AFC North: Cleveland Browns
CLEVELAND -- After holding its collective breath for 52 years, Cleveland finally exhaled Sunday night. It followed, of course, a roar of celebration that had been pent up for those same years.
But once the celebration paused -- because it has not ended and will not for some time -- the entire city took the deepest of breaths. Young, old, babies, retirees -- and, yes, every other athlete and front-office type in the city -- sat back and realized that the cloud has been lifted.
When it comes to the Cleveland Browns, the cynical way to look at the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA championship -- the first title for Cleveland in a major sport since 1964 -- is that all the Browns need to do is fill 20 percent of their roster with superstar, once-in-a-lifetime free-agent players.
That's what the Cavs did, after all, when LeBron James returned home to the team he had left. Suddenly, the Cavs' starting lineup had a superstar. Put four of those players on the Browns -- say Randy Moss, Tom Brady, Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown in their prime -- and their chances would increase.
But this is not a time for cynicism in Cleveland.
Not merely because the Cavs won, but because there are real lessons for the Browns in what happened with the Cavs.
Luck played a part, certainly. Ping-pong balls falling their way three times for the draft's first overall pick after James departed was simple good fortune. The Browns are overdue for some luck.
The Cavs, though, made something of those picks, which is what the Browns are working to do now. The Cavs drafted the guy who made the "new shot" in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving's game-winner for a championship. They drafted the guys (Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett) who were able to bring Kevin Love, who for all the criticism he receives is a major contributor. Another first-rounder (fourth overall) brought Tristan Thompson, and another fourth-overall pick (Dion Waiters) led to a trade that brought J.R. Smith.
The pieces fit.
The Cavs made use of their opportunities -- buttressed of course, by the presence of a generational player.
The Browns are trying to build with the draft, trying to make smarter decisions with smart people. Fourteen draft picks this year, plus extra-high picks the next two years, should form the core of a team that could and should improve with each season.
The right coach should be able to put it together the way Ty Lue did with the Cavs, and the Browns believe they have that guy in Hue Jackson. Lue's guidance helped; the Browns believe Jackson's will as well.
The Cavs show the importance of drafting well, maximizing opportunity and meshing.
The other thing the Cavs did for the Browns was remove the mantle, the burden, the weight -- whatever you want to call it. Flash-back to former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who when he finally won a Super Bowl after following Joe Montana, told teammates to take the symbolic weight off his shoulders.
That weight is off the Browns.
No longer when they compete will the questions be asked about how long it's been in the city. Players say it doesn't matter, but living with the reality is stifling, paralyzing. To the point that it constricts what a team is trying to do.
The Browns will have their individual questions, as will the Indians. But the sense of relief and release in the city is palpable.
With this win, the narrative changes -- and if it's just for a short time, then so be it.
The Cavs are champions, the Indians are competing to win their division and could be headed to a playoff spot, and the Browns are building a team for the future.
That is the sense of optimism that the Cavs have imbued in the city.
It is especially what James has imbued. As he said on his return, he is a kid from the streets of Akron. He understands Cleveland sports. He understands the feelings. He understood the pain when he left. His emotions on the court showed he understands what it means to return and win.
Winning does not resolve a city's issues. It will not erase future struggle or disappointment.
But this drought-ending title could do much for the Browns -- if they let the feelings seep in.
Because the burden has been swatted away as thoroughly and completely as James swatted away Andre Iguodala's layup near the end of the game.
That block was as stunning as coming back from a 3-1 deficit, as stunning as James' return, as stunning as the emotion and elation that swept over the city as it realized the Cavs would win.
The Browns can grasp that moment. They may not win a lot this season, but they can build for the time when it can be their moment. Because they can believe in their deepest souls that that moment is out there for them. If the Cavs found theirs, the Browns (and Indians) can find one as well.
The yoke has been lifted.
The Cleveland Browns wrapped up their offseason program on June 9 and open training camp on July 29 at the team's facility in Berea, Ohio . Here's a preliminary 53-man roster prediction.
Quarterbacks (3): Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler. McCown sticks as insurance in case of injury to Griffin. Kessler is head coach Hue Jackson's hand-picked rookie, but he could go on the practice squad if Connor Shaw or Austin Davis has a strong preseason.
Running backs (3): Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Terrell Watson. Crowell and Johnson are on the team; the best back in preseason becomes the third. For now, the pick is Watson, whom Jackson watched last season in Cincinnati.
Fullback (1): Malcolm Johnson. Jackson talked him up during the offseason.
Wide receivers (7): Corey Coleman, Andrew Hawkins, Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis, Marlon Moore, Jordan Payton, Terrelle Pryor. Josh Gordon remains the wild card. If the team keeps him, he's on the roster and Payton goes to the practice squad. Jackson's infatuation with Pryor bumps Taylor Gabriel. There's an extra receiver here; but Moore's special- teams play earns him a spot. If only six are kept, Payton goes to the practice squad.
Tight ends (3): Gary Barnidge, Seth DeValve, Randall Telfer. Telfer showed well in the offseason, and a coach always favors his guy so DeValve stays. Barnidge's offseason sports-hernia surgery means depth matters.
