The 2006 season will be remembered as a year of optimism as well as disappointment. After a 4-12 season, it is hard to get excited about the future but we saw something being built and not torn down. That in itself is a positive. Although the coaching staff is currently being torn down once again.
While the injury to LeCharles Bentley and the disappointing play of Willie McGinnest and Ted Washington dropped the free agency signings down several notches, it showed Phil Savage and Randy Lerner would do what it takes to bring talent to Cleveland. The fact that the Browns were able to sign quality veterans should not be overlooked. This was a huge step up for the Browns as they proved they can land the big fish in free agency.
The 2006 rookie class also showed the Browns can actually evaluate college talent. This class although still in its infancy has the making of a truly elite draft class. The Browns walked away from the 2006 draft with 10 rookies and all but 1 managed to contribute before the season was over.
Quarterback: What would a season of football be in Cleveland without a quarterback controversy? When the Browns traded Trent Dilfer everyone believed this would be the first year in some time that the dreaded words "quarterback controversy" would not be uttered but thanks to a couple of surprise performances by Derrick Anderson and questionable play by Charlie Frye, controversy began.
Charlie showed flashes of brilliance but with only 10 touchdown passes along with 17 interceptions and 7 fumbles the door was left open. Derrick Anderson got off to a tremendous start and showed he could at least be a serviceable backup with long term possibilities.
Sadly neither appears to be the answer and the Browns are likely to bring in a veteran quarterback and the possibility of drafting a quarterback appears more than likely. This becomes even more likely as Phil Savage is very familiar with Jamarcus Russell and the ties between Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weiss could influence towards Brady Quinn.
Final Grade C-
Offensive Line: One of the most disappointing units on this team is the offensive line. The loss of LeCharles Bentley appeared to be a setback that they were never able to recover from. The Browns did however manage to acquire the services of veteran Hank Fraley as a replacement. Hank appeared to improve as the season wore on but the guard play was bad at the beginning of the season and horrible at the end.
The Browns also brought in former Falcon left tackle Kevin Shaffer. Kevin had an up and down here but again it is hard to evaluate the play of the individual when the guards are being owned on a consistent basis. I believe when it comes to the offensive line that you are only as good as the player next to you and that held true this year.
As the Browns approach this years free agent signing period and draft, the guard positions along with right tackle will undoubtedly receive a great deal of attention as well as investment. The Browns must approach the 2007 season as if LeCharles Bentley and Ryan Tucker will not return. This makes the resigning of Hank Fraley vital for the future of the team.
Final Grade F-
Running Backs: Not all the woes of the offense can be blamed on the quarterback and offensive line. The Browns running backs did nothing well. At times the term "blitz pickup" appeared as foreign to this group as the term "hitting the hole". Reuben Droughns seemed to fall in line with the other backs that received contract extensions as he appeared contract complacent. He was never fast but he looked even slower this year and he just never became a dependable force.
Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison showed some flashes of ability but running back is just as big of a question as it has been in the past. In fact the 2006 performance was statistically worse than the 1999 season. Their fate is certain to be decided by the new offensive coordinator.
Final Grade D-
Receivers: If the Browns could only show the same consistency catching the ball as they did with catching a staph infection, there might not be an overhaul of the offensive coaching staff. The positive however is that Joe Jurevicius emerged down the stretch as the consistent go to receiver that would put his body on the line.
Rookie Travis Wilson appears ready to take over for Dennis Northcutt as the slot receiver. Dennis is a free agent and is likely to seek a change of environment. Travis was surprising in how fluid he gets in and out of his breaks. If the early signs are any indication, he may be as good as he says he is.
Everyone knows the controversy surrounding the outspoken receiver, Braylon Edwards. While his antics and poor choice of words certainly is a reason for some of the current changes taking place, he is young and hopefully maturity will emerge this year.
The positive is that his knee appears fully recovered. In fact, I would have to say that Edwards may actually be faster than before his injury. His explosion in the secondary was very impressive down the stretch. If Braylon learns to run his routes without free lancing or complaining, he will be a star. If not, he will be become the next in the line of first round busts selected by the Browns.
Final Grade C-
Tight Ends: The combination of Steve Heiden and Kellen Winslow Jr was simply outstanding as they combined for over 1100 yards receiving. This is one unit the Browns will certainly expect more from next year as Winslow regains his speed and strength. KW2 made it through a full season and that is a positive to build upon. His limp was rather noticeable but his play was spectacular.
The negative for this unit was their blocking. Whether it was straight up blocking or the chip and roll into the flat, the tight ends simply whiffed on as many blocks as they made.
Final Grade B
Special Teams: When the Browns released 2 of their best special teams' players on the final day of cuts, I expected a tremendous drop off in special teams play. Nick Speegle and Corey McIntyre were two players that always seemed to be involved in the big block or the big stop. Their losses never showed in production as the Browns special teams were indeed special.
Josh Cribbs kept the Browns offense in excellent field position all year. He is simply fearless returning kickoffs. He is full steam ahead as soon as he gets the ball. He has also learned to follow his blockers and has an understanding of where the block will be. Josh earned a contract extension this year and it was well deserved.
