BEREA, Ohio--At the three-quarter mark of the 2016 season, what can the Browns do to still salvage their season and accomplish some of the things they need to find out?
When looking at the 2016 season, I picked the Browns to win four games. Now that was obviously, being very optimistic. Hearing Christian Kirksey and Hue Jackson vowing that the Browns would not go 0-16 looks like a very low bar to achieve--winning one game--but that's where the Browns are at.
Jackson was asked if going through this type of season will be worth it in the long run.
“Heck yes," Jackson said recently. "For what we are trying to do, which is be division champs and hoist the Super Bowl trophy, I promise you I will look back at this year and I will probably laugh about it at some point. Right now, I can’t. I can’t stomach it, but I will because I truly believe in what we are trying to accomplish and what we are trying to do.
"I will be the first to tell you, there are times when I wake up and I go, ‘Wow, what am I doing?’ But it is conversations with (Executive Vice-President of Football Operations) Sashi (Brown), it is conversations with Jimmy (Haslam), it is conversations with (Chief Strategy Officer) Paul (DePodesta) and (Vice President of Player Personnel) Andrew Berry that make me realize and see that we are doing this the right way. It is hard and it is hard when you are in it – there is no question about that – but I truly believe it is the right thing to do.”
The 2016 season was never about wins and losses, but rather trying to identify a core of young players to develop and build around heading into the 2017 and 2018 NFL Drafts with a plethora of draft picks and a lot of salary cap space.
The Browns--even under previous regimes have been great at trading and acquiring draft picks--but not so good in turning those picks into top flight NFL players. In the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft, the Browns are scheduled to have two first-round picks.
Not that Browns fans need to be reminded, but since 2012, the Browns have picked two players in the first round three times. In 2012, they drafted Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden in the first round. In 2014, they selected Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel in the first round and in 2015, they took Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving in the first round. Those six picks should've turned into players that are right now in the prime of their careers and should be key contributors, if not Pro Bowlers. The first four picked are not with the team and of the last two, only one looks like a key player.
My expectation for 2016 was that the Browns would be able to identify and solve the quarterback situation long-term, find some play makers and play reasonably well in the second half of the season to feel that this team was definitely on the rise. Not to the same degree, but similar to the 1985 Browns when they had a rookie quarterback by the name of Bernie Kosar, who showed signs of being the franchise quarterback and even though the team finished 8-8, you felt they were a team on the way up. Obviously, the following years from 1986-89, that team played in three AFC Championship games and were just a whisker from competing for the Super Bowl.
Here is my assessment of what they've been able to accomplish, despite being winless:
At Quarterback: The Browns were hoping to identify if one of the quarterbacks on the roster could be the long-term answer for the franchise. Robert Griffin III was injured in the first game so there has been no way to determine his status. That is why he might attempt to play the final quarter of the season to make a decision one way or another on what to do with him. Even if he plays well, I don't see him as more than a bridge-type quarterback as with his durability issues, it's hard to commit totally to him and build around him. Cody Kessler was able to get more playing time than anticipated for the rookie at the beginning of the season. The Browns have a pretty good idea of what they have in him and might not need to see any more of him to decide he can be a starting quarterback or at least a capable backup. He also has durability issues, as he's been knocked out of three games, even though not totally his fault.
Analysis: Even though I didn't agree with the decision to sign Griffin and trade the No. 2 pick and have a chance to draft Carson Wentz, I concede that any quarterback behind this offensive line was going to be hard-pressed to be successful. With that said, until they solve the most important position on the field, they will not be successful in the NFL. This is a quarterback driven league and that is why it is the most important position. If there is a 'sure-as-you-can-get' franchise quarterback in next spring's draft, I believe you cannot pass him up as you hope you're not drafting at the top of the draft again. With that said, the Browns have to do everything possible to re-tool their offensive line with the resources they have in the draft and the possible free agents available.
Find PlayMakers at Wide Receiver: By not addressing the wide receiver position under Ray Farmer, the Browns needed to find play makers at the position. They drafted four wide receivers and all indications were that Corey Coleman was going to be a playmaker, but a hamstring injury in training camp and broken hand in Week Two set him back. Josh Gordon was expected to return in Week Five, but due to his off-field issues, likely won't suit up for the Browns again. Terrelle Pryor was an unknown at receiver after making the transition from quarterback. He has emerged in the absence of Coleman and Gordon to be the top playmaker at the position.
Analysis: The only negative with Pryor emerging is that the Browns signed him to just a one-year contract in the off-season and now there is a chance they could lose him in free agency. Coleman should be a good, if not great receiver in this league, but the other three drafted in Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton have shown little this season on the field. The decision to keep Andrew Hawkins over Taylor Gabriel looks like a big mistake by the personnel department as Hawkins has had little impact, while Gabriel is excelling in the Falcons offense and he is much younger than Hawkins.
