When Phil Savage became General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, he did not inherit a train wreck. He inherited the football version of the Chernobyl meltdown. In less than two complete off-seasons, Phil has nearly remade the entire roster. By the time the Browns kick off to the New Orleans Saints in this years opening game, it would not be surprising to see 3/4 of the 2004 roster replaced.
These moves were not as talent-related, as most would think but rather were made to improve team chemistry and attitude. The finger pointing and blame game is being replaced with individual responsibility. "Team" is supplanting the individual. The squeaky wheel is no longer being greased - it's being replaced. The injury excuse is not flying with Romeo Crennel as he has inherited Bill Parcells theory of "injured players are useless players". The sense of entitlement is slowly being replaced with earning your playing time. Most importantly, the defeatist attitude is exchanged with a true belief that this team can not only compete but also win.
The Browns wide receivers have been lacking in discipline and consistency. Do not get me wrong, I remain a huge fan of Antonio Bryant but the drops, mental mistakes and the penalties were not the aspects that you want instilled in your future star, Braylon Edwards. If there are two words to describe this group over the last few years, they are "disappointment" and "drops".
Exit Antonio Bryant and enter one of the most disciplined route runners and all-around tough guys in Joe Jurevicius. Joe has a couple of question marks with his lack of speed and durability issues, but his toughness and knack for the big play far outweigh any negatives. He brings a reliable pair of hands - something that has been missing in the wide receiver corps in recent years. He will be the solid veteran presence with this extremely young receiving core. Most importantly, Joe will not allow those key plays to bounce off his chest and into the dirt.
There is no position more important to an offense than the center. The center occupies the shortest path to the quarterback. He is the cornerstone position when it comes to running the ball. He is also the only player other than quarterback to touch the ball on every single offensive play. The center must be the general in the trenches.
Former first round selection Jeff Faine was arguably the worst draft pick the Browns have made since their return. He was not strong enough to hold the line against the larger defensive tackles. He was to slow in reacting to pick up the blitz. He consistently struggled with the quarterback exchange and he was never able to put the ball above the quarterback's ankles in a shotgun formation.
Exit Jeff Faine and enter two time pro bowl center, LeCharles Bentley. Bentley will immediately upgrade the interior of this offensive line. He is a solid pass protector but his true strength is physically dominating in the run game. He brings a toughness and nasty demeanor to the middle. He is an upgrade in every single aspect of the center position, except for pulling which he is still able to do very effectively. Most importantly, LeCharles takes pride in being the leader of the offensive line.
The Browns left tackle position has been a nightmare. At no time since the return, has this position provided both effective run blocking as well as solid pass protection. It has been one or the other and it many instances neither. To often the play at the left tackle position has simply been soft.
Exit LJ Shelton and enter Kevin Shaffer, a tremendous run blocker over the last two seasons, helping Atlanta become one of the very best running teams in football. His pass protection has shown steady improvement even when considering he has been protecting the mobile Michael Vick. Kevin simply brings toughness and that mean, nasty approach to the game that has been sorely lacking.
The defense has also seen their fair share of free agent improvement, as the Browns have added 28 years of experience to their defensive front seven, in nose tackle Ted Washington and outside linebacker Willie McGinest. They should bring immediate impact to the defense with Ted's ability to dominate in the run game and Willie's ability to rush the pass. Their experience and leadership will be invaluable when you consider the talented youth that is playing behind them.
It would not have been a complete free agency signing period without replacing one of the most disappointing positions on this roster. The Browns have not had any consistency at punter since the departure of Chris Gardocki. This definitely changed when the Browns acquired punter Dave Zastudil. Zastudil brings both consistency and tremendous leg strength to the special teams unit. He has a knack of planting the ball inside the 20 and his hang time sets him apart from most of the league.
Not all the moves made by the new regime have worked out as planned but there is now a solid core of veteran players with remarkable leadership qualities. These moves may not equate to immediate success but the seeds of success are being sown throughout this roster. For now, it is a question of continuity and belief. If the new can blend with the old and truly believe they can not only compete - but win - against the elite competition, Browns fans may not (for once) be talking draft at the end of November.