AFC North: Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND – Alex Mack stands tall inside the Browns’ weight room on a dreary March day, wearing team workout gear and sporting a thick beard. He’s ditched the crutches and the wheeled cart he once used to support a shattered left fibula.

He’s looking like a 6-foot-4, 311-pound Pro Bowl center again. And he’s excited to talk about football again, bringing up unprompted his love for when a play is “executed correctly, touchdown” -- a fitting comment for the savvy orchestrator of an offensive line, whose presence was sorely missed in 2014.

That joy wasn’t there for the 11 weeks Mack spent on injured reserve after breaking his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. The more he got involved in team meetings and walkthroughs, the more sobering his reality became.

“I couldn’t walk out there and stand next to the guys. I had to wheel out there on a little cart,” Mack said. “They didn’t necessarily need my support -- they’d rather have me protecting the passer. That was tough.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
AP Photo/Tony DejakBrowns center Alex Mack broke his leg in the Oct. 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mack is slowly regaining his form.

The center will participate in the Browns’ offseason workouts, though to what extent is still being worked out. Mack acknowledged it's possible he won't go full-on during team OTAs, but that's not because of a setback. Mack and the training staff plan to be overly cautious because the goal is a fully healthy return for Week 1 in September. The Browns’ rushing offense dipped from 146.4 rushing yards per game with Mack to 90.5 without him.

Helping cope with a rigorous rehab was a series of offseason trips, including a week with three other NFL players on a USO tour in the Middle East, which Mack chronicled in a feature for He spent a week in Turkey helping teammate Gary Barnidge’s American Football Without Barriers initiative. Mack also served as a volunteer for the Browns’ First and Ten program, which assisted with a Play 60 football festival for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Special Olympics.

The trips helped Mack “refresh,” he says, supporting troops while spreading support for a game that’s “given me so much.”

Mack rehabbed in the shadows all year, rarely appearing in the locker room and declining interviews on the final day of the season. Coach Mike Pettine during the season alluded to Mack dealing with “something more” than a traditional leg break, suggesting ligament damage was possible.

“We’re making some pretty steady progress, doing what we need to do to get out there for training camp,” Mack said. “But it’s more important that I’m out there for game day. Those two feelings have to balance out. It just takes time, having patience. Two weeks after the surgery, I wanted to be up and running around. I’m not 18 anymore.”

Considered one of the game’s best centers, Mack isn’t anticipating a production drop-off upon return. But he wasn’t exactly shocked to see the team's rushing numbers drop without him. That would have happened anyway, he said. The Browns were running the ball at a fervent pace, so he knew defenses would eventually adjust and the offense needed a counter move that never came.

Mack, who enters the second season of a five-year, $42 million deal, expects the offensive line to reignite the vibe they had in first five games of last season.

“The core of who we are is going to stay the same,” Mack said.

In between visits to various job sites, Mack took questions from troops overseas. He would answer a question about what drives him in life. Then a Browns fan asked him who will be “our quarterback this year?” Browns fans were everywhere.

“I ask myself that question,” said Mack, jokingly. “It’s going to be a quarterback battle. Josh McCown’s coming in. I think Johnny (Manziel’s) going to be back and we will see how Johnny does.”

PHOENIX -- What key things did I learn from spending time with the Cleveland Browns at the NFL owners meetings?

1) The Browns feel strongly that Josh McCown "stabilized" the quarterback position. Stabilized. General Manager Ray Farmer, coach Mike Pettine and owner Jimmy Haslam all used that word. The Browns believe McCown is the guy to bring order to the position. "He's proven that he can start in this league," Pettine said. The latter point could be argued, but it's clearly what the Browns feel. Or at least it's clearly what they say they feel. Pettine also said: "As we've talked about all along, when you surround your quarterback with the right scheme, and more importantly the right supporting cast, if you feel you have the right guy regardless of what the past history's been, if you feel you have a guy that can be credible for you and be functional, then you go ahead and make that move. That move we felt stabilized the position." There is nothing quite like being "stabilized."