Offensive line (9): Alvin Bailey, Joel Bitonio, Michael Bowie, Shon Coleman, Spencer Drago, Cam Erving, John Greco, Austin Pasztor, Joe Thomas. This group is heavy in numbers and tackles. Look for the prediction to change after camp.
Defensive line (6): Desmond Bryant, Xavier Cooper, John Hughes, Jamie Meder, Carl Nassib, Danny Shelton. The Browns look thin at this group, though one might guess that Armonty Bryant or Emmanuel Ogbah could play down in certain situations.
Linebackers (10): Armonty Bryant, Demario Davis, Chris Kirksey, Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard, Joe Schobert, Justin Tuggle, Scooby Wright III. Wright will earn his spot by making plays in preseason. This group may be heavy in numbers. If Justin Gilbert emerges in camp and preseason, Tuggle's spot could go. Bryant and Ogbah provide pass-rush versatility because they can play with their hand down.
Defensive backs (8): Ibraheim Campbell, Charles Gaines, Joe Haden, Derrick Kindred, Rahim Moore, Jordan Poyer, K'Waun Williams, Tramon Williams. Justin Gilbert got a long look in the offseason with Haden out. He had moments, but struggled with technique. His spot is in jeopardy, though he could earn it back in preseason with sound, consistent play on defense and/or special teams.
Long snapper (1): Charley Hughlett
Placekicker (1): Travis Coons. Though Coons has to show he can get the ball up in the air quickly to stick. Too many of his blocked kicks in 2015 were low.
Punter (1): Andy Lee. One of the best in the league.
The focus on Robert Griffin III come training camp will be intense.
The Cleveland Browns have been through quarterback scrutiny the past couple years with Johnny Manziel, but Manziel drew attention mainly for the things he did off the field. Griffin will be under the microscope for his on-field actions.
The story of a former second-overall pick and rookie rockstar trying to piece together his shattered career will be one of the better ones in the NFL. Already, one national NFL writer -- Don Banks of SI.com -- has named Griffin among the top stories to watch in training camp.
The Browns were the only team in the league that reached out to Griffin to be a starter this season. They were the only team in the league to offer him with the kind of money he wound up taking. Griffin didn't so much choose the Browns as they chose him.
Hue Jackson clearly believes he can weave some magic with Griffin. The Browns coach does not lack for confidence, and Griffin seems to be trying whatever Jackson wants.
Tell him to slide? He slides, then pops up and yells loud enough for the neighbors to hear: "Who says he can't slide?"
Tell him to throw the ball away? He throws it over a 15-foot fence that surrounds the practice field.
Tell him to stand in the pocket? He says he'll play any style Jackson wants: read-option, true-option or in the pocket.
Griffin has seemed to embrace the opportunity Jackson has given him -- on and off the field. He sprinted from drill to drill. He clapped loudly before calling his first play in the huddle. He took part in numerous community activities. He took a low-key approach in interviews (though he did refer to a "mic drop" statement -- no pressure, no diamonds).
All of which is progress.
On the field, though, is where Griffin has to prove critics and doubters wrong. Griffin did not play a down for Jay Gruden in Washington last season. Mike Shanahan, the coach who guided him to his rookie of the year award and playoff season, said after Griffin signed with Cleveland that the only way he could succeed was to go back to the read-option style he ran his first season in Washington.
The challenge for Griffin remains the same as it was when he watched last season: At times in every game, a quarterback has to stand in the pocket, read the defense and make a throw. He has to be fundamentally sound. He has to use technique. He has to master the craft of playing the position.
It would be nice to say that he showed that he was doing just that in organized team activities and minicamp. But in the practices open to the media, for every good throw Griffin executed, he had a bad one.
There was a deep throw for a touchdown that ended minicamp, but before that three short passes were tipped, one was intercepted, two others could have been.
In individual drills, Griffin showed off the magic arm that can be so impressive. But in team drills, he threw a lot of short routes, at times displayed poor footwork and often took the checkdown.
OTAs lacked a "wow" moment for Griffin, a stand-up-and-take-notice moment. That lack could be caused by many factors, including what the coach requires on a particular day, but it seems like at some point a throw or a read or a pass would attract attention.
It didn't happen.
Now, there were only six practices open to the media, so that moment could have happened in a closed practice. But it still seems like there should have been at least one in those six open practices.
Griffin is working with as young and inexperienced a group of receivers as the Browns have had in recent memory. Six receivers are rookies or in their first year, one is trying to move from quarterback to receiver (Terrelle Pryor) and the most experienced is a special-teams standout (Marlon Moore). ESPN's Bill Barnwell ranked the Browns’ top three skill players as the league's worst group, and Pro Football Focus ranked the Browns' roster 31st in the league. All that youth must grow with a new quarterback.
Jackson said his offseason approach entailed throwing everything he could at the players to see what they could handle. Once he had learned what they do best, he would pare the plays back to those they would do well with and concentrate on just those in training camp.
