Have Faith, Cleveland

For the first time in a long time the Cleveland Browns may have some hope going into a new season. Yeah, I know it sounds crazy considering their history and the fact that they just finished 0-16, but good times are on the horizon for the dog pound…And, literally speaking, they have nowhere to go but up.

Here’s a few reasons why Cleveland fans can look forward to the years ahead.

Talent

Let’s start with what’s already had.

It’s hard to sit here and preach about the talent possessed by an 0-16 team, but believe it or not the Browns do have some very good talent to build around.

Of course there’s Josh Gordon, who in five games this year racked up 335 yards and a touchdown after not playing football since 2014.

Alongside Gordon is Corey Coleman. Coleman’s numbers aren’t all that eye popping (718 yards, 5 touchdowns in 19 career games) but he’ll get a pass there considering he’s missed time due to injury and hasn’t exactly had the most stable quarterback situation. Coleman has shown that he has talent. And with the right quarterback that talent can be on full display.

In the backfield is Duke Johnson Jr. who quietly put together a very good 2017. Johnson’s 693 receiving yards and 74 receptions both led the team, and ranked third and fourth, respectively, among NFL running backs. On the ground, he totaled 348 yards on 4.2 yards per carry, a solid number for any running back, let alone one who primarily catches passes.

Rookie tight end David Njoku had just 386 yards receiving on the year, but his four touchdown catches matched the total of guys like Hunter Henry and Jack Doyle, and his eight catches for 20+ yards were tied for eighth most among NFL tight ends.

Cleveland also has one of the league’s best offensive lines. Guards Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio were ranked as the 11th and 6th best guards, respectively, by Pro Football Focus. Center JC Tretter was ranked 13th by PFF, and we all know what Joe Thomas can do.

Cleveland’s defense also isn’t as bad as it looks.

They ranked 14th in the NFL in total defense which, considering the fact that opposing offenses could be more aggressive against them than usual, is pretty good. They also ranked seventh in the league in rush defense, giving up just 97.9 yards per game.

They have two promising young pass rushers in Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah who can give any opposing QB a big problem. Second-year linebacker Joe Schobert was tied for the NFL lead with 144 tackles, and fellow linebacker Christian Kirksey wasn’t far behind him with 138.

Money/Draft Picks

While the Browns do have talent, they also have some VERY big holes to fill on both sides of the ball. So it’s a good thing they’ll have more than $110 million to spend this offseason, second most in the NFL behind only San Francisco. Cleveland also has 12 picks in the upcoming draft including two in the top four, four in the top 35, and seven in the top 108.

So where can the Browns improve? First and foremost, they need a quarterback.

14 different quarterbacks have started a game for Cleveland since 2011, and not one of those seven seasons has seen a 16-game starter. Forget the years to come, if the Browns want to sustain success for just one season, they need a talented and reliable quarterback.

One guy who can fill that void is Kirk Cousins.

Despite throwing for 13,176 yards with 81 touchdowns and 36 interceptions over the past three seasons, the Redskins have yet to come out and say that Cousins will be their long-term quarterback. Cousins has made it clear that he wants a long-term deal, and has voiced interest in playing in Cleveland.

If they can’t get Cousins, Cleveland can use one of their top-four picks to choose from six highly touted QB prospects: Mason Rudolph, Lamar Jackson, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen.

Next, Cleveland needs a power runner to compliment Duke Johnson in the backfield.

This year’s free agent class is lacking at running back outside of Le’Veon Bell, who will most likely be back in Pittsburgh.

In the draft however, is Saquon Barkley who’s coming off of an absolute ridiculous year at Penn State where he rushed for 1,271 yards and 18 touchdowns, racked up 632 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and added two kick return touchdowns. Simply put, this kid is special. At 5’11 and 223 pounds he’s exactly the type of explosive and powerful running back the Browns need.

If for some reason the Browns don’t end up with Barkley, LSU’s Derrius Guice or Georgia’s Nick Chubb would be good options as well. However, neither of them compare to what Barkley can bring to the table.

Lastly, the Browns need secondary help. Their run defense was one of the league’s best, but their pass defense ranked 19th in the NFL this past year.

Cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Prince Amukamara, and Kyle Fuller as well as safeties Tyvon Branch, Lamarcus Joyner and Eric Reid will all be available in free agency and would give a much needed boost to the Cleveland secondary.

In the draft, Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James headline the options at safety, while Iowa’s Josh Jackson, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver lead a deep cornerback class.

With their $110 million, Cleveland can also sign all of their existing young talent to multi-year extensions.

Johnson, Tretter, Ogbah, and Schobert will all be unrestricted free agents after the 2019 season. Tretter is the oldest of the group at just 26, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see some or all of them sign extensions this offseason. Meanwhile, Coleman, Njoku, Garrett and the rest of the offensive line outside of Thomas are locked up for the long haul, and let’s be honest, Thomas didn’t spend all this time in Cleveland just to leave when things finally look promising.

The Browns certainly have a lot to fix, but they have the budget and draft picks available to do so.

New Front Office

With the aforementioned 12 draft picks and $110 million to spend, Cleveland couldn’t have picked a better time to revamp its front office.

In December, they hired John Dorsey as their new General Manager. Dorsey held the same position with Kansas City from 2013-2016. After making the playoffs just twice in the previous nine seasons, the Chiefs made the playoffs in three of those four seasons, and went 43-21.

Prior to his time in Kansas City, Dorsey was with Green Bay where he was their director of scouting from 2000-2011, and Director of Football Operations in 2012. In those 12 years the Packers had only two losing seasons.

Shortly after being named GM, Dorsey hired Alonzo Highsmith as VP of Football Operations, and Eliot Wolf as his Assistant GM. Highsmith spent 19 years in the Green Bay front office, some of those of course with Dorsey. He spent his final six years there as the senior personnel executive. Wolf, who’s just 35 years old, is seen by many as a future front office star. He spent 14 years in Green Bay where worked his way up from Pro Personnel Assistant in 2004, to Director of Pro Personnel in 2012, and finally to Director of Football Operations this past year.

A front office that for years was a laughing stock is now headed by three incredibly well respected minds who are very familiar with one another and, more importantly, well accustomed to success.

After bringing Highsmith and Wolf on board, Dorsey made his first coaching hire in Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley who’s coming off of a very good tenure in Pittsburgh. In six years there, Haley’s offense finished in the top 10 in both points and yards four times. He may have had much better weapons at his disposal, but once again, this is a coach who’s seen success, knows how to run an effective offense and develop talent.

For the past couple of decades now, the Cleveland Browns have been the epitome of failure in sports. Luckily for their incredibly loyal fanbase, things are starting to look up. They have young talent, tons of money to spend and the most picks in this year’s draft.

Sure, they’ve always had good picks and done nothing with them, but the new braintrust in Cleveland knows what they’re doing. While in Kansas City, Dorsey selected Pro Bowlers Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Marcus Peters, and Kareem Hunt. During the 1999 draft, it was Highsmith who pushed for the Packers to take Donald Driver in the seventh round. Driver would go on to become the franchise leader in receiving yards.

From 2004-2012 (the years Dorsey, Highsmith and Wolf were all together in Green Bay) the Packers drafted Pro Bowlers such as Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, Casey Hayward and Mike Daniels. The trio also helped put together the team that won Super Bowl 45.

It won’t happen over night, but in the next few years don’t be surprised if the Cleveland Browns, yes THE Cleveland Browns, start to become a formidable team after years of being the butt of all our jokes.

 

Max Golden is a blogger for the Loaded Box Podcast. Check out his article archive. Find more from the Loaded Box Podcast on Twitter and Facebook.

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