April 24, 2014

Browns Smart to Stay Cautious in Free Agency

The cool thing about being a fan of sports is that you really can learn over time.  I feel like a smarter fan today having been through all the things the Browns have been through since 1999.  Take free agency, for example?

The Browns have signed guys like LeCharles Bentley, Donte Stallworth, Dave Zastudil, Gary Baxter, Joe Jurevicius, and Eric Steinbach.  There have been some others, but these are the names that stick out to me most.  Eric Steinbach has been great.  Jurevicius was solid for a season.  The rest ended up being not worth the money or trouble mostly.

Today I was reading about the trade of Albert Haynesworth from the Redskins to the Patriots and Andrew Brandt at The National Football Post helped me really tie together something else I have learned over the last few years with Eric Mangini at the helm for the Cleveland Browns.

As I (Brandt) often say, free agency in football is different than other sports. Football – unlike a sport such as baseball — is about schemes: 4-3, 3-4, cover two, etc., making it difficult for players to fit seamlessly into new teams. Another added problem is that when there are coaching changes, systems change but the players – Haynesworth – may not fit. And in my experience, I always worried when the incumbent team does not try too hard to keep the player; the Titans appeared only too happy to let Haynesworth go.

Eric Mangini wasn’t the be-all, end-all of NFL coaches.  I had a great many criticisms of him when he was here.  I was especially critical of his draft picks.  Then again, who wouldn’t be as David Veikune was ushered out the door?  One thing that I grew to understand about Mangini though, was the effectiveness of bringing in former Jets to play for the Browns.

Eric Barton, Abe Elam, Chansi Stuckey , David Bowens and the rest weren’t the best players available in all the NFL.  The problem is that too many of us get wrapped up in fantasy football where we think we can take a guy’s stats from one place and just plug them into the box score of another.  In that scenario, of course you always want the very best and most talented players available.

That kind of works in baseball, where a hitter gets to match up one-on-one with a pitcher and vice versa. Yes, there is the batting order in front or behind a hitter determining the quality of the pitches he will see, but lineup protection isn’t nearly as much of a scheme or system as is played in the NFL on both sides of the ball.

For Mangini’s faults, he definitely understood this.  He knew that the Browns needed massive culture change and that they had to bring in guys who knew how to play his system if they ever wanted their draft picks and younger players to develop into the kinds of players that the Browns would want to re-sign long-term.

Instead of following the logic of it all, it was just too easy to throw around punchlines about the Browns becoming the Jets-West.  I am sure I did it on a number of occasions, myself.  Don’t take this to mean that I think firing Mangini was the wrong move.  I still think that decision was about 60-40 and I could make the argument on either side between keeping him and starting over.

Regardless, he is gone, so what does all this mean now that the Browns have ushered Eric Mangini out the door and are starting fresh once again?  It means that we shouldn’t be clamoring for the Browns to go out and find a bunch of high priced free agents or high profile trade targets.

The Patriots are making a perfect gamble on Haynesworth now that that Redskins have paid him most of his money.  When you have a team with Tom Brady as its leader, you are always only a few players away from contention in the playoffs.  Belichick has been there so long now that the schemes and culture are fully mature.  For them, Haynesworth is very little risk.

The Browns need to keep finding young guys who are still being molded.  The Browns have signed Usama Young (FS – Saints.) Young is only 26, who hasn’t started a lot of games, is said to have great character and valuable ability for depth and in the nickel.  Even if he just provides an upgrade to Nick Sorenson, there is no harm in that.  In terms of free agency, that is what the Browns should be doing.

Look for scheme guys who have played in systems similar to what Pat Shurmur and Dick Jauron are looking to do.  Look toward their former players.  And when/if those players are signed, know that it is with good reason as the Browns look to truly become competitive long-term by developing through the draft, while importing younger culture and scheme guys during free agency.

Hopefully someday the Browns will be mature enough culturally to justify taking a chance on a Haynesworth, Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco as the Patriots have been able to do over the past decade.  Just don’t expect it now.

And don’t get too discouraged.  This team was off the rails when Romeo Crennel left.  Eric Mangini taught them how to practice and be professional on and off the field.  The learning curve on the new schemes could prove difficult at first, but this isn’t the same starting point as when Eric Mangini showed up.

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Amen! In my opinion, the Browns should not be in the business of doling out $10M/year contracts to players like Ray Edwards. Be patient and build through the draft.

  • rightside

    It seems we have had 2 solid drafts under Heckert, and are starting to get some stability.

    We are too many players away to make a splash in free agency.