In theory, a more focused approach should help the quarterback and the offense.
Griffin can grow into a successful starter. But he showed in the offseason that there is work ahead, and that work will intensify as the season approaches.
Hue Jackson’s QB reclamation project continues.
BEREA, Ohio -- While the Cleveland Browns will up the tempo and intensity of training camp practices, coach Hue Jackson has zero issue with a particular veteran taking regular days off.
"I understand it and know exactly what it is," Jackson said during the team's minicamp.
That veteran would be left tackle Joe Thomas, a future Hall of Famer and a guy who has not missed a snap while making the Pro Bowl nine times in his nine-year career. But he practiced every other day in OTAs, and will miss a day a week during the season.
Two or three years ago, Thomas and the team's medical staff came to an understanding. If the team wanted him on Sunday, it would have to give during the week. A left tackle's body can only take so many snaps and hits, and Thomas wants to make sure he's there when it matters.
"I think they pay me to play on Sundays," Thomas said.
Jackson will run a much more up-tempo training camp, which he said will include live hitting. If a coach were ever going to be the gruff, old-style type, he could force Thomas to practice -- or else.
But Jackson is not doing that. He will give Thomas his time off.
"Joe has done a tremendous job here, and Joe would be the first to tell you that there are certain things that he knows that I expect from him, and he’s done them all," Jackson said. "I know in this guy’s nine years -- [he] doesn’t miss much of anything. My job is to make sure that he can get to the game and play as well as he can play, but making sure that he is prepared to play and has done enough work.
"I will feel very comfortable with that."
Thomas' teammates do not begrudge him missing practice. They know what he does on Sunday, and players want guys who "show up on Sunday."
He also has played through issues that might sideline others. In his career, he's had three torn MCLs of varying degrees, and two high ankle sprains, but none sidelined him.
At 31, which Thomas said is an "advanced age" in the NFL, he simply wants "to be smart about it," and his coach is fine with it.
"I know exactly and he knows exactly what it is he needs to do," Jackson said. "I’m very comfortable with our medical staff, our strength and conditioning staff of our conversations about how to get him to where he needs to be so he can play great.”
Not there yet, said offensive line coach Hal Hunter, who quickly added that Erving can get there and be a successful NFL center.
"Is he a finished product? Far from it. Is he moving in that direction? Yeah, he's moving in that direction," Hunter said as the Browns minicamp ended last week. "Usually after a couple weeks you can say, 'No this guy doesn't have a chance.'
"This guy has a promising future there and he understands he's not close to where he needs to be, which is really good."
Whether that's a half-full or half-empty assessment probably depends on the individual. What it is, is honest.
Several factors led to a rough rookie season for Erving. The previous coaching staff saw Erving as a versatile backup. Instead of letting him focus on one spot, Erving had to learn tackle, guard and center. That's tough -- especially for a rookie.
"That's doing it all, man," Hunter said. "At this level, you better hunker down at one position."
But Erving also battled conditioning and technique, as he sometimes was overpowered by active defensive linemen. He struggled so much that he was benched after a bad game late in the season.
"When you play the offensive guard position in this league against a really quality guy, that's tough now," Hunter said. "Some of the these defensive tackles, these three-techniques in this league, they are men."
It all led to a tough rookie season for the Browns' second first-round pick in the 2015 draft.
But with Alex Mack having departed via free agency, Erving has a chance to re-establish himself. He was drafted after moving from left tackle to center in his final season at Florida State, a move that Hunter said impressed him.
He was also drafted with the knowledge that Mack likely would opt of his contract to be a free agent. Erving was the obvious heir apparent, until he erred on the field, which clouded his future.
Under a new coach, Erving was able to start over. But he also had to re-assert himself.
One of the things Erving did was reflect on the way he approached his first year.
"I kind of got out of doing the things that made me, you know, me," he said.
That meant getting more involved in community activities this offseason. In a busy offseason for the Browns in terms of community activity, Erving was among the busiest. In one case, he volunteered to take Elna Wright, 17, to her senior prom. Wright is nonverbal and in a wheelchair due to a progressive disorder known as Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia. Wright's boyfriend passed away last fall, which left Elna without a date. Erving said he jumped at the opportunity -- just like he jumped at many other opportunities.
"In college I did a lot of things, and outreach," he said. "Last year, I was kind of just so focused on football I didn’t really get a change to give back. I didn’t really put myself in a position to help the community as much as I have lately. It’s very rewarding. It also gives you a different level of focus, and it gives you a perspective on life.
"It’s helped me, and I feel more like I am more of myself since I have been here”
That helped get his mind right.
Work with Hunter helped get his football approach right.
Hunter said that for much of the offseason Erving would arrive at 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. for one-on-one time, to go over schemes, assignments and calls -- which are now Erving's responsibility.
On the field, the one thing Erving can do is what Hunter calls "bend," which is bend at the knees to get low for leverage. Mack was not a tall center, but Erving, at 6-foot-5, has to work to gain leverage.
Erving, Hunter said, "can bend like I've never seen a 6-5 guy bend before."
