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Crucial Offseason For Browns Begins This Week At The NFL Combine

By DARYL RUITER, 92.3 The Fan Browns Beat Reporter
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(Photo by Daryl Ruiter CBS Cleveland)

(Photo by Daryl Ruiter CBS Cleveland)

DarylRuiter_300 Daryl Ruiter
Cleveland Browns beat writer and member of the Pro Football Writers of...
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INDIANAPOLIS (92.3 The Fan) – The crucial offseason for the Cleveland Browns is officially underway.

New general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine lead the contingent of scouts, coaches and personnel executives who arrived in Indianapolis this week for the league’s annual scouting combine to be held at Lucas Oil Stadium.

They, like every other team, will pour through over 300 draft hopefuls in the next 7 days.

Farmer has been with the organization since last March when he was hired as the assistant general manager so he’s already been through a draft, free agency and season with the team. Since he went through most of last year’s draft process and had already been involved in prepping for this year’s draft, there are no worries about him having to play catch-up.

Pettine and his coaches have outlined for Farmer what they are looking for in players at every position on the field within the schemes on both sides of the ball and even offered comparisons to players around the NFL. They have also completed their roster grade-out from the 2013 season and identified who fits and who doesn’t so they are all set to make offseason decisions.

Here’s a look at some of those issues that Farmer must sort through in order to capitalize on their 10 draft picks and over $40 million in salary cap space this offseason.

Primary Team Needs
Quarterback, offensive line, receiver, tight end, linebacker, and defensive back.

Quarterback Quandary
It’s the question asked every offseason.

The Browns will likely part with both Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden this offseason either cutting them or via a trade. Neither will bring much value in a deal. So what do they do at the position?

Both Farmer and Pettine have been complimentary of Brian Hoyer, who won 3 games last season as a starter before blowing out his ACL.

“I think his football acumen is off the chart and you could tell [watching film],” Pettine said last week. “There’s certain quarterbacks you look for an ‘it’ factor. You might not be able to necessarily describe what ‘it’ is but he has ‘it.’”

Hoyer completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 615 yards, 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions netting an 82.6 quarterback rating.

They will draft a quarterback in May, but where? There will be a tremendous amount of smokescreens out there until the draft and some may have already been floated. The Browns were said to be hot on Johnny Manziel but Farmer threw water on that in an interview with Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer opening the door for the possibility they may forego Manziel, Blake Bortels and Teddy Bridgewater for possibly a developmental QB like Derek Carr.

Who Is No. 2?
Aside from a franchise QB, which the Browns still covet, desire and are in search of, to produce a prolific offense teams need a primary weapon at receiver and Josh Gordon is that. Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2013.

But who will be the No. 2 receiver to help carry the load?

Greg Little has put in a tremendous amount of work off the field in an effort to improve but it’s not produced results on the field and he is not a solution. He had 41 catches for 465 yards (career low) and 2 TDs last season. In 3 years Little has totaled 155 catches for 1,821 yards and 8 TDs as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. He’s slated to make $753,750 (+ $75,000 workout bonus) this year.

Davone Bess had the worst season of his career in 2013 – 42 catches, 362 yards, 2 TDs in 14 games played – 3 of them starts. He received a new 4-year, $14.18 million contract after the Browns traded for him last April. His off the field troubles put the Browns in an interesting position. They could try to recoup some of his guaranteed money because he was placed on the reserved/non-football illness list. They could cut him outright and swallow the cap hit but also come off as insensitive to a player’s well-being since his troubles involve mental illness.

Offensive Line
Once thought to be a strength and deep, the offensive line could require 3 new starters this year.

Guard Shawn Lauvao and tackle Oniel Cousins join Alex Mack as free agents. Throw in an inconsistent season at right tackle for Mitchell Schwartz and there are more questions than answers up front.

D’Qwell Jackson
The thought of D’Qwell Jackson not wearing a Browns uniform might be stunning but it could also be reality.

Jackson, who signed a 5-year, $42.5 million contract in Feb. 2012, is due a $4 million roster bonus on March 31. He is scheduled to make $2.6 million this year but has $15 million left on the remaining 2 years including roster and workout bonuses. Former defensive coordinator Ray Horton said at the end of the season that he envisioned Jackson’s snaps beginning to decrease in 2014.

The Browns have plenty of room to keep Jackson, and they could also restructure his deal, but there is no guarantee that Farmer, who said he already knows what he plans to do in Jackson’s case, will pay the bonus.

Extending Haden
Cornerback Joe Haden is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and is in the final year of his 5-year, $42.2 million rookie contract. He is scheduled to make $6,678,193 this season but Haden and agent Drew Rosenhaus have already begun extension talks. Last season Haden started 15 games and has 60 tackles, 4 INT (1 returned for a TD), 21 PBUs.

Free Agents
Mack hasn’t missed a snap since being drafted in 2009 and is 1 of 4 offensive lineman (Joe Thomas included) to play every offensive down over that span. Mack is a 2-time Pro Bowler and the franchise tag will approach $11 million meaning the only way he stays is with a new contract. Under Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi he was as good as gone but Farmer will try to keep him without the tag.

Safety T.J. Ward is primed to receive the franchise tag if a new deal can’t be reached which would cost north of $8 million. He made his first Pro Bowl last season and started 16 games for the first time in his career. Ward registered a career-high 129 tackles, 15 for loss, 2 interceptions (1 returned for a TD) and a fumble return for a TD. There’s a chance that Pettine might prefer Bills free agent safety Jairus Byrd over Ward but the Bills could franchise him for the second time. Teams have until March 3 to use the tags.

Kicker Billy Cundiff made 21 of 26 field goals and was a perfect 32-32 on PATs in 2013.

Tackle Oniel Cousins played all 16 games and started the first 4 in place of Shawn Lauvao in 2013 totaling 312 snaps.

Guard Shawn Lauvao returned from a training camp ankle injury to start the last 11 games at right guard finishing the season with 741 snaps/

Running back Willis McGahee is out of gas. He ran the ball 138 times for 377 yards, 2 TDs and averaged a career low 2.7 yards per carry. He will not be back.

NFL Draft
Browns will select No. 4 overall in the 1st round. Also own No. 26 via Indianapolis (Trent Richardson trade). Cleveland owns 3 of the top 35 picks, 7 of their 10 selections are in the first 4 rounds so there’s ammunition to trade up.

Cap Room
The Browns have plenty of salary cap space to play with this offseason. It is estimated to be anywhere from $38-46 million, depending where the salary cap is set at, giving Farmer and the Browns plenty of flexibility to address as many needs as they see fit this offseason.

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