Combine on NFL Network
In advance of the draft, Marcus Mariota and others will look to showcase their skills at the combine (Feb. 17-23), only on NFL Network. SCHEDULE
Just days after the talented-but-troubled Josh Gordon was exiled into darkness with another year-long ban, first-round quarterback Johnny Manziel entered into self-imposed treatment. Thought to be the future of Cleveland's offense, it's unclear today if either player will ever live up to their potential. This front office inherited Gordon, but the drafting of Manziel falls into the lap of general manager Ray Farmer, now under significant fire after watching talented play-caller Kyle Shanahan walk out the door for a Falcons job he wanted more.
For all the progress made during a 7-9 season -- Cleveland's most wins in half a decade -- the optimism has been wiped away by the reality of utter chaos at the quarterback position and plenty of questions elsewhere.
Three-pronged plan at quarterback
Pete Carroll's Seahawks weren't taken seriously until Russell Wilson emerged as a whirlwind under center. In the months leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, Seattle was primed to enter the season with a dangerously over-hyped Matt Flynn battling milquetoast veteran Tarvaris Jackson for the starting quarterback job. By May, Flynn, T-Jax and Wilson were splitting snaps in a three-way competition that ignored Flynn's big contract or Wilson's status as an untouted rookie.
Yes, it's a terrible year to find a passer -- the worst in eons -- but Cleveland should prioritize signal-callers with potentially high ceilings over stale retreads. Farmer has never voiced enthusiasm over paying Brian Hoyer more than backup money. If Hoyer walks -- and who could blame him? -- I'd use part of the team's roughly $50 million in cap space (third most in the league) to outbid the Texans for Ryan Mallett. He's a big-bodied, strong-armed passer with potential. He's imperfect, but Mallett's tape last season had its moments. The backup plan here would be Jake Locker or Matt Moore.
From there, Cleveland should use a mid-round draft pick to add another passer with NFL size -- Brett Hundley or Bryce Petty -- to give the team a contrast to the smallish Manziel.
That brings us to Johnny Football, who -- ala Seattle -- would get a third of the work throughout the offseason to prove that his disastrous rookie debut is old news. Relying on Manziel for anything more is dangerous. The Browns must attack this position creatively through every possible channel.
Plan for life without Gordon
Gordon is just 23, but it's fair to wonder if he'll ever take another NFL snap. After ignoring the receiver position in last year's draft, the Browns should consider using two or more of their 10 draft picks to flood the roster with talent. NFL Media's Lance Zierlein has West Virginia's Kevin White pegged to Cleveland at No. 12 overall, which isn't too early to address the need.
Keep the zone-blocking scheme
For all the heat he's taken, Farmer nailed the Joel Bitonio pick last May. The rookie guard was among the finest linemen in the NFL, helping Cleveland form an identity as a run-first team built for the AFC North. Adding more interior depth is critical, especially with Mack able to opt out of his contract after 2015.
Cleveland's early troubles upon returning to the NFL in 1999 are easy to dissect: One Browns front office after the next failed to build up the line, leaving a cast of mediocre quarterbacks to bleed. With three Pro Bowl-level talents up front, it makes sense for the Browns to stick with the zone scheme that scouts have spent a year finding matches for.
Re-sign Buster Skrine, add run-stuffers
Cornerback Justin Gilbert failed to deliver on his first-round pedigree. Touted as a problem child with questionable practice habits, the rookie -- like Manziel -- is a question mark heading into next season.
Coach Mike Pettine's defense hinges on strong corner play, something Skrine gave the Browns across from Joe Haden. Cleveland cannot afford to watch its own homegrown talent walk out the door. We expect Seahawks free-agent Byron Maxwell to make his way to Atlanta under Dan Quinn, but chasing after Antonio Cromartie -- who knows Pettine's defense well -- wouldn't be crazy, if the Browns are willing to deal with the cover man's quirkiness.
People forget that Cleveland's awful run defense was partly the product of losing so many players to injury. Still, the Browns are a candidate to use one of their two first-rounders on a massive run-stuffing machine -- never a poor decision in the AFC North.
Patience with Pettine at all costs
Outside of Cleveland, the last AFC North team to switch coaches was Baltimore in 2008.
The long night isn't over for the Browns. Facing both the AFC West and NFC West next season, Pettine will struggle to again reach seven wins. If he performs the way he did in 2014, though, he must be retained.
Pettine has the feel of a talented young coach with a bright future. Joe Haden raved to us at the Super Bowl about Pettine's ability to relate with players and communicate his vision on a weekly basis. He handled last year's ups and downs with poise and should know that he is fully supported -- instead of looking over his shoulder.