Before this season, many of us thought the Browns had the right combination of young talent and veterans to be competitive. My biggest concern was the passing offense but thought the run game and defense would do enough to make us competitive.
I (we?) were wrong.
While many ran to blame either GM Ray Farmer for not bringing in talent or HC Mike Pettine for how he used the talent, it was likely a both/and problem. The Browns have some talent but are missing some key pieces, while the talent on the roster could have been used better.
Farmer and Pettine are gone but many players still remain. The Browns are going in a different direction, this time with what feels like a long term view of what competing will look like.
It begs the question: Who are the foundational pieces on the Browns roster?
Not - Besides lower level rostered players, these players are just not a part of the long-term future for the Browns. Many may not make it into next year.
Johnny Manziel - Getting this one out of the way quickly. While Manziel might stick on the roster; he is a QB, his stock is at an all-time low, his contract is cheap and the team might not want to give in to his seeming desires to leave, Manziel is not a part of their future plans. Something could change but it would take a ton of effort and the passage of time with that effort for that to happen. Just don't see it.
Donte Whitner / Karlos Dansby - Whitner and Dansby were brought in to help Pettine put his defense in place and make a difference as veteran leaders who could still contribute. At different levels, they did just that. It wasn't enough but both were helpful for the Browns. Their time has passed. Donte is likely to be cut this season while Dansby could stick around for another year as his production hasn't dropped much.
Dwayne Bowe - Bowe was a downright disaster. Most blame it on getting into Pettine's doghouse but he also never seemed motivated or in shape as well. He has $2.85 million guaranteed to him from the Browns next year so we might see them give him a shot in Training Camp next year but he isn't for the long-term in Cleveland.
Brian Hartline - Hartline, along with Bowe, was brought in to help solidify the receiving corp. He actually played very well (30 catches in his last 4 games) and has a cheap contract. The Browns will keep him around for another year but, even at 30, it is hard to see him as their #3 WR for years to come.
Andrew Hawkins or Taylor Gabriel - Both of the Browns tiny WRs have struggled to stay healthy. Analytics show (and most Browns fans agree) that size is an important attribute for the position. The team is unlikely to keep both of these guys going forward with the age, upside benefit to Gabriel.
Tashaun Gipson - Call it a guess. Call it reading between the lines. Whatever it is, of all the Browns possible free agents, Gipson is the one I believe will not return. He was tentative coming back from his knee injury this year and didn't really seem to want to be here. The market for the undrafted FS should be hot. If his price tag comes down, a return is possible but highly unlikely.
Desmond Bryant / Paul Kruger - Two veterans brought in with big price tags and unlikely to be here in two years, maybe not after this off-season. Bryant has struggled with consistency, both in his play and his health. Kruger has shown flashes but many think he was misused often by Pettine. Both can still be productive but have big contracts and limited shelf life as impactful players.
Tramon Williams - The final free agent acquisition that just didn't do enough to make a difference. Williams was on the downside of his career when the team brought him in but the hopes were he would solidify the #2 corner spot. He still has $2.8 million owed to him even if he isn't on the team next year. If he makes the roster, at 32 years old, they will pay him $6.2 million. Doubt he gets that money.
To Be Determined - A few players who could be an important part of the Browns future but for a variety of reasons, it is still to be determined. This list is bigger than we would all want.
Joe Thomas - Not something most Browns fans want to hear, but Thomas is on the trade block. We have been spoiled by great tackle play but the team may decide to give him what he wants and recoup draft considerations. With the play of offensive linemen around the league, Thomas likely gets a 1st round pick and more for the Browns in return. A late 1st this year and a mid-round pick the following likely is enough to get it done. Like it or not.
Joe Haden - Haden is an interesting case. He is very talented but was overhyped by Browns fans for years. He is clearly a good #1 corner but not a shutdown, leave him on an island one. The Browns are unlikely to move him, for a variety of reasons, but his future is far more murky than we want to admit.
Josh Gordon - A very talented player that just may not be able to overcome himself. While he is unsure of his contract status, the Browns have him next year and then he becomes a Restricted Free Agent if the team's beliefs are right. Gordon could be a #1 WR but he still has to be reinstated and then the new brain trust will make a decision.