2) A coach and GM can work together even after the GM texted coaches during games about in-game strategy. Pettine said at the combine he wasn't happy when he first learned of the text messages. A month later he said everyone was working well together and on the same page. Asked how that could be, he said: "If you talk to a lot of GMs, those three to four hours [during games] are among the most frustrating. There's going to be questions. 'Why are we doing this?' Fortunately Ray owns it and he chose that way as his outlet, but we get the opportunity to talk each week and we have our postgame audit and those questions get raised as well and we're not going to agree on everything 100 percent. But from a philosophy standpoint, we are very much on the same page. So it won't be 100 percent. Just like any other GM-head coach, it's not going to match perfectly. You're constantly in the process of educating each other, but we both feel like we're very much on the same page and we're moving forward to make this team better." Evidently the front office-coach relationship also has been … wait for it … stabilized.

3) The chances of trading up for Marcus Mariota never seemed lower, and the chances of a second-to-fourth round quarterback never seemed higher. Farmer said he covets numbers of draft picks. Haslam said the team would slowly but surely build more and more with the draft. Pettine was the only one to take it a little farther, saying quarterback was a position that justified giving up picks, but he likes having numbers of picks. Either the Browns have great poker faces, or they are just not that interested in Mariota.

4) The team expects Johnny Manziel back and they will give him a full chance to start. Despite offering excuses for his 2014 performance -- like Farmer saying last year's coaching staff changed the entire approach for Manziel's starts -- the Browns are going to give Manziel a chance to work with McCown. "When [Manziel] is back, it will be full speed ahead for him," Pettine said. "I think he's very anxious at this point."

5) The definiton of "changing an entire offense" can vary. Farmer said the Browns changed everything for Manziel. Pettine, politely, disagreed. "I know the run game stayed the same and I know we had some things in all year that were more suited for a mobile quarterback," Pettine said. "So there was a shift in emphasis there, but I wouldn't categorize those changes as drastic."

6) The Browns may not take a receiver in the first round because they will draft the best player available." I think its hard to go wrong when you take the best players that are available," Farmer said. Pettine said the Browns will try to make the team better in the draft. In his mind "value" trumps need. "If you're picking at 30 [be sure] you're getting a player that's 15th on your board," he said. "That you're not picking at 30 for a guy that's ranked 50th on your board because he plays a certain position."

PHOENIX -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday that no players were involved when the Cleveland Browns made their pitch to acquire quarterback Sam Bradford.

Which is the reason the Rams said no. To trade Bradford, the Rams had to get a quarterback in return.

Which means Johnny Manziel was never offered in the deal. Not that anyone ever thought he was. Just that it’s important to note the Browns didn’t offer Manziel along with a first-round pick.

Which means the Browns are counting on him to at least compete for the quarterback spot in 2015. Which the Browns reiterated all week at the league’s annual meetings. The non-offer on the Bradford deal buttresses the statements.

Fisher said the Browns made an offer well after the combine and a few days before the Rams acquired Nick Foles from the Eagles.

The Browns offered the 19th pick in the draft.

The Rams said no, and would not have accepted the 12th pick for the same reason — the trade did not leave the Rams with a viable option at quarterback.

“At that point, you still don’t have a veteran quarterback,” Fisher said. “Nick, for us, was a perfect fit. I had talked with Chip [Kelly] and he thinks Sam is a perfect fit so this was a good deal. For us, we get a younger quarterback that’s won a lot of games in this league, can make all the throws and is healthy. I know he’s had shoulder issues but everybody has.”

Fisher said there were numerous offers and numerous discussions, but none involved a player.

PHOENIX -- Competitive advantage will not be a vital factor in the league’s ruling about Ray Farmer's in-game text messaging last season.

“The violation of the rule and the integrity of the rule is not necessarily whether you got an advantage or not,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday. “It’s the fact that you broke the rule. That's a more general comment. We don't want people breaking the rules.

"There are 32 clubs who are going to be operating under the same rules.’'

Which means the context of the texts from the Cleveland Browns' general manager to an assistant coach isn’t as important as the fact they happened -- because they mean Farmer violated the league's ruling about electronic devices.

