AFC North: Cleveland Browns

The day after the 2014 season ended Brian Hoyer took the nameplate from his Cleveland Browns locker.

You never know what will happen, he reasoned, so he took the nameplate with the Browns helmet on it as a memento of the one season he started in his hometown.

Now Hoyer knows he will be playing elsewhere in 2015.

“Obviously them signing Josh [McCown] made it clear that I wasn’t going to be back, so it’s best to go our separate ways,” Hoyer said Thursday. “Being from here and getting a chance to play here, it will always have a special place in my heart.

“I feel good about what we did and look back with pride at what we accomplished.”

Hoyer did not want to go into details about his next NFL home, but he said he is not bitter at how it ended.

“It’s a business,” Hoyer said. “It is what it is. In the past, I’ve been cut, claimed off waivers. When it comes down to it’s a business. I Ioved my coaches and teammates. To be part of the organization you grew up watching will always be special.”

Hoyer won the the starting job in a training camp competition with Johnny Manziel. He guided the Browns to a 7-4 record after a last-play win over Atlanta.

But the unending weight of speculation about Manziel finally caught up to him, as Hoyer was replaced the following week in the fourth quarter in Buffalo and then struggled with the offense against Indianapolis. Manziel started and struggled the following week against Cincinnati in a 30-0 loss.

The Browns' promising start disintegrated into a 7-9 season.

In the offseason it became public that general manager Ray Farmer had been texting assistant coaches and a team employee on the sidelines about quarterback play during the season. Hoyer admitted in February he was interested to learn the nature of the texts.

Last week, the Browns signed McCown -- who will be 36 in July -- to a three-year deal and let Hoyer know he would not be back.

He described himself as “anxious and excited about free agency.”

“It’s the first time I really get a chance to pick where I’m going to play,” he said. “I’ve never gone through this before.”

He had one last point he wanted to get across.

“The fans were amazing,” he said. “I had so much support, even when there was the proverbial quarterback competition. Johnny too. We both had support. There’s a special connection here with the fans.

‘It was one of my favorite things about playing here.”
Among the potential wide receivers available before true free agency begins March 10;

" An explosive 6-foot-4, 229-pound playmaker who’s a lock for 90-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards most years.

" A potential Hall of Famer who, in his day, might have been the league’s premier receiver.

" A former Pro Bowl receiver who’s eclipsed 1,000 yards in three of his first eight seasons.

So maybe Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson and Dwayne Bowe are at least 30 years old with declining numbers.

But all are talented and established enough to make a receiver-needy team such as the Browns at least entertain their presence at a sensible price.

Cleveland would be silly not to make a phone call if these three wideouts are cut by their respective teams.

Key word: cut. Not trade.

All three are reportedly on the trading block, which really means they are likely to be cut unless a team is desperate enough to give up a mid-round pick for their services.

It’s highly unlikely a draft-first team such as the Browns would give up a third-round pick for the right to pay Marshall a salary of $7.5 million, $7.9 million and $8.3 million during the next three seasons. Marshall has essentially outstayed his welcome at three different stops. He might not be worth the headache for a young team trying to get right unless his free-agent market dwindles to an absolute must-snag bargain.

Any team that signs Marshall should give him a contract they can get out of in a year. That way, they get his numbers but aren’t tied to him if he starts decaying a locker room.

Andre Johnson is a receiver worth getting behind. Doesn’t have the same first step, but he’s too crafty not to be a factor, even at age 33. But here’s the thing – he’ll probably gravitate toward a good quarterback for a team that’s one or two pieces away. The Browns don’t have that luxury, which means they’d be shopping from the full-price section.

Still, there’s a growing list of stars that could be available even before Green Bay’s Randall Cobb and Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin get to test the market. Even if these names were more attractive in, say, 2011, they are still worth vetting.

First, the Browns must decide what they want to do about Brian Hartline, who has visited Cleveland, Houston and Chicago.

At the least, pick up a veteran receiver who can help stretch the field on the outside and can complement a high draft pick at the position.
The Browns can print their own "play like a Brown" money, toting $53.77 million in InstaBrown salary-cap bucks.

