Cleveland Browns: 7 building blocks for 2016
The Cleveland Browns find themselves in disarray once again this offseason with another set of decision-makers in place. Recently, we broke down the five positions they need to fill most urgently. Now we'll take a look at seven players on the roster who have the potential to be the foundation of the franchise for years to come.
1. Gary Barnidge
Barnidge (79 rec/1,043 yds/9 TDs) exploded onto the scene with the finest season from a tight end in Cleveland since Kellen Winslow Jr. (82/1,106/5) in 2007, also matching Ozzie Newsome's franchise record for touchdowns at the position. Even more surprising is that Barnidge waited until his eighth season to have his best year. The Browns were certainly thankful that he did since he was the best threat in an offense short on weapons. Barnidge will turn 31 at the start of next season, but the contract extension he received in December ensures that he'll be a mainstay on the offense for at least the next three seasons.
2. Josh Gordon
Remember him? Gordon has been anything but dependable during his short stay in Cleveland, but his talent is undenable. After all, this is a player who caught 87 passes for a franchise record 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games with Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden as his quarterbacks. Gordon's year-long suspension kept him under team control for another season, giving him one last chance in Cleveland to get his act together. Gordon will be 25 in April, and assuming he is reinstated, he has the potential to once again be a top-flight receiver for the Browns, something they've sorely missed since his first suspension.
3. Joel Bitonio
Bitonio has had the good fortune of learning from one of the best left tackles in the game in Joe Thomas. Thomas has been the bedrock of the organization since getting drafted third overall in 2007, but he may end up passing the torch sooner rather than later as he's obviously tired of losing. Bitonio may have taken a small step back in 2015 after a tremendous rookie season, but he stands to be the anchor of the offensive line for the better part of a decade. Hopefully he can take last year's first-round pick Cameron Erving under his wing after his disastrous rookie campaign.
4. Danny Shelton
Shelton was solid, but not spectacular as a rookie in 2015, and one has to wonder if Mike Pettine's complicated defensive system had Shelton thinking more than overwhelming opposing linemen. With his motor, the gargantuan 339-pounder should only get better as he learns to maximize his leverage and size with better technique.
5. Nate Orchard
Last year's second-round pick came on strong down the stretch, finishing with three sacks in the last four games. Pass rushers are hard to come by, as evidenced by the freefall of 2013 sixth-overall pick Barkevious Mingo. Orchard ended up playing 45 percent of the team's defensive snaps (according to Football Outsiders) despite playing sparingly over the first six weeks of the season. If Orchard continues to refine his game, he can be more than just a situational pass rusher.
6. Duke Johnson
The third-round pick out of Miami became a factor in the passing game as expected with 61 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns. After his first training camp was largely erased by a hamstring injury, Johnson was able to get through his rookie season unscathed, although his production did drop some in December. As long as he can stay healthy, the 5-foot-9, 206-pounder will continue to be a threat out of the backfield with his blazing speed.
7. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
Ekpre-Olomu has yet to play an NFL down, but he could very well end up being the Browns' best draft pick of 2015. Ekpre-Olomu was expected to be a first-round pick before a devastating knee injury sent his draft stock plummeting. Cleveland had nothing to lose with the selection at 241st overall, but could stand to gain in a big way. Ekpre-Olomu is undersized at 5-foot-9 but makes up for it with ball skills and toughness. The former Oregon Duck still faces a long way back from a torn ACL and disclocated knee, but he will end up being a steal if he regains his prior form.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu may prove to be Cleveland's steal of the 2015 draft.
2015 No. 12 overall pick Danny Shelton had 36 tackles and no sacks in his rookie campaign.