Erving seems to have done all he can this offseason on and off the field, which is significant for a guy who was so maligned late in his rookie year.
Come training camp, he has to build on the foundation he's set.
"He still has a ways to go, and he still has a ways to go physically," Hunter said. "Until we put those pads on and we see what's happening at camp and we go full bore and then get into the preseason games … then we'll get a better feel.
"But he's pleasantly moving in the right direction."
BEREA, Ohio -- Hue Jackson toed the dreaded line with the Cleveland Browns quarterbacks as the team ended minicamp on Thursday.
The line is the one labeled "quarterback competition."
Jackson was asked whether there would be open competition for the quarterback job in camp. His answer: "Yeah, if you want to see it that way -- yes it is."
Which is a quasi-yes, a statement that Jackson then qualified a little more.
"I'm being very honest with you guys. I haven't come close to letting my mind go there," Jackson said. "I'm just trying to help our football team improve and that position improve as much as I can. I think that's what's really important."
This doesn't mean Robert Griffin III won't enter camp as the odds-on favorite to start the season opener. Nor does it mean the team is unhappy with Griffin.
But the Browns do depart the offseason without a defined starting quarterback. Jackson also said there would be no major announcement of a starter before camp.
Which does indicate Griffin did not seize the job during organized team activities; the question is whether anyone thought he would as he joined a new team, learned a new offense and shook off the rust of not having played a down in 2015.
Griffin's last day of minicamp went like almost every day through OTAs that was open to the media -- it was a mixed bag. He ended the practice with a deep touchdown to Terrelle Pryor but earlier had at least three passes nearly intercepted and another thrown away.
Jackson looks at the bigger picture.
"I think he's gotten better," Jackson said of Griffin. "I said it yesterday. I've been saying it for a while. I know he gets highly scrutinized for a lot of different things, but he has gotten better in a lot of areas."
That being said, Josh McCown seems to have thrown the ball better overall. He's been more precise, thrown downfield more and had better footwork in the pocket.
Jackson was asked about that perception.
"You're entitled to your opinion," he said. "I respect your opinion."
He then said all the quarterbacks "are throwing the ball pretty well."
"I would expect Josh to throw the ball as well as he does," Jackson said. "He's been playing football in this league a long time."
The Browns have been careful not to simply hand the job to Griffin, but it remains his to lose. The fact that he did not grab hold of it gives McCown a slightly better chance of stealing the job, but only slightly.
Griffin has taken the first snaps with the first offense in every practice open to the media. He is the handpicked choice of the team's new coach, who obviously seems to believe he can resurrect Griffin's career.
A whole bundle of questions would follow if Griffin is not the starter. Most prominent: Should he be on the team if he doesn't win the starting job?
That discussion is far away, though. For now, Jackson has a team he's trying to build, and even he concedes he doesn't know what he has.
"I'm really excited about so many of our players and just the potential that's there," he said. "I say potential because you don't know yet until you really play football what they can be and what they will be as a football team."
Jackson will run a more physical camp, with more live blocking, tackling, running and passing.
"Good football teams play football, real football," Jackson said. "They line up and they go after each other."
Which is the next challenge for Griffin: to show he can read defenses and process what he sees, then stand in the pocket and make a throw.
If he can, he's the starter.
If he can't -- well, if Griffin struggles significantly, Jackson might go past that dreaded line and into the morass of the training camp quarterback competition.
The two are almost inextricably linked, products of their race, their abilities and their times.
Both were supreme athletes who set new standards in their respective sports. Both transcended sport, going beyond in an attempt to end the evil of discrimination and prejudice.
"We had the same attitude about who we were," Brown said in a 2014 interview with Larry King on Ora TV on Hulu. "We never accepted second-class citizenship, and we made it known. We gravitated toward each other. I don't remember when I met him. I don't remember when I met the great Bill Russell, who is my best friend now.
"But we (Ali and Brown) had the same attitude about being an American and our rights and our equal rights and being outspoken about it, and never taking a back seat to freedom, equality and justice."
NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell was once asked what he learned from Brown in the time the two played together in Cleveland. Mitchell's answer: "How to stand up as a black man."
In the time of Ali and Brown, black men did not sit down with whites, drink from the same water fountain or stay at the same hotels.
Brown and Ali stood up against it, together and individually. Their actions and deeds forged a bond. As Brown posted on Twitter after Ali's death, Ali was "a warrior for the fight against discrimination" and "a great friend."
One of the most memorable instances of the two standing together occurred at the "Ali Summit," which took place in 1967 in Cleveland, when Brown and Ali were joined by Mitchell and several other black men willing to stand up — people such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Russell and Willie Davis and John Wooten.
They met with Ali when he refused his draft induction because of his religious principles. They badgered Ali with questions to ensure his sincerity, then publicly supported him.
The summit took place two years after the Watts riots, one year after riots in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood, the same year as the Newark and Detroit riots, and one year before the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.
A couple of years ago, Mitchell reflected on the meeting and what has become an iconic photo of Russell, Brown and Jabbar sitting by Ali while surrounded by other prominent African-Americans, including Carl Stokes, soon-to-be mayor of Cleveland.