The league’s investigation continues. Goodell said it will be a focus the next couple of days.

A decision, though, probably will not come this week.

The Browns could be fined or lose a draft pick. The investigation is being led by Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Vice President of Football Operations.

It’s interesting that the situation has dragged on this long. Farmer admitted one month at the combine that he did text during games, and he admitted he was wrong to do so.

“It definitely gave me more pause and that pause in my mind was rooted in, ‘I know I did something wrong and I answered to that,’” Farmer said earlier in the week. “Again, at the end of the day, every trial I face or every circumstance that's not positive or whatever, it'll make me better.

“I saw this at a buddy's office. He had a saying on a little rock, like a little statue thing. He had a saying on there. It said that 'thunderstorms come in everybody's direction. Those that really get it learn to dance in the rain.’

"So that's one of the things I've kind of taken away from it. Sometimes you've got to learn to dance in the rain.”

Farmer said he has not been hampered by the thought of a potential sanction. He said the possibility of losing a draft pick has not interfered with his attempts or ability to trade one.

“I guess I could [make a trade],” Farmer said. “And then if I traded enough of [those picks], they wouldn't have [any] to take.”

Farmer was joking.

Goodell was not.

“Any violation of our rules,” Goodell said, “is something we take seriously.’'

Johnny ManzielAP Photo/Bob LeveroneGM Ray Farmer on building around a QB: "Build your team. When you find the guy that you insert at that position, then you find him."

PHOENIX -- Ray Farmer passionately defended Johnny Manziel in his get-together with the Cleveland media on Monday at the NFL's annual meetings.

In doing so, the Cleveland Browns General Manager said more than once that Manziel might need years to prove himself.

Farmer said Manziel failed when he started against the Bengals in Game 14 because the offensive coaches changed the entire approach. The coaches went away from an emphasis on the run and play-action, which helped the team win when Brian Hoyer was playing well, Farmer said. He added Manziel would do better in that kind of offense.

This is interesting.

Because almost every NFL observer -- those in the league and those outside -- said the team that drafted Manziel would have to change its offense to fit his skills. In an story on Manziel’s first season, teammates said he was woefully ill-prepared to start, and it showed in the 30-0 loss to the Bengals. Farmer attributed it more to the system change.

To think of Manziel as a play-action pocket passer also doesn’t mesh with his scouting reports, which stressed his mobility. It seems far more likely Manziel could be a play-action rollout player, but the jury is still out on whether that can work in the NFL for the long-term.

As for needing time, Farmer brought up another NFL great.

"In reality, would Aaron Rodgers be Aaron Rodgers if he played as a rookie?" Farmer said. "Or as a second-year player? The guy took three years to grow, learn, develop, change his craft, get better. Then when he got his opportunity that opportunity exploded."

The point is there.

But it’s tough to say whether Rodgers would have been successful immediately, because he didn’t play immediately. Some rookies who played immediately did well. Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson come to mind. All were surrounded by good teams. Peyton Manning struggled his rookie season.

It all depends on the player, his ability and his makeup. As Bruce Arians once said of playing a new or young quarterback: "Run the ball, protect him, and if the guy can play he can play."

Comparing Rodgers to Manziel seems odd because Rodgers wasn’t going to play as a rookie. Not with Brett Favre on the team. Manziel might have won the Browns job in training camp, but he did so little that a barely-more-successful Hoyer was given the starting role.

Hoyer played well and won early, struggled and lost late, and when the Browns went to Manziel the bottom dropped out. Until Monday, nobody could clearly explain why anyone believed Manziel could win a key late-season game.

Farmer explained it by pointing at the coaching decision to change the offense.

Farmer also downplayed the importance of finding a great quarterback, stressing instead building a great team.

"I think it’s the reality that everybody realizes, in the obvious mind it’s easy if you just get a quarterback," Farmer said. "Somehow the game would be real easy if we just had Andrew Luck, if we just had Peyton Manning, if we just had some person there everybody thinks is this great player.