They have to spend at least some of that pile. As explained last week, to get above the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s 89-percent rule, the Browns must spend roughly $71 million during the next two offseasons. Rookie contracts and in-house signings will cover some of those expenses.

All this cap space doesn’t mean the Browns must make an Ndamukong Suh-sized play. That seems unlikely. Don’t expect the Browns to be huge players in the market of top-10 players. That doesn’t seem to fit Ray Farmer’s draft-first philosophy. Look around the league at some of the top franchises – Packers, Patriots, Ravens. They won’t be overly active when the market booms on March 10.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardThe Browns' free-agent strategy last spring, with players such as Karlos Dansby, worked.
But the Browns’ plan from last year could be a good blueprint for Farmer’s second year. In fact, Cleveland’s strategy worked (repeat: Cleveland's strategy worked!). Don’t be surprised if they roll out a similar plan – sign a few quality players that command rich, but not outrageous, contracts, then fill in the gaps with other veterans.

At the start of free agency, the Browns poured about $25 million in guaranteed money to linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner. These are good signings, for the money. Whitner’s $13 million in guarantees was behind Denver’s T.J. Ward and New Orleans’ Jairus Byrd in the 2014 safety market.

Dansby’s $12 million guaranteed put him 22nd overall among linebackers (3-4 OLBs occupy some of those spots).

Both players were productive on the field and in the locker room as influential veterans.

Andrew Hawkins looks like a steal for Cleveland at four years for $13.6 million and $6.8 million in guarantees. The Browns aided the receiver position with a one-year deal for Miles Austin. Perhaps they could have done more at this position, but Austin was the Browns’ best third-down receiver for most of the year.

Despite Farmer’s blunders, including two first-round picks who struggled mightily as rookies and a text message investigation that hurts the Browns’ image, it should be noted that Farmer essentially went 4-for-4 in top free agent signings last year. That should sway his plan for this year.

“Active? Not active? It’s really about being judicious and making smart decisions,” Farmer told last month. “That’s the one thing we’ve tried to articulate to [owner Jimmy Haslam] and the rest of our staff. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to go. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to play. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to allocate cap dollars in that regard.”

This is typical Farmer – incredibly vague, by design.

But I believe he’s already tipped his hand by the way the team handled last year. The plan worked and is worth repeating.

If the Browns do decide on a big-money play, however, my guess is they target a talented pass-rusher such as Jerry Hughes.
The Cleveland Browns have plenty of needs to fill on the offensive side of the ball at the start of free agency. The list of gaps is eyebrow-raising, even to a team that doesn’t have to line up and play for six months.

The plus is the Browns have $53 million in salary cap space heading into free agency. The CBA requires NFL teams to spend 89 percent of their cumulative salary caps from 2013-16, which means the Browns must spend $71 million in cash over the next two seasons.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Cliff McBride/Getty ImagesJosh McCown will be paid like a starter for the Browns, who have plenty of money to spend this offseason.
That sounds like a lot. But Josh McCown’s guaranteed $6.25 million chips away, as will the rookie contracts. If the Browns re-sign Tashaun Gipson, that will take up more room with signing bonus and first-year salary. If they retain any of their free agents, it will use more.

So the Browns can be judicious in free agency and not spend a ton while still chipping away at the money they have to spend.

Among the areas of concern:

  • Wide receiver: The Browns need at least one, and probably two receivers. One can come through the draft — if Ray Farmer gives a little on his reluctance to draft a receiver with a high pick. The other would have to come via free agency. Cecil Shorts III is on record that he would like to play in his hometown. Brian Hartline could choose soon between the Bears (whom he’s visiting Wednesday) and the Browns (whom he visited Tuesday), or returning to the Dolphins.
  • Tight end: Jordan Cameron is on a humanitarian trip for American Football Without Borders, the group run by tight end Gary Barnidge. But the strong feeling around the league is that Cameron is ready for a change after years of upheaval in Cleveland. Look for Cameron to favor a West Coast team. He has a young son to whom he is devoted, and he would love to be closer to him. The Browns could turn to a guy like the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Maxx Williams in the draft, though it might be a stretch to think he’ll be available in the second round when the Browns pick at No. 43. Denver’s Julius Thomas is the most talented option other than Cameron on the free agent market, but he will probably demand more money than the Browns want to spend. The market drops after those the top two.
  • Quarterback: The Browns give every indication that they will not add another veteran quarterback following the signing of Josh McCown. They certainly paid McCown like he’s going to start, guaranteeing him $6.25 million. With Brian Hoyer no longer in the plans, it would seem that adding Jake Locker would strengthen the position. The negative is that he has been much injured. But the tea leaves say the Browns will not do anything more at the position until the draft. Whether that’s via a major trade up for Marcus Mariota or whether it’s for a second-round or third-round development guy provides the intrigue.
  • Running back: The Browns will live with the two rookies they played last year, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. But their inconsistency was troubling. Crowell clearly is more explosive, but neither of the two seized the spot. Ben Tate didn’t work out last season, but a veteran might add something to the mix. The position is not considered a major question mark, but it could easily become one.

As for their own free agents, the Browns might also need to add a corner to replace Buster Skrine and a linebacker to replace Jabaal Sheard, if both sign elsewhere.
The NFL Network on Tuesday night aired highlights of various 2014 games, including the Cleveland Browns' wild comeback from a 25-point deficit at Tennessee.

One highlight showed Brian Hoyer going through, one, two, three reads from the pocket, eventually firing to Miles Austin on a deep slant route through a tight window. After that sunny October day, Hoyer was 5-2 as a Browns' starter with three game-winning drives.

[+] EnlargeHoyer
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsDespite playing in 14 games for the Browns in 2014, Brian Hoyer's time in Cleveland is up.
Back then, rumblings began about whether the Browns should lock up Hoyer to a long-term extension with a few months left in the season. Five months later, Hoyer is out of the Browns' picture for good. The signing of Josh McCown to a three-year deal stamped the farewell.

I like the McCown signing more than many do. A bad offensive line, a thumb injury and the departure of the offensive coordinator in September all contributed to his 1-10 record in Tampa.

But make no mistake, the Hoyer breakup could sting if the 29-year-old veteran leads the Texans or the Jets or the Bills to a meaningful season in 2015.

It's become fairly clear the Browns viewed Hoyer as a fallback option in free-agency quarterback plans, seemingly hedging bets until the end.

General manager Ray Farmer spoke to Hoyer on Friday night. By then, the McCown decision had essentially been made.

A week earlier, Hoyer's talks with the Browns went nowhere in part because Hoyer's camp was waiting for the quarterback to talk with Farmer. I can all but guarantee Hoyer didn't expect that conversation to take place after it was all over.

Sounds like the Browns wanted to keep Hoyer as a realistic option in case McCown's deal fell through.
The Browns probably looked at all the factors -- Hoyer's eight interceptions in his last four starts, the team's limp to the finish line last season, the clunky handoff from Hoyer to Johnny Manziel -- and opted for the proverbial fresh start.

But I don't think this guy's done. Maybe he still has some Tennessee game left in him.

Of his 13 interceptions last season, not all should have his name on them. Josh Gordon can claim a few. Hoyer's play was ugly down the stretch but the Browns did little to help him.

And now it's over. The goodbye was awkward, as they usually are.

But if the Browns fail to match last season's seven-win total -- the team's largest since 2007 -- Browns fans will conveniently remember Hoyer's name.

Some highlights from the Josh McCown conference call with Cleveland media on Monday.

On being the 23rd different starting quarterback since 1999, with many of them in the past well-meaning and good guys:

  • “It’s obviously a tall order. My reaction is that that is in the past. I’ve got to hone in on this team in this year and play good football and do what it takes for this team to win football games. You can’t get caught up in that. Like you said, a lot of ‘well-meaning guys,’ every guy comes in with the same mindset and intentions and mine will be no different.”
[+] EnlargeTampa Bay Buccaneers, Josh McCown
Stephen B. Morton/AP ImagesJosh McCown sees the Browns as headed in the right direction and himself as a good fit to continue the trend.