"A lot of people don’t understand that when we decided to have the meeting with Muhammad Ali about going into the service and brought him to Cleveland, all of us could have lost our jobs," Mitchell said. "All of us. But it’s again standing up. As we said to Muhammad, 'If you are saying that you can’t do this, you can’t go in the service, it’s against your religion, then we’ll back you no matter what happens to us.'"
Larry Holmes talked about Ali's decision in the Buffalo News: "He was an example for black people to stand up and fight for what we believe in."
Old Cleveland Municipal Stadium had concrete ramps that wound round and round from the upper deck to the lower deck. The Indians in the '70s drew sparse crowds. But one night, as a game wound down, a loud sound came from the ramp's upper levels. It was unusual, and as it amplified, people at the bottom of the ramp turned to see what was happening.
Eventually, a group of perhaps 200 kids wandered around the corner, a moving amoeba with Ali at its center. He walked, smiled, talked and laughed with the kids, none of whom were older than 10 or 11.
When Brown was filming The Dirty Dozen in England in 1966, Ali was training in London. Brown asked to fight Ali, believing he was athlete enough to compete. Ali met Brown in Hyde Park. As he stood with his hands at his sides, Brown swung and missed over and over. Ali then hit Brown quick and fast, and Brown walked away saying he understood the point.
From that point forward, Brown and Ali fought together -- for far more important principles.
Baylor is proud of the fact that it has had receivers taken within the first three rounds of three of the past five drafts.
Add in Josh Gordon, who spent two years at Baylor before being taken by the Browns in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, and there are four receivers in five years in the first three rounds.
It's an impressive achievement -- to a point.
The receivers, while talented, are also a product of former coach Art Briles' spread offense, a system based on getting to the line quickly and getting the play off with fast reads and quick throws. Spread receivers don't enter the NFL with a full knowledge of the "route tree" or a full knowledge of read-and-react routes based on coverage.
While Briles' system leads to big numbers for receivers and quarterbacks, it also leads to an NFL learning curve.
"That is the beauty of the NFL," said quarterback Robert Griffin III, another Baylor product. "You get to step up to the next level and add to your game."
Wright's best season with the Titans came in his second, when he had 94 catches for 1,079 yards. But his numbers have dropped every season since -- to a low of 36 catches and 408 yards last season. When he left Baylor, he talked proudly of not using a playbook in college.
Williams has averaged 43 catches per season and 16.5 yards per catch. Last season, he set a personal high with 52 receptions for 840 yards, giving some hope he can be effective opposite Dez Bryant. How Williams plays this season may determine his future in Dallas.
The conventional wisdom on both is the same: They have great speed but are iffy on the details of playing the position. Wright put up big numbers in an offense that allowed him to freelance and take advantage of matchups his first two seasons, but he has struggled in the more-structured system run by Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey. The more recent offense relies on progressions and reads, a staple in much of the NFL.
The easy conclusion is to say that going from a simpler route tree to a more complex one eventually catches up to players who have difficulty learning the system. A receiver can only get by for so long on pure athleticism.
Gordon might disprove that. He set a Browns record with 1,646 yards receiving in 2013 while playing in Norv Turner's offense. But Gordon has a unique skill set not many possess, and in 2014, after he came back from a 10-game suspension, he struggled picking up Kyle Shanahan's new system. Gordon's future following another suspension is uncertain.
ProFootballFocus.com charted Coleman's routes last season. The analytics site said he was targeted 116 times, but he ran four basic routes. Slants, gos, hitches and receiver screens accounted for 103 of the 116 plays when the ball was thrown his way.
That's not unusual for a Baylor receiver, and some teams find it hard to project them into the NFL. PFF has 21 different routes in its scouting system and considers 11 a rudimentary tree for an offense. Coleman will have to go back to high school to draw on his knowledge and experience with more complex routes.
"[In] high school, I ran an NFL route tree," he said. "I have run every route then. I had to make a transition when I came to Baylor. It wasn’t the same, but I made the transition to routes that I did run. It is going to be a transition from college to the NFL. I’m just going to have to adapt and get used to the situation. I think I will be just fine, though.”
Coleman said route adjustments were a part of Briles' system. If it was, he still went back to the same four routes more often than not.
Griffin didn't argue the point.
"I think Coach Briles would be upset that you say it is a limited route tree, but I know what you mean," Griffin said. "[Coleman] caught a lot of gos. He caught a lot of slants. He caught a lot of hitches. He has those routes down.
"The NFL asks you to be able to do more. It is not that you are going to run bench-cuts and post-corners and sluggo-seams and all of those consistently all of the time, but you have to show that you can do it."
The Cleveland Browns announced a reorganization of their front office on Monday, and three of the major hires for player personnel are or have been heavily involved in analytics -- including a vice president of player personnel who has worked only in analytics.
There are some traditional football hires -- longtime scout Chisom Opara becomes director of player personnel -- but the Browns continue to push the envelope to find new ways to form a front office that can build a winning team.
