Despite the Browns losing their final five games of the 2014 season and getting shoddy play from the quarterback position down the stretch, the Browns did, indeed, finish 7-9.
Most observers felt if the Browns could solve the quarterback situation – at least temporarily – add a couple of key pieces and keep their young core intact, they could push for improvement and a possible shot at the AFC North title.
The biggest question separating the Browns from their three division rivals is the play of the quarterback. The Browns have chosen Josh McCown over Brian Hoyer thus far, but their actions tend to indicate they are far from settled at the game’s most important position.
Free agency did not start with a bang as it did in 2014 when the team added Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner soon after it began.
The Browns lost starters or key contributors from 2014 in Buster Skrine, Jabaal Sheard, Jordan Cameron, Brian Hoyer and Ahtyba Rubin through the first two weeks of free agency.
The Browns signed McCown and Brian Hartline before free agency began after they were released from their former teams. The Browns had no signings in the first week of free agency, despite watching several of their players leave.
The only unrestricted free agent signing thus far, is cornerback Tramon Williams, and he didn’t sign until the second week.
The Browns signed defensive lineman Randy Starks the same day they signed Williams, but Starks had been released several days earlier in a cost-cutting move by the Dolphins. The Browns then added Dwayne Bowe, released from the Chiefs, to bolster the receiving corps.
The signings of McCown, Hartline, Williams, Starks and Bowe could be compared to signings of Dansby and Whitner of a year ago. They bring leadership skills, as well as three of them having been to the Pro Bowl, at least once.
It is not difficult to see the Browns strategy of signing players that have been productive in the past but are coming off down seasons and have been let go in salary cap purges in the likes of McCown, Hartline, Starks and Bowe.
There is a school of thought the Browns are loading up on compensatory picks for 2016 as some feel they might be punished for the texting scandal in the 2016 draft because the 2015 is getting very close and they are taking a pre-emptive strike in their preparation.
Teams can be awarded a maximum of four compensatory picks for losing unrestricted free agents in the following year’s draft. Thus far, the Browns have lost five unrestricted free agents, while only signing one. As of now, the Browns would be eligible for four compensatory picks in 2016, which would off-set any draft picks they might forfeit.
With the major part of free agency over, let’s take a look at the off-season moves and grade whether the Browns are better off or not presently at the positions affected.
Additions: Josh McCown (Free Agent, Tampa Bay), Thad Lewis (Free Agent)
Loss: Brian Hoyer (Unrestricted Free Agent, Texans)
Comparison – EVEN — It was very clear the Browns front office had decided to move on from Hoyer, despite having a 10-6 record in his two seasons as the starter with the Browns, finished the season at the bottom of NFL quarterbacks in most statistical categories, including completion percentage at just 55.3 percent.
Overall, Hoyer was 242-of-438 for 3,326 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His rating was 76.5.
McCown is coming off a dismal 1-10 record as the starter for the Buccaneers, but the Browns think his talents resemble his production in 2013 with the Bears when he filled in for the injured Jay Cutler and threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception, posting a 109.9 rating in starting five games.
In his career, McCown is just 17-32 as a starter after being a third-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 2002. He has thrown 61 touchdowns with 59 interceptions.
Lewis is in his second tour of duty with the Browns, but is viewed as competing for the third spot on the depth chart.
Summary: There doesn’t really seem to be much of a difference between Hoyer and McCown at this point on the surface. The Browns still could make a move at quarterback as evidenced by the reports they tried to trade for Sam Bradford. Whether they still go after Bradford near the draft or not remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, it shows they’re willing to continue to search for a quarterback and are not be content to wait to see if Johnny Manziel will develop. They might even make a play for a quarterback like Marcus Mariota on draft day or select another to develop like Bryce Petty.
Losses: Miles Austin (Unrestricted Free Agent), Josh Gordon (suspension)
Comparison: UPGRADE — The Browns addressed the position by adding Hartline and Bowe. Both players have had solid careers and are upgrades over Austin, the only free agent still unsigned. Obviously, Gordon is under an indefinite suspension and will not play in 2015.
Bowe and Hartline combined for 99 receptions for 1,228 yards and two touchdowns. In comparison, Andrew Hawkins was the Brown’s leading receiver with 63 catches for 824 yards and two touchdowns. Austin finished second on the team with 47 receptions for 568 yards (12.1 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Bowe, 30, has caught 532 passes for 7,155 yards (13.4 avg.) in his career with 44 touchdowns after being a first round draft choice of the Chiefs in 2007.
