Cleveland Browns: Joe Thomas

CLEVELAND -- Mike Pettine reiterated that the Cleveland Browns did not agree with the timing on the decision to uphold the suspension of Josh Gordon, but he wasn’t ready to call it unfair.

“The rules are the rules,” Pettine said after the preseason win over the Bears. “The league has a system that they set up. It was collectively bargained. We respect it.”

Gordon
Gordon
Pettine admitted that the timing on Gordon’s suspension for a positive marijuana test was “not ideal” for the team.

“But we move forward,” he said. “How it played out was not ideal circumstances for us, obviously, but that’s behind us. Our full focus now is getting this team ready. You can’t worry about guys you don’t have.”

Andrew Hawkins will get the first chance to start opposite Miles Austin, though Hawkins will move inside to the slot on third downs, with probably Nate Burleson playing outside in three-receiver sets. Pettine said the team will focus on a committee approach to replacing Gordon.

“I’ve said this all along, you don’t replace a Josh Gordon, a top-five NFL receiver, with just one player,” Pettine said. “I think you have to get creative with what you do, and roll some different guys in there, maybe change some personnel groupings and get some different matchups. That’s the challenge that we face.”

Left tackle Joe Thomas spoke to a group of reporters that included 92.3-The Fan in Cleveland, USA Today and the Northeast Ohio Media Group. He lamented what he called a program that doesn’t reflect “the morals of society today.”

“The problem is that now you're sitting in a situation where you have a collective bargaining agreement that lasts 10 years and in the middle of it nobody's going to want to go back to the bargaining table and try to hash out things that may be an issue as they clearly are on a number of different levels, but that are only going to affect a couple of people,” Thomas said.

“I think there's a resistance from management of the NFL and also from the Players Association to do that type of needed updating of the drug policy because obviously there's some oversights when they wrote the program and some cultural changes that have happened that I don't think the program accurately reflects the morals of society today and the NFL and pro sports in general."
BEREA, Ohio -- Joe Thomas has reached the point in his career where he is given days off during Cleveland Browns' training camp.

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP PhotoVeteran tackle Joe Thomas runs sprints during a conditioning test at the Browns' training camp facility in Berea, Ohio.
It's a sign of respect, and in Thomas' case it's respect for sustained and consistent excellence in each of his seven previous seasons in the league, when he's made seven Pro Bowls and never missed a snap.

Thomas remains ever dedicated, ever courteous. He also is unfailingly humble. But as his career progresses, he has become more and more insightful about the game's nuances and games within the game.

So when he speaks, it's worth listening. There will be no outrageousness, and no fudging of the truth either. Monday, Thomas spoke with the media for the first time since training camp began, touching on two issues of interest -- the running game and Brian Hoyer (he was not crusading for Hoyer, merely answering questions).

Thomas spent most of last season talking about the running game being an NFL dinosaur and saying that to win in the modern age teams had to throw the ball. He even went as far as to say he'd never draft a running back in the first round. Now, though, he plays for a team that (assuming Josh Gordon is suspended) will have to run the ball effectively to win.

Thomas acknowledged the irony, but added the Kyle Shanahan system -- an offshoot of his father Mike Shanahan -- would have the Browns closer to a 50-50 run-pass split than at any time in his career regardless. He said Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme is dependent on the run because it relies heavily on play-action.

"You need to be able to run those wide zones, even if it gets one or zero yards, to keep the safeties up," Thomas said. "It's when they're trying to fill in the run game that you can hit those big plays over the top."

Thomas said the Browns and Baltimore (with Shanahan disciple Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator) are the only two teams to run the zone-blocking system, which requires lateral movement from linemen and a back who can read the hole, plant and hit the hole with authority. Thomas said the zone-blocking scheme is drastically different than anything he's done, but it fits the skills of the team's offensive line better than any system in his career. That's because the Browns have guys who can move in Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz.

"This is in my opinion one of the only schemes that you can run the ball consistently," Thomas said, "because you make those defensive linemen run sideline to sideline. And it does set up the passing game that we run very, very well."

Regarding Hoyer, Thomas had nothing but praise. He was careful not to compare Hoyer to Johnny Manziel, or to say that one or the other would start. He simply praised Hoyer as "every bit one of the best competitors in the NFL."

"No matter if we drafted a quarterback No. 1 overall, I knew that in his mind he expected to win the job," Thomas said.

He added Hoyer is never hesitant or afraid to challenge teammates on the field, and he is much more vocal than it might appear.

