Starting this week, Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise, and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins. Today it's the Cleveland Browns.
By Robert Weintraub
Cleveland needs this series to be re-titled "GM for a Week and a Half -- At Least," because a day is hardly enough to fix all of the problems that face this organization. In truth, the perfect offseason for Cleveland would be one that stretched into eternity, with the team never actually having to take the field, or its lumps. But since the NFL will no doubt insist upon the 2014 season taking place, let's see what we can do about the team's most pressing issues.
The biggest problem is the stench exuding off the franchise, from its recent history to its crowded, semi-functional executive floor. The daughter of newly hired head coach Mike Pettine summed up the prevailing attitude toward Cleveland by tweeting, "It's the Browns... But hey, still pretty cool!"
However, that's not something I can do about in this space. What I can do is fix the football team, which begins with the man behind the center.
Problem: Brian Hoyer is the greatest QB in Browns 2.0 history
Solution: Draft Johnny Football
Sure, Johnny Manziel may be a risky proposition. He's small, he's brash, he might not be able to Tarkenton his way out of trouble in the pros, he can't simply rely on throwing nine routes and jump balls to Mike Evans on half his passes and hearty partiers don't tend to last in the pre-dawn film study realm of the NFL.
But since the Browns have come back into existence, not only have they not trotted out a quarterback who can chew gum and manipulate a safety at the same time, they haven't had anything resembling an identity (unless you count haplessness). Manziel, even with growing pains, would probably remedy the first problem, and definitely remedy the second. The surest way to blow away the fog that has settled over the team is a gale force blast of Johnny Personality.
In other words, the Browns can't risk not taking him.
Now, in a perfect world, they can stand pat and draft Manziel with the No. 4 pick. But with two teams ahead of Cleveland in the quarterback market, and teams below circling, they can't be sure of that. If they want to hang on to the other first-round choice, the one Cleveland stole from Indianapolis in exchange for Trent Richardson's wicking undershirt (wait, they threw the body in too?), by hook or by crook (Ryan Grigson would say the latter), then they risk not getting their man.
To avoid that fate, perhaps they might be willing to part with 2015's first-round pick, plus, say, a fourth-rounder this year and a sixth next year, to trade with the Rams and jump to the second pick. That presumes the Texans draft a different quarterback with the top choice, of course, but early signs point in that direction.
Two years ago, the Browns blew a shot to move up for RG3. Now they have a crack at a player who might be even more electrifying. This is no time to settle for Blake Bortles, no matter how cute his girlfriend is. Besides, it's the move Kevin Costner would make.
Problem: Trent Richardson is still the best Browns RB
Solution: Add some backfield juice
The Browns best running back is named Fozzy. 'Nuff said. Time to add some burst and toughness. A spread-style speed back to pair with Manziel seems in order, especially given the success new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had with the system in D.C. Fortunately, the draft has a couple of juicy targets, like Tre Mason of Auburn or Lache Seastrunk of Baylor. Either would de-plod the Browns backfield, and they should have their pick of the two early in the second round. Seastrunk is the lesser known and used of the two, so let's go with him, based on, you know, history.
Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount showed he had some life in him late in the season, in so doing perhaps pricing himself out of New England's preferred salary number. Cleveland can't break the bank, but they should be able to outbid the Pats for Blount, and hope his rejuvenation isn't purely a byproduct of the 508 area code.
Problem: The interior line
Solution: Re-sign Alex Mack and upgrade the guards
Mack has been one of the most consistent centers in the league since joining the Browns, along with being one the team's few reliable bright spots. Pro Football Focus ranked him as their best center in the league in 2013.
Mack has said he'll test the market, but the Browns have some $40 million in cap space available and can't afford to lose the one valuable interior lineman they have. If a long-term deal can't be agreed upon, a $9 million franchise tag for 2014 would make all concerned wince, but there are few superior many options.
Meanwhile, the guards were repeatedly shoved backward, which is part of the reason the running backs went nowhere. Let's keep local product John Greco, who was half-decent replacing Jason Pinkston, and draft UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo to add heft inside. Su'a-Filo has excellent footwork and balance -- he almost never gets knocked off center -- and is athletic enough to play in space, important for when the new wide open attack is installed. And free agent Mike Pollak, who played well off Cincinnati's bench this season, would be a smart and inexpensive pickup to provide depth.
Problem: You can't play with a single wide receiver
Solution: Sign James Jones
Outside of Josh Gordon, playing the Browns meant opposing defensive coordinators could actually schedule an in-season date night with their lonely wives. Greg Little has never lived up to his promise, leaving playing fields across the league covered with pigskin he failed to hang on to.
So they need an upgrade, and the veteran Jones provides it. Unlike Little, Jones has actually improved during his time in the league. Jones' size makes him a matchup Problem, especially for the many smaller corners in the AFC North, and many of his big plays in Green Bay came on improvisational or option routes that came as a result of Aaron Rodgers extending plays. Manziel figures to do just that, maybe only that, and will need a target accustomed to finding space on the fly.
The Packers are up against it in terms of cap space, and Jones turns 30 in March, so he figures to be both available and relatively inexpensive.
Two quality wideouts isn't enough, so in the third round of the draft let's have them pounce on the lightning-quick, if not quite route-proficient, Bruce Ellington of South Carolina, to play slot receiver. Ellington is short but powerful and explosive, reminiscent of another Packers receiver, Randall Cobb, when he came out of the SEC. With Gordon, Jones and Ellington, plus a healthy Jordan Cameron at tight end, Manziel has a wealth of weapons at his disposal.
And just like that, the Browns, whose very nickname screams "boring," become a must-watch team.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.