I’ve been involved with the NFL since 1981, and I don’t think I have ever seen a team in as much turmoil as the Cleveland Browns in the past year. 2014 will see them being led by their third Head Coach and General Manager in as many years.
The new Head Coach is Mike Pettine, who did an outstanding job turning around the Buffalo Bills defense in 2013. He has put together a very good staff and that will go a long way in helping lead the Browns to success. New General Manager Ray Farmer is a bright guy with a promising future. He, too, has surrounded himself with quality people in the scouting department, led by Vice President of Player Personnel Morocco Brown, who will be a General Manager in the league soon.
In the past decade, we have seen many young General Managers hire a young scouting staff. Why? They don’t want to be intimidated or second guessed by veteran scouts who have many more years of experience than they do. Yesterday, it was announced that the Browns have completely revamped their scout staff. They have gone from one of the smallest and inexperienced staffs in the league, to the largest and most experienced. Farmer kept many of the young scouts, but he also hired a crew of very experienced scouts, all whom have held high-ranking jobs with clubs in the past.
Ron Hill was the director of football operations under Dan Reeves in Atlanta. Charlie Bailey has been a pro director and assistant general manager with a few clubs. Bobby De Paul was the director in Chicago for nine years. Mike Hagen has been a head scout with various clubs and a high-ranking CFL club official. Bill Kuharich is the Chief of Staff and has been a General Manager and scouting director. This crew will give the Browns more quality scouting experience than any club in the league. There is well over 100 years of NFL experience with these men. It was really a great move by Farmer and will only help bring success. The veteran scouts will mentor the young guys and help teach them how to become top evaluators. While the scouting department has been fixed, the Browns are still a year or so away from putting a top team on the field. Here is a position by position rundown.
The Browns had two first round picks in this year’s draft and traded up from their second first to select Johnny Manziel. There is no doubt that Manziel is the quarterback of the future for the Browns, but it remains to be seen if the future is this year.
Veteran Brian Hoyer played well last year until he was injured. He isn’t about to hand the job to Manziel. I expect Hoyer to be the starter on opening day, but I’m sure Manziel will take over sometime before the season ends.
The Browns signed former Houston Texan Ben Tate during free agency, and he will be the lead back in 2014. He ran for over 700 yards last year in Houston. The main backup will probably be rookie Terrance West from Towson State. West is a big, powerful, inside runner who ran for over 2500 yards and 41 touchdowns last year.
Receivers and Tight Ends
With leading receiver Josh Gordon facing a possible one year suspension, it’s still a question mark as to who will be the Browns receivers in 2014. At this time a good bet would be former Cowboy Miles Austin, whose best days are behind him, but he can still play. The other likely starter is Nate Burleson if he can stay healthy.
Behind those two is a group of talented, but inexperienced, players such as Travis Benjamin and Charles Johnson. I scouted Johnson when he was at Grand Valley, and I saw a player who was raw but had great upside. Johnson has excellent speed.
The Browns are well set at tight end, with Jordan Cameron being one of the better receiving tight ends in the league. He is backed up by Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge. Dray was with Arizona in 2013 and caught 26 passes.
The first man you talk about on the Cleveland offensive line is left tackle Joe Thomas, now in his eighth year. He is one of the best in the business. The right tackle will most likely be second round pick Joel Bitonio from Nevada. Bitonio is athletic and plays with a mean streak. He could easily play guard also.
At center, the Browns have a top player in Alex Mack who, like Thomas, is one of the best in the league at his position. The guards most likely will be Mitchell Schwartz who can also play tackle and either John Greco or Garrett Gilkey. Gilkey, who played his college football at small Chadron State, is raw but talented. Others in the picture are Jason Pinkston and Paul McQuistan.
Right now, the strength of the Browns is on defense, especially the defensive line. Phil Taylor is becoming one of the better nose tackles in the league. At the end positions are Desmond Bryant, a free agent pick up a year ago, who is a good pass rusher, and Ahtyba Rubin, who is best as a run-stopper but can also rush the passer. There is quality depth at the positon with guys like Armonty Bryant, a second-year guy with unlimited potential, Billy Winn, and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen.
The new coaching staff wasn’t happy with what they saw at inside linebacker and signed Karlos Dansby as a free agent. Dansby is an 11-year vet and can make plays. The other inside linebacker will most likely be rookie Christian Kirksey, the third-round pick from Iowa. Kirksey is very instinctive and physical. He will be another playmaker. I see last year’s starter Craig Robertson as more-than-quality depth
Last year’s top draft pick, Barkevious Mingo, was inconsistent as a rookie. He needed to get stronger and spent the off season working on his strength. He can be an outstanding edge pass rusher. The other outside ‘backer is Paul Kruger, who was a free agent signee a year ago. While Kruger played well, more was expected. The Browns hope to get more production form Kruger this year. The outside depth is Jabaal Sheard, who can play either outside spot and will get plenty of play time.
In Joe Haden, the Browns have a true shutdown corner. Haden is as physical as any corner in the league. This year’s first round pick Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State will line up at the other corner. Gilbert was generally regarded as the top corner in this draft class.
The depth at corner includes Buster Skrine, Leon McFadden and Isaiah Trufant. An interesting guy to keep an eye on is fourth round pick Pierre Desir from Lindenwood. Desir is very raw but showed well at the East–West game and Senior Bowl. He has size, length, and athleticism.
The safety positon is led by former 49er Donte Whitner, who has come back to his hometown to close out his career. Whitner is another very physical player. The free safety will be Tashaun Gibson who improves every year.
The opening three weeks are going to be tough. The Browns open at Pittsburgh, then are home versus New Orleans and Baltimore. That is followed by their bye week which may prove to be good timing. If Hoyer is the starting quarterback and the Browns don’t win two of their first three games, the bye week may be the time the Browns get Johnny Football ready to play.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe
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