The team's release even indicates that Opara, a scout hired by former general manager Phil Savage, will "work closely with" Paul DePodesta. DePodesta is the team's director of strategy and is known for his heavy reliance on analytics in a lengthy baseball career.
Vice president of football operations Sashi Brown has insisted the team will mainly follow traditional scouting methods in acquiring players, but the restructuring makes it clear that the Browns are not afraid to take chances.
Ken Kovash, who has a pure analytics background, becomes vice president of player personnel. Kovash came to the Browns in 2013 from Dallas, where he was the Cowboys' senior analytics manager in his first three seasons in the NFL.
Kovash has been the Browns' director of football research. He now moves into a spot that is vital in determining on-field personnel.
Director of scouting Mike Cetta has been a scouting assistant for two years. The team describes his new role as one that will "help direct systems and processes that support the Browns' scouting department." That doesn't exactly sound like he'll be poring over reports on a player's skill at inside coverage technique.
Kevin Meers becomes director of research and strategy. Meers was a research analyst over the past two seasons. Like Opara, Meers will work with DePodesta.
In explaining the moves, the Browns relied on a lot of the jargon that the team has been using since the front-office overhaul following the 2015 season.
"We feel really good about our department as a whole and the extensive collaboration we have established in our everyday work,” Brown said. “Our intent has been to assemble a group committed to creating strategic and comprehensive processes that help us make the best decisions possible for building our football team."
In addition to Opara's move, the team moved Dan Saganey and Bobby Vega to director of scouting. Saganey was most recently a manager in the player personnel department whose duties included advance scouting of opponents. Vega grew up with the Browns as a scout.
The team also hired Glenn Cook from the Green Bay Packers as assistant director of scouting.
Those four are the traditional football hires.
But when a team makes an analytics person the vice president of player personnel, it is taking a new step. Add on the hires of DePodesta and Brown -- a former salary-cap guy who has final say in personnel -- and the Browns have broken the mold.
Other NFL teams are wading into the analytics front in varying ways. The Broncos hired Mitch Tanney as director of analytics before last season, and coach Gary Kubiak communicated with Tanney during games.
In the AFC North, the Bengals have traditional football people in leadership roles. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has been the Steelers' director of football operations or GM since 2000. Ozzie Newsome has been running the Ravens since their birth in 1996, and assistant GM Eric DeCosta also has been with the team from the beginning, working his way through the scouting ranks.
However, the Ravens have six people in the front office and coaching staff with an analytics background -- including Eugene Shen, the director of coaching analytics. In 2012, Newsome hired Sandy Weil to run the analytics department. Weil's LinkedIn account indicates that he left the team in July 2015 and he is now director of analytics at Kroenke Sports & Entertainment in Denver.
The Steelers also have an analytics and football research coordinator: Karim Kassam. Kassam was hired while he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon. He studied computer and electrical engineering as an undergraduate, and he earned a master's degree in advanced computing and a doctorate in social psychology.
When hired, Kassam said he thought half the league had an analytics department.
Joe Thomas chuckled when the notion of him asking for a trade this offseason was mentioned.
"Sometimes," the Cleveland Browns' perennial Pro Bowl left tackle said, "there's a little bit of a misconception about how much control players have over their own careers."
Translation: The Browns didn't have to trade Thomas, even if he had asked for it.
The point to keep in mind, though, is that Thomas did not ask to leave the Browns. His disillusionment toward the end of his 2015 season dissipated when he saw the Browns had hired Hue Jackson to be the coach.
"Since I got here it's been my goal to turn the Browns into a winner and I think Hue is just the guy to do that," Thomas said Wednesday after the team's practices.
Thomas has said similar things before. He's the eternal and unshakable optimist, standing behind every quarterback he has blocked for and every coach he has worked for. He even said after the 2015 finale that he thought Mike Pettine was one of the better coaches he had in Cleveland.
But that doesn't mean his words should be disregarded.
"I think by the time that I got a chance to meet Hue and talk with [team executive] Sashi [Brown] and kind of see the direction they want things headed and see the assistant coaches that were being hired, those were the things that said to me that I can really get excited about this," Thomas said.
He added that he was jealous of his peers in Cincinnati when Jackson was their offensive coordinator.
"It was a very offensive line-friendly offense," Thomas said. "A lot of quick throws. A lot of easy fade balls. A lot of different formations to spread the defense out. Confuse them, really get them into vanilla looks. A lot of up-tempo stuff. Smash-mouth football; he really wants to run the ball between the tackles.
"The thing that appeals on offense is we're going to make the defense guard every blade of grass on the whole field. Because we're going to be throwing it from sideline to sideline and we're going to be running it inside. We're going to be moving tackles, guards, different formations all over the field. I think that gives the offense a big advantage, and it makes life a lot easier on an offensive line."
Thomas admitted he did not enjoy seeing center Alex Mack and tackle Mitchell Schwartz leave as free agents, but shrugged it off as part of life in the NFL. He also said he recognized the team's overhaul that included the release of several veterans and a youth movement might have led the team to trade him on its own.