  • MallaLubba

    I’ll let my man-crush out and say, “That picture makes me miss Jurevicius all over again.”

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Very good post.

  • Abe

    Well voiced Craig! No need to be saddled with bad long term contracts now just to appear like we’re trying to make a splash.

  • Gren

    Honestly, my biggest concern the past… forever.. has been the pass rush. If we can get a stud DE (Edwards) who is still young enough to play for 5+ years, and put him around our rookies, I’m all for it. That’s not to say our rookie D-Lineman (and Rubin for that matter) will be the answer on the line. But, as we saw with the right side of the O-Line last year, you can’t have a gap of talent on one side.

  • Jake

    Well Edwards is gone, so where are we spending 33 mil?

  • Anonymous

    I’m more than happy to watch other teams roll the dice on the big named, the big mouthed, and the big ego’d. But if we whiff on getting a solid piece like Ray Edwards or some new blood for the right side of the o-line, I will be thoroughly disappointed with this offseason effort. Caution in free agency is good. Paralysis is not.

  • Anonymous

    Honestly this is all well and good but they HAVE to spend money to get to the salary floor…..So where is that going. You have to pay someone at some point. As the bigger names slip off the table I continue to get more and more confused.

  • BisonDeleSightings

    They don’t have to reach the floor until the end of the season, so hopefully much of that money goes towards a massive Joe Thomas extension.

  • Howardrebeck

    This team has gotten nowhere in 12 years.We’ve had some good players in the recent past and played some competative football.There’s no reason that we should be so bad with no impact players now.We’ll win 4-6 games and average 15-20 points a game.

  • Shamrock

    Lerner can afford to spend, so spend already!

  • Joedinicola

    What a delusional article. A team with holes at RB, WR , RT, RG, OLB, DE, CB, and free safety and we do squat. We get McCoy no new weapons, get Hillis RB help from a guy who could barely average 3 yards a carry. WE let Wright walk , a four year starter and sign a guy with four starts in four years. We have a huge amunt of cap space and unlike past years the new CBA says Lerner now has to SPEND it. Yet we do nothing and you act as if that is some cool hand. Holmgren was fired as a GM and so far he has me pretty underwhelmed.

  • Anonymous

    Before I get off on a tangent, Lerner is not apart of this teams daily ops. This is Holmgrens operation. Dont bring up Lerner because he realized he cant do american football and is now footing the bill for whatever Mr Pres says we need.

    As for your holes:
    RB- Hillis, Hardesty, Jackson. 3 quality players. Hardesty is supposed to be the backup and Jackson has experience in the type of offense we will have. I think its great.

    WR- Who do you want/would come here that is a major upgrade? Im not going to try to say we have depth or loads of talent, but as a FO you have a bunch of potential in this group. If you think there is a realistic option please let me know.

    RT- Again, the FO views Pashos as the guy. I certainly thought he was good when able to play, so injuries are a question mark. Dont forget about rookie Jason Pinkston and possibly Porkchop.

    RG- Seriously? Lavuao is the starter. next

    OLB- We can certainly use depth, but a hole? Fujita-Gocong-Jackson (In that order) will be the LBs. I like that if we can stay healthy. Yes, I would like a back-up, but we dont need to sign one right this second.

    DE- Legitimate hole. I dont like Mitchell and a rookie to start, and even then theres no depth behind that.

    CB- I am disapointed Wright left, but read the reports- we offered more years and money and he still walked. Thats on us (fans) for treating him like dirt last year. Now we have a hole.

    FS- We were in the Weddle chase and werent going to spend outrageous cash on a FA. I dont mind that when FS isnt a make or break position. Young is penciled in as the starter. Getting another guy to compete would be nice.

  • Believelander

    Uh, Tom Heckert is our GM. Most of this is kind of off base, but one thing is right-we have to spend our cap.

    I say we lock up Nnamdi Asomugha long-term. :)

  • ricktenny

    For the same reason mama bears raise thier cubs to be bears, a team needs to have veteran players to teach players from college how to be good NFL players. It is a part of a players upbringing.
    I am in no way advocating hireing a group of NFL malcontents, attitude problems and or players who think they don’t need to work to perform at a high level. And frankly I don’t get where team scouts are supposed to find veteran players with good attitudes, work ethics and lack of criminal behavior. Given the number of problem children who receive full rides to college along with the servicing of thier slightest whims, which in itself promotes the kind of ego maniacal culture that permeates sports today. All that said every now and then a quality player comes along in free agency and every effort should be made to sign him.