This time of year is comparable to the Christmas season for NFL GM's and personnel directors.
Each is compiling a wish-list, much as young children create for Santa and/or Mom and Dad. These usually exceed what is reasonable, practical and affordable. Ultimately, someone is responsible for distinguishing the wants from the needs.
Even teams such as the Cleveland Browns, with numerous needs and over $20 mil in reported cap space, must shop carefully. Payroll flexibility must be preserved. Financial precedents must be established prudently. Throwing money at a problem too rarely solves it.
As true as all this may be, it steals some of the fun from the season. Throughout the country and abroad, fantastic machinations are contrived to transform one of the sport's weakest rosters into a Super Bowl champion by the opening of mid-summer's training camp. Fans of the club want immediate results and nothing less than total satisfaction is tolerated quietly.
With all this having been said as prelude, let's examine the Browns' offensive needs as the free-agency period dawns.
Influencing decisions on this side of the ball are: (1.) whether OLT LJ Shelton is retained, (2.) whether leading receiver Antonio Bryant is retained, (3.) how reliably injured starters Braylon Edwards, TE Kellen Winslow, Jr., and OLG Joe Andruzzi can be counted upon, and (4.) how a season of familiarity between the coaching staff and the personnel affects the strategies for deployment.
Speaking to the last one first, it may have been decided, since the close of the season, that the holdovers don't quite fit the approach the staff prefers. Such a conclusion could result in surprising movement.
Assuming that scenario does not unfold, at least three significant additions can be anticipated: the club needs an experienced and established number-one, go-to WR for whomever is doing the throwing; ready-to-play interior OL reinforcements are needed; and an OLT with promising upside is needed, either to play immediately or, preferably, down the line.
As-yet-to-be identified individuals most likely affected are Jeff Faine, Dave Yovanovits, William Green, Dennis Northcutt, free-agent-to-be interior reserve Mike Pucillo and possibly third-year OLT prospect Nat Dorsey.
Foremost among these need areas has to be OLT.
OFFENSIVE LEFT TACKLE
Football is a simple game. It involves blocking and tackling, two facets with which the New Browns still struggle, even as Year Eight approaches. Browns' fans are quite familiar with the concept of a defective OL and the damage it invites. Rarely is a quality solution available at so key a spot as LT. Were Shelton to move on, the club would be scrambling to replace him, though surely contingency plans are being investigated.
That position cannot be taken for granted nor resourcefully patched cavalierly; careful thought will be given it and fans can expect the team to be at least as well off as it has been heretofore. (Lomas Brown, Roman Oben, Ross Verba, Barry Stokes and Shelton have manned the job since expansion in 1999.)
That much can be reasonably assumed of GM Phil Savage. Anything less would be an immense surprise and disappointment. If it is not LJ, the solution will be lined up via free agency, trade, a Day One draftee, or, minimally, with a post-June 1 veteran castoff. The last recourse seems least likely. Dorsey is the fallback option, backed by Kirk Chambers.
The best on-the-street options are Ross Verba and Kyle Turley, both of whom are longshots for their individual uncertainties as well as for their missing all of 2005 with personal issues. Former Panther and Seahawk Chris Terry is young, able and affordable but a character risk.
Next among the needs, but a very close second indeed, is WR. Bryant benefited immensely by the dearth of alternatives in camp last season. He received enough attention to finish with 69 balls for 1009 yards---both, remarkably, among the organization's all-time top marks. Were it not for his many inexplicable and untimely drops, not only would those figures be profoundly enhanced, but so too would be his job security.
Having proven himself unworthy of a number-one's responsibilities, he is not expected back.
Reportedly, the money he is seeking could be enough for two signees.
This club, if it is to approximate offensive legitimacy, must identify and secure a genuine, reliable, go-to target at the wideout position. Doing so would address what Savage fingered as the unit's top deficiency: Red Zone potency.
Even if Edwards could be relied upon---a remote stipulation, given his early-January ACL surgery---such a vet would still be needed, as the Michigan youngster is not ready to assume such a mantel. Anything Edwards provides in 2006 must be considered gravy. It is well known ACL rehabbers require a full 12-months to regain full flexibility, burst and power. Edwards is not an exception til he first proves as much.
