The Browns are once again (and this has gone on for some time now) the laughingstock of football. They sit at 0-14 with two games left on their schedule, neither of which will be easy. The Browns will wrap up the first overall pick in the draft if they indeed lose out, and with Philly continuing to slide, they could have two top 10 picks in the upcoming draft. With all the draft picks stacked up, and lots of room to find free agents to jump start this team, the Browns, with great planning, could make a grand turnaround. Look at the Oakland Raiders for instance. In 2014, the Raiders were a bottom five team in football, and two years later, they are one of the best. The funny thing is, the Browns can do the same thing. It all starts with how they approach this offseason. Here are the 10 steps to a Browns resurgence.
Keep Core Pieces You Must Keep
When it comes to the Browns, there aren’t a ton of pieces that are worth keeping. There are plenty of rookies to develop, but as far as vets go, one stands out. Offensive tackle Joe Thomas has continued to stick it out with the team that drafted him so many years ago. Now, with the opportunity to turn this team around, it is imperative to keep Thomas on the roster. Even at his age, he is still one of the best left tackles in football. Thomas is part of the future in Cleveland, so keeping him around is absolutely essential.
Trade Joe Haden
Haden has been an important piece for the secondary for some time now. He, like Thomas, has weathered the storm in Cleveland. The issue is that the play of Haden has declined the past two seasons. Rumors swirled during the trade deadline that the Browns were trying to move Haden somewhere. The New Orleans Saints were mentioned most, and maybe the Saints still want him. Getting a fourth or fifth round pick would be enough for the Browns to move Haden. They need to add as many picks as they can.
Develop Young Talent
The Browns had 14 draft picks last April, and with a success rate of around 50 percent, the Browns should get 6 or 7 impact players. Now, the key is to develop those 6 players into impact starters. The Browns may already know of four of them. Corey Coleman looks like a very good number two receiver. Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah are going to be impact rushers off the edge. Briean Boddy-Calhoun could be an impact player in the secondary if he keeps getting more snaps. Now, the key is finding the other three and getting them playing time these last few weeks. Maybe Cody Kessler has what it takes. Joe Schobert could be an interesting prospect wherever you put him. Rashard Higgins has big play ability. The key here is finding the impact players and getting tons of snaps and tons of reps during practice.
Sign Impending Free Agents/Find Good Free Agent Fits
It is possible to sign lots of free agents and for that to pan out. Look at how Denver signed guys like Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, and DeMarcus Ware. Those guys were key cogs on a Super Bowl winning defense. Now, the Giants have built a similar group in their quest for another Super Bowl title. Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison have been huge in what seems like the hottest defense right now. The Browns need to look into doing the same thing: build a championship caliber defense. But first, the Browns should tend to two of their own. Terrelle Pryor and Jamie Collins are both top five players in Cleveland right now. Both are impending free agents, and the Browns need to make both a priority. After that, there are good free agents on each level of the defense. Along the defensive line, the names are endless. Jason Pierre-Paul and Nick Perry are two great options to play defensive end. Dontari Poe and Nick Fairley are nice options to plug in on the inside. Keenan Robinson is a budget inside linebacker that has played well for the Giants this season. At corner, Trumaine Johnson is still looking for a long term deal after the Rams franchised him for this season. As you can see, there are plenty of options for the Browns to build a championship-ready defense.
Use the First Overall Pick On Defense, NOT a QB
The Browns seem to be a lock for the first overall pick. Now, unlike in years past, there doesn’t seem to be a sure fire first overall pick. But, the Browns do have options. Myles Garrett seems like a great pass rusher in the making. Jonathan Allen has the ability to play defensive tackle and defensive end. Jabrill Peppers has great athleticism to play tons of defensive positions. Also, Jamal Adams would be an option, even though he isn’t talked about. He could shore up the back end of the secondary. Wherever the Browns go, they don’t need a quarterback this early. First, the quarterback class is very weak this year, and second, quarterbacks are a shaky proposition in the first round. Where have we seen recent success from teams taking defense first and a quarterback in the later rounds. Oakland took Derek Carr in round two in 2014, and they took Khalil Mack in round one. The Seahawks drafted impact defenders early in 2011, and drafted Russell Wilson in round three. Dallas drafted Dak Prescott in round four, and got plenty of impact players before him. What’s the lesson here? Draft impact defenders early, and quarterbacks later (DISCLAIMER: drafting quarterbacks is important, I believe you should every other year. But, unless there’s a guaranteed star to draft early, forget it).
