Thursday, June 5

Harbingers of woe?

After posting double-digit wins for the first time in almost 15 years, the Browns and GM Phil Savage used some aggressive off-season trades to send a message to the rest of the NFL: the Browns aren't rebuilding anymore, they aim to win now. As a result, the enthusiasm and interest of Browns fans is higher than it's been since the team returned in 1999.

Finally, after years of torment, Browns fans are looking forward to what promises to be a memorable season. Returning a talented offensive crew with an additional wrinkle, one Donte Stallworth, the Browns should light up the scoreboard again in 2008. The acquisitions of defensive linemen Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams will be a tremendous boon to the defense, and the trickle-down effect of their presence should make life easier for the linebackers and the secondary. Unfortunately, there are several key factors which could potentially derail the Browns' return to prominence.

Backed into a corner. The Browns traded their best cover corner when they unloaded Leigh Bodden, you can sugar coat it and bash Bodden for a sub par '07, but any way you slice it, he was the team's best cornerback. Whether Savage dealt Bodden to prevent a contract dispute (as has been reported), was dissatisfied with Bodden's propensity for injury, thought Bodden was just plain washed up, or secretly hates corn rows; the reason is at this point irrelevant. The fact is that Bodden is gone, and Daven Holly's regrettable (and probably season-ending) knee injury comes at a most inopportune time for a Cleveland secondary that was already very thin, and also happens to be quite green.

At present, the Browns plan to start Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald, who have between the two of them, um, two years of NFL experience. The fact remains that the Browns were going to search high and low for depth corners prior to Holly's untimely injury, and all Holly's affliction really did was make their need more dire.

The usually top-notch Tony Grossi stated, "the [Browns] cannot realistically expect to compete for the AFC North title, and beyond, with a starting tandem of Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald and Jereme Perry as the third cornerback." Grossi goes on to suggest that the Browns consider swapping their first or second round 2009 draft choice for a corner of starting caliber (they've already traded their '09 third round pick).

While I frequently agree with Grossi's analysis, parting with high draft picks is probably not the best way to solve this problem. Phil Savage has already enacted a dangerous strategy during the last two years by unloading high picks to land high-priced veterans or to move up in the draft. There's a reason why NFL GMs value draft picks more than their phalanges; the draft is an inexpensive to build a team's nucleus. Players in the draft are young and cost-controlled (once you get outside of the top 10 picks, anyway). Building your team with exorbitantly priced free agents and trading away draft picks like Pokemon cards (yes, I said Pokemon cards) is a recipe for failure, just ask Daniel Snyder.

Make no mistake, the scarcity of quality CBs is the single greatest threat to the Browns' success this season. That said, Phil Savage needs to fight the urge to jettison any more high draft choices to slap a Band-Aid on this wound. Although Holly was going to compete with Brandon McDonald for the second starting spot, the guy wasn't exactly the second coming of Deion Sanders, and there's no need to panic and trade too much for a replacement. While it might be satisfying to add a solid corner right away, the Browns can't keep sapping themselves of the draft picks that they will need to sustain themselves in 2009 and beyond.

So what is the answer? The Browns must be patient. Savage should obviously scour the waiver wire and the free agent pool in an effort to discover a diamond in the rough, and if a great trade value presents itself, than the Browns should consider pulling the trigger (ideally for a late round pick, but barring the sudden availability of Champ Bailey at a Sam's Club price, the Browns should not part with a day one pick). And by all means, take a good hard look at some of the young guys on the roster like the recently re-signed Jereme Perry, who played in 12 games for the Browns in 2006.

Regardless of how he does it, rest assured that Phil Savage will be certain to address the cornerback problem. Quite frankly, Savage has far too much invested in this season to allow a problem like this to derail what should be the defining year of his tenure.

Same motley crew. Even though the play of the linebackers was less than satisfactory in 2007 (that is, perhaps, putting it lightly), the Browns will trot out a very similar cast of characters this season. Sure, Beau Bell was drafted to add depth, but to expect a fourth round pick to be an impact player in his rookie season is unrealistic.

With the revamped defensive line ready to plug the gaps up front, it's time for the linebackers to put up or shut up. If the linebackers fail this season, their troubles can't be written off as the result of an inferior defensive line; they just aren't very good.

The improved line should make things easier for the linebackers, but they won't make Willie McGinest and Andra Davis any faster, they won't give D'Qwell Jackson that extra 15 pounds of muscle, and they won't make Antwan Peek into an iron man. Odds are that the linebackers will have most of the same shortcomings they had last season, only hopefully those inadequacies will be less magnified this time around. The degree to which the linemen can mask the defects of the linebackers will go a long way in determining how well the Browns can stop opponents this season.

