With the lockout possibly less than two weeks from ending (if you’re “borderline insane”) or less than three weeks from ending (if you’re a borderline genius), I’d better get more of these space-filling “checklists” finished, or I could be borderline unemployed.
I’ve got the AFC North and the NFC North. I’ve done one to date. It’s time for No. 2.
And then for my second team checklist.
With the Browns yet again in the midst of an overhaul, let’s consider the top five things on which they should be focusing:
1. Figure out the quarterback depth chart.
This is about much more than finding a starter. This is about first determining which quarterbacks will be on the roster, and then which will be the starter, the backup, and the emergency option.
Jake Delhomme, whom I continue to believe Jon Gruden recommended to Mike Holmgren given the way Delhomme played against Gruden’s Bucs, surely will be gone. Seneca Wallace could be back, given his familiarity with the West Coast offense that will be embraced under new coach Pat Shurmur. Colt McCoy expects to be the starter.
The real question for Holmgren, Shurmur, and company is whether they’re content to groom McCoy on the fly, or whether they’re interested in trying to nudge McCoy to the back burner while a guy like, for example, Matt Hasselbeck is brought in to run the offense for a year or two. This year’s crop of available veteran quarterback consists of plenty of guys with plenty more experience than McCoy.
2. Get help for Peyton Hillis.
Madden curse notwithstanding, Hillis can’t continue to churn out 330-plus touches per year without snapping, crackling, and/or popping. Last year, Hillis fell into the workhorse role after second-round pick Montario Hardesty suffered a season-ending knee injury during his preseason debut. Arriving in October via trade that sent Jerome Harrison to Philly, Mike Bell gained only 71 yards on 31 carries, an average of 2.3 yards per attempt.
This year, whether it’s Hardesty or Bell or a free agent or someone else, the Browns need to lighten the load for Hillis with quality players who can move the chains when Hillis is catching his breath.
Several intriguing options are available, especially with Tiki Barber making a comeback and Reggie Bush likely to be available. Getting a player with a little sizzle attached to his name could have other benefits for a city that, when it comes to its pro football team, hasn’t seen much sizzle since the Cuyahoga smoldered.
3. Load up on 4-3 defenders.
Under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, the Browns acquired plenty of 3-4 defensive players. With Shurmur hiring Dick Jauron to run the defense, the 4-3 is back — and the Browns consequently need guys in the front seven who have the skills best suited for that attack.
Having linebackers with 4-3 experience like Scott Fujita helps. Rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard will help the team make the transition on the defensive line. The Browns need some veteran linemen who can perform in the 4-3. Defensive end Robaire Smith, who played in that front with the Titans, is due to become an unrestricted free agent. He could provide some continuity and leadership to an otherwise young unit.
Other possibilities are Pat Williams, Tommie Harris, and Brandon Mebane, who was drafted by the Seahawks when Holmgren was the coach — and who will be an unrestricted free agent if the threshold moves back to four years.
On the outside, defensive end Ray Edwards could be an intriguing option. But he doesn’t have the same name recognition, or ability, as a certain high-profile free agent defensive end whom Holmgren lured to Lambeau in 1993, his second year with the Packers.
Then again, who does?
4. Get a quality veteran receiver.
The Browns have some young wideouts with potential, including Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, and rookie Greg Little. And the Browns resisted (perhaps wisely) taking a chance on Julio Jones with the sixth pick in the 2011 draft, opting instead to accept a peck of picks from the Falcons instead.
They could use a veteran presence — preferably with some speed — to help stretch the field and open up the many underneath routes of the West Coast offense.
Plenty of wideouts will be available this year; the question becomes fixing the right price and accepting the diva factor. If he’s cut by the Vikings, Bernard Berrian could help pull safeties deep, likely at an affordable contract. His teammate, Sidney Rice, could be an even better option, but he’s a luxury that the Browns may not be able to justify until they have a quarterback who can get the most out of him.
Regardless of what the Browns do, here’s hoping that they realize Josh Cribbs is best used as a return man and a Wildcat option, not as a full-time receiver.
5. Improve the other half of the secondary.
The Browns are in very good shape as to 50 percent of their all-rookie secondary: cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. They now need a complement for both players.
For several years, the possibility of sliding Sheldon Brown to free safety has been considered, and if a quality corner could be acquired in free agency, perhaps it’s time for Brown to make the move.
Unfortunately, there won’t be a glut of quality cornerbacks available in free agency. Though the Browns applied a second-round tender to Eric Wright, he’ll be unrestricted if the new labor deal reduces the minimum back to four years. Then again, they may not want Wright back in the starting lineup, given that he received death threats last year after being burned more often than a redheaded roofer.