Dennis Northcutt also had a solid year returning punts. He was a major contributor to keeping the offense on the defenders side of the field. He took several vicious shots down the stretch which slowed his game but overall, it was a great year for Northcutt as a return man. Northcutt is a free agent and isn't likely to be resigned. The Browns will be looking to find a punt returner in the off season.
The kicking game saw a reversal of fortune. Phil Dawson has always been Mr. Consistency when it has come to field goals but this year he had an off year by his standards hitting on 21 of 29 attempts. Phil however showed improved leg strength as he averaged 4 yards more this year than in the past.
The free agent acquisition of Dave Zastudill filled one area of great concern for the Browns, the punting game. He simply had a pro bowl type of year for the Browns. He always appeared to come up with the great punt when it was needed often pinning the opponent inside the 5. Sadly those punts usually resulted in long drives.
Final Grade A-
Defensive Line: The Browns defensive line was almost as ineffective as the Browns offensive line. Veteran Orpheus Roye was injured for the majority of the season and his loss was simply too much for this unit to overcome.
Ted Washington was rather inconsistent in the middle but the lack of a quality backup was devastating. Ted simply wore down due to his size and age combined with the constant double teams. By the end of the season, no one bothered with double teaming the big man.
Alvin McKinley quietly put together a solid year at the defensive end position. His numbers were down but his play was improved. He is however a free agent and may not be asked to return.
This unit has some young talent but they have not leaned the art of the 3-4 defense or lack the pure physical strength needed. Look for the Browns to address the defensive front via the draft as well as free agency.
Final Grade D-
Linebackers: With veteran linebackers such as Andra Davis and Willie McGinnest, the Browns linebacker corps looked poised to become an elite unit. While these two vets had decent years, it was three rookies that would end up providing the hope for the future.
D'Qwell Jackson got off to a slow start as he adjusted to the 3-4 defense but he just seemed to improve every game out until he was lost to the injured reserves list with 3 games remaining. His ability to play through traffic while reading the offense is what makes him special. He showed the ability to force the runner to redirect his route and the talent to make plays in the backfield. The sky is the limit for this undersized linebacker as he grows within the scheme.
When D'Qwell went down with injury, it provided a golden opportunity for fellow rookie Leon Williams to show what he can do. Leon took full advantage of the situation putting up over 30 tackles in the final 3 games. This was behind a depleted line and with most of the defense sitting on the injured reserves list. Leon's size and athleticism is amazing. He is still a bit raw in the natural skills of the position but he has the potential to be a tremendous player within this defense. He will contend for a starting position in 2007.
I have never been one that is afraid to admit when he is wrong and when it comes to Kamerion Wimbley, I have to admit that I was indeed very wrong. Kamerion put together the best year for a Browns rookie that I can remember.
Kamerion had serious flaws to his game when we drafted him. He was slow off the snap. He was often engulfed at the line of scrimmage and he simply did not play the run well at all. He improved in every single aspect of the position. He is now quick off the snap. He adjusts to the run and shows containment and his pass rush skills are just natural.
11 sacks is the stat that wows most fans but Kamerion put up those numbers without the reputation to draw those holding calls. The kid was being held all year and he never complained he just continued to fight and the sacks came. Also consider Kamerion was the only player on defense that could provide any type of pass rush, and he becomes even more impressive.
The Browns will look to add the elite pass rusher to the opposite side of Wimbley and that could be a certain free agent DE/OLB from Baltimore.
Final Grade B-
Safeties: Hands down the top performing unit on this team was the safeties. Sean Jones could easily be the team's most valuable player. He showed excellent cover skills, tremendous run support and a knack for finding the football. He posted 5 interceptions but he was in position to make another 10. This will be an area that he will look to improve upon in the off season. The best is yet to come for this young man.
Safety Brian Russell was never truly appreciated until he was lost for the season. His numbers and play will never be considered pro bowl caliber but his leadership makes him special. He is the field general that places everyone where they need to be. The defense simply appeared 2 steps slower following his injury. This is a case of you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
Rookie Justin Hamilton and second year safety Brodney Pool adds tremendous depth to the safety position. They are young and will improve. Look for Pool to have a breakout year in 2007. The talent is there, it is just a matter of translating the physical to the mental.
Final Grade A
Corners: No unit on this team and arguably in football was hurt with injuries more than the Browns corner back position. Leigh Bodden was hampered with ankle injuries all year and simply never was effective. Gary Baxter recovered from another pectoral injury just long enough to blow out both knees. Daylon McCutheon was lost for the year. Rookie Demario Minter was lost for the year before his season began.
In all of that chaos and injury, a little known prospect became a quality contributor to the Browns defense. Daven Holly may have earned himself a new contract with his stellar play. Holly is undersized and often overmatched but he is also a big play just waiting to happen, recording 5 interceptions and 2 touchdowns over the last 7 games.
The Browns will look to add another corner in the off season but do not be surprised if Holly emerges as the Browns starting nickel back next year.
Final Grade C+