"To build a football team, I think that’s the focus. Build your team. When you find the guy that you insert at that position, then you find him. Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, but he built his football team. It wasn’t about who the trigger man was. It was about the team.

"I think when you look at the history of the league, people want to focus on the immediacy and relevancy of now. I say historically the teams that have found a way to be successful over time is because they had a good football team, and not because they had necessarily a great individual quarterback."

His point again is there.

But after 22 different starters since 1999, it’s safe to say Browns fans would sure like to see what it’s like to have that great quarterback.

PHOENIX -- The team that never receives compensatory draft picks because it is constantly trying to rebuild via free agency received no picks again.

On Monday, the NFL announced the teams that would receive compensatory picks in this year's draft for the free agents they lost a year ago. The Cleveland Browns got none, while Baltimore received three, Cincinnati two and Pittsburgh one.

The Bengals even got a bonus. They received two picks for losing two free agents in 2014, but one of them -- defensive end Michael Johnson -- was released by Tampa Bay and re-signed with Cincinnati this offseason. So the Bengals get Johnson back, and third- and fourth-round picks in addition.

One year ago the Browns lost safety T.J. Ward, guard Shawn Lauvao and quarterback Jason Campbell to free agency. But the Browns signed safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby, running back Ben Tate and receiver Miles Austin.

The NFL determined via its formulas that the players the Browns lost balanced out when compared to the players signed.

Thus, no picks.

Since the awarding of compensatory picks in 1994, the Browns have received six, fewest in the league. Baltimore has received 44, the highest.

The Browns have 10 draft picks, two in the first, fourth and sixth rounds, and one in the second, third and seventh rounds.

PHOENIX -- Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer discussed quarterbacks at length on Monday at the annual NFL owners meetings.

The upshot: The Browns today, March 23 of the year 2015, do not anticipate changing their quarterback corps, as Farmer said "I'm comfortable" with the group. But they do anticipate continuing the never-ending search for the long-term answer at the most important position on the team.

"There's still work to be done," Farmer said.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsRay Farmer says Josh McCown has never played in an offense that is suited for his skill set.

The Browns General Manager insisted he believes in the group of Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, Thad Lewis and Connor Shaw. He also said he does not believe in giving up numbers of picks to move up in the draft and he doesn't see Sam Bradford as an option after his trade from the Rams to the Eagles.

Farmer meandered through some answers that left things more fuzzy than when he started. Consider that Farmer was asked if trading for Bradford was still an option.

"I don't," Farmer said. "He got traded already."

He expanded on the answer by saying this:

"So, if he got traded, he got moved around, then somebody would have to contact us and say, ‘Look, we're trying to move him' or ‘here's what's going on.' To that end, the conversations teams have about players and people, any of those can go in any number of directions. If the team wants to make a move, they make a move. That's what happened with Sam Bradford. They wanted to move him, they moved him."

OK then.

A McCown question put to Farmer was blunt: Given McCown's 12-year history, can you say he is a credible answer at quarterback?

"Here's what I would say," Farmer said. "It's the same thing as I would say about any player in the National Football League. Unless you're put in the ideal position for you to have success, does anybody really know what your track record looks like?"

Farmer said McCown has never been given a complete chance as the starter, and he should benefit from a run/play action based offense.

Of Manziel, Farmer said the Browns would focus both on his well being and on how he performs on the field.

"I think that at the end of the day we're definitely focused on his health and his well being and we definitely want to support him in every way possible," Farmer said. "Part 2 of that is that inevitably he's going to have to continue to perform and show development and growth as a player."

He continued.

"The reality of when guys step up and how that looks and what that looks like on an every day basis, I would tell you that I'm not Nostradamus. Do I believe in his skill set and things that he can do the job? Sure. But I think you have to give guys an opportunity to grow and learn."

Finally, he seemed to indicate that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan made some poor choices when Manziel played -- though he never mentioned Shanahan by name.

"I look at who we were at the beginning of last year -- running the football, playing play-action, two backs in the backfield," Farmer said. "We didn't play like that when he played. I think giving him those opportunities could present a different opportunity, a different option for his skill set."