"He has less starts than probably any guy but a rookie who's out there starting right now," Thomas said. "He commands a level of respect because of the way he goes about his business doing things the right way and acting like he's the starting quarterback that's taken us to five playoffs.

"I think it's that attitude and that swagger that demands respect, and he also goes out and he backs it up on the field where he throws the ball to the right person, he's doing the right things, he's getting everybody on the same page. That's just as much the role of the quarterback as throwing touchdown passes."
In the final in a series of post-1999 draft assessments, we present a starting 22 for the Cleveland Browns from players taken in the draft since the team returned in '99 (which is actually a starting 23 because there were three-four and four-three defenses, which means we have to include two DTs, two DEs and two ILBs).

In some ways, the starting 11 on offense and (12) on defense shows why the Browns have struggled so badly, with one playoff appearance, one playoff game, two winning seasons and 12 double-digit loss seasons in the last 15. The talent level is not exactly overwhelming.

Since 1999, by unofficial count the Browns have drafted eight quarterbacks, 11 running backs, two fullbacks, 17 wide receivers, seven tight ends, five offensive tackles, nine guards, four centers (including a long snapper), seven defensive ends, eight defensive tackles, 16 outside linebackers, six inside linebackers, 19 cornerbacks and 10 safeties.

Here's the starting 11/12 for each side of the ball, with the 2014 draft excluded:

OFFENSE:

Quarterback: Tim Couch

Also considered: Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Luke McCown, Spergon Wynn.

I can hear the cackles, but among those drafted Couch had the most wins (22), touchdowns (64), and most yards (11,131). Check the list of other quarterbacks drafted. Find any better than Couch there?

Running back: William Green

Also considered: Lee Suggs, Jerome Harrison

Green edges out the other two, though an argument could be made for any. Not that any of them were sterling. Green lasted four seasons and in the last one that knife jumped out of the box and landed in his back. His 2,109 yards are the most by any drafted Browns back since '99.

FB: Lawrence Vickers

Also considered: Owen Marecic

Vickers was a Romeo Crennel favorite from Day 1 and has gone on to have a solid pro career. We could have done without the fullback option passes, though.

WR: Kevin Johnson, Josh Gordon.

Also considered: Braylon Edwards

Gordon
Gordon
Edwards should have dominated this position with his ability, but he could never get out of his own way. Johnson had flaws, but he finished with more receiving yards and games played than Edwards, though Edwards had more TDs (28 to 23). Gordon makes it based on his spectacular 2013 season, and on the fact that the Browns snagged him in the supplemental draft. However, it's become evident why many teams were wary of him.

TE: Jordan Cameron

Also considered: Kellen Winslow

Winslow could have been spectacular if not for his motorcycle accident. As it was he was pretty good, but he ended his time in Cleveland as a headache. Cameron does a lot right, has improved every year and could be on the verge of stardom.

OT: Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz

Also considered: Nobody

Thomas
Thomas is the only no-brainer on the list. Schwartz should be fine in the long run.

OG: Jason Pinkston, Shawn Lauvao

Also considered: Nobody

Tough position because teams don't draft guards high. Most starters are guys like John Greco or Jim Pyne who work hard and don't say much. Those guys did not come via the draft, though. Pinkston and Lauvao are two who did.

C: Alex Mack

Also considered: Jeff Faine

Mack and Faine are two similar players. Smart, aggressive, tough, able to move. But Faine's career was short-circuited by trade after the Browns signed LeCharles Bentley. Mack's career as a Brown is entering its prime years.

DEFENSE

DE: Courtney Brown, Jabaal Sheard

Also considered: Nobody.

How tough is it to find a defensive end who can rush the passer? Ask the Browns. Brown's career was short-circuited by injury, and Sheard is listed as an end because that's where he'll be this season and where he's spent most of his time since he was drafted.

DT: Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor

Also considered: Gerard Warren

Rubin and Taylor are the real deal, unlike Warren, who was a lot of bluster in Cleveland and wouldn't have been with the Browns were it not for the fact that Butch Davis overruled his scouts and chose "Big Money" over Richard Seymour.

OLB: Kamerion Wimbley, Chaun Thompson

Also considered: Rahim Abdullah, Ben Taylor

Like at end, there's not a plethora of overwhelming choices. After Wimbley it's pretty much a roll of the dice. To this day, it's hard to comprehend why the Browns ever traded Wimbley.