Whoever the quarterback is, he'll need someone to help him carry the pass attack. For this reason, it is not likely to be a draftee or a kid project around whom that approach will depend. What is more, Head Coach Romeo Crennel and his assistants have demonstrated their preference for experienced contributors. Therefore, it is reasonable to anticipate the arrival of a fully-established pass-catcher with the courage to work the middle of the field and the physicality absent in too many of recent Browns' WR candidates.
In fact, the club has lacked such an across-the-middle chain mover since the days of Reggie Langhorne, Dave Logan and Gary Collins. Not insignificantly, those represent the last three winning eras of Browns' football.
Winslow is expected to provide considerable relief and assistance, but he, too, is unproven and possibly unripe. Even if Bryant, Edwards and Winslow were all on hand and ready to go, that go-to vet addition would be prescribed. Frisman Jackson did not step up this year.
It is not anticipated Terrell Owens, Eric Moulds, Isaac Bruce, David Boston, Reggie Wayne, Amani Toomer, Peerless Price, Kevin Johnson, Dez White or Quincy Morgan will be that guy. Some have options which preclude Cleveland. Others don't satisfy the job requirements.
Lake Catholics' Joe Jurevicius, fortunately, figures also to be part of the available class. Patriot David Givens, who Crennel knows from their days together in New England, is another viability, as is Vikings' restricted free agent Nate Burleson.
Lesser-known alternatives include Rod Gardner, who was chosen 16th overall by the Skins when WR coach Terry Robiskie was working in Washington. He was cut mid-year by Carolina and finished in Green Bay.
Inasmuch as Bryant may not be back and Edwards should not be depended upon, two starting-caliber WRs are needed. Northcutt, at best, is a nickel option. The balance of the corps is raw, green and suspect. It behooves Robiskie to perform one of his best-ever coaching jobs. Whoever the second wideout is, he needs to bring deep-threat speed. Ozzie Newsome's nephew Tim Carter could be considered.
A trade may be necessary to secure the needed WR playmaker.
As for the interior OL, the club gambled last season that nothing remarkable would occur to Savage's first two free-agent signees of 2005, vet OG's Cosey Coleman and Andruzzi. Predictably, both were injured and, once they were, production dropped markedly. Pucillo was adequate as a fill-in for either, though not for Faine, and when two or three were impaired, the line was lost.
At least one newcomer must be secured; two if Pucillo departs. Yovanovits is vulnerable, as is Faine, if rumors of mutual interest between the Browns and New Orleans Saints' center LeCharles Bentley have merit. Bentley is a Cleveland native who prepped at St. Ignatius, starred at OSU and has appeared in two Pro Bowls in his four NFL campaigns. He is considered an elite center, his preferred position, but may be equally effective at guard. He's a brawler in the run game, a fiery competitor and a vocal leader. His presence would challenge either Faine or Andruzzi. He'd be a great fit.
A pair from Ole Miss who enabled Eli Manning and Deuce McAllister to thrive as Rebels are also available. Tutan Reyes started at RG for the Panthers, while Terrence Metcalfe did the same in Chicago til injury derailed him in the early-season loss to the Browns. Robert Garza took over then and held the job thereafter. (Editor's Note: Terrence Metcalf was re-signed by the Bears late last evening)
Ideally, whoever is added has the capacity to handle both guard and center, which is true of Metcalfe, Bentley and, to a lesser degree, Pucillo.
It should not be forgotten that the division's best opponent features a stout all-star NT in Casey Hampton. All football teams should be strong from the inside out; that is especially true of those playing Pittsburgh twice a year. Forty-one-to-nothing speaks volumes about how ready the Cleveland interior OL was to combat what the Steelers bring to the arena at stretch time.
As much as any player additions and/or improvements, the Cleveland Browns' offense is in serious need of an outstanding performance by all its coaches in preparation for the upcoming 2006 NFL season. While this is not to say any did badly in their first go-round together. But to step up to genuine competitiveness in one of the sport's premier divisions will require the best every man has to offer.
While it is undeniably true some better men will be needed to get that challenge met, it is similarly essential the most is extracted from each through the coaching, preparation and utilization of that assembled roster.
Wish-listing is fine and appropriate for youngsters at Christmas. But the business of winning professional football games has more to do with hard work, such as blocking and tackling. It's time to get that done over a sixteen-game (or longer) period.