In 2008, Bowe caught 86 passes for 1,022 yards, including seven touchdowns. In 2010, he had 72 receptions for 1162 yards, including 15 touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl. Bowe’s final 1,000- yard receiving season was in 2011 when he caught 81 passes for 1,159 yards and five touchdowns.
Last year, Bowe had 60 catches for 754 yards, but had no touchdowns.
Hartline, 28, had 39 receptions for 474 yards in 2014 after posting back-to-back seasons of over 70 receptions and 1,000 yards. He had 76 catches for 1,016 yards and four touchdowns in 2012 and 74 receptions for 1,083 yards and a touchdown in 2013.
Summary: The Browns could still use another top-flight wide receiver through the draft, but whether they choose to do so or not remains to be seen. Hawkins, Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel are currently the other veteran receivers returning, but the additions of Hartline and Bowe are definitely an upgrade.
Loss: Jordan Cameron (Unrestricted Free Agent, Miami)
Comparison: DOWNGRADE – Currently the Browns haven’t made any additions, while losing Cameron. Cameron’s production from 2013 dropped from 80 receptions to 24 receptions and his yardage totals went from 917 yards to 424 yards. He had seven touchdowns in 2013 and just two in 2014.
Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge return and they carried the load for most of the season last year as Cameron missed six games with injuries. The duo caught 30 passes for 398 yards and one touchdown.
Summary: Dray and Barnidge return as the blue-collar blocking tight ends. The Browns will likely still sign a veteran that can be a pass-catching threat or they will use a relatively high draft pick to address the position.
Additions: Tramon Williams (Unrestricted Free Agent, Green Bay)
Comparison: UPGRADE – Williams started every game for the Packers last season and he has missed only one game since 2007. Last season, Williams tied for the team lead with three interceptions, giving him 22 since 2010 (including playoffs), which ranks second in the league among active players behind only Richard Sherman of Seattle.
Williams went to the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season when he had six interceptions and 20 passes broken up.
Skrine had arguably his best season with the Browns with 66 tackles, 18 passes broken up and four interceptions. He finished eighth in the league in interceptions with four.
Summary: Although a very hard-nosed, scrappy player, there is no doubt that Skrine is better suited to play in the slot. At 5-9, 170, Skrine was flagged repeatedly for defensive holding or pass interference when playing the outside against bigger and more physical receivers.
Williams (6-0, 202) is an outside Pro Bowl performer, despite being 32, he should be an upgrade opposite of Joe Haden and hopefully, be the bridge until either Justin Gilbert or Pierre Desir are able to step in.
Comparison: UPGRADE – Starks, 31, is a two-time Pro Bowl performer and is a better push rusher from the inside. Last year, Starks had 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He was released by the Dolphins to make room for the signing of Ndamukong Suh.
Rubin finished the season with 28 tackles and one sack in 13 games. Rubin’s 100th game was his last with the Browns. Rubin has 375 career tackles, including 12 sacks in seven seasons with the Browns.
Summary: Rubin was solid, but Starks has more pass rush ability and should be comparable with Rubin in stopping the run.
Loss: Jabaal Sheard (Unrestricted Free Agent, New England)
Comparison: DOWNGRADE – Sheard might be the biggest loss sustained by the Browns in free agency. Sheard finished with 44 tackles, the lowest of his four-year career with the Browns. He also had just two sacks, lowest in his career after leading the Browns in sacks in his first three seasons when he had 21 sacks in his first three seasons.
Summary: Until the Browns add a pass rusher to go with Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger, they are weaker than they were with Sheard. Scott Solomon showed some flashes at the end of the season, but it’s unknown if he will be the answer. The Browns couldn’t find the best way to use Sheard in Mike Pettine’s defensive system, thus his numbers went down. He was more productive as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and the Patriots will find a way to get the most out of his talents.
In looking at the Browns roster after two weeks of free agency, the Browns have improved the most at wide receiver, followed by slightly at cornerback and on the defensive line.
Without adding a tight end or outside pass rusher, they are currently weaker than they were in 2014. They will likely address these areas in the draft.
However, at quarterback – the game’s most important position – questions still remain. They have made a couple of moves with McCown and Lewis, but the question still remains ‘Do they have another big move in them to be made?’