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Cleveland Browns midseason review: patience is paramount for the plan to work

New England Patriots v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

We’re a little bit past the midseason point in the Cleveland Browns’ 2016 season, and our assessment of how they’ve played this year can be described with one of many negative adjectives: awful, cringeworthy, or frustrating.

Historically Bad

There is no way to sugar coat the results we’ve seen in the team’s 0-10 start: it’s been bad. The defense is allowing 419.1 yards per game and 30.1 points per game. They allow a league-worst 50% third down conversion rate. To compare, the Browns' expansion team in 1999 allowed 377.9 yards and 27.3 points per game, along with a 46.81% third down conversion rate.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals
The defense can’t even stop a guy when they’ve got five defenders wrapped around him.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The offense has been a brighter spot, but still no where near the level they need to be at, as evidenced by them scoring just 17.5 points per game. There were some competitive losses by the club early in the year, but now we’re in a stretch where the team has lost by 20 or more points in three of their last six games. The other losses in that stretch felt just as bad.

We have gotten to a point where fans aren’t even bothering to watch the team on Sundays or go to the games. Fans are even making a mockery of it by planning parades for a perfect 0-16 season. For draft positioning purposes, we even asked last week whether fans cared if the team won a game at this point. The loss from this past weekend even put the team at .500 for the first time in franchise history.

Meeting Expectations

I believe most fans were OK with the organization shifting to a complete rebuild and an analytics-heavy approach this offseason. Let’s remind ourselves about just how grand the rebuild was:

  • The team decided not to re-sign their key free agents, including WR Travis Benjamin, C Alex Mack, RT Mitchell Schwartz, ILB Craig Robertson, and FS Tashaun Gipson. That’s five starters gone from a year ago, four of whom were Pro Bowl caliber players.
  • On defense, the team flat out cut several other starters or key contributors, including OLB Paul Kruger, ILB Karlos Dansby, CB K’Waun Williams, and SS Donte Whitner. That’s four more starters gone.
  • DE Desmond Bryant, who was expected to be a leader on defense, suffered a season-ending injury right before the start of camp. The team also traded away OLB Barkevious Mingo and CB Justin Gilbert.
  • For all the players lost, the team opted to save their cap space for the future and instead focus on the draft. Of the 14 players selected, the only direct replacements for the departed players were WR Corey Coleman (for Benjamin) and DE/OLB Emmanuel Ogbah (for Kruger).

Think about these names:

Jamie Meder.

Stephen Paea.

Cam Johnson.

Xavier Cooper.

Corey Lemonier.

Briean Boddy-Calhoun.

Tracy Howard.

Demario Davis.

Ibraheim Campbell.

Derrick Kindred.

Ed Reynolds.

Individually, there can be some quality players there — Meder and Davis have proven themselves worthy of an NFL roster spot. Overall, though, it’s a list of undrafted free agents, low draft picks, or players who didn’t catch on elsewhere. Collectively, the group makes up at least half of the Browns’ defense on any given snap.

As a defense, you can survive if a couple of these guys are starting, or if most of them are second- and third-teamers. This is our defense, and it’s the No. 1 reason why the Browns are 0-10 this year.

How Can it Get Better?

This is where I go back to the headline I used for this article: “patience is paramount for the plan to work.” Despite Jason La Canfora’s fear mongering, I remain unphased: I believe that as tough as things are, Jimmy Haslam is all-in on letting Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta, and Hue Jackson carry out their plan for the franchise. The good news is that we’re almost finished with PHASE 1 of that plan, which was tearing up the roster and starting from scratch.

To me, PHASE 2 is this: continue adding those core players, and it starts with the free agency and then the 2017 NFL Draft. Maybe this will jump out at you:

You might say, “why didn’t we just use that cap space to originally keep Mack and Schwartz?” Here’s my theory: the front office expected to be bad this year. Why waste a year of high cap space and cash spending in a bad year, knowing you’ll have nearly the same record, when you can instead wait to spend big the following year (2017) after you’ve had two drafts worth of new, core talent?