Of Lewis, Farmer said: "He's not going to come in here and have the personality or the disposition to come in and say 'I deserve' or 'I need to be.' He's going to be a humble worker. I think that having humble workers in a group is a good thing. You want to have the right guys on your team to help the group grow, because as guys get better and the group ets better then it's a win for the club."

Of Shaw, Farmer said: "I think a lot of people are missing out on Connor Shaw. Don't lose sight of a young man who went into the last weekend of the regular season with limited reps and opportunities and took our division rival to the brink of beating them at their place."

Perhaps the bottom line came when Farmer admitted the long-term answer continues to be elusive and unknown.

"We clearly don't have the guy that's going to be our guy for the next 25 years as the starter fixed in his role, playing that position ... " Farmer said. "It doesn't mean he's not on our team. It just means he's not entrenched in the role."

Browns' QB options down to two?

March, 23, 2015
Mar 23

PHOENIX -- Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer is due to meet with the local media Monday at the annual NFL owners meetings.

It is the first time Farmer has spoken publicly since the team signed Josh McCown; it's fair to say the team's quarterback position will be discussed.

At this point, the Browns' options are few. There is nobody in free agency worth considering as a starting quarterback.

Which is why it continues to make sense to me that the team -- if it believes another move is needed -- would be focusing on moving up to acquire prospect Marcus Mariota in the draft. The price would be high, but it would give the Browns something credible to sell at the position.

ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi today offered five options for the Browns' quarterback spot, two of which depended on trading up for Mariota. One involved trading for Mariota and then using him to acquire Sam Bradford and the Eagles' first-round pick. The fifth: Loading up on draft picks in hopes of landing Ohio State QB Cardale Jones in next year's draft.

The latter would be appealing, but Jones at this point is a projection. He has immense talent and intangibles that can't be taught, but he's still a projection with three college starts.

Which leaves Mariota. Or perhaps Bradford.

Is Bradford coming off two ACLs a better option than Mariota? That's debatable. Mariota has size, arm strength and mobility. The negatives, which are strong, are that he hasn't been in a huddle or under center since high school and he would have to adjust to a pro system after running the college spread his entire career.

It's also not certain the Eagles would trade Bradford. Eagles coach Chip Kelly said after trading for Bradford that he did not acquire Bradford as a chip, that the only chip in Philadelphia is the coach.

Anything can happen, but at this point Bradford does not seem like a realistic option.

Jones is a hope, not an option.

Mariota remains the only realistic option.

I'm not saying the Browns should trade up for Mariota, but just that he's the last and best option. Adding him makes the quarterback room (the "room" has gained great importance with NFL teams these days) much more appealing.

The Browns can go with the Josh McCown-Johnny Manziel tandem in place. The risk-reward of that choice is well known. But it's the choice if the team decides that Manziel's long-term is more promising than Mariota's.

The other option is to trade up for Mariota. Surrender the draft picks to improve at the most important position and have McCown hold the fort until Mariota is ready. This move also assumes Manziel is dealt.
The Browns may have something up their sleeves nobody knows of, but at this point the realistic option to improve is to try to trade up.

PHOENIX — It's not exactly shocking that the Cleveland Browns are the front-runner to be on the HBO series "Hard Knocks" this training camp.

The possibility that the league would force the Browns to do the show has been out there for a while.

The teams that are eligible will meet with NFL Films this week at the league's annual meetings and discuss the show. A final decision will follow.

The Browns haven't really talked much about the subject, but it's worth wondering if they would express reluctance in light of Johnny Manziel's offseason decision to enter rehab. It well could turn out to be no issue, but one would guess that a guy going through what Manziel is does not need to be followed around with cameras every day of camp.

Word that the Browns were the front-runner broke Sunday on a twitter post from Buffalo Bills beat writer Vic Carucci. Carucci was the Browns in-house analyst for some time, and hosted Cleveland Browns Daily before he returned to the Buffalo News.

"Hard Knocks" is a fun show. It made a star out of Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff and turned the Ravens into comedians. But last season the Browns turned it down.

This offseason, the league can make the Browns do it.