Alex Mack / Mitchell Schwartz - The Browns likely don't want to see either of these players go but may not have a choice. Mack can get out of his contract while not allowing the Browns to Franchise/Transition Tag him. Schwartz is underappreciated by most fans but does a great job for the team. At least one of these two should be back if the Browns have their way but, along with Thomas, the OL could be undergoing a huge facelift this off-season.
Travis Benjamin - A skilled player, Benji was reportedly 75% done with a contract extension. He could be an important part of the Browns offense as the speed guy on the outside but whether he wants to stick around and whether the new regime wants to pay him is another discussion. A combination of Gordon and Benjamin is a good start to the WR grouping or both could be gone.
K'Waun Williams - Williams has all the makings of a good slot corner but concussions early in his career do not bode well for him long term. If they can protect his head, he could be a great piece on the secondary for the Browns.
Foundational Pieces - These are the guys who Browns fans should hope are a part of the turnaround. A lot will need to be added to this core but there is some talent here. You can also assume their first two picks in the upcoming draft better be added to this list.
Gary Barnidge - While Barnidge is a little older, he signed his contract extension and will be an important part of the Browns offense moving forward. In a perfect world he would develop as a blocker and/or be paired with a great blocking tight end but his ability to get open and make catches is huge.
Joel Bitonio - The Browns 2nd round pick came back down to earth in his second year but is still a great offensive lineman. He can play any position and could be Thomas' replacement, sliding one spot to the left. He is the one piece on the offensive line that the team can build around.
Duke Johnson - While Johnson may never be an every-down back, he is a superb weapon out of the backfield. He can get 10 - 15 carries a game while also catching 5 - 10 passe. The Browns lack dynamic players and Duke, as long as he stays healthy, is one they can build around.
Cameron Erving - The Browns second first round pick struggled mightily early in the season but started to come around in the last couple of games. Players can, and do, develop and many believe that Erving can be a very good interior linemen. If Mack leaves, Erving will take over at center. If not, one of the guard spots is bound to be open and he should settle in there for years to come.
Danny Shelton - The #12 overall pick had his ups and downs last year but flashed a ton of talent. He can fit in either an even or odd system (the Browns ran both a lot last year) and should continue to develop his technique and pad level to become an important part of the middle of the Browns defense.
Xavier Cooper - Cooper came on later in the season as well. A perfect 3 technique defensive lineman, he can also play in both systems and cause havoc rushing the passer from the inside. If the Browns were to draft Joey Bosa and stick with a 3-4, they would have a great, young line to build around.
Christian Kirksey - A linebacker that can play all over the field, Kirksey continued to develop in his 2nd year. Learning from Dansby has been great for Christian and he should anchor our linebacking corp for a long time to come.
Nate Orchard - Orchard was a defensive lineman in college and his transition to standing up and playing in coverage was surprising. He played well enough to give some confidence he can play in any system. He still needs to learn a couple more pass rush moves but all and all is a foundational piece for the Browns.
Pierre Desir - The young corner has had his ups and downs but many around the league believe he is a starting level CB right now. He has the size and athleticism to make that true especially if they can build his confidence in a new system.
Ibraheim Campbell - Campbell is the likely successor to Whitner this upcoming season. He played in 15 games this year and showed flashes of his ability to be a good safety at this level. Smart, aggressive and with fluid hips, the Browns did well to draft him this year in preparation for the future.
That is it. 10 foundational pieces with only Barnidge, Bitonio and Kirksey really certain to be impactful for years to come. The TBD group could add a bunch of talent to the foundation group but there are question marks there for a reason. Even if 4 of the 7 in the TBD group are a part of the foundation of the team moving forward, that is only 14 players.
Maybe I overlooked someone. Maybe some of the younger players will break out under new leadership. Maybe the upcoming draft will supplement the core with some great players.
Or maybe a tear down is in order because the talent on the roster isn't very good.
What do you think about the Browns foundational pieces for the long haul?