Will the Soldier be on the battlefield? After undergoing his 177th knee surgery this off-season and alluding to a possible holdout, Kellen Winslow has suddenly become a murky figure.

Winslow's right leg has been sliced and diced more than Michael Jackson's mug, and even though the operations have limited Winslow and caused him considerable hardship, he's still a terrific talent. Will all of these operations begin to have a cumulative effect? At some point, will Winslow's leg simply collapse like a house of cards? Obviously no one knows for sure, but the Browns aggressively sought an insurance policy for Winslow in this year's draft by trading with -- you guessed it -- the Dallas Cowboys to select Martin Rucker (tight end, Missouri) in the fourth round.

Phil Savage paid a heavy price for Rucker: the Browns' 2009 third-round pick. Rucker has been described as a poor man's Winslow, meaning that he's a solid receiver but a sub par blocker. Savage's willingness to unload a third-rounder for Rucker indicates not only that Winslow's long-term health may be uncertain, but also that Savage may anticipate a contract dispute.

K2's intentions regarding his contract are unclear. Winslow has indicated that he'd like more money, and hey, who wouldn't? Supposedly Winslow is looking for a contract in the ball park of what Dallas Clark recently received from the Colts (6 years, $42 million). The question now becomes whether or not Winslow will hold out and/or become a distraction if the Browns don't jump to meet his demands.

Winslow skipped the voluntary OTAs, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be absent from training camp. It's easy to see where Winslow is coming from; like the Browns, he's worried that his injury history, longer than the histories of some countries, will shorten his career. With fewer prime years, Kellen's feeling pressure to get paid right now.

As much as some fans might want to paint Winslow as a villain for having the impudence to ask for a raise after the Browns took such good care of him following his motorcycle wreck, Winslow's just trying to make a good business decision. Odds are that most players would behave similarly if put in Winslow's position. It's easy to talk about "loyalty" and the like, but it's unfair to judge Winslow without having experience in a similar situation.

But morals aside, Winslow, who's under contract for three more seasons, doesn't appear to have much leverage here. The Browns need to hang tough with Winslow to avoid setting a bad precedent for future contract disputes. If a player like Braylon Edwards posts big numbers again in '08, you can bet he'll be looking for a bump in compensation, and that's why the Browns can't afford to look soft with Winslow.

If these contract disputes have taught us one thing over and over again, it's that players would rather get paid a little less than desired than nothing at all. In other words, once Winslow starts getting fined for skipping camp and the possibility of missing game checks arises, it's a pretty safe bet that he'll toe the line.

Arms race. As unlikely as it seemed just a few months ago, the Browns will have both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn on the team for at least one more season, and local talk shows will have about half of their air time permanently spoken for. Now I'm not here to pick sides, although I am here to say that the Browns should have chosen one quarterback and traded the other.

Keeping Anderson and Quinn on the same roster risks a great divide amongst the players, coaching staff, front office, and fan base. But just as important, having two good quarterbacks is a luxury that the Browns cannot afford, and simply don't need. According to Football Outsiders' adjusted sack percentage, the Browns were the fifth best team in the NFL at protecting the quarterback in 2007. Good teams with good offensive lines need not worry about serious quarterback injuries. Heck, the Jim Sorgis and Matt Cassels of the world can attest to that.

But most importantly, by getting conservative and keeping both quarterbacks, the Browns missed a golden opportunity to fill a need. Having a first-rate reserve passer is fine if a team has no other needs to fill, but the Browns could have used another linebacker, and they definitely could have acquired another cornerback.

And then there's the small fact that Brady Quinn, confident fellow that he is, aims to win the starting job this season, with or without Anderson in his way. If 2007's botched quarterback derby taught us anything about Derek Anderson, it's that this cat does not respond well to competition.

With that in mind, what happens if Brady Quinn lights things up in training camp and during the exhibition games? How will Anderson respond? Taking things one step further, what happens if Anderson cracks under the pressure? Will the Browns make a quarterback switch? Will the fans revolt? Will the locker room be split between Derek's guys and Brady's guys? It's easy to see how things could get really ugly, really fast.

Don't get me wrong, it'd be great if Derek Anderson totally matured in his second year as a starter. It would be great if Anderson suddenly was supremely confident, could read defenses like a book, developed a feathery touch pass, and stopped forcing the ball into triple coverage. It would be great if Eva Longoria decided to crash at my place tonight. As great as it would be for Derek Anderson and the Browns to ride off into the sunset together, the smart money says that the determined Quinn and the incumbent Anderson will provide some serious drama in training camp which could last all season long, until the Browns end the competition by showing one of them the door.

(Akron Beacon Journal Photo/Paul Tople)

1 comment:

Andy said...

Interested in hearing about my "adjusted sack percentage"?