Breaking it Down and Re-Building Again: Cleveland Browns 2016 Preview

With the recent success of the Cavaliers, the thought of removing their Lebron Jersey and putting on their newly bought RG3 Browns top, must feel like the world’s worst hangover for fans of Cleveland sports teams. Once again, it’s all change for the Browns as they do their bit to keep the makers of personalised door signs in business for another year. This however feels a bit different… Let’s take a look at the Cleveland Browns trying something a bit risky that could have Cleveland fans cheering through winter for a change and see how many “money ball” gags I can fit into this post.

“Not-So-Funny” Ball: The 2015 Season

2015 started the same way that so many Browns seasons have in recent years, with one issue after the other. In the 2014 draft Johnny Manziel was considered by many to be a dynamic, game changing QB. By February 2015 he was in rehab, with any chance of seeing action again seemingly dwindling with every TMZ headline. By week 8 he had been dropped behind Austin Davis, thanks to his partying antics during his bye week. Josh Gordon had been a brief success story for the Browns, but the failure of a 5th drugs test (this time however for alcohol), saw him pick up a yearlong suspension. However the suspension of GM Ray Farmer for sending text messages to his coaches whilst the game was playing, was nothing short of embarrassing.

The Browns were just as embarrassing on the field…

When Josh McCown was fit and healthy, he gave them a decent chance to win a number of games. McCown started 8 games, clocked up just north of 2100 yards and 12 TDs. Manziel seemed to show signs of life, but really did more for Travis Benjamin then himself, as he became his go to guy… a go to guy who would regularly take it to the house. When McCown was injured after regularly putting himself in harm’s way or Manziel was suspended by regularly putting himself in alcohols way, Austin Davis was relied upon as the signal caller. Davis struggled to get anything going and in the 3 games he played completed one touchdown and turned the ball over 5 times.

On Offence it wasn’t all doom and gloom however. Gary Barnidge had a career year, which saw him reach the pro bowl. For a good chunk of the season Barnidge was the only reliable target on the field for the Browns. Because Cleveland regularly found themselves behind in games, the run game never really got going, with only 380 attempts and 5 touchdowns. Despite the offence struggling to get going the offensive line had another good year. Joe Thomas was his usual excellent self and the line itself was voted the no. 2 offensive line of 2015 by PFF, which further accentuates how bad the rest of the offence was playing, with a the league’s worst fumble ratio and being ranked 30th in points scored. That being said, the defence definitely deserves some of the blame.

On paper the defence should have been excellent. An abundance of names and players that had high expectations on their shoulders, teamed up with Mike Pettine, a man who had worked magic in Buffalo, seemed like a match made in heaven and while it was believed the offence would struggle, the defence seemed pretty sturdy. The secondary in particular was loaded. Joe Haden, looked once again set to take that next step to truly elite, but an injury side-lined him for a good chunk of the season. Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson were widely considered a top 5 safety duo, but that never materialised. Tramon Williams seemed to almost give up and Justin Gilbert was, well Justin Gilbert, another 1st round disappointment. With an inability to stop the run up front and a weak secondary, the Browns had one of the league’s worst defences. Something needed to change.

Money Ball? (Well not really)

2016 started in the usual way for the Browns… with a front office led rebuild. After a disappointing 2015, Ray Farmer was relieved of his duties, taking with him head coach Mike Pettine. With the Browns once again looking for new leadership, they were forced to try something a little different. For starters Hue Jackson at Head Coach is a no brainer. After his short, unsuccessful stint as the Raiders Head Coach, his run as Bengals offensive coordinator saw him turn Andy Dalton into a top 10 QB (well on the gents list at least). Now he’s become the latest Coach to move on the Bengals to gain a promotion. Above Jackson things get a little confusing. While there have been a number of changes, the important factor is that owner, Jimmy Haslam has control of the team. Despite ex-vice president Sashi Brown stepping up to the role of GM (although not in title) and having control of the roster, the final say is Haslam’s. Joining Sashi Brown’s crusade to build the Cleveland Browns in a different way is, Paul DePodesta, who joins the NFL team after a historic run in the MLB as an executive. Paul DePodesta is probably best known to non-MLB fans as “the guy played by Jonah Hill” in Moneyball. DePodesta and Sashi Brown are great believers in analytics, an area that the NFL has been historically stubborn to embrace. There is no denying that the NFL is very different from the MLB, but the increase in popularity of sites like Profootballfocus, amongst not just fans, but teams also shows that there is an interest in looking at the sport in a different way.

