Browns Preview: It All Rides on the Defense
Throughout the preseason Andy Benoit will provide in-depth breakdowns of all 32 teams, in reverse order of 2013 finish. Today, the Cleveland Browns …
One nice thing about being a billionaire is you can afford mulligans. After buying the Browns for $1 billion in 2012, Jimmy Haslam hired longtime Eagles president Joe Banner to head his front office. A few months later, Haslam tapped Rob Chudzinski as head coach. Less than a year later, Haslam changed his mind and fired Chudzinski in painfully inglorious fashion. When the ensuing search for a new head coach went choppily, Haslam axed Banner, effectively nullifying all foundational structures laid in place during his first year in ownership. The entire sequence was embarrassing, but the costs of Chudzinski’s and Banner’s contracts was a mere drop in the bucket for the Pilot Flying J CEO.
The Banner firing made perfect sense, as the Browns needed a true football guy running its front office. The Browns had one in Mike Lombardi (also fired), though it was unclear what, exactly, his specific duties were. Chudzinksi’s canning was less understandable, though just like with the Banner move, you have to tip your cap to Haslam for his willingness to at least admit to what he believed were his mistakes.
Haslam’s Take II efforts brought forth No. 2 front office exec, and longtime Chiefs director of pro personnel, Ray Farmer as GM and Mike Pettine as head coach. How much Haslam is letting his football guys actually make all of the football decisions is in serious question; many see the owner’s fingerprints all over the Johnny Manziel pick.
But if Haslam and his staff truly believed in Manziel as their savior, they would have drafted him at No. 4 or 9, not 22. Instead, they took Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert eighth overall after trading down. This is very much a Pettine pick. The former Bills and Jets defensive coordinator believes that quality defense begins with aggressive press-man cornerback play. His logic: the only true advantage that NFL rules give to the defense is the permission to put hands on wide receivers in the first five yards off the line of scrimmage. Why not capitalize on that instead of giving opponents free access into your secondary?
Farmer seems to share Pettine’s sentiments. Three weeks after the Gilbert selection, he signed cornerback Joe Haden to a five-year, $67.5 million contract extension, a record $45 million of it guaranteed. It was money well-earned. Since being drafted seventh overall in 2010, the quick-hipped 195-pounder has gradually blossomed into a top-five cornerback. Nobody save for maybe the bigger Patrick Peterson is better at playing trail technique, and what Haden has that Peterson and several other elite corners lack is an ability to also dabble in zone coverage, plus regularly slide inside to stifle the slot.
If the Browns are serious about competing at their highest level in 2014, they’ll sit Johnny Manziel and start Brian Hoyer, a meager-tooled but sound, professional quarterback.
One might surmise that Haden’s presence will make life easier for Gilbert, who is expected to immediately supplant the athletic but inconsistent Buster Skrine at No. 2 corner. But more likely, it will be just the opposite. Haden is a guy quarterbacks have learned to avoid. Which means the throws will have to go somewhere else. Offenses won’t simply start running the ball every down just because the Browns might have the league’s best cornerback tandem.
Gilbert will get to face opposing No. 2 receivers, yes, but he’ll also face a ton of targets. Recent history has shown that when a dominant cornerbacking tandem is formed, the lesser of the two stars winds up getting exposed. In fact, often that corner can be irreparably damaged. Fred Smoot fell on his face after joining Antoine Winfield in Minnesota; Dre’ Bly struggled opposite Champ Bailey in Denver; the Nnamdi Asomugha-Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie tandem was an abject failure; and, most recently, 2012 No. 6 overall pick Morris Claiborne has failed to even maintain a starting job across from $50 million corner Brandon Carr in Dallas.
Gilbert’s transition to the NFL will be steeper than a typical rookie corner’s, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still thrive. He’ll get some help from the scheme. Another reason Pettine prefers to have stifling man corners is it allows him to put more bodies in his pass-rushing designs. When a safety doesn’t have to help a corner over the top, he can become a hybrid weapon to use as a rover or to present as a blitz threat (and a more potent threat at that, given how safeties are almost always faster than linebackers).
Pettine’s blitz concepts can be very complex, which is why the Browns felt it was important to bring in a cerebral, experienced veteran like ex-Niner Donte Whitner to direct their secondary. The 29-year-old is a big time downhill missile who will be a great on-field influence for last year’s AFC interception co-leader, Tashaun Gipson (five). Typically Pettine likes to play with three safeties in obvious passing situations, lending more versatility to his amoeba pre-snap looks. Second-year late-round picks Jordan Poyer will handle those dime duties. In the sub-package corner positions, Skrine should have no trouble beating out last year’s ill-equipped third-round pick, Leon McFadden. The 5-8, 170-pound Isiah Trufant is also in the mix, given Pettine’s predilection for smaller, quick-twitch players in the slot. There’s also Pierre Desir, whose selection in the fourth round this year suggests that none of these backups has a completely secure roster spot under the new regime.
