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The Cleveland Browns were the last team to fill their vacant head coaching position this offseason, and with labels such as ‘poisoned chalice’ surrounding the vacancy, it’s not too surprising. Former head coach Rob Chudzinski lasted just a year in Cleveland, despite initial suggestions he would be given time to turn the franchise around, but a 4-12 season, and whispers that he’d lost the locker room, spelt the end for Chudzinski, as the Browns’ ownership decided to move in another direction. That other direction has turned out to be former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine. Pettine is certainly a contrasting coach to Chudzinski, but with equal expectations that he turn the franchise around immediately, pressure will be on Pettine from day one. Though the pressure may be on, are things as grim in Cleveland as the speculation suggests? Or are Cleveland closer than most think to becoming a force in the NFL once more?
There’s no underestimating just how important this offseason is for the Browns, as they continue to search for both a franchise quarterback and running back, but with a nice array of draft picks, and a relative abundance of cap space, they are in a good position to fill those needs. They have good young talent on both sides of the ball, and with their only key free agents being Alex Mack and T. J. Ward, general manager Michael Lombardi should be confident that he can assemble a much-improved roster for the 2014 season.
If Cleveland can keep Ward, their defense needs only a few additions to be considered in the ‘elite’ conversation, and it’s certainly an achievable goal this offseason. If they can find an inside linebacker to compliment D’Qwell Jackson, and a rangy playmaker in the secondary to help out Joe Haden, they’ll potentially have one of the best defenses in the league. With additional picks in the first, third, and fourth rounds, courtesy of the Colts (first and fourth) and Steelers respectively, they will have plenty of opportunities to address these needs, as well as adding depth on the defensive line.
Offensively, the Browns’ needs are a little more extensive. Putting aside the quarterback and running back positions for the moment, Cleveland still need help at the guard and wide receiver positions. It would not be surprising to see these positions prioritized over their defensive needs, given the current disparity between the two units, and there a number of potential targets in the second and third rounds of the draft that have the ability to be immediate starters. Fortunately for the Browns, this year’s class of wide receivers is extremely deep, but if guard Cyril Richardson (Baylor) falls to the second round, his potential would be hard to ignore with the 36th pick, despite a less-than-impressive Senior Bowl week.
In theory, this would leave the Browns with two first round picks, and a superb opportunity to find both their franchise quarterback and running back. Much of the NFL media already has Johnny Manziel in Ohio, but if the Browns’ top brass aren’t in love with the former Texas A&M man, they also have the ammunition to move up and have a shot at Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), or could move down the round, accrue more picks, and still draft Derek Carr (Fresno State) or Blake Bortles (UCF). After drafting Trent Richardson in the first round just two years ago, the Browns may be more cautious in their search for a running back (especially if their reported interest in Ben Tate is to be believed), but they could use the 26th pick to target Carlos Hyde (Ohio State), who would give them the physical back they have craved since Peyton Hillis had his dominant season in 2010.
Whether Cleveland takes a running back in the opening two rounds, or tries to find a diamond in the rough later in the draft, the Browns should at least come out of this offseason confident they’ve found their franchise quarterback, a receiver to take pressure off of Josh Gordon, a physical presence on the interior of their offensive line, and depth for their talented defense. It will be interesting to see how much influence Pettine has on Lombardi and the Browns’ potential draft picks and free agency acquisitions, but this offseason, good or bad, is likely to be the most defining in recent memory for Cleveland fans. If Cleveland hit a home run, they’ll be firmly entrenched in the hunt for AFC North dominance. If they swing and miss, Browns’ fans will have to endure yet another costly setback for their franchise.
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