It’s that time of year on the shores of Lake Erie. Football season is winding down, the Browns have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and assured another double digit losing season. All hope on this year is extinguished, so we turn our weary eyes to the coming draft and the chants of “Next Year!” begin to come together in a collective wave of hope. Or something like that.
This is familiar territory for Browns fans, isn’t it? We’re left clinging to hope that somehow, our fortune may change and we’ll have a chance at respectability next season. You’ve been down this road before you say? Yeah, me too. But, there are reasons why I’m hoping that next season will finally be better.
1. The Draft
In the mind of a Browns fan, the NFL Draft is like what normal people envision Christmas to be like. You wait all year, you’re a good fan, you go to games, you watch on TV, you buy jersey’s that you later regret. You support the team in the face of nay-sayers at home and abroad. You save up all that good karma in hopes that when draft time comes, they’ll finally draft the player (read: Quarterback) that will finally turn this thing around.
Unfortunately for Browns fans, the gap between what the draft usually is and what we hope for is about as far apart as what we dream of Christmas to be and what it actually is. Usually our presents suck, we can’t return them, and our relatives are annoying. Fights break out over the egg nog, and the kids are ungrateful little bastards. Sounds about right, yes? Well, this draft could very well be different. Here’s why.
I gave the Browns front office a pass on last draft, mainly because they were forced to use the old regime’s scouts and rankings, since they had almost no time to install their own people. This draft is the first where they’ve had a full season to evaluate their own needs and the talent available. They wisely stocked picks in this draft, culminating in the Trent Richardson trade, which looks better and better all the time. Now, all that will mean nothing if they blow it. But, I feel mildly comfortable in Joe Banner and Ray Farmer’s ability to discover talent, and Michael Lombardi got big points for finding Brian Hoyer. So, let’s give them a little bit of hope that they’ll get the right guys to fit the team and what we need. There are good quarterbacks in this draft, and if Brett Hundley declares for the draft I believe they’ll find their QB. There are three very good WR’s (Watkins, Evans and Lee), and we should be able to get at least one of them with our second 1st round pick. There are also enough decent running backs that we should be able to score one by the 2nd-4th round. Also, we’re stocked on 3rd and 4th round picks, where there should be a ton of value in this draft.
2. Free Agency
The Browns have the most available cap space coming in to this off season of any team in the NFL, per overthecap.com. This means they should be able to re-sign free agents TJ Ward and Alex Mack, or sign adequate replacements. Additionally, the Browns are likely to lock up shut down cornerback Joe Haden to a long term deal in his prime. Outside of that, look for them to pursue a Running Back (Ben Tate), as well as a few offensive linemen. Outside of that, they may well add more depth to their already dangerous front seven, and could shore up their secondary a bit, all while having money left to spend on Josh Gordon when his rookie deal expires in 2016. The books are clean, and the Browns are in great condition from a cap perspective.
3. The Defense
While the defense has regressed a bit down the stretch, they are still a top notch, creeping on elite unit with playmakers everywhere. Mingo, while he perhaps hasn’t hit lofty expectations of a 6th overall pick, has been consistent and performed well compared to many past Browns top 10 picks. The front seven, for the most part, are effective in creating pressure on QBs and stopping the run. They’ll likely need to upgrade over Craig Robertson and possibly DQ, but the money is there, as well as draft options. The secondary could use some depth, but with Haden and Skrine returning, as well as McFadden developing well, they’re not in bad position. If they re-sign Ward and Gipson continues to play big, they’ll be fine. The depth on the defensive line is incredible, and likely to return in good form.
4. The Play Makers
It’s hard not to ponder what may have been this year if Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron had a viable QB throwing them the ball, isn’t it? I don’t need to beat a dead horse, but Josh Gordon is pretty damn spectacular. He might be the best player I’ve ever seen in a Browns uniform. Cameron has seemed to vanish, but he’s still top 5 in terms of yardage and receptions for tight ends this season. If the Browns can add a stable receiver opposite Gordon, it will go a long way to getting Cameron back into situations where he can create mis-matches with opposing secondaries. Gordon already does so, getting open at will, and having Cameron get open or overmatching defenders will create a nightmare for opposing defenses. The pieces are young, and ready to break out next year. Now to find that Quarterback…
5. The Coaching Staff
I ding the Browns coaches at times for bad play calling, both on offense and defense. In fairness to them, Norv’s offense has been one dimensional because Willis McGahee is terrible, and Oby is not a running back. With Dion Lewis coming back, and the Browns likely to grab a back or two in free agency and/or the draft, the offense should have some semblance of balance next year. The defense, which at times I’ve picked on for being predictable in the pass rush, should get better with an off season to really learn the finer points of Ray Horton’s defensive scheme. And Chud, in my mind, is still a very good head coach. He’s got an eye for talent, and is aggressive enough to keep opposing coaches guessing. He found creative ways to win early in the year with limited time to prepare. That, and I don’t see Jimmy H and Joe Banner making rash moves to appease the fans who may eventually call for the coaches to be fired. They’re likely to give them adequate time to get things on track, which in the end is a good thing.