Teams with first-year coaches are exempt (the reason the Browns turned it down a year ago), as are teams that made the playoffs in the last two seasons and teams that have been on the show during the last 10 years.

That leaves the Browns among a small group that could be forced to do the show whether they like it or not.

In many ways this could be a fun opportunity.

Coach Mike Pettine is interesting and honest and the Browns would have the chance to show a lot of their personalities -- from Karlos Dansby to Andrew Hawkins to Joe Thomas, who has one very droll sense of humor. In a normal year, following Manziel as he grows in a system would also be fascinating.

But this might not be a “normal” camp for Manziel. Coming out of rehab presents challenges for anyone, and it might seem logical to think the Browns don't want Manziel to go through the scrutiny that the show provides. The flip side, of course, is the show could give Manziel a platform and a vehicle to explain his decision and his growth since. Some players make the most of it. Others don't like the distraction.

Manziel's situation is sensitive. If I'm the Browns I'd want him to go through his first camp after rehab with as little attention and scrutiny as possible. I wouldn't want the show within 100 country miles of him.

I'd far prefer, for his personal and professional sake, the cameras be pointed elsewhere.

Dante Fowler, Jr.AP Photo/John RaouxThe Browns need a first-round impact player, and Dante Fowler may fit that description.

The Cleveland Browns need a play-right-away difference-maker with at least one of their first-round picks -- preferably both.

How many of those are available in this year’s draft? Hard to truly know until a few years from now. The sentiment seems to be that the first round isn’t stocked with sure-fire Pro Bowlers 1 through 32, but the depth is strong.

There’s no reason to panic if you’re the Browns, regardless of the quarterback situation. The chances to get two good players on Day 1 are fairly good. The Browns used free agency to address needs at cornerback (Tramon Williams) and defensive end (John Hughes and Randy Starks, who can also play tackle). That should free them up in the draft.

Paramount for this team, though, is taking a hard risk-reward assessment of every possibility. Last year’s two first-rounders, Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel, were classic boom-or-bust players. They would flourish or flail out, with little in between. The latter prevailed in Year 1, but both players aim to change that.

Getting ready-made production should be a primary goal. Free agency has showed the Browns' hand in a few areas.

That’s what makes the Browns’ positioning, at No. 12 and 19, so intriguing. Can the Browns feel they got not just good players but coveted player, instead of feeling like they settled?

Just look at two of the Browns’ biggest needs: pass-rusher and wide receiver. Among the pass-rushers widely considered the best -- Dante Fowler, Shane Ray, Randy Gregory, Vic Beasley -- all four could be gone by No. 12. Or two could be left. Could go either way.

At receiver, at least two from this trio -- Kevin White, Amari Cooper and DeVante Parker -- will likely be off the board at No. 12. If Parker is left, do the Browns love him?

The best word to use for Parker as a receiver is smooth. He seems to understand how to play the position, how to get open. Let him line up as an outside receiver and he can help this offense.

But general manager Ray Farmer seems content ignoring this position. If Parker is there, his conviction will and should be tested.

Nose tackle is even more difficult to forecast for Cleveland, which no doubt would love Danny Shelton to fall its way, but that seems unlikely. Just can’t see the Bears at No. 7 or the Giants at No. 9 passing on Shelton. Also not sure Malcom Brown is in Shelton’s class.

That’s why it should be no surprise if the Browns use No. 19 overall for an offensive lineman. There’s not a dominant, top-five tackle in this draft, but there are a handful of really good first-round options. Or Cleveland could pluck a quality player such as Duke’s Laken Tomlinson in the second round.

The offensive line is a large part of Cleveland’s identity. Even though the Browns like Mitchell Schwartz and John Greco on the right side, the team will welcome competition there.

The Browns could benefit from the depth in this draft, but whether they get a truly dominant player seems as wide open as the team’s quarterback plans.

It’s worth asking: How would the reaction to Cleveland Browns' free agency have changed had they signed Tramon Williams immediately?

Perception rules a lot when it comes to this time of the NFL year, and the Browns were relatively slow out of the box.