"It wouldn't have surprised me if I had been traded," Thomas said, "but I'm happy that I didn't. So it's kind of a happy ending."
Can a team go into a season with four rookies and a converted quarterback playing wide receiver?
Hue Jackson may believe so. Because the release of Brian Hartline seems to indicate Jackson firmly believes in the team's rookies. Add in that the coach has been impressed with Terrelle Pryor and the team may have Pryor along with rookies Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton among the wideout group.
At this point, that's speculation and guesswork, and much can change -- including Josh Gordon possibly being reinstated. But at this point the team seems committed to the rookies.
If you'd have asked which of the returning receivers the new Cleveland Browns regime would let go of first, the last pick would have been Hartline.
Instead, he's the first.
Hartline fell victim to the numbers game at receiver, something that was unthinkable the past two seasons when receivers in the offseason were treated like they had the plague. But when a new coach is involved in the drafting of four receivers, it's a safe bet that at least three and probably all four will make the team.
Pryor may be the one to benefit most from this decision. He has impressed the coach in offseason work, and his versatility may be something Jackson likes -- and wants. Pryor still has to prove in games, though, that he has fully made the transition from quarterback to receiver.
Hartline is a pro's pro. He was invested in playing for his home team (he grew up in Canton) and was extremely active in community activities.
He started slow in 2015, his first year in Cleveland, but finished strong -- with 30 catches for 341 yards in his final four games. (Given Hartline's production, hands and dependability, it seemed like there would be a spot for him.
But new coaches want their own guys.
This was an on-field personnel decision, not a cap move.
ESPN Stats & Information reports the Browns have $41 million in cap room, so had the team wanted to keep Hartline and his $3.75 million cap cost, it easily could have done so.
Instead the team moved on.
And the "rebooting" of the Browns continues.
BEREA, Ohio -- Duke Johnson put it simply.
"We are here to give him whatever he wants," Johnson said last week at the team's open practice as part of organized team activities.
The "he" he refers to is new coach Hue Jackson, who showed a hefty dose of confidence in the Cleveland Browns returning running backs by not using one of the team's league-high 14 draft picks on a back.
It's a risk -- to everyone but Jackson.
"From top to bottom," Jackson said, "I think we have some good candidates here."
It did not necessarily show in 2015, when Isaiah Crowell averaged 3.8 yards per carry and totaled 706 yards. In two seasons, Crowell has 706 and 607 yards, statistical oddities but not Pro Bowl numbers. Johnson caught 61 passes as a rookie, but averaged 3.6 yards per carry."
Those are hardly the numbers of a feared hydra.
But Jackson has been talking up his backs without hesitation, telling 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland that the talent of Crowell and Johnson "is extreme."
Jackson will not hesitate to gush, but he backed up his words by committing to this pair -- with options sprinkled in. Glenn Winston and Raheem Mostert are back, and Jackson brought in Terrell Watson, who spent his rookie season on Cincinnati's practice squad.
Consider Watson -- 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds -- a legitimate dark horse. He led all of college football with 2,153 rushing yards in 2014, and set several Division II records at Azusa Pacific. The fact that Jackson saw him every day last season cannot hurt his cause.
For now, though, the job(s) are for Crowell and Johnson to lose.
In Cincinnati, where Jackson was offensive coordinator, Jeremy Hill gained 794 yards, Giovani Bernard 730. The two combined for 13 rushing touchdowns (Hill had 11) and 64 receptions (49 for Bernard). The previous season, Hill had 1,124 yards, Bernard 680, with 14 combined touchdowns and 70 combined receptions.
Jackson makes no secret he believes the team has to run the ball effectively to win. Cincinnati's two backs last season had 377 carries, 88 more than the Browns' pair. The Bengals ranked seventh in the league in rushing attempts, the Browns 27th.
Crowell can see a different approach already.
"I feel like we have a lot of different runs," he said, "and I also feel like [I see] him demanding to run the ball violently."
Crowell is the inside guy who came in as an undrafted free agent and played well enough that the Browns released Ben Tate during the season and traded Terrance West after the following training camp.
Jackson was among those watching Johnson's pro day at the University of Miami before the 2015 draft. His quickness allows him to run outside and be a weapon in the passing game. His 61 receptions set a Browns rookie record for a back, and were the second-highest total by any Browns rookie. Only Oakland's Amari Cooper -- a receiver -- had more receptions as a rookie.
Jackson sees Johnson as an every-down back. The previous coaching staff actually felt the same. They started training camp intending to make Johnson the starter. But a hamstring pull set him back, and then he was sidelined by a concussion.
The overall season was disappointing for the running game, but the Browns and the backs can point to the final four or five games when a greater commitment to the run led to more production.
Crowell averaged 5.2 yards over the final five games, when he had three of his four touchdowns. Johnson averaged 5.6 yards in the final four.
The numbers are skewed somewhat by a 223-yard day for the pair against San Francisco, but players have built momentum for the following season off less.
"I wish we could have had more of that during the whole season," Crowell said.
This season, they will get their chance.
