The Depth Chart
(June 2012)

I never remembered a draft that had so much hype as this year. So many subplots: the whole RGIII saga; the need for offensive play makers; Morris Claiborne’s test score; what the Vikings were going to do with the third pick; daily mock draft from all the experts; and on and on and on. I was just happy it finally got here.

I am a big fan of the Browns and pro football, a sometimes a member of the media, and I have been a coach for too many years that I would like to admit to. One thing I do know, and I am reminded of this each every NFL draft, that coaches (and I am assuming general managers) look at their teams from a completely different angle than fans and members of the media.

Coaches know one thing that is often overlooked by others, that a team is only as good as its weakest position. That even in the pass happy NFL, defenses still win championships. And that big games are won in the trenches. All of this sounds so cliché, yet all of it is relevant when looking to see how the Browns are being built.

The Browns fan in me, like in many of you, has built up twenty years of frustration since the last time the Browns have been relevant in the NFL. But all fans have to remember that Holgrem, Heckert, and Co. are only in their third draft of building a team from scratch to a championship level. We had to live with all that came before them, and most of it stunk, but those were the cards everyone was dealt. These guys are on year three and they don’t care about Courtney Brown, William Green, K2, and the rest of disappointments that have been drafted since 1999.

Football fans often confuse the quality of talent on a team with the quality of its offensive players. Too many fans think that if a team is weak at its skilled positions the overall quality of the team is also weak. Nowhere has that been more obvious than with the Browns.  Many media experts and fans are wrong about the Browns, they are not years away, and they are not miles behind the Steelers and Ravens. There might have been a time in recent history where they were, but not now. This is the third draft in the Holgrem era, and because the Browns addressed defense first, many fans feel that the team hasn’t been doing anything. I heard fan after fan, and radio host after radio host, burn up the local talk shows criticizing the Browns for drafting Joe Haden and Phillip Taylor and Jabaal Sheard instead of some offensive studs Julio Jones. Wrong. (By the way, did you know Greg Little caught more passes last year than Julio Jones?). Coaches are always worried about what they have at all positions, not just the ones that count in fantasy scoring.

After three drafts under the current regime, it is time to look at the Browns’ depth chart:

Offensive Line: Joe Thomas, Jason Pinkston, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao, Mitchell Schwarz. This could be the starting line on Opening Day. All drafted by the Browns; all young, athletic, and smart. They could be together for years.

Defensive Line: Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Frostee Rucker. Backed up by John Hughes and Billy Wynn. Probably the best and deepest spot on the team. Almost all home grown and young and athletic.

Outside Receivers: Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi are the returning starters. Jordon Norwood, Carlton Mitchell, and Josh Cribbs are behind them. Speedster Travis Benjamin was drafted.  Undrafted free agents Josh Cooper, Jermaine Saffold, and Bert Reed were signed. Still a week spot, but should be better. Still need a bonifide home run hitter, who would make everyone else look better. All receivers are home grown and still young, even Massaquoi is only entering his fourth year.

Tight End: Quietly accounted for 91 catches last season. Ben Watson, Evan Moore, Alex Smith, Jordan Cameron, and Dan Gronkowski did well as a group last season.  Moore and Cameron need to step it up and play to their potential.

Running Back: Trent Richardson is solid, greatly upgrades the position. It’s time for Montario Hardesty to show what he has. Owen Marecic needs to show something too. All are young and homegrown.

Linebacker: D’Qwell Jackson played like D’Qwell Jackson last year. Scott Fujita and Chris Cocong are reliable. This is the position the Browns must upgrade in next year’s draft. They need a couple of young, athletic linebackers to go forward with Jackson. James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho seem to be good mid round draft picks. All except Fujita and Cocong are home grown with their best years in front of them.

Defensive Backs: Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, and Dimitri Patterson are all young with, barring serious injuries, great years in front of them. Sheldon Brown is a veteran with hopefully a year left in the tank. Eric Hagg and Usama Young have yet to prove themselves. Trevin Wade was drafted in the last round. A good group, but will be a draft priority next year to fill out unit around Hayden and Ward. All but Brown, Hagg, and Young are homegrown and at the beginning of their careers.

Quarterback: Obvious an upgrade with Brandon Weedon. What they do with Colt McCoy is anyone’s guest. Could use a mentor for Weedon. It will be interesting to see where this is at on Opening Day.  McCoy and Weedon are both homegrown.

Specialists: Dawson and Cribbs, still solid. Need to have a healthy punter and a consistent snapper.

There are still areas that need one more solid draft, especially linebacker and receiver. But you can’t discount what they have already done. Notice how many times I said homegrown, young, and athletic while going through the depth chart? That is how you build championship teams.

For the first time I can argue since the 1960’s, the Browns roster is filled with young, athletic, fast players who were drafted by the team. That is how the Browns did it in the 50’s and 60’s, and that is how the Giants did it last year and the Packers did it the year before. I expect the Browns to be competitive every Sunday this year, and to compete for a championship next year.

I want to end this month with a few comments about NFL quarterbacks. The league is getting filled with hybrid quarterbacks, those that run often and played in a spread offense in college. No hybrid quarterback has ever won the Super Bowl and I doubt one will ever will. Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, like Ben Rothlisberger, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, and  Kurt Warner, were or are all traditional pro style drop back quarterbacks.

Cam Newton ran the ball 170 times last year. He won’t win the Super Bowl, let alone survive in the NFL, by doing that. Michael Vick hasn’t made it through a complete season since 2006. Andy Reid must make him a traditional NFL drop back quarterback if they are to finally win the Super Bowl with him this season.

Robert Griffin III is still  a product of today’s college game. Although he has a tremendous arm, he still came out of a system where if his early reads weren’t open he ran, averaging 15 carries a game. He is not going to do that in the NFL if he wants to survive or make it to the Super Bowl. RGIII might take off like a bat out of hell like Cam Newton did last year, and Michael Vick did in 2010, but remember no team with a quarterback running the ball 15 times a game for a complete season has ever  made it to the Super Bowl, let alone win it.

Andrew Luck in Stanford’s pro offense averaged less than four carries a game. His third option on his passing progression wasn’t to take off running, it was to find his third and then fourth receiver. That is why Luck was the consensus first pick; comparable to RGIII in talent, far ahead on the pro passing game.

That is why I’m happy with Brandon Weeden with the Browns. He did play in a spread offense taking every snap in the shotgun, however, he was not a runner.  He hung in the pocket and threw, averaging less than four carries a game.  His strong arm, along with his experience reading defenses, will be assets from day one for the Browns.