Build a Wall on the Offensive Line: Previous regimes allowed Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz the opportunity to leave as free agents and they did. They tried to address the losses with Cameron Erving in 2015 and Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango in 2016. Erving looks like a big mistake at this point, while the Coleman pick looks confusing as they used a high third-round pick on him and have refused to put him on the field on a regular basis. The OBR's Lane Adkins has reported on several occasions the Browns have a plan for Coleman and don't want to rush him into action. However, I don't know how it can hurt to give him experience and learn as the team is winless. In other words, how do you know what you have if you don't play him. Drango has been on the field at guard in recent weeks and he seems to be making progress.
Analysis: I would use the assets in draft picks and or free agency to bring in top-flight offensive lineman. Much like the Cowboys did, they built a line and put a young quarterback behind them in Dak Prescott that has been successful. If Joe Thomas is the only sure lineman, bring in as many as needed to fix the line. A line that has given up 45 sacks and numerous more knockdowns is not the type of line you want to put a quarterback behind, especially if you draft a quarterback again in 2017 in the first round. Joel Bitonio looks to be a good player, but he's spent most of the last two years on injured reserve. John Greco is solid and versatile, but they need to decide if Erving, Drango, Coleman, Austin Reiter or Austin Pasztor are the answers at the other positions.
Find Pass Rushers: The Browns went into the draft wanting to find players that could get to the quarterback. Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib were drafted high and identified as players that could do so. Ogbah has three sacks and Nassib has 1.5. Both players have shown glimpses of being playmakers on defense, but the Browns have just 17 sacks for the season--just a little over an anemic one per game. Both rookies appear to be better suited as defensive ends in a 4-3 defense, but the Browns are employing a 3-4. Desmond Bryant missed the season with a torn pectoral, but at 31 years old, it is unknown if the Browns figure him in their plans going forward.
Nate Orchard showed some promise in his rookie season as a pass rusher but even though he was sidelined this year with a high ankle sprain, the Browns chose to keep him on injured reserve and bring back Griffin with their one designated to return player. Jamie Collins has shown he is a playmaker where ever he lines up, but he is a free agent that can walk away at the end of the season.
Analysis: It's hard to know if the group of Ogbah, Nassib, Orchard, Tyrone Holmes, Jamie Meder and Xavier Cooper can be the players that can get to the quarterback on a consistent basis. Joe Schobert has not shown any signs of being a pass rusher and Collins is a player that can leave after this season. If the Browns could keep Collins, they likely couldn't draft a player who could make as immediate impact as he could, even in the first round and they could add even another playmaker at the position or address additional areas.
Find Playmakers in the Secondary: The Browns once-again chose to let Tashaun Gipson, Donte Whitner, Buster Skrine and K'Waun Williams leave over the last two off-seasons, while trading away Justin Gilbert. They only drafted Ibraheim Campbell and Derrick Kindred as defensive backs. Both of those players were drafted in the fourth-round and have shown some promise, but thus far haven't looked to be big time impact players. Jordan Poyer also played solid before he was hurt, but again hasn't been a big impact player on the back end of the defense. The only cornerback the Browns drafted, Trey Caldwell in the fifth-round, is on the practice squad.
Analysis: The secondary is a high priority. In a passing league, the Browns need cornerbacks and safeties. Joe Haden has not been the Pro Bowl player he was two years ago and Tramon Williams at 33, is past his prime. Jamar Taylor has played pretty well as the second cornerback, but the Browns could use additional help at the position. Briean Boddy-Calhoun has been a nice find, but it's hard to count on him to be the answer at cornerback. Since the Browns missed big time on Gilbert, they need to address cornerback and or safety high in the draft or in free agency.
Overall Assessment: Among the young players, the Browns have found some core players, in my opinion, that they can build around. On offense, these are players I think can be impact players or solid starters: Pryor, Coleman, Bitonio, Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell. The jury is still out on Seth DeValve, Drango, Coleman, Erving, Reiter, Higgins, Louis, Payton and Kessler.
On defense, these are the younger players they can build with: Collins, Christian Kirksey, Danny Shelton, Jamie Meder, Ogbah, Nassib, Orchard, Kindred and Boddy-Calhoun. Those that haven't shown enough to know are Schobert, Campbell, Ed Reynolds, Cooper and Holmes.
Looking at the numbers of holes to fill, it is possible to see the Browns making huge strides during this upcoming off-season, but they have to be judicious in their analysis of the personnel they have and what is available to them. In order to make this season worthwhile, the Browns need to find out some of those answers in the final four games so they are as prepared as they can be when they enter the off-season.
If they don't, history could repeat itself and Jackson said he will not allow that to happen.
"It is critical over these next four weeks that we do come away grasping some of those things as you are mentioning as we walk out of here," Jackson said after the loss to the Giants. "We have to because if not, these things repeat themselves. I am not going to – I have told our players, and I mean this, and I am going to tell all of you – this will be the last time, this year, that we ever feel the way we feel. I know that. I know that in my heart. I know that without question, and that is why I have always said if you are going to get us you better get us now because we are not going to feel like this a year from now.”