The 2016 Cleveland Browns, again, did not win a lot of games. But unlike some recent seasons, it appeared at times that this iteration might at least have a plan.
This team lacked talent and lost a lot of leads throughout the season, but under new coach Hue Jackson – the team’s fourth in five seasons – the team never stopped fighting. And when many had written off its chances of getting a win, the team came through in week 16 with a victory over San Diego.
So just where does this team stand? Thomas Moore, co-editor of Dawg Pound Daily, stopped by to share some thoughts:
Zoneblitz: It didn’t result in a lot of wins, but there was at least periodically some fight from this Browns team. What was your assessment of Hue Jackson’s first season?
Moore: Overall things went well in the first season under Hue Jackson.
This past year was never about wins and losses for the Browns, but rather it was about creating an opportunity for a full evaluation of the roster. The Browns are in the midst of the opening stages of a true, and much overdue, rebuild and a large part of the 2016 roster was made up of first- and second-year players. Getting those players on the field took precedence over winning.
Having said that, there were still enough moments that left Browns fans scratching their heads about Jackson. His offensive play calling was spotty at times as he went pass happy far too often, and made some strange roster decisions, but for now we’ll chalk it up to evaluation mode.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of the Paul DePodesta-led analytics group tasked with turning the team around? Have you gotten enough from a year of observation to get a sense for whether you think they’re headed in the right direction?
Moore: Outside of the quarterback position, this has been one of the most-debated and misunderstood areas of the team.
People – and that includes several members of the local and national media – who don’t take the time to really look at what is going on have worked to create a narrative that all the decisions are run by a computer program and that what the Browns are doing is revolutionary.
The truth is that just about every team in the NFL uses analytics, and while the term was not widely used until recently, you can trace the use of analytic data to build rosters back to Paul Brown and Tom Landry.
The Browns are using analytics as a tool – but not the lone tool – in their toolbox. If anyone tries to tell you differently, just ignore them.
Having said that, it is too early to tell if what the Browns are doing will work or not. We’re on board with the plan, but making a plan is always the easy part. It is the execution of the plan that has always tripped up previous Browns regimes.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Browns focus on in free agency and in the draft, first pick and beyond?
Moore: If the Browns go through the evaluation process and believe that the quarterback they need is there – be it Mitch Trubisky or Deshaun Watson – then they need to simply make the pick when they open the 2017 NFL Draft. It doesn’t matter what the draft glitterati think – the Browns have to do what they think is best.
If they don’t love one of the available quarterbacks, then there are plenty of holes to fill on the roster, starting with the defense. Selecting Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett with the first overall pick and then following up with someone for the secondary – Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, LSU’s Jamal Adams or Florida’s Quincy Wilson – would be a nice start to the weekend.
As for free agency, it’s hard to know what they will do. It’s been proven that signing the type of free agents that create headlines never results in wins, so it would be a surprise if the Browns went that route. Rather, they will be looking for players coming off their rookie contracts that will fill a need at a fair price.
Zoneblitz: What are the Browns going to do at QB? Robert Griffin? Cody Kessler? Is that a target position for the first pick?
Moore: Kessler will be on the roster this fall, but should only be utilized as a reliable backup to put in there when you don’t have another option. He showed grit this past season in his eight starts, but he also showed that he is not a starting quarterback.
Speaking of players who are not starting NFL quarterbacks, Griffin removed all doubt that he is no longer a viable option. His game has shown no progress since his rookie season, he is consistently inaccurate, and has no concept of the need to get rid of the ball before the opposing defense crushes him. Oh, and he can’t stay healthy.
Having said all that, if the Browns don’t draft a quarterback they will likely open 2017 the season with RG3 as the starter, with Kessler ready to step in when Griffin gets hurt again.
If they do draft a quarterback, they may turn to Kessler as the opening day starter until the new quarterback is ready. In that scenario, they would probably move on from Griffin as he would probably not handle the pressure of fans and the media calling for the new rookie after every incomplete pass or interception.
Zoneblitz: Will the team – and should it – re-sign Terrelle Pryor and Jamie Collins? And what’s the future of Josh Gordon in Cleveland?
Moore: The Browns are interested in retaining both players, but it takes two to make a deal work.
Collins will very likely go to the team that pays him the most money. The Browns have the cap space to make that happen, but there still has to be a budget ceiling for retaining him.
Pryor is a different case and the Browns are going to find themselves in a public relations squeeze when it comes to his negotiations. Pryor claims he wants to stay and enjoys playing for Jackson, but also said he will let his agents work things out and acts like he has no say in where he goes. There are fans who are enamored with Pryor because he played at Ohio State and scream that the Browns “must sign him at any cost,” so if Pryor leaves it will be painted as a “failure” by the Browns.
Pryor deserves a ton of credit for all the work he did to transform from a failed quarterback into a wide receiver. But the reality is that he still has so much to learn about the position and will be 28 years old when the season opens this fall. It is fair to question whether or not he will get better in the next three to four years.
The Browns cannot sign Pryor to a deal that places him in the top 10 of wide receiver contracts, but if they can work out something that puts him in that second tier that should be fair for both sides. Whether or not Pryor accepts that is completely up to him.
Gordon is done in Cleveland and most likely done in the NFL. It’s sad, he’s not a bad guy, but he has shown no desire to do what is needed
Zoneblitz: There seems to be some skill talent on the roster – Isaiah Crowell, Pryor, Corey Coleman – What’s your sense for the pieces this team has that will be a part of the future and where management needs to start rebuilding most desperately?
Moore: Nothing really matters until they fix the quarterback position. That will continue to be priority No. 1.
After that, the Browns need help at center, the defensive front seven and in the secondary.
Zoneblitz: The defense was 30th in points allowed and 31st in yards per game allowed. What’s worth saving and how does the front office rebuild this unit?
Moore: They made a big first step by moving on from defensive coordinator Ray Horton. I would have liked it if the Browns had gone after Wade Phillips harder than they did – reportedly it was just a phone call – but at least they are no longer tied to Horton.
One of the biggest needs is a player that opposing offenses have to account for on every play, which is why it is going to be very hard for them to pass on Garrett.
Put a disruptive force like Garrett on the defense along with an improving Danny Shelton and opposite Emmanuel Ogbah, re-sign Collins to go along with an under-rated Christian Kirksey, get some help in the secondary and suddenly you have the makings of something special on defense.
Zoneblitz: How far is this team from competing for a postseason spot?
Moore: In the words of the singularly awesome Clay Davis [Ed. Note – from the Greatest Show in the history of television], state senator from Maryland, you have to “crawl, walk, then run.”
The Browns will not be serious post-season competitors until they start winning at home – they haven’t won more home games than they’ve lost since 2007 – and start winning within the division (4-13 vs. Cincinnati in their past 17 games, 2-16 vs. Baltimore in their last 18 games, 4-23 vs. Pittsburgh in their past 27 games).
The good news is that if this latest plan works, in a couple of years the Browns will be rising just as Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco fade and the Bengals, well the Bengals just need to keep being the Bengals.
So let’s start with getting close to a .500 record in 2017, then we can start talking about being a consistent playoff team in 2018 or, more likely, in 2019.
Next In Depth: San Francisco 49ers