The five most important Cleveland Browns
Let's look at the five most important Cleveland Browns for 2011, as of today. This isn't intended to be a list of the best players or the guys facing make-or-break situations, but the most important players before any trades, signings, cuts or surprise depth-chart changes are made.
With the uncertainty surrounding the NFL's labor issues, players must be under contract for 2011 to be eligible for this list. Whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, some players might be restricted free agents and are likely to return and others could achieve unrestricted status depending on the terms of the new agreement. That means players including (but not limited to) Lawrence Vickers, Matt Roth and Eric Wright are not eligible for this list.
5. D'Qwell Jackson: The linebacker signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract before the lockout started in March and will be looking to become an impact player again. He has missed almost two full seasons because of pectoral injuries. The Browns are totally remaking their defensive front, and for that transition to yield successful results in 2011, they will need Jackson to be a playmaker. He figures to play in the middle, which means he'll be asked to make a bunch of tackles and guide first-round tackle Phil Taylor through his rookie season. Jackson has always had a knack for finding the ball, and the Browns need him to be healthy.
4. Mohamed Massaquoi: It's clear the 2010 Browns lacked a true No. 1 receiver. Did that team even have a real No. 2? That's the past, but this team needs Massaquoi to play like a No. 1 and make strides in his third season now that he and Colt McCoy have a year of experience together. That the Browns were willing to wait until late in the second round of the draft to add a receiver is a sign they believe in Massaquoi. Can the new West Coast system and another offseason of work help him make a leap? Both McCoy and coach Pat Shurmur certainly hope so.
3. Sheldon Brown: A 32-year-old cornerback would be an afterthought on most teams, but Brown is a very important player in this situation. The Browns gave him a fat new contract after trading for him last spring and asked him to be the leader of the secondary. Brown did very well in tutoring Joe Haden and played pretty well, too, but now Brown and the Browns are again in a tough spot with another transition, not much depth at either cornerback or safety and both Haden and starting safety T.J. Ward needing to continue to grow and prove themselves. No one can answer what happened to Wright last year or whether he'll be back, and Abe Elam is a free agent, too. Whether Brown lines up at safety or corner, the Browns need him to play on Sundays and to be just as valuable Wednesdays through Fridays on the practice field.
2. Peyton Hillis: Spent the first part of last year carrying (pun not really intended, but it happens) the offense and will be counted on to produce again this season. The goal is to lighten his load and not be as dependent on Hillis as the offense was last year, but he's a rare talent and a true weapon — two things the Browns don't exactly have many of in other areas of the locker room. Now that the secret's out, defenses will come ready, but Hillis has the skill set to suggest he can thrive in a West Coast system. He also has a pretty good offensive line that should give him chances. He could quietly (again) be the best friend of the guy listed below.
1. Colt McCoy: No. 1, and it's not even close — both for this year and the immediate future. The Browns have chosen McCoy as their guy and have drafted and planned accordingly. They've added a play caller and head coach who love McCoy. They have a system that should play to his strengths. And they will continue to build around him. At least that's the plan. McCoy has to hold up his end of the bargain by improving his arm strength and mastering the new system while continuing to play to his strengths — mobility, natural leadership, command of the offense. The Browns' plan appears to point toward contending for the postseason in 2012 and '13, and McCoy's play in 2011 should let the key decision makers know just how close they really will be.