The lifeblood for an NFL team is the acquisition of players. As the Browns are currently constructed, that falls on General Manager Ray Farmer.
But let’s not be naive here.
Farmer has input from scouts, personnel assistants, the coaching staff and yes, possibly the owner. Whether they like it or not, the coach and GM have to be on the same page to be successful. The way the set up is currently with the Browns, Farmer and Pettine were brought together in a form of a ‘shotgun marriage’.
Pettine was hired by Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, as was Farmer. However, after Banner was fired, Farmer was elevated to GM to replace those who brought him in. The logical process is for the GM to hire his own coach to make sure they have a good working relationship.
That didn't happen with the Browns this time.
Pettine and Farmer have insisted that they have a good relationship, but the way some of the moves have played out clearly has shown a disconnect.
Farmer does have final say on the roster and the moves, but it is not realistic to think he made all of the key roster decisions in a vacuum. In other words, if Pettine said ‘I need a press cornerback at the top of the draft’, Farmer and the scouting department would bring him the top rated cornerbacks to look at and would get he and the defensive coaches input on who they feel would best fit the system. It is hard to put all of the blame on Farmer for the drafting of Justin Gilbert. Pettine had to have bought in on the move. The same could be said with roster cuts. If the coaching staff has Dion Lewis as the fifth-string running back, it wouldn’t make sense for Farmer not to cut him. The same could be said for Willie Snead and others, so we're not going to cast all of the blame on Farmer as Pettine has some culpability, as well.
In the first off-season, Farmer had the deck stacked against him. He was promoted to GM on Feb. 11, 2014 from assistant GM when Banner and Lombardi were let go so he was familiar with what was going on but didn’t have final say in any transactions. With little time before free agency and the NFL Draft, Farmer had to go with the staff put together by Banner/Lombardi as he went into the key time of the off-season for evaluating and acquiring players. Since becoming the GM, Farmer has made over 400 personnel transactions and obviously, with that given number there’s going to be hits and misses.
With that said, let’s look at the body of work under Farmer and Pettine. We’re going to refer to both of them in the decision making process, but obviously the buck stops with Farmer as the man in control of the 53-man roster.
In the two off-seasons that Farmer/Pettine have been in charge, let’s take a look at some of the key decisions made during their watch.
2014 Free Agent Additions: Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, Isaiah Trufant, Jim Dray, Ben Tate, Andrew Hawkins, Paul McQuistan, Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett and Miles Austin.
Summary: The decision was made to add Dansby and Whitner as veteran defensive additions to replace D’Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward for their play and leadership abilities. Both have played well, at times but haven’t been the consistent play makers they were expected to be. Jackson has been the consistent tackler with the Colts that he was with the Browns, while Ward went to the Pro Bowl last year with the Broncos, as did Whitner.
Hawkins has been a consistent slot receiver, while Austin helped on third down and Dray was a solid blocking tight end.
Tate, Trufant, McQuistan, Bennett and Burleson had little, if any impact on the 2014 team.
2014 NFL Draft: 1b-Justin Gilbert, 1d-Johnny Manziel, 2-Joel Bitonio, 3a-Christian Kirksey, 3c-Terrance West, 4b-Pierre Desir
2014 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents: Isaiah Crowell, Taylor Gabriel, K’Waun Williams
Summary: The top of the draft is where Farmer/Pettine have been criticized the most. Rather than staying at the Browns pick at five, the Browns traded down once with Buffalo to nine and then back up to eight to take Gilbert, eschewing a needed wide receiver like Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks or Odell Beckham, Jr. Gilbert thus far, has been a colossal bust, having not been able to get on the field in two years despite cornerbacks going down with injuries and poor play ahead of him. Farmer should be given credit for acquiring the Bills No.1 draft pick in 2015 for the draft day trade, which was used to draft Cameron Erving, but that doesn’t give them a pass for ignoring the addition of a play-making wide receiver.
The jury is still out with Manziel. He has shown significant progress on the field, but not much off of it. His durability is an issue as it appears his strength is what he did in college and that is getting out of the pocket and running to keep the defense on it’s heels as evidenced by his franchise record 108 rushing yards against the Chiefs. However, if he runs too much, he is more susceptible to injury. The Browns have a big decision to make before the 2016 draft as to whether to build around Manziel or select another quarterback as the Browns will be picking near or at the top of the draft, unless they think that Austin Davis can be the long-term answer at quarterback.
Bitonio looks like he’s going to be a solid offensive lineman for a long time. Kirksey has been a solid performer in coverage and has been able to provide pressure, as well as being a core special teams player. Desir has been mostly a non-factor in 2015. West was traded after a somewhat productive, but inconsistent rookie year.
It could be argued that Farmer did better at finding undrafted rookies than drafted players as Crowell, Gabriel and Williams have all been solid contributors and have been as productive as any of the draft picks, if not more so.
