After years of misery, there’s finally a glimmer of light for Cleveland, and his name is Hue Jackson.
After their dominance throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s with coach Paul Brown, quarterback Otto Graham, and beloved fullback Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns sunk into oblivion, failing to win a Super Bowl since the game’s establishment. Not only has the team never won the big game, they’ve also never played in it.
In 1995, the Browns franchise was relocated to Baltimore where they became the Baltimore Ravens. While the Browns did return in 1999 due to NFL expansion, the franchise basically had to start over, and after watching the Ravens, who were the Browns just a couple years before, win the Super Bowl in 2001, the notion of a Cleveland curse became a popular belief
Since their return, the Browns have been pitiful, making the playoffs just once, and without a single division title since their resurgence. Without any playoff wins, a countless list of quarterbacks and coaches, and a seemingly endless streak of losing, being a Cleveland Browns fan nowadays is pretty rough. With a new era underway led by Head Coach Hue Jackson and General Manager Sashi Brown, the Cleveland Browns may actually be on the right track, but they have a long way to go.
New Draft Strategy
Last season’s NFL draft indicated an entirely new direction of the Cleveland franchise compared to past years. In past years, the Browns had drafted a lot of flashy names and exciting new prospects rather than filling more important positional needs. The position of quarterback was consistently on the docket for the team’s first round pick, but they failed to fill other positional needs to build a team around.
In the span of eight years, the team spent a first round selection on a quarterback every year, all of which inevitably failed to become their franchise starter. Quarterback is obviously an extremely important position. It’s the leader of the team, and people have always blamed Cleveland’s woes on their lack of quarterback talent. Yet, they also can’t expect a quarterback to be able to develop and properly lead a team when the other positions are being ignored. A quarterback can’t be expected to throw a ball if they don’t have the talented receivers to throw to and the talented offensive line to protect them.
Charles LeClaire - USA Today
Every single first round draft pick from 2011 until 2014 is no longer with the team, and the 2015 prospects (Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving) have been less than impressive, and could easily find themselves in the same boat after a year or two. After the team parted ways with coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer, former Bengals’ Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson took the job of Head Coach, and his desire for a new direction was evident. It was clear that Jackson was taking over, and had made it clear that things were going to happen his way.
One thing that Cleveland has that gives them an advantage in terms of rebuilding is a plethora of draft picks to use. Last season, the team had 14 draft picks to use throughout the seven rounds, and this year they have 10. This allows them to spread the draft picks around, and instead of having to focus on certain positions, they can add youth to each position group to give them a basis to build off of. Last season, the team drafted a quarterback, four receivers, a tight end, two defensive ends, two offensive linemen, and a couple linebackers and defensive backs. They spread their draft picks around, filling each position group with much-needed youth in hopes that some of them would grow into starters eventually.
Veteran Leaders & Players Stepping Up
While youth seems to be the direction of the new Cleveland team, they have still filled as many positions as they can with veterans to help smooth out the transition and lead a group of younger players. In the secondary, veteran cornerback Joe Haden has consistently been one of the better cornerbacks in the league, and provides the team with a veteran presence in a very youthful secondary that accounted for a solid ten interceptions this year.
The Browns’ linebacking corps is actually extremely underrated, with veteran Demario Davis leading the way alongside Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey. The three of them led the team in tackles and were one of the more solid units on the team throughout the year.
One of the biggest offensive veterans is Joe Thomas. Thomas is easily the best Browns player this century, and has been the most consistent offensive lineman in the entire league. Thomas is the perfect veteran to build an offensive line around, and a great asset to have in giving a role model to future offensive linemen that the team drafts.
Additionally, a lot of players showed promise this year and it’s those players that the team will want to build around. Rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah led the team in sacks with six and was consistently the most effective defensive linemen on a line that struggled mightily, ranking 30th in sacks. Using him as a cornerstone, the team can build around him, which will only improve his game as more playmakers are added to the unit.
One of the most pleasant surprises was the effectiveness of quarterback turned wide receiver Terrelle Pryor. Pryor led the team in all receiving categories with 77 receptions, over a thousand yards receiving, and four touchdowns. While rookie Corey Coleman was injured for much of the year, he showed a lot of promise while playing, and averaged nearly 13 yards per catch. With the focus the Browns put on adding receivers this offseason and if Josh Gordon ever returns, this is a receiving corps that could become one of the best in the league very quickly, and finally one that gives a quarterback options to throw to.
Finally, the running back tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson is another under-the-radar gem the Browns have. With such a struggling offensive line, the duo has yet to scratch the surface of their potential, but have still been very effective. Together, the duo ran for over 1,400 yards, and also caught 128 passes for nearly 850 receiving yards. With a lot of weapons being added to the Cleveland offense, the team is a few key pieces away from having something that could blossom into a real special group.
Trades & Releases
The Browns have shown themselves to be a lot more eager to trade and also part ways with ineffective veterans. With Jackson ushering in a new era, a lot of veterans were let go to make way for the new youth generation of Cleveland football. The releasing of this crop that happened in the offseason signaled a fresh start for Cleveland and a new future under new management.
Not only were they more willing to rid of veterans, but trading became more common with the team. The biggest trade of the season was acquiring Jamie Collins of the New England Patriots for a third round draft pick. This trade was perfect for Cleveland, giving them a younger star athlete to build their defense around for the next generation. They already have veterans like Haden to help transition but Collins provides a star player who is still young and can help lead.
Scott Galvin - USA Today
With the number of draft picks the team has, it allows them to make these trades without risking too much. Losing a third round, when they have four picks that come before it, is an easier decision for any GM. With the draft picks, they not only have a group of young rookies coming in to build the team around, but a set of bargaining chips to help bring in already proven players to lead the team into the next era.
What’s Next For Cleveland?
While all the clamoring in the offseason will likely be focused on which quarterback Cleveland should select in the upcoming draft, it’s very likely that they won’t select one, at least not in the first round. The quarterback class isn’t very deep, and selecting players with higher floors might be the need for Cleveland at the moment. The consensus first pick of the draft according to most mock drafts is defensive end Myles Garrett out of Texas A&M. Garrett would line up alongside Ogbah in what could become a very menacing duo, and along with another pick from last year, Carl Nassib, could become a very young formidable defensive line for years to come.
As for the 12th pick of the draft, a lot of speculation has surrounded this pick. Many have argued that Deshaun Watson out of Clemson should be taken here, but others have argued that a potential trade with New England for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could be an interesting move. The move would make sense for both teams, and providing Cleveland with a player that already has NFL experience instead of drafting yet another rookie could be a much more attractive option.
Other than those two picks, the Browns do have a lot of holes to fill. At almost every position group, a hole needs to be filled, but with all their draft picks, and the ninth most cap space in the league, it’s definitely possible to start filling them. A lot of focus needs to be diverted to Cleveland’s lackluster offensive line, which has been terrible in past years. If Cleveland addresses the offensive line, a lot of their offensive woes will be solved.
Cleveland has a lot of talented players, more than most think, but their past strategies have continuously hindered the development of their most promising players. With Jackson’s new strategy in effect and a new era of Cleveland Brown football underway, he has an opportunity to change that by building a well-balanced football team rather than one that relies on young stars doing more than they can handle.
The Browns organization isn’t a one year fix, but building from the group they have with a lot of cap space and a ton of draft picks for the next few years is a good start.
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