ILB: Andra Davis, D'Qwell Jackson

Also considered: Nobody

Two very good players who contributed for several years. Neither were great, but both were good for the team on and off the field.

CB: Daylon McCutcheon, Joe Haden

Also considered: Anthony Henry, Eric Wright

Haden
McCutcheon and Haden have contrasting styles, but both were effective. McCutcheon was a small but physical guy who got the job done with smarts and savvy. Haden is bigger, faster and more athletic; he's more of a pure cover corner.

S: T.J. Ward, Brodney Pool

Also considered: Sean Jones, Chris Crocker

Ward is the better of the big hitter types, Pool the better of the rangy guys.
Assessing the Cleveland Browns roster as we head to training camp, with a position-by-position rundown comparing it to when the season ended and now.

Offensive line

Then: Joe Thomas, Shawn Lauvao, Alex Mack, John Greco, Mitchell Schwartz, Garrett Gilkey, Jason Pinkston

Now: Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Mack, Greco, Schwartz, Paul McQuistan, Gilkey, Pinkston

Any group that starts with an excellent left tackle, an excellent center, an underrated right tackle and a highly regarded draft pick has something going for it. That’s exactly where the Browns stand on the offensive front. Which is a good start. But then add in the knowledge that the Browns will be running a zone blocking scheme that requires athleticism and the ability to move along with smarts and the Browns up-front unit looks better. If Bitonio comes through as the Browns hope, it would be huge. He could make a large impact as a rookie whose style and attributes bring to mind Logan Mankins of the New England Patriots. However, he ended the offseason with an ankle injury that forced him to miss minicamp. His health early in camp is worth watching. Some question the right side of the Browns line, but the previous regime felt good enough about Greco to give him a contract extension and about Schwartz to make him an immediate starter. That pairing might be better than folks think. In Gilkey and McQuistan the Browns have depth and flexibility if injuries should affect the line.

The positives: Thomas is as good as they come. He’s so good that one offensive line guru said when evaluating him none of the standard judgments apply because he’s that good. Mack is expensive, but very talented, and the line seems to be a good fit for the zone blocking scheme that Kyle Shanahan will run.

The negatives: Bitonio is a rookie who is unproven. As highly as people think of him, he still has to do it. As encouraging as the signs are about adapting to the new system, the line still has to do it, and it will take some time.

Upgraded, level or downgraded: Upgraded, especially if Bitonio is all he is touted to be.

Previously: Quarterback, running back/fullback, wide receiver, tight end.

Coming: Defensive line, linebacker, secondary, coaching staff, front office.
Continuing the theme of draft rundowns, today we count down the top five Cleveland Browns draft picks since 1999 -- with the top five appearing today. (Nos. six through 11 were here.) On Monday, we'll come up with a starting 11 from the team's draft selections since 1999.

There is one rule in this list: The 2014 draft is excluded, because as exciting as it was, at this point it's all based on potential. This list is based on production, and the emphasis is on consistent and dependable production.

NUMBER 5
Player: Jordan Cameron
Position: Tight end
When: Fouth round, 2011
By: Tom Heckert
Alford
Cameron
Cameron was a project who caught people's eye at the combine, which he has candidly admitted has nothing to do with football. He said he's glad it didn't, because he'd played so little tight end at college and the combine workouts gave him a chance to show his ability. The Browns were patient with him, though before his second season then-president Mike Holmgren stood on the sidelines during a practice and picked Cameron as the guy who would emerge from nowhere. The emergence came a year later, as Cameron made the Pro Bowl in his third season. That should be just the start for a guy who can give the team a legitimate receiving threat in the middle of the field for as long as he's a Brown.

NUMBER 4
Player: Ahtyba Rubin
Position: Defensive tackle
When: Sixth round, 2008
By: Phil Savage
The '08 draft was the year the Browns did not have picks in the first, second or third rounds. That meant Beau Bell was the most celebrated fourth-round pick in NFL history. Bell didn't work out, but Rubin, taken two rounds later, did. Rubin has been a dependable professional who's improved with each season he's played. The "high motor" phrase has become a caricature, but Rubin plays every down he's on the field all out. He runs down backs 10-to-15 yards down the field, and he's strong at the line. He gives all he has, causes no trouble and contributes. Given he was taken so low, this might be the Browns best value pick since the team returned in 1999.