2014 Key Free Agent Losses: D’Qwell Jackson, T.J. Ward
2014 Key Roster Cuts: Dion Lewis, Charles Johnson, Willie Snead
2015 Free Agent Additions: Josh McCown, Tramon Williams, Randy Starks, Brian Hartline, Dwayne Bowe, Rob Housler, Andy Lee (trade), Austin Davis, Terrelle Pryor, Robert Turbin
Summary: McCown was better than advertised and put up good numbers when he wasn’t injured as evidenced by his franchise record 457 yards passing against the Ravens. Bowe and Hartline were signed to shore up the wide receiver position, but Bowe was a major disappointment, considering he was signed to a two-year $12.5 million contract, including $9 million guaranteed this year. Hartline was a solid contributor until he was injured.
Davis has displayed the ability to come in and provide a spark off the bench. Lee has been an upgrade at punter.
Defensively, Williams was the big addition and played well, at times. However, with Joe Haden injured for most of the season, Williams was beaten too many times trying to cover the opponents top receiver. Starks didn’t do much to shore up the rushing defense, while Housler, Pryor and Turbin were non-factors.
2015 NFL Draft: 1-Danny Shelton, 1b-Cameron Erving, 2b-Nate Orchard, 3a-Duke Johnson, 3b-Xavier Cooper, 4b-Ibraheim Campbell, 4d-Vince Mayle, 6a-Charles Gaines, 6b-Malcolm Johnson, 6c-Randall Telfer 7a-Hayes Pullard, 7b-Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
2015 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents: E.J. Bibbs, Darius Jennings
Summary: Shelton has been solid but less than expected after being drafted 12th overall. His work ethic should allow him to develop into a good player. Erving has struggled but showed some improvement as of late. Orchard has come on and showed the pass rush he was advertised to bring recently. Johnson has become a proficient pass receiver out of the backfield and should get better as a running back. Campbell filled in when Whitner was injured and Gaines started over Gilbert and Desir late in the season. Malcolm Johnson was praised by the coaching staff for his blocking at fullback. Ekpre-Olou and Telfer spent their seasons on injured reserve, while Pullard was signed off the Browns practice squad to the Jaguars active roster.
Bibbs showed enough promise in the preseason to make the team, but rarely played, while Jennings filled in late in the season. However, none of the undrafted free agent rookies had the impact of the 2014 class.
2015 Key Free Agent Losses: Ahtyba Rubin, Jabaal Sheard
2015 Key Roster Cuts: Phil Taylor (injured), Ish Kitchen, Shaun Draughn, Turbin, Billy Wynn (trade)
Overall, Farmer/Pettine have made some good moves and have made some bad, but by-and-large there have not been many ‘playmakers’. In today’s NFL, the passing game is prominent and successful teams have big play weapons at wide receiver. Under this regime, they have not brought in any receivers that would be classified as ‘playmakers’. Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin would be in that category, but were not brought in by this regime.
It’s been well documented and obvious that Farmer’s two drafts have not immediately made an impact. Farmer has said that he likens draft picks to ‘slow brewed coffee’ taking time to develop. However, in the NFL today rookies all over the league are making impacts in their first years. The Browns have had four first-round choices under Farmer and Pettine’s watch in Gilbert, Manziel, Shelton and Erving. Shelton is the only one that has been a clear-cut starter since joining the Browns. The jury is still out on the other three, but clearly have not had the impact of teams in similar position to the Browns like the Raiders who added Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper in the first round of their last two drafts. It should be noted that Raider’s GM Reggie McKenzie was criticized for his draft picks in his first few years on the job.
It appears that placing the seldom used transition tag on Alex Mack in 2014 could cost the Browns a Pro Bowl center. Instead of placing the franchise tag on Mack, the transition tag allowed Mack to get an offer from another team and the Browns had a chance to match it. The Jaguars signed Mack to an offer sheet, which the Browns quickly matched. However, there was a clause in the contract that allowed Mack to opt out after the 2015 season. Mack can walk away from the Browns this off-season and the Browns will get no compensation whatsoever. Mack has the option of playing the contract out or opting out and re-signing with any team, including the Browns. The Browns used a first-round pick on Erving last spring to replace Mack if and when he leaves, addressing a position that didn’t need to be addressed if Mack wasn’t able to walk away without compensation.
Also, several pending free agents such as Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson and Benjamin are possibly headed to free agency and if so, there will be no compensation. Farmer was able to sign Gary Barnidge to an extension before he hit free agency. In the past two years, the Browns have lost some valuable free agents in Rubin, Sheard, Jackson and Ward. Rubin was praised by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as one of the cogs in the Seahawks top rated rushing defense. Sheard has made plays all season for the Patriots.
Besides losing the free agents, Farmer/Pettine have cut Lewis, Snead and Johnson. Lewis was a key cog in the Patriots offense this season at running back until an injury cost him the season. Snead has been one of the top receivers for the Saints.
One question one could ask if why do some players go elsewhere and seem to thrive? It obviously is not due to lack of talent but because of the way they are used by the coaches. The logical conclusion is the coaching staff is not always playing to the player’s strengths.
To add to the mix, Farmer was also suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season for texting during games in 2014.
The big question for Jimmy Haslam going forward as to the future of Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine is can they come together and do a better job of finding the right players that fit the system the Browns are playing and will be able to add ‘playmakers’ to the roster?
Pettine frequently says the NFL is “a bottom line business”, and given the results of the two seasons on the job—a 10-21 record before the Steelers game—is continuity worth it for the sake of continuity or is their hope for real growth and progress?
We shall soon find out.