The Phase 2 Plan

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns
WR Terrelle Pryor has emerged as a core offensive player.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Using that cap space, the team should make it a mission to re-sign WR Terrelle Pryor and OLB Jamie Collins. This past Thursday, we saw how an elite player like Collins can single-handedly change the attitude of a defense at times. Sure, it only worked for one half before Baltimore realized our safety position doesn’t exist, but it shows the importance of getting those core players.

If I’m giving an absurdly early starting roster projection for 2017, here it is, starting with offense:

  • LT Joe Thomas
  • LG Joel Bitonio
  • C Austin Reiter
  • RG John Greco
  • RT (unfilled)
  • QB (unfilled)
  • RB Isaiah Crowell / Duke Johnson
  • WR Corey Coleman
  • WR Terrelle Pryor
  • WR Andrew Hawkins
  • TE Gary Barnidge

On offense, I think the Browns need to drastically improve at least one spot on the offensive line. I’ve penciled in Reiter as a very optimistic look at the center position, because he was solid in his one game before tearing his ACL. Quarterback could go a number of different directions that I don’t even want to wrap my mind around yet.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens
OLB Jamie Collins has already had an impact.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Here is the defense:

  • DE Desmond Bryant
  • NT Danny Shelton
  • DE Emmanuel Ogbah
  • LB Jamie Collins
  • LB Christian Kirksey
  • DE/LB (vacant)
  • CB Joe Haden
  • FS (vacant)
  • SS (vacant)
  • CB (vacant)
  • NB Jamar Taylor

More work needs to be done defensively, especially at the safety position, where I’d be fine if none of the team’s current options returned.

Core 4 + 1

If the Browns retain Collins and Pryor, then outside of the quarterback position, I have five key starting roles they need to fill for 2017. Four of those core spots should come via the draft, and one via free agency. Those draft picks will include:

  • Browns’ 1st round pick (2017) - likely No. 1 overall
  • Eagles’ 1st round pick (2017) - mid-round pick
  • Browns’ 2nd round pick (2017) - likely No. 33 overall
  • Titans’ 2nd round pick (2017) - mid-round pick
Mississippi v Texas A&M
How much better does the Browns’ defense sound with DE/OLB Myles Garrett?
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Like I said before, we’ll have time to address the quarterback position at some later date, including whether they should take one at No. 1 overall. Right now, though, I’m looking for a top-tier DE/OLB at the top of the draft like Myles Garrett. The other three picks can address offensive tackle, and at least one, but preferably two, of the secondary positions. In free agency, I think the team has to address one of the safety positions. One route is to dig around and find a semi-reliable veteran (i.e. think of a Mike Adams or Jim Leonhard type of player). The other route, which could be a bit of a pipedream, is to sign a guy like Eric Berry of the Chiefs to a long-term deal.

What I’ve outlined here isn’t some ridiculous scenario. When you look at the cap space and the ammunition of draft picks Cleveland has, it’s actually the default scenario that the organization has set themselves up for. Such an infusion of talent will make the 2016 struggles a memory of the past — sure, there will still be plenty of growing pains, but not like what we’ve had to grind through in 2016.

There is also a scenario I think the Browns could leverage if San Francisco and Chicago finish with the second- and third-overall picks of the 2017 NFL Draft. I think it’s realistic to think both teams could be looking for a quarterback, and if Chicago wants to jump San Francisco to get their guy, the Browns might be able to trade down and still get the top defensive player on the board. The Browns could stockpile even more picks for 2017 and 2018, including first- and second-rounders, if something like that were to come to fruition.

Who is Willing to Grind it Out?

We’ve got six more games to go. It’d be great if San Francisco could pick up some more wins so that Cleveland could gain some cushion to win a game without risking their draft position, but regardless, the Browns’ plan remains unchanged for 2017. If there is one thing I regret about how the 2016 season has played out, it’s the fact that more of the team’s 14 draft picks have not had a major impact this season. If Cleveland has a really good 2017 offseason, though, don’t be surprised if many of those 2016 picks end up starting to thrive (as Danny Shelton has as a sophomore) or just turn out to be good depth players. I know this season sucks, but are you willing to stay patient with the plan, Browns fans?