NUMBER 3
Player: Alex Mack
Position: Center
When: First round, 2009
By: Eric Mangini
Mack
Mack's selection was greeted with derision after the Browns traded down twice to take a center. But in the long run he has had the last laugh. Mack used the transition status to his benefit after going to the Pro Bowl, and he'll now be tied to the Browns at least through the next two years. He's above the average center's pay scale, which is significant. But he's one of the guys who earns his keep. He's smart -- he is a Cal guy -- and can move. Joe Thomas called him the best he's ever seen at reading defenses presnap. When linemen who fit the zone blocking scheme are mentioned, Thomas tops the list -- but Mack is not far behind. In the long run, Mangini's choice has proven to be a strong presence in the middle of the offense.

NUMBER 2
Player: Joe Haden
Position: Cornerback
When: First round, 2010
By: Tom Heckert and Eric Mangini
Haden's growth has been a marvel. He has gone from a guy who was suspended for four games to a guy who made the Pro Bowl, studied with Deion Sanders and was rewarded with the richest contract for a cornerback in the league. GM Ray Farmer talked about how a few days later after signing the new deal Haden was diving for interceptions during an offseason practice. Teams never know how a guy reacts to being paid, but the team believes in Haden. And it believes his strong 2013 season is just the first step in his growth.

NUMBER 1
Player: Joe Thomas
Position: Left tackle
When: First round, 2007
By: Phil Savage
Thomas
Rarely does a player turn out to be everything he was slated to be. Thomas has been just that, and more. Thomas has been to the Pro Bowl every season he's played, and he has not missed a down since he was drafted. Dependable, capable, plays through difficult situations, never complains -- Thomas is the ultimate professional and the Browns' surest bet to be the team's next inductee in Canton. Thomas not only ranks as one of the best draft picks since 1999, but one of the best draft picks in Browns history.
BEREA, Ohio -- "Quiet" was the operative word as the Cleveland Browns talked about their much-ballyhooed rookie quarterback Wednesday.

Johnny Manziel is "quiet," coach Mike Pettine said.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mark DuncanAt this point in practices, the Browns aren't yet calling on Johnny Manziel to use his mobility.
So did Brian Hoyer. And so did Joe Thomas, who said Manziel was doing well to be quiet.

"Rookies are supposed to be seen and not heard," Thomas said.

Let the acclimation of Johnny Football into the Browns continue.

Based on one offseason practice in shorts, it's wise not to make fast judgments. There's a long way to go and much to learn. At this point, all that can be said is the Browns quarterbacks as a group have to be among the shortest in the league.

None really distinguished himself, though Hoyer was probably the best (despite an interception on his first throw in team drills) and Tyler Thigpen probably struggled the most.

After the practice, general manager Ray Farmer appeared on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland and said that right now Hoyer is the better quarterback "by a substantial margin."

Manziel looked like a rookie who's had the world thrown at him. Though Pettine said the lack of a playbook in college means little because Texas A&M ran a complex offense, the Browns coach was quick to list the things Manziel has to learn that go with a pro offense -- the formation, the cadence, putting the right player in motion, the protection.

This was only Manziel's second practice with the full team, and it followed three weekend days with rookies only. It's normal that a rookie's head would be spinning at this point. Witness that Hoyer, a veteran, had growing pains during Browns training camp last season then played well when given a chance.

On the pecking order, Hoyer was with the first team, Thigpen the second and Manziel the third -- though things were jumbled a bit because Hoyer did not do all the full-team drills.

Pettine said the Browns are simply giving Manziel the basic plays and routes and that in this setting the team is not taking advantage of his strength, which is his mobility. That will all come later.

"You don't take a guy that's made a living being a mobile quarterback and tell him all of a sudden he's going to be a statue," Pettine said.

That means reading too much into anything is silly. Manziel did, though, show an inclination to throw across his body in some footwork drills when throwing left. His low release could be an issue with taller defenders -- his final throw in practice was knocked down -- but he also had some nice throws, including one over the middle to new tight end Jim Dray and another on an out pattern to new receiver Andrew Hawkins. Otherwise, it was quite simply another day for Manziel to learn.

The NFL draft is an interesting event. It builds players up, celebrates them when they're taken and follows them when they arrive.

But in the end, how they do comes down to learning a system, practicing and playing physical and smart. The initial experience can be a challenge, the learning curve steep. Once it starts, it's a grind -- especially when training camp arrives.

Peyton Manning went through it. So did Tim Couch and every other player drafted into the league.

Fighting through it is the first step to success. Not even Johnny Football can avoid going through the process.

In that regard, he's right where he should be.