Use the Second First Round Pick On Defense
The same strategy applies here. There are so many defenders in round one to add to the Browns struggling defense. The Browns’ second pick will be somewhere around 10, courtesy of the Eagles. With the odds on the Browns taking Allen or Garrett, they should look to cornerback or linebacker next. If Reuben Foster is there, there should be no hesitation. If not, Quincy Wilson and Jourdan Lewis are great options to take at that point. Sidney Jones would be another good option. Whoever it may be, the Browns should grab a corner at this point to be the number one guy outside.
Figure Out the QB Situation
As I have talked about already, the QB situation is dire. Cody Kessler has the potential to be a franchise QB, but it’s way too early to tell. RGIII is not the answer, and Josh McCown isn’t more than a short term placeholder. It’s time to look elsewhere. Late round quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Mason Rudolph will be options in the later rounds, and the Browns need somewhere to look for the future. Bringing in a veteran would be a nice idea as well. Tony Romo looks like he’s on the way out, and if that is in fact the case, Romo would be great in the short term while Kessler and another draft pick develop. Getting Romo is unlikely, so a guy like Brian Hoyer, who played well in Chicago, and Mike Glennon, who did okay in Tampa, would also be options. Whatever it ends up being, Cleveland needs to continue to make moves in the quarterback department.
Build a Strong Offensive Line
Joe Thomas is in place and has stabilized the left tackle spot, but the Browns now need to look into building an offensive line. Look at the successful teams in the NFL right now. The Cowboys are riding to the number one seed in the NFC behind that offensive line. The Raiders have flourished offensively because of the offensive line’s ability to protect Derek Carr. The Packers are on a roll because of a strong offensive line. The Ravens’ offensive line is hiding their offensive deficiencies. The Dolphins hold a playoff spot because of their run blocking ability. The list goes on and on. If the Browns want to build a successful offense and protect a future franchise quarterback.
Build Depth at Pass Rusher
The pass rush is to defense what an offensive line is to the offense: it makes everything go smoothly. If you can’t get to the quarterback, an opposing offense will tear you up. The Broncos have benefitted from their pass rush in a major way the past two seasons. Having that depth behind Ware, Wolfe, and Miller (Shaq Barrett and Shane Ray) has allowed them to rotate, get rest, and still find ways to pressure the quarterback without wearing out their starters. If you can get a consistent pressure from a) multiple areas along the line and b) with only rushing four (see: 2015 Broncos and 2016 Giants), you can build a successful defense. A great pass rush can neutralize holes at the second and third level. Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib look like the future for the Browns as pass rushers, adding more through the draft (Myles Garrett, Tim Williams) and through free agency (Nick Perry, JPP, Jarvis Jones, Calais Campbell) can help the Browns surge to a contender in no time.
Be the Culture That Believes
All of the reason above are a very analytical approach to fixing the Browns. Now, it’s about the emotion and attitude of the Browns. This is a culture that has accepted losing for too long. It is now up to Hue Jackson and the Browns staff to build a culture that doesn’t accept losing. Not only should the organization not accept losing, they should hate it. Players should have a sour taste in their mouth when they lose. If you add the right players with the right mentality to the locker room, especially players who have tasted winning, then you will build a team and a culture that other players want to be a part of. For this to work, they need to have the right man for the job. Hue Jackson has a sound offensive mind, but now he needs to motivate this team.
Yes, this is a lot for the Browns to turn it around. The Raiders turnaround might have seemed like an easy two year span to weather, but in truth, there were a lot of tough decisions and a lot of home run draft picks to reach this point. Also, the culture needed to change, and that’s what they did. Now, they look like a contender for a long time. The Browns can reach that point. The rebuilding and changing begins this offseason.