McCown is right. Everyone the Browns have tried comes in with the same intentions, goals and mindset. Nobody signs and says he expects to be the guy who hands off to the next quarterback. Finding the guy who sticks has been the challenge.

More on the starting quarterback names on that jersey:

  • “If you just looked at it like that and just said 22 guys or whatever have been here before then it’s just, ‘Hey, let’s pack up and go home because it’s pointless,’ but that is not my mindset. That is not my attitude. I want to attack this thing and do everything I can to change that and more than anything, help this team win football games.”

On the visit McCown had with the Browns and how important it was to his signing:

  • “It really solidified to me that things are going in the right direction.”

This is not atypical, and in one sense illustrates the reality that the NFL's 16-game season overexagerates the importance of what people say. There is more dead time between games, and more time to examine words. In the offseason, players move from team to team and always (and understandably) talk confidently of their new team and positively of their visit. The statements are sincere. But they matter a lot less than wins in October, November and December.

On the difficulties the Browns faced this offseason:

  • “I think it’s important to understand and to remember that there’s a lot of people going through last year’s situation from ownership, to the general manager to the head coach who were all in their first year of something. For me, I took that into consideration and look the totality of it and said, ‘It seems like they made a really good step in this first year, all things considered.’ That part is encouraging to me.”

McCown’s statement echoed Jimmy Haslam’s in February that a 7-9 record in the big picture was a positive, and even with all that has happened since that is not an unfair position.

On the 1-10 record as a starter in Tampa Bay:

  • “Yeah, not a whole lot to say about it, other than it just wasn’t good enough. I’ve said it before. I don’t shy away from it. In that situation, I wasn’t good enough in that situation to pull us out of that.”

Accountability is always a good thing. This statement ties into another when McCown was asked if his decision to join the Browns was based on the chance to start:

  • “For me, it was more of what’s the right fit, and if I go there, can we win football games and be productive? And NFL coaching experience was big for me. Just having guys that have been in the league for a while.”

Clearly the Browns staff is not overflowing with experience. Mike Pettine is a second year head coach and the Browns have a first-year offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and receivers coach. This statement, though, might be best taken as referring more to the fact that QB coach Marcus Arroyo took over in Tampa last season after Jeff Tedford had to leave due to a health issue. Arroyo, 35, was thrust into the job, and the results were not great.

The last statement from McCown stands on its own, and deals with what the Browns said to him about adding another quarterback to a group that includes Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw:

  • “I’ll leave those conversations between myself and the Browns.”
The Cleveland Browns declined to use their franchise or transition tags by Monday's deadline.

That means the Browns have until March 10 to sign their free agents or they will hit the market with complete freedom.

It also is appearing more and more likely that the team may not retain any of its unrestricted free agents. The tea leaves say the Browns may try to keep one or two, but the players will at least test the market first.

One name to watch who was not tagged by his team is linebacker Jerry Hughes of Buffalo. He blossomed in Mike Pettine’s system, with 10 sacks each of the last two seasons, and he could be a target for the Browns.

Running down the Browns' most prominent unrestricted free agents:
  • Tight end Jordan Cameron was the only player who might have been franchised, in part because the tight end franchise cost of $8.347 million is lower than that of even a safety ($9.618 million). The Browns declined to tag Cameron, and he will head elsewhere. Cameron grew weary of the revolving door at the quarterback and at coach and in the front office in his four years in Cleveland. He is ready for a change.
  • Cornerback Buster Skrine is a player the team would like back, but he wasn’t worth a franchise cost of $13.07 million that would have put him in Joe Haden territory. Skrine improved every season with the Browns, but he has gone on record saying he will test the market before considering staying in Cleveland.
  • Quarterback Brian Hoyer and the team cut ties when Josh McCown was signed. The Browns preferred McCown, so Hoyer will go to a new team.
  • Linebacker Jabaal Sheard is an underrated player who is well-respected in the locker room. His numbers are not glittering, but a team that wants a professional and productive role player would do well to sign him.
  • Defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin played through an ankle issue a year ago, but the team gives every indication they feel Rubin’s best years in Cleveland are in the past.
  • Wide receiver Miles Austin was a dependable pro in his one year in Cleveland. Even with that, the Browns interest in him seems tepid at best.

Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson is the most important restricted free agent. The Browns have until March 10 to tender him an offer that would give the team the right to match an offer sheet he could sign with another team, or receive compensation if he leaves. The Browns are likely to place a high tender on Gipson, probably one that would bring a first-round draft pick as compensation.

The other prominent restricted free agents are special-teamer/safety Johnson Bademosi and defensive lineman Ishmaa'ily Kitchen.
CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Josh McCown signing:

McCown’s three-year deal with Cleveland reinforces Johnny Manziel’s place in the Browns’ plans: McCown should be the favorite to start the season opener. He might be the Browns’ best option all year. But McCown also seems an ideal eventual handoff option to Manziel or another young quarterback.

In 12 years, McCown has never started a full 16-game season.

The Browns needed a new quarterback plan after Manziel entered a treatment facility, but they weren’t moving on.

Re-signing Brian Hoyer, after the clunky competition between him and Manziel in Cleveland, wouldn’t have made sense. If Hoyer had come back, he would have been the starter. Despite winning seven of his first 11 games for Cleveland last season, apparently the Browns had seen enough.

McCown can be a starter or backup and adapt either way.

Support existed -- in Berea and from fans -- for Hoyer as a Brown. But Hoyer isn’t much different from McCown. Both are reliable and have shown flashes of good quarterback play, but haven’t sustained it.

Manziel might never be the answer. The Browns still want to find out for sure -- with more than two games as a sample.

Browns hoping for the McCown from Chicago, not the one from Tampa Bay: McCown’s 1-10 record and 14 interceptions with Tampa Bay are curious after he played so well in five starts for Chicago in 2013, throwing 13 touchdowns to one interception.

But McCown dealt with a thumb injury, a struggling offensive line and the abrupt departure of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford in September. Those factors shouldn’t excuse his stats, but they help explain them.

The Browns know they aren’t getting Aaron Rodgers. They’ll get better than a starter with a 1-10 record.

Browns clearly unimpressed with quarterback market: The Bucs cut McCown 16 days ago, which allowed four quarterback-hungry teams -- the Jets, Bills, Browns and Bears -- to jockey for the services of the only available quarterback on the market.

The Browns must have believed that the group available at the March 10 start of free agency -- Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, Hoyer and more -- wasn’t worth the wait.

There was never a home run for the Browns to hit. The Rams are unlikely to unload Sam Bradford. Save Hoyer, McCown was one of the best available.

Another move to come? Doubtful: The Browns’ quarterback picture has come into focus. They’ll have McCown, Manziel, Connor Shaw and possibly a draft pick (second round or beyond) for training camp.

It’s early, but after asking around, the prospect of trading up for Marcus Mariota seems unlikely at best. Giving up several top picks is a lot to ask for a self-proclaimed build-through-the-draft team.

The Browns can exhaust every option with Bradford, though they probably knew that wasn’t going to be fruitful before they signed McCown.
It’s not that the Cleveland Browns should build a roster of nothing but Ohio State guys.

Though that might not be a totally bad thing.

It’s just that the team’s receiver position is such a need that when a capable/talented player is released, it sets the squirrels running on the treadmill in the mind to wonder if he fits the Browns. It just so happens that two talented players were released this week and both are from Ohio State and grew up in Northeast Ohio.

Ted Ginn Jr. would fill a glaring need as a returner and could compete at wideout as well. He still has speed, which always is an asset. Carolina and the Browns both have interest in Ginn, a Cleveland native, and there is some thinking from Carolina that the Browns have the edge.

That has to play out.

Friday, word broke that the Dolphins are releasing Brian Hartline.

While Ginn, 29, seems to be a natural, Hartline would take discussion. But he’s worth discussing. Hartline, a native of Canton, Ohio, is 6-foot-2, 28 years old and he’s caught 189 passes the last three seasons in Miami.