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY SportsTramon Williams is ranked behind only Richard Sherman in interceptions since 2010.

Monday, they made their first two significant moves, adding defensive lineman Randy Starks and Williams, a cornerback. Williams has played well for the Packers, and though there are questions about his age he would have drawn notice had he been signed the first day the way the Browns signed Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby one year ago.

That he wasn’t doesn’t diminish the signing, just the publicity.

Starks and Williams are long on experience, which is interesting. Both have ability.

They are like Whitner and Dansby. Experienced guys who can contribute, but guys in their 30s. The Browns now have four defensive starters older than 30. That’s a sign that the team is going all-in to build a team that will win on the defensive side of the ball. The Browns are sorely lacking in offensive playmakers, yet their first two signings were on the other side of scrimmage.

The half-full view would state that the Browns got better at positions of need. The half-empty look says they merely replaced guys they lost (Starks for Ahtyba Rubin, Williams for Buster Skrine) and got older doing so.

Starks was released after the Dolphins broke the bank for Ndamukong Suh. Starks is known as a run-stopper. ranked him the sixth-best run defender at nose tackle or defensive tackle (4-3) in the league in 2013. That dropped last season, to 72nd, when Starks had a negative grade against the run. He still could help a defense that gave up more than 140 yards per game.

What jumps out are Starks’ sack numbers. He has 17.5 the past four seasons, an intriguing number from an interior lineman.

Williams’ last play in Green Bay was when he was beat for the overtime touchdown in the NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle.

He’s respected, liked and admired in Green Bay, where he played well for years. He’s a 5-foot-11 corner with long arms, a guy who can play press coverage -- both traits of corners that coach Mike Pettine covets. Since 2010, Williams is ranked second behind Richard Sherman in interceptions and second to Joe Haden in pass breakups.

Last season, though, was not Williams’ best. He gave up 10 touchdowns in 18 games, and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 106.5 when throwing his way, according to

His previous high in that category: 85.

Green Bay wanted Williams back, but at two years and $10 million -- not for a three-year contract and not at the money (a reported $21 million) the Browns gave him.

ESPN’s Bill Polian gave Williams a B-plus grade heading into free agency and wrote: "Williams is getting older, but he still possesses great instincts, playmaking ability and a nose for the ball.”

He will surely start -- barring a miracle transformation from Justin Gilbert, who appears headed to compete for the nickel spot with K’Waun Williams.

The Browns are better today than they were on Sunday.

Whether they’re better than they were when the season ended is yet to be seen.

Free-agency review: Browns

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17

Most significant signing: This one took place well before free agency began, but it was a domino that led to significant change for the Cleveland Browns. That happened when Josh McCown signed to be the team’s quarterback on Feb. 27. McCown’s signing and the $6.25 million he received in guaranteed money confirmed that the team had moved on from Brian Hoyer. In going with McCown, the Browns are casting their lot with a soon-to-be 36-year-old quarterback who was 1-10 a year ago and has 49 starts and 17 wins in a 12-year career.

Most significant loss: Buster Skrine's departure in the New York Jets' cornerback signing frenzy leaves the Browns with Joe Haden, Justin Gilbert and newly signed Tramon Williams among the possible starters at corner. Skrine was a nice second corner, a feel-good story who worked his way to a $25 million contract. Gilbert’s first season was a colossal failure, with teammates not even hesitating to criticize him as the season wound down. Williams is a reliable veteran who started 140 of 141 games for Green Bay. The Browns must hope that Williams steps in because Gilbert did little his rookie season except earn the ire of teammates and coaches for his approach.

Biggest surprise: A team that rarely fails to surprise actually surprised in this early free-agency period with its inactivity. The Browns continued the tumultuous time of constant turnover by changing quarterbacks and sitting back and letting their starting quarterback, tight end and cornerback leave, as well as a significant contributor on the defensive outside. Hoyer, Jordan Cameron, Skrine and Jabaal Sheard are all the kind of guys some teams make a point to retain. All were largely homegrown and all had ways to contribute. Instead, the Browns let them leave, which created needs that did not have to exist. In their place they added two significant players: McCown and receiver Brian Hartline.