BEREA, Ohio — Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson implored the media this week not to make snap judgments on players or systems based on two organized team activity practices (the media was able to watch the second).
We shall honor that request. But we shall also make the following observations, with this proviso: Jackson is right. It is wise not to read too much into OTA practices.
Here are five thoughts coming off the first OTA:
Temper the optimism. This May-June period is the second-most optimistic period of the year for Browns fans, the first of course being the draft. The annual May/June optimism makes immediate Pro Bowl players out of new acquisitions and brings excitement beyond the stage the team is in. OTAs are exciting only to teams that do not win. Winning teams use OTAs to refine and assess. The Browns use it to learn and start over. OTA's are far different from training camp, which is far different from preseason games, which is far, far, far different from regular-season games. May phenoms can turn into September cuts. Best to keep the May/June optimism to a minimum, and instead demand results in November and December.
Josh McCown is the best quarterback right now. Judge it on individual ability and arm strength, and Robert Griffin III leads the pack. Judge it on reading defenses and throwing the ball from the pocket and McCown leads. He has been in the league so long and learned new offenses so many times that this transition might be less challenging for McCown than it is for other players. One year ago, Browns players marveled at McCown's ability to pick up the offense. He's doing the same now. The question is whether McCown can actually win the job given the team's signing of Griffin, who was the choice of the new coach. It certainly seems that the job is Griffin's to lose. The other question about McCown is the same as it's always been, and the same as it is for Griffin: Can he stay healthy?
Terrelle Pryor has made strides. Pryor looks far more comfortable at receiver than he did last season, and his skills seem to be the kind that Jackson likes. Pryor is a big guy who can run and who can be moved around the offense. The Browns signed Pryor just before training camp last season, then he was sidelined by injury. The team never got to really see what he could do. Now he's healthy, running well and catching the ball. It's way too soon to say Pryor has made the transition — Pryor has yet to play in pads against Joe Haden in press coverage — but as Jackson said: "He's flashed the last several days."
The practice was energetic, and coaches were loud. This is not a quiet staff. The head coach races around the field, making corrections and giving encouragement. After Isaiah Crowell caught a short throw and ran down the field, Jackson called him to his side from 30 yards away, put his arm on Crowell's shoulder and gave him tips on how to make the play work better. Receivers coach Al Saunders is like the Tasmanian devil. The days of quiet practices seem to be over.
Jackson's effervescence boils over. The coach challenged his rookies to work to get in better shape, but his outlook usually is sunny. Consider Alvin Bailey, an offensive lineman snatched by the Browns after Seattle did not make him an offer as restricted free agent. Bailey started eight games in three seasons in Seattle, one in the NFC Championship Game. Said Jackson: "[Bailey] was at Seattle and did a tremendous job for them." Being positive isn't necessarily a bad thing. Players do pay attention, even though they say they don't. It's just interesting.
For every good deep throw Griffin made, there were overthrown outs -- as in several feet over the receivers' heads.
This wasn't exactly a textbook display of passing-game football, but coach Hue Jackson wasn't concerned -- even if Josh McCown got the ball downfield to receivers better than Griffin did.
"We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we don't need to be right now," Jackson said. "We need to work at it."
The "perfect" reference was interesting, because Griffin strives for perfection.
"If you ever get to the point where [you think], 'Hey, that was good enough,' then you're really not trying to perfect your craft," Griffin said.
Griffin is learning a new offense and a new team, as well as new terminology. Jackson said it will take time, and this was just the second day Jackson had his team on the field. Jackson added that he throws a lot at his players early to see what they can handle. When he finds out, he pares it back.
As for the errors, Jackson said he wants to avoid "catastrophic mistakes."
"Because that means we're not growing," he said.
He chalks the smaller errors up to it being "football."
"RG III doesn't have any accuracy issues," Jackson said. "The defense sometimes is in the right spot."
What Griffin has had are processing issues -- whether he can process the reads, defenses and route adjustments as he drops back to throw. That's a necessity in the NFL, and Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden were not successful in making Griffin into a pocket passer in Washington.
Jackson believes he can help, and Griffin seems to have embraced the chance Jackson has given him. He sprints downfield after completions to run with the receiver. He races from one drill to the other. At one point in an early quarterback drill, he lined up on defense to give Connor Shaw a better look at a play.
And he wasn't biting when asked about a story on ESPN's The Undefeated that went over Griffin's days in Washington.
"Man, I'm so far removed from Washington now and focused on this opportunity here in Cleveland that I don't even worry about those things anymore," Griffin said.
He also had an intriguing answer when asked how he gauges his progress.
"I haven't played in a year," he said. "So I really wasn't able to get a gauge on where my game had evolved from my first year in Washington to last year. I just want to get out there, have some fun, play ball, get completions and win football games.
"At the end of the day all of us are focused on winning."
Jackson said it is way too soon to ask about or discuss things like depth charts and starting positions. He said he wants this time to be about challenging players to see what they can or can't do.
"I think there's a tall challenge ahead," he said. "We're starting at the bottom and we've got to climb our way to the top. We're just going to keep grinding through it."