He does not have blazing speed, but he’s a tall target with good hands. Word also broke Friday that Atlanta was releasing Harry Douglas, but he seems to have similar skills as Andrew Hawkins. Douglas is a good player, but he might not add to what Hawkins and even Taylor Gabriel do. Hartline might.

The point, too, isn’t that the Browns receivers can’t play. They can, and they (Hawkins, Gabriel, Travis Benjamin) give everything they have. They play with heart, effort and professionalism.

But to think the position doesn’t need upgrading via depth also isn’t realistic.

The Browns always talk about “driving competition" at every position, so adding more capable players will do just that. Drive competition and let the playing time sort itself out.

More players will be released, more opportunities will be available, but it’s clear the Browns can address the receiver spot this offseason — if they choose to address it. They will have more than $50 million in salary-cap space. Money isn’t an issue. How the money is doled out is, but many NFL teams seem to be able to do that and win.

Adding a veteran free agent or two — be they Ohio State guys or guys from Guam — would help. So would drafting a receiver -- with Louisville's DeVante Parker a personal preference.

The position suddenly wouldn’t look so barren.
CLEVELAND -- The Browns hosted free agent quarterback Josh McCown for two days this week, and though the Buffalo Bills are pushing to sign him, the Browns believed they were still in the negotiation game as of Thursday night.

McCown's camp has talked with a few teams in the last 24 hours. The Browns are believed to be one of them. No deal is imminent.

It's natural to assume the Browns, if they sign McCown, won't re-sign Brian Hoyer or make a bigger play for a Sam Bradford or Mike Glennon.

I'm not necessarily doing that.

McCown is simply a good player to have on the roster, starter or not. There are a few reasons for this. McCown has seen a bit of everything in 12 years. He's started 49 games and watched from the sidelines for many more. He's got a good relationship with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. At worst, McCown helps the Browns' transition and becomes a good influence for younger quarterbacks. At best, he starts and wins games.

The Tampa Bay experiment went terribly wrong for McCown, but it's noteworthy that the Bucs' offensive line was brutal at the beginning of the season and offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's leave of absence in September disrupted continuity. McCown didn't play well, throwing 14 interceptions to 11 touchdowns, but he was dealt a losing hand in Tampa. He's had success as a starter in the past.

Even if McCown signs something close to his two-year, $10-million deal with Tampa a year ago, that wouldn't hamstring the Browns, who have $53.77 million in cap space as of this week. If they wanted to make additional quarterback moves, they can.

McCown is a versatile quarterback option, that simple.

For as much as the NFL discusses quarterback play in absolutes, the Texans won nine games with the Ryan Fitzpatrick-Ryan Mallett-Case Keenum-Tom Savage combination. The Browns won seven of their first 11 last season with Hoyer. There are no quarterback home runs available for Cleveland, but that doesn't mean they can't make the AFC North interesting.
The book is called Everybody Fumbles.

Published in 2014, it is the ultimate statement by Earnest Byner, the former Cleveland Browns running back involved in the play that has gone down in Browns history as merely “The Fumble.”

[+] EnlargeEarnest Byner, Brian Brennan
AP photo/Mark DuncanEarnest Byner's fumble in the 1988 AFC Championship Game haunted him for over a year until he left Cleveland.
Byner’s miscue at the goal line late in the January 1988 AFC Championship Game in Denver came as he was about to score to tie the game. It still hurts Browns fans, and it left Byner feeling like he was drowning.

But in time he recovered.

Byner now wants to make sure another player does not go through what he did for as long as he did. Byner watched the end of this season's NFC Championship Game and saw the Green Bay Packers' Brandon Bostick misplay an onside kick, helping Seattle complete an improbable comeback.

When Byner heard Bostick talk after the game and then a couple of days later, saying that he had let an entire team and fan base down, Byner knew he had to reach out -- even though he had never met Bostick and had never talked to him.

“I didn’t want him to feel like he was alone,” Byner said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Bostick made Byner’s role clear in a first-person story written on on Thursday, a story in which Bostick revealed he still lives with his mistakes and that he received death threats on Twitter.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it’s the first thing on my mind,” Bostick wrote. “There are nights when I dwell on it before falling asleep. Sometimes the thought creeps up on me when I’m lifting weights, or eating dinner, or sitting on my couch at home."

