upgrade in the offseason. Cousins, Greco, Hicks and Vallos will all be unrestricted free agents in March. Hicks is the only one the Browns might re-sign because the others rarely played from scrimmage.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Jabaal Sheard, LDT Phil Taylor, NT Ahtyba Rubin, RDE Jayme Mitchell. Backups -- DE Auston English, DE Brian Schaefering, DT Scott Paxson, DT Brian Sanford, DT Kiante Tripp. Injured reserve -- Emmanuel Stephens. Reserve/non-football injury -- Marcus Benard.
The biggest transformation of any unit on the Browns in 2011 was on the defensive line. Sheard started the season at right end but after one game flopped with Mitchell so Sheard could rush from the left. Sheard finished with a team-high 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Mitchell was a disappointment. He was not aggressive and lost his job to Stephens, but he returned to the lineup when Stephens went on injured reserve with a torn pectoral. The defensive line would be complete if the Browns can pick up a right end in free agency or the draft because they are set at tackle. Rubin is amazingly quick for weighing 330 pounds. He got a new contract in August, and that just made him hungrier. He proved that when he chased down 49ers RB Frank Gore after a 24-yard gain. Taylor hit a rookie wall but played well enough for coaches to believe he will be a solid starter for years. Schaefering and Paxson will be remembered as the pair who teamed to sack Ben Roethlisberger on the play resulting in Roethlisberger spraining his left ankle on Dec. 8. English made four tackles. He weighs 250 pounds and doesn't have the quickness to be more than a backup. Sanford and Tripp combined to play in eight games. They totaled three tackles. Benard, last year's sack leader, crashed his motorcycle early in the season. He was not injured seriously.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Kaluka Maiava, MLB D'Qwell Jackson, SLB Chris Gocong. Backups -- WLB Benjamin Jacobs, MLB Brian Smith, SLB Quinton Spears. Injured reserve -- SLB Scott Fujita, MLB Titus Brown.
Jackson missed the last 10 games of 2009 and all of 2010 with pectoral injuries. His return was triumphant. He started all 16 games and led the Browns with 158 tackles. He added 3.5 sacks. In five previous seasons, all played in a 3-4 defense, he totaled three sacks. Jackson thrived in the 4-3 base and continually credited Rubin and Taylor for his success. Fujita was slow at times and for the second straight year finished the season on IR. He missed the last five games of 2011. Gocong took his strong-side spot, and Maiava took over for Gocong on the other side. Gocong was a perfect fit on the strong side. He showed quickness rushing the passer and should be in line to start there next year. Maiava, 230 pounds, was overmatched on the weak side at times. He played in all 16 games with six starts and finished with 24 tackles, no interceptions, no sacks, no fumble recoveries and no forced fumbles. Depth became a serious issue with Brown (two games) and Fujita on IR. Brown also was inactive the first four games with an ankle injury. Spears was primarily a special teams player. Neither Smith nor Jacobs made a tackle.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Joe Haden, RCB Sheldon Brown, SS Usama Young, FS Mike Adams. Backups -- LCB Buster Skrine, RCB Dmitri Patterson, RCB James Dockery, SS Eric Hagg, FS Ray Ventrone. Injured reserve -- T.J. Ward.
Haden not only started at left corner, but when the Browns faced a particularly tough receiver, such as Brandon Marshall of the Dolphins or Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals, he stayed with him no matter which side the star lined up. Except when going against Bengals rookie WR A.J. Green, who won the battle in both games, Haden held his own every week. He had no interceptions after picking off six passes as a rookie the previous year. Brown will never win a race with the speediest receivers, but he makes up for being a step slow with his knowledge. Plus, Brown is a great example to Haden, showing what studying an opponent can mean if the cornerback is willing to put in the work. Ward never played another game after injuring his right foot in the sixth game. The injury forced defensive coordinator Dick Jauron to start Young along with veteran Adams, who beat out Young for a starting safety post in training camp. Opponents had success isolating tight ends on Young. Patterson was signed in training camp and jumped in quickly as the nickel back. He was reliable and broke up a dozen passes. Skrine has raw speed he wants to harness. When he does, he could replace Brown as a starter. Dockery made the team with hustle as an undrafted rookie. He made five special teams tackles and recovered an onside kick. Hagg has a bright future. He was injured early in camp, had knee surgery and did not play until the seventh game. He totaled 10 tackles, and he could challenge for a starting job next year. Ventrone is a steady special teams player.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Phil Dawson, P Brad Maynard, KR/PR Joshua Cribbs, LS Christian Yount. Injured reserve -- P Reggie Hodges, P Richmond McGee.
It is safe to say no team went through what the Browns experienced on special teams. Hodges tore his left Achilles tendon in the first week of training camp, and Webb suffered a season-ending back injury warming up before the first game. Maynard was Plan C. The Browns were 30th in the league in net punting average, but Maynard had only one touchback in 81 punts, and that was on a season-long 63-yard punt in the final game. As if using three punters weren't odd enough, the Browns canned long snapper Ryan Pontbriand because a bad snap against the Rams and a bad snap against the Bengals led to two missed fourth-quarter field goals. The miss against St. Louis handed the Rams a 13-12 victory. Pontbriand, a nine-year veteran, was a two-time Pro Bowl player. Young snapped flawlessly the last five games. Dawson, in his 13th year, had what he said was his best season while scoring 92 points. He was 24 of 29 on field goals. Two of the misses were on bad snaps, and two others were blocked. He was seven of eight beyond 50 yards, and the miss was on one of the bad snaps. Cribbs, as always, was a special team star. He was 12th in the league with a 25.0-yard kick-return average and sixth with an 11.4-yard punt-return average, including an 84-yard return for a touchdown. He led the Browns with 14 special teams tackles, even though he did not become part of the kick coverage unit until after the fifth game.