On the field they’ve made some big changes too. The release of Johnny Manziel, was a no brainer, after multiple stints in rehab, a number of domestic abuse claims and an endless stream of videos recorded in clubs when he really should have been tucked up in bed, there simply wasn’t a home for him in Cleveland and with that, probably any team in the NFL. Alex Mack was a player they’d given big money to stay in Cleveland over the Jags the previous year, but a clause in his contract meant he could opt out to explore other options, which he did, giving 2015 1st round pick Cameron Erving some pretty big boots to fill. Joining Mack on the ex-Browns offensive linemen list, was Mitchell Schwartz. If rumours and his brother are to be believed, Schwartz wanted to sign with the Browns, but the offer was pulled at the last minute, meaning a questionable business decision cost another top piece of the Browns offensive line.

Travis Benjamin was the Browns top receiver in 2015, with a career year for a player that was one of few bright spots for the Browns. Benjamin will find himself on a Chargers team that’s desperate for some speed this year. On defence after a disappointing year, Tashaun Gipson left the Browns to be paid a handsome salary by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Karlos Dansby was one of many Browns players that had a down year and combined with his age, the Browns couldn’t find a use him, meaning he also hit free agency.

The Browns were clearing house of players that eat up salary and didn’t buy in to what they were trying to do. Now they had to find their replacements, which didn’t happen in free agency. For starters the Browns lost one over hyped, controversial QB and replaced him with another, in the form of Robert Griffin III. Griffin comes with the hope of shaking off his reputation from Washington and win a starting role, which by all accounts he’s done so far. For a team though that got through QBs nearly as quickly as Johnny Football gets through cocktails, picking up another QB with reliability issues seems like a bit of a head scratcher. That being said Hue Jackson managed to get the best from Andy Dalton last year, so as long as they can keep RG3 out of harm’s way, he might have a decent season… maybe. Other than RG3, they really didn’t pick up a great deal in free agency, with a couple of backups heading towards Cleveland in Bailey (OT) and Tuggle (ILB), but if heavily penalised receiver, Josh Gordon can bring with him the immense talent we’ve seen in the past, it will feel like a massive boost.

There are 2 ways to look at this. Either they were suffering from the same issues as the Raiders and Jags a couple of years ago, where they simply couldn’t get players to come to them because of their poor name or maybe, just maybe they wanted to build a team through the draft…

Draft Day… Ball

I’m not sure how much I believe that if I’m honest, but I do believe they had a decent draft, with some tell-tale signs that they’re focusing on heavily on stats. Round 1 pick, Corey Coleman is a perfect example of this. Coleman, has favourable 2015 stats in nearly every area, compared to the other receivers coming out of this year’s draft, of which his 20 touchdowns ranked the most. Coleman’s point scoring ability does come with a few downsides however. For example 10 drops in the NFL is considered a serious concern amongst the top NFL receivers. If he can work through that though, we could be looking at an offensive rookie of the year candidate. The focus on stats is no more evident than their approach to drafting defensive players. In the 2nd and 3rd round they picked up Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, who were number 1 and 2 for sacks in NCAA football for 2015 combining for an epic 29 sacks. Nassib also throws in 6 forced fumbles. Both players come with question marks. Nassib lacks the size of most 3-4 defensive ends, whereas Ogbah is a little stiff and lacks quickness, but does it matter how they’re getting results? Well maybe, but this is what DePodesta and Brown want to find out. The biggest surprise for the Browns in the draft was probably their 3rd round pick up of Cody Kessler, but when you look at his stats, it makes sense. Kessler, over 3 years picked up 88 TDs and 19 interceptions and completed 949 passes of 1259 attempts. Coupled with his ability to play in a pro-style offence, you can see why the Browns picked him up, despite the lack of buzz around him. Finally it’s worth looking at the other receivers the Browns picked up. Including Corey Coleman, the 4 receivers they picked up combine for 4247 yards and 37 touchdowns, with each of them fulfilling a different role. Jordan Payton is reliable, dropping just 6 passes over 2 years. Rashard Higgins is a player that has been impressive over the last 2 seasons, but a poor combine saw him drop, with focus on a ridiculously slow 4.64 in the 40 yard dash. For me there is no accounting for watching him play, which would show you that he can play. Higgins could be a sneaky good receiver this year. Finally Ricardo Louis comes in with raw, athletic measurables. Louis is a 6’2, 215 lbs. receiver that ran 4.43 in the combine this year. Louis could be work in progress, but really so is this team…

Re-ball-ding Year? No… Erm, Rebuilding Ball? (okay the puns were bad, sorry)

This is a Browns team that needs an awful lot of work, but they clearly have a plan. The focus on stats in the draft is evident when you look at it, but really we have little experience as to whether this will actually work. The Browns needed a different approach and as long as Jimmy Haslam can keep himself from prematurely clearing his front office again, the combination of DePodesta and Browns ability to find raw talent and Hue Jackson’s ability to coach up players to the top of their game, could see a change in fortune for Cleveland’s NFL team. Who knows… Browns fans might one day look forward to putting on their jersey.