"That’s one of the reasons I’m calling him and we’re talking,” Byner said. “I’m trying to make it so it’s not a difficult process for him."

Bostick was supposed to block on the kick and let teammate Jordy Nelson catch the ball. Instead, Bostick tried to catch it and lost it.

Byner heard Bostick’s anguish after the game and reached out through Packers assistant coach Sam Gash, who played for the Ravens when Byner was an assistant coach in Baltimore.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bostick
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesEarnest Byner reached out to Brandon Bostick immediately after the tight end botched the onside kick in the NFC title game.
“With the way social media is now, the weight and how much he hears it, it all happened to him a lot quicker than it did me,” Byner said. “It took me four or five months. It made me struggle after four or five months.”

Byner would hear people yell, “Hey don’t fumble.” He’d hear other barbs, snide remarks. He’d notice people looking at him, then looking away. He felt love from many Browns fans, but the weight from the negative, he said, became heavier every day.

“It was almost like a drowning,” Byner said.

Byner played for the Browns for one season after the fumble but was not himself. He said it took a trade to Washington to bring him out of his dark state.

“It took a spiritual conversation for me to actually get past the fumble,” Byner said. “I’m not preaching to [Bostick]. But to me the spiritual impact is crucial. The spirit has a way of freeing you up a lot.”

Since then, Byner has helped several players in several sports. Bostick is the latest, as the two have talked several times since the championship game. The ex-Brown feels that Bostick will benefit from being released by Green Bay. Going to Minnesota will help him start fresh.

“The next step,” Byner said, “is to get together. I need to look him in his eyes. I need to feel what he’s feeling. That way I can make a difference in the process. Not just that process, but in his life. Because the better the person, the better the player you will have.”

As Byner says when describing his book on a video on his website “Mistakes are critical to learning, understanding what happened and how it happened. And being able to go to the next level. Being able to ultimately become a champion, not just in sports, but also in life.”
CLEVELAND -- Ahtyba Rubin played 13 games last season, hitting the 100-game mark in Cleveland after seven years with the team, playing out his four-year, $26.5-million deal.

He wasn't healthy for 13 games. Not even close. Rubin said on Thursday he "really wasn't right the whole year."

Playing hurt -- as a result, not able to maximize his ability on the field -- could affect his free agency. There's a good chance the Browns will move on from Rubin after his 28-tackle, one-sack performance last season.

The way Rubin saw it, sitting wasn't an option. He wasn't playing for March dollars, he said.

Rubin, who twice injured his ankle during the season, is working out in Florida and expects to make a full recovery. He wore a protective boot for a while but did not need surgery.

"I didn't even think about my scenario -- if you're able to play, you should play," said Rubin about 2014. "I never even thought about not playing. I've just got to do the best I can now, making sure I'm in complete football shape when that time comes and perform at my best."

Rubin first injured his ankle in an early-season practice going against Alex Mack, Rubin said. The problem persisted, and Rubin got injured again in Week 16.

This will be Rubin's first time hitting the open market. He's played seven years and wants to log many more.

"This is a new situation for me," Rubin said. "I'm just letting my agent take care of everything. I want to get a good 12, 13 years in there."

Whether with the Browns or elsewhere, Rubin said he believes his team will get more of the player who earned the contract extension in 2011.

"I know what I can do," Rubin said. "For me to be struggling [last year], it was frustrating."
Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer may not believe in taking a wide receiver high in the draft, but the rest of the NFL world does.

Many mock drafts have the Browns pigeonholed into taking a wideout with the first of their two first-round picks, 12th overall. Almost all have them taking a wideout either 12th or 19th.

A consensus seems to be growing that the Browns won't be able to take the two top wideouts; Amari Cooper of Alabama or Kevin White of West Virginia are expected to go in the top 10.

That leaves a logical and appealing choice at 12: DeVante Parker of Louisville.

