After the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, all 32 teams officially entered the offseason and started plotting how they could position themselves for a shot at Super Bowl XLIX. Shutdown Corner will look at the offseason blueprint for each of the 32 NFL teams, presenting one team a day (using the 2014 draft order, starting with the Houston Texans and finishing with the Seahawks), leading you right up to the start of free agency on March 11.
2013 record: 4-12
Projected current salary-cap space (according to Spotrac): $46.2 million
Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward, G Shawn Lauvao
Possible salary-cap casualties: QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, LB D'Qwell Jackson ($4.1 million roster bonus due in March)
Draft situation: Have the fourth and 26th picks of the first round. Also own Pittsburgh's third-round pick and Indianapolis' fourth-round pick, as well as all of their own picks.
Revisiting 2013: It seems like a fever dream now, but yes, there was a lot of excitement in Cleveland early last season. The team was in first place in the AFC North (no lie, that really happened) at 3-2 after a win against the Bills. But once quarterback Brian Hoyer, who led the resurgence, was diagnosed with a torn ACL following the Buffalo win, that excitement evaporated quickly. The Browns won one more game the rest of the season and fired Rob Chudzinski after only one year as coach, a move that didn't give the Browns the best reputation around the league, as evidenced by their difficulty landing a new coach. Mike Pettine, the Bills defensive coordinator, finally took the job.
Reasons for optimism: There are a few, actually. Start with Josh Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards despite missing the first two games due to suspension. Nobody else in the NFL broke the 1,500-yard mark. Also, Gordon didn't exactly have Peyton Manning or Drew Brees throwing him the ball. It was a phenomenal season for the second-year receiver. The defense has some nice pieces to build around, and the Browns averaged the third-fewest yards per play last season. Also, the Browns didn't mail it in late. They were 0-5 in December but lost by just an average of 7.2 points, including an unlucky 27-26 loss at New England. That's a good sign. Oh, and there's the extra first-round pick they got as a result of the Trent Richardson trade, which looked better and better every time Richardson carried the ball for little gain as a member of the Colts.
Glaring hole to fill: Same one they've had since re-entering the league in 1999. The list of Browns starting quarterbacks through the years is long and painful. The Browns will have some options to find a new quarterback. The first choice would seem to be drafting whoever falls to the fourth pick. Figure that among Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr, at least one has to be there for the Browns. If Cleveland really loved one of those top prospects, they could package that extra Colts pick (26th overall) and move up. Hoyer has probably earned a chance to be the backup, and perhaps start the season while a rookie learns (especially if it's the raw but talented Bortles). One scenario that's gaining steam, since the Browns hired Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, is making a trade for Redskins backup Kirk Cousins. Depending on the price tag, maybe that makes sense – if there's anything to the Cousins rumors, that is. But obviously, finding the right quarterback will be by far and away the biggest offseason priority.
Toughest decision: Cleveland has two high-priority free agents, center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. In Pro Football Focus' grades, Mack was the fourth-ranked center and Ward was tied for the third-ranked safety in 2013. Which is why the Browns have a dilemma. Both are going to command top dollar. Having a safety of Ward's ability is of high importance in the NFL, with the proliferation of athletic tight ends in the passing game. Mack would certainly help a new, young quarterback. But are the Browns willing to spend on both of them? Or either of them? They would be sound investments but perhaps the rebuilding team will think twice about tying up a lot of cap room on the veterans. And, after years of losing, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either player look into his options.
Best-case offseason scenario: With seven picks in the first four rounds, the Browns can get a lot of help right away. It would help the team to retain at least Ward, a really good safety who just turned 27, maybe Mack as well and figure out a restructured deal for linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, a good player whose $4.1 million roster bonus in March might be a bit pricey. An underrated position of need is running back, where the Browns don't have anyone resembling an NFL starter. Perhaps their extra third- or fourth-round pick can be used on one. And, of course, it would be great for the franchise to finally land a quarterback that can lead this team to the playoffs at some point.
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