Something Pettine has in Cleveland that he never had in New York (but did have with Mario Williams in Buffalo) is a formidable individual pass-rusher. The hope is that one day Barkevious Mingo can be that guy, though with the 2013 No. 6 overall pick badly needing to add weight and cultivate an arsenal of NFL quality moves, “The Guy” for now will continue to be Jabaal Sheard. The fourth-year pro has excellent speed-to-power transition skills and, at times, shows just enough bendability to turn the edge. His motor is relentless, including on running downs, where he plays opposite Paul Kruger. Kruger may not have the raw pass-rushing speed to ever fully live up to the $20 million guaranteed he signed for as a free agent last year. But, if motivated, he can be an excellent five-tool player, which Pettine can make great use of, particularly in zone blitz and exchange concepts that has an outside linebacker drop into coverage.
A bigger component of Cleveland’s pass rush will be versatile veteran Karlos Dansby, coming off a career year in Arizona and primed to be featured as an inside blitzer. In the base 3-4, next to Dansby will be either Craig Robertson (who’s better as a nickel specialist) or third-round rookie Christian Kirksey. Whoever it is should have plenty of chances to prosper as a run-defender behind destructive defensive linemen Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor. Bryant is sculpted for this scheme, which asks its front line members to not worry about gaps and instead just kick the snot out of the man across from them. Taylor, with his top-heavy 335-pound size and surprising lateral nimbleness, is also well-suited for this.
The other defensive line spot is more of a question though still not in bad shape. Filling it will be either Ahtyba Rubin (a prolific 4-3 player, though in part because he makes a lot of tackles after getting driven off the ball), Billy Winn (excellent hand quickness and technique), John Hughes (a still-developing third-rounder entering his third season) or Armonty Bryant (a seventh-round rookie last year who flashed in spot duty, often as a nickel defensive tackle).
With a diverse, hybrid scheme like Pettine’s, there are always concerns about how quickly players can assimilate. Many will be asked to learn multiple positions for the disguise packages. This shouldn’t be too problematic for this group, though, given that it played in Ray Horton’s conceptually similar 3-4 scheme a year ago. If all goes to plan here, Haslam won’t need another mulligan.
You may have heard: Johnny Manziel has energized the Cleveland fan base. We’ll see how energized the Dawg Pound remains if its team is multiple games below .500 come October.
That scenario seems likely, too, given that Manziel does not have an NFL skill set and only knows how to play out of structure. There’s a reason random-styled quarterbacks rarely show up in the NFL. The ones that do are inconsistent but can sometimes get by in no small part because they’re about a half-foot taller and 40 pounds heavier than Manziel.
If the Browns are serious about competing at their highest level in 2014, they’ll start Brian Hoyer, a meager-tooled but sound, professional quarterback. Even if Manziel’s skill set can overcome all odds and translate just fine to the pro game, he’ll still have to learn the gist of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system.
Regardless of what happens in August, Manziel will get on the field at some point in 2014 because his owner won’t want to wait. That’s when the countdown towards another Haslam mulligan will start. In the meantime, it will be on Shanahan to help smooth the waters by tweaking his approach to best highlight his unique quarterback—just like he did for RG3 in Washington.
At least Manziel will have a quality offensive line to work behind (though his freelancing will make the group look bad at times). Joe Thomas is still an elite left tackle if not the best in the league. Alex Mack is a top-five center who will flourish in the new zone scheme. Sandwiched between them at guard will be Joel Bitonio, whom the Browns liked enough to take with the third pick in Round 2. On the right side, tackle Mitchell Schwartz showed improvement last season but was still inconsistent. He now must continue his development without highly regarded O-line coach George Warhop (Tampa Bay), who left for greener pastures after Chudzinski was fired. Schwartz has no one to push for his job—unlike guard Jason Pinkston, who is unlikely to fend off John Greco. Greco is a guy who looks very good when playing well and very bad when playing poorly. Naturally, he’s toiled between starter and backup his entire career.
This line, especially on the left side, will be asked to execute its zone-blocking with extra nastiness and power in order to cultivate the type of running game the Browns want to feature with free agent pickup Ben Tate. To complement the ex-Texan, Farmer spent a third-round pick on Terrance West, who hails from tiny Towson but is believed by some to have foundational back attributes. Tate and West will have to carry a considerable load in 2014, as thanks to Josh Gordon’s preference for smoking pot over helping his team, the Browns have no one to throw to other than athletic tight end Jordan Cameron.
Spencer Lanning failed to get great distance on a lot of his punts last season, which led to an unimpressive 43.8 average and net of 37.9. Billy Cundiff got over his nearly career-wrecking late 2011/early 2012 demons to connect on a respectable 21 of 26 field goals last year. In the return game, Travis Benjamin is a difference-maker, though he’s coming off a torn ACL. There’s been talk of Justin Gilbert getting a look.
With the worst receiving corps in the NFL and perplexing quarterback play on the horizon, the Browns offense has little to no chance in 2014. The defense can be good, maybe even great, but it can’t carry all the weight.