That's the player ESPN's Todd McShay has the Browns taking in his third mock draft Insider. And it makes good sense. Adams is a 6-foot-3 receiver who had 43 catches in six games after he returned from a broken foot. He averaged 142.5 yards per game and topped 200 against Florida and 180 against Kentucky. He is a logical, talented pick, and the Browns would do well to bring him to Cleveland.

The other general thinking from draft analysts is the Browns will use the 19th pick for a right tackle to replace or compete with Mitchell Schwartz. For whatever reason, the thinking is the team needs to upgrade at right tackle. Thus, McShay has them taking offensive tackle Ereck Flowers of Miami with their second first-round pick.

However, this does not jive with the Browns' feelings on Schwartz. The team does not believe he is a weak link.
"I thought Mitchell [Schwartz] had a good year for us," coach Mike Pettine said at the combine. "Had some plays he'd want to take back, but we feel good about where our offensive line is."

Pettine doesn't do a lot of dancing when he evaluates players, so to assume the Browns need to update a position the coach doesn't want to upgrade might not mesh.

To me, it still makes more sense for the Browns to think defensive front with the 19th pick.
Roger Goodell’s praise of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam provides a breeding ground for cynicism.

Goodell made clear he is a “big fan” of Haslam and Cleveland is "fortunate" to have him.

Perish the thought that this Browns offseason has turned into a dumpster fire, and that this dumpster fire follows last offseason, when the CEO, general manager and coach all were fired after one season.

The list of football foibles goes on and on.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Haslam
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesCleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has a strong supporter in Roger Goodell, according to comments he made in Canton, Ohio, on Wednesday.
But then there’s the Pilot Flying J rebate fraud scandal. That’s the Knoxville, Tennessee, company Haslam runs, the one that paid $92 million to settle a federal investigation into rebate fraud and shelled out $85 million more to settle lawsuits related to the same issue. In paying the $92 million, Pilot accepted criminal responsibility for its employees cheating small trucking companies by not paying promised rebates.

Haslam said he never knew anything about the fraud scheme, that he was shocked to know it was going on. He promised to take action, and he did.

But now he’s saying some of the same things about his football team.

The team didn’t know how deep Johnny Manziel's issues were. It did its homework on Justin Gilbert but didn’t know his problems. Haslam knew nothing about his general manager sending text messages to coaches during games, in violation of league rules.

The commissioner said this at the Canton Civic Center on Wednesday: “I think this community, and I know this is Browns country, I think they're fortunate to have Jimmy Haslam as an owner, and we're fortunate to have him as an owner in the league.”

Roll out the cynicism.

Goodell earned $44 million in 2014, according to the SportsBusiness Daily. Goodell earns that money because of the 32 owners, of whom Haslam is one. And Haslam was one owner who raised ticket prices this offseason, in some cases 30 percent. An increase in ticket prices leads to … more revenue.

But Goodell is also in charge of a league that is trying to settle lawsuits from former players whose lives have been severely affected by head injuries. The 1985 Chicago Bears were the subject of a heartbreaking report on HBO’s "Real Sports." A recent story by Jim Trotter detailed the heartbreak of depression prevalent in ex-players, in part brought on by head injury.

The man in charge of this league gave Ray Rice only a two-game suspension, and the commissioner said he didn’t know what happened in the elevator between Rice and his then-fiancee (now wife). When the video inside the elevator surfaced, there were cries for Goodell to resign. He resisted, and his owners supported him.

Why they did is no great secret: Goodell drives revenues -- to more than $9 billion last year. Because he increases these revenues, the owners, Haslam among them, reward him. Goodell visits Canton and talks about how lucky Cleveland is to have Haslam.

This isn’t to say that Haslam isn’t trying to win or that Goodell doesn’t genuinely like the Browns owner. It would be silly to say otherwise.

But it’s just as silly to be so gushing. Wouldn’t a simple phrase such as, Jimmy is one of our 32 owners, and we certainly hope that his efforts work for Browns fans, be just fine?

In making such a statement, Goodell reaffirmed the belief that he is the commissioner of ownership, not the entire NFL.