What’s next? Tough to guess with this team. After going six days and staying largely silent, the team on Monday added a defensive lineman in Randy Starks and a cornerback in Williams. Both are aging 30-plus players, though Williams seems to have the most left. The Browns paid both well, with Starks getting $4 million per season and Williams getting a three-year, $21 million deal. It's not like the Browns went shopping for secondary bargains. The next step would be to sign a receiver -- perhaps Dwayne Bowe. That is the position of greatest need.

Re-signing defensive end John Hughes to a four-year deal on Friday wasn't the splashy free agency move Browns fans want, but it symbolizes progress in what was a problematic area in 2014.

The team's two biggest issues were quarterback play and the inability to stop the run. It's difficult to win when giving up 141 rushing yards a game, but the Browns were decimated by injuries up front.

Three of the Browns' top-six defensive front options -- Hughes, Phil Taylor and Armonty Bryant -- missed 11 games apiece. Ahtyba Rubin played hurt basically all season and Billy Winn missed three games.

Hughes' $14.4-million deal, despite seven career starts, suggests the Browns consider him an ascending player. If Hughes maximizes that potential Taylor regains his first-round form and injuries clean up a bit, now a good defense gets better. Desmond Bryant played at a Pro Bowl level at times last season, helping stave off a potential contract restructuring or pay cut on his $6 million salary. Coaches are high on the potential of Bryant and Billy Winn.

Draft a nose tackle -- hello, Danny Shelton -- and now this defensive front is cooking. Rotations galore.

The Browns have not been spenders to start free agency despite $40 million-plus of leftover cap space. The reasons for that are unclear. Even if the approach is methodical, the Browns must spend at least some money.

That doesn't minimize the importance of Hughes' signing because of the cohesion it can help create up front if everyone's healthy.

The wild card is Taylor, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Taylor's $5.5-million team option off his rookie deal should have kicked in at the start of the new league year Tuesday. He should be locked in contract-wise.

Entering last season, the Browns liked his explosion off the ball and viewed him as a defensive end who can move inside on third-down nickel packages. If Taylor rebounds, that alleviates a lot of concerns up front.
Three quick-hit points on the Browns' free-agency pursuits...

1. The Jordan Cameron breakup always seemed inevitable. The initial reports of him signing here were mildly surprising. If the Browns desperately wanted Cameron back, they would have gotten something done before the start of the new league year. Cameron is a high-level playmaker from the tight end spot, but seemed a better fit for Norv Turner's offense in 2013 than for the new staff's zone-blocking scheme.

Just always got the sense that both sides wanted fresh starts, Cameron in a new city and the Browns with a new tight end.

The Dolphins closing on Cameron last night after the Browns had offered keeps Cleveland without a marquee free-agency signing, but Cameron wasn't a top target to start the new league year. Charles Clay was.

2. The three teams with more cap space than the Browns to start the week have all spent aggressively. Those teams -- Raiders, Jaguars and Titans -- combined for eight wins. The Browns, after finishing 7-9, feel confident with their roster in most spots. This might be that simple -- the team likes its roster. Tight end is now glaring. Receiver needs help, but the Browns were never throwing $50 million at any receiver. They will stockpile veterans and hope for the best on draft night.

Much depends on the Browns' feeling on two players: outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and defensive tackle Phil Taylor. If the Browns believe both players are poised for a jump in 2015, they don't need to sign a marquee guy at either spot. Trent Cole was the only pass-rusher I've heard the Browns were chasing. They've been quiet on this front. Same with nose tackle. That Taylor is still on the roster and slated to make $5.5 million next year, coming off an injury-plagued season, says the Browns are confident he'll play well in 2015 or don't have an alternative at the moment.

3. Browns could add DB depth: Perrish Cox visited the Browns this week. Cox, a five-year veteran with five interceptions for San Francisco last year, would add depth after the team lost Buster Skrine to the Jets.

Justin Gilbert will get every chance to earn the starting outside corner job opposite Joe Haden. But with the value this defense puts on corners, the Browns can't have enough good ones.