THE NEWS: The Browns announced today that they have signed quarterback Doug Johnson and released five young players: 2004 seventh-round choice Adimchinobe Echemandu and undrafted rookies Larry Burt, Charles Byrd, Bradly Chavez, Bill Flowers, and Justin Fraley.
SURPRISE FACTOR: Very low. Bernie's Insiders reported in Ask the Insiders nearly a month ago that the Browns had tried out Johnson. The team's interest in Johnson had also been reported in the Nashville City Paper and Plain Dealer over the last two weeks. The Browns looked at twelve veterans in May and have signed two (Johnson, Marcus Spears). Other names we are aware who tried out are OG Kerry Jenkins, T Marcus Price, DT Eric Downing, and LB Jason Glenn.
Bernie's Insiders has suggested for weeks, primarily on the radio program, that signing a veteran quarterback was a need given concerns about Josh Harris' experience and ability. Charlie Frye needs time to develop and needs to be insulated against being thrown into a starting role in 2005.
There are two elements to today's news which are worth noting.
Timing: We previously suspected that the Browns would wait until training camp was underway prior to making a move, primarily because we felt that they needed to get a better assessment of Josh Harris' performance. The decision to move forward with the signing of Johnson today suggests possible competition for his services (mid-low probability) or a high level of disappointment with Josh Harris' performance in the recent full-squad mini-camp (mid-high probability). We were not impressed with Harris' performance during the recent full-squad mini-camp, but only had the ability to view a portion of the activities. Harris was inconsistent with his throws, often missing receivers.
Release of RB Adimchinobe Echemandu: The Browns 2004 draft choice was viewed as being fourth on the depth chart, primarily due to his prior experience. Sultan McCullough and Chad Scott have both looked reasonably good during the practices we were able to watch. When asked about his potential for making the team on the radio program two weeks ago, we said that Echemandu wasn't likely to make the roster unless he built a case for himself on special teams. While we have been unable to watch special teams practice, it appears the mid-season emergence of Richard Alston as a return threat, in addition to the drafting of Antonio Perkins, left Echemandu with little he could offer to the team. Echemandu has been plagued by injuries during his college career and missed time due to academic problems while at California.
WHAT JOHNSON BRINGS TO THE BROWNS: Johnson brings NFL experience and a relatively undistinguished history as a back-up quarterback. The Florida Gator is entering his sixth year as an NFL starter, and has started eleven games during his career. If called upon, Johnson would be asked to manage the game and minimize turnover risk in order to keep games competitive into the fourth quarter. In contrast, Harris has little game experience and Frye, of course, has none.
Signing a veteran QB is a common-sense move that we have been advocating for weeks. A veteran backup would seem to help the Browns avoid free-fall situations like they experienced in 1999, 2000, and 2004 when rookie quarterbacks were used as starters too early and with too little support.
Despite his veteran status, Johnson doesn't seem to be the steadying hand that the Browns might want in the case of an injury to Trent Dilfer. Johnson is not known as a quarterback who is able to read defenses quickly and has had problems with his mechanics which have led to inconsistency throughout his career.
After showing signs of promise during his 2002 season with the Falcons, Johnson's subsequent career has been a disappointment. His tenure as a replacement for Falcons QB Michael Vick was decidedly unimpressive, as he threw twelve interceptions in eight starts and registered a 67.5 passing rating. The Browns are Johnson's third team in a year, following the end of a short 2004 stints with the Jaguars and Titans.
While Johnson is still relatively young (27) and is considered to have enough upside to attract the Jaguars and Titans in recent years, this move is nothing more than insurance, and we do not feel that Johnson is assured of a job when the final roster cuts come prior to the season.
WHAT IT MEANS TO JOSH HARRIS: We have argued against inserting Charlie Frye into starting situations in 2005, and the signing of Johnson indicates that the Browns braintrust is leery of the prospect as well. The team's hope (as it was with Luke McCown in 2004) appears that Frye is able to watch from the sidelines and develop into a starting quarterback by 2006 or 2007. We believe that the team wants to avoid placing undue pressure on Frye this season.
Since Frye cannot be protected by placing him on the practice squad (where Lang Campbell is a possibility), the team will either have to choose between Harris and Johnson or keep four quarterbacks on the roster, an outcome we consider very unlikely. As a result, it appears to us that Harris and Johnson will be fighting for the roster spot behind Dilfer.
Johnson will have to display improvements over his 2003 season with the Falcons in regard to both mechanics and decision-making to win the job. Harris will have to display that he made the big adjustment from Bowling Green to the NFL and improve his accuracy.
We regard Frye and Dilfer as locks for the roster, with the Harris and Johnson competition providing the pre-season drama at the QB position. We have placed Johnson second on the depth chart and feel he has an edge on Harris due to his NFL experience.
SIGNIFICANCE OF ROSTER CUTS: None of the players cut today, with the possible exception of Echemandu, were anything but remote possibilities to make the final roster.
The release of two wide receivers suggests that other rookie free agents have shown greater potential to the team. The remaining wide receivers among the rookie free agent class are Lance Moore (Toledo), Josh Cribbs (Kent State), and Brandon Rideau (Kansas). We agree with the cuts made today based on our observations during mini-camp and the rookie camp.
Brandon Rideau: Rideau's height at 6' 4" is his key asset, although he looks to us like he badly needs to fill out to be able to withstand NFL-level pounding.
Lance Moore: Moore is in the opposite situation and seems to have an uphill battle to make the roster due to his 5' 9.5" stature. He has made some nice plays in practice against the veterans, however, and shouldn't be written off.
Josh Cribbs: We still feel that QB/WR Josh Cribbs has the most potential of the rookie free agent group at WR, and might be destined for the developmental squad.