The most expensive Browns in 2014

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The release of D'Qwell Jackson leads a wandering mind to wonder: What players will cost the Cleveland Browns the most money this season?

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/David RichardJoe Thomas' $10.9 million base salary is the highest among offensive linemen in the league.
Here they are, in terms of their cash cost, which equals base salary plus any bonuses.
A few thoughts:

Yes, Paul Kruger is indeed the second-highest paid player on the team.

Kruger’s base salary is the fourth highest among linebackers in the league, behind only St. Louis’ James Laurinaitis ($10 million), Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny ($7.45 million) and Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley ($8 million).

Yes, Campbell ranks fifth on the Browns. And Bess sixth.

Sigh.

It will be shocking if either Campbell or Bess is with the team in 2014.

Four of the top seven highest paid were signed in the Joe Banner-Mike Lombardi era: Kruger, Bess, Campbell and Bryant.

Greco’s $1.7 million roster bonus is due the fifth day of the league year, which would be March 16.

Thomas has the highest base salary ($10.9 million) among the league’s offensive linemen, and his cash cost for 2014 ranks second among linemen to Philadelphia’s Jason Peters’ $12 million. The contract extension Thomas signed in 2011 included $29.5 million in guaranteed money.

ProFootballTalk.com reported that Rubin could be on the cut list due to his salary. We’ll see.

Here are the 10 most expensive Browns as they fall under the salary cap, with prorated signing bonuses included in the calculations:

  • Thomas, $12.3 million
  • Haden, $8.9 million
  • Kruger, $8.2 million
  • Rubin, $8.175 million
  • Bryant, $4 million
  • LB Barkevious Mingo, $3.715 million
  • Taylor, $2.575 million
  • Grego, $2.43 million
  • QB Brandon Weeden, $2.204 million
  • Campbell, $3.25 million
When it comes to wanting to see a player in the Super Bowl who hasn’t been yet, the Cleveland Browns were nearly unanimous in their choice.

Eighty percent of the 10 players polled preferred Adrian Peterson.

Why does he garner such respect? Because he produces, he’s one of the best, and he’s overcome a significant knee injury to remain one of the best. That is the kind of thing that other players notice, the kind of effort and dedication that other players respect.

The two players other than Peterson to receive votes from the Browns were Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.

One Browns player received votes from the league: left tackle Joe Thomas. He got just three of 320 votes, less than 1 percent. But it’s something -- as at least three players in the league recognize what he’s contributed.

On the quirky side, former Browns place-kicker Phil Dawson garnered one vote. It did not come from Cleveland.

But in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Dawson was set up for an almost ideal ending. Had the 49ers scored a touchdown on their final drive, the game-winning point could have come from Dawson. And pleased at least one NFL voter.
PITTSBURGH -- Cleveland Browns players reacted angrily to the mere notion that coach Rob Chudzinski could be fired following the team’s 4-12 season.

And when they spoke in the locker room after the season-ending loss to the Steelers, they weren’t even sure it would happen. As they spoke, there were only rumors about the possibility. By early evening, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen cited his sources in saying the decision was made and would be announced early this week.

The feelings of the players were evident, though.

“That’s ridiculous,” linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said.

“I’d be very surprised if they make a change,” tackle Joe Thomas said. “And disappointed.”

“I like coach Chud a lot,” said tight end Jordan Cameron. “He’s a great coach and he did a great job, and it’s his first year. I like the way he is. He’s a competitor and he’s a grinder.”

Cameron later added: “Guys deserve a chance to turn a program around and get things going, so (the possibility) is kind of shocking. I’m all for Chud and what he does, and support him 100 percent.”

Safety T.J. Ward, who could be a free agent, said the team believed in Chudzinski through the entire season.

“If we didn’t believe in him we wouldn’t have played for him,” Ward said. “You’d see a lot of rebelling and a lot of guys doing their own thing, and I don’t think that happened at all this year. It just didn’t happen the way we wanted it. When you have guys playing until the end of the season when there’s nothing to play for, you know you’ve got a good coach.”

Maybe not good enough, evidently.

Chudzinski showed little emotion about the possibility he could be replaced. Asked if he expected to be back, he said: "As far as I know."

He said he had no inkling that there was any front office dissatisfaction with his performance, and said over and over he would start this week making evaluations for next season.

“To start over again, it would be devastating, I think,” Thomas said.

“There’s reports saying that he won’t be back?” Jackson said. “Chud’s gonna be here for as long as he wants to. He’s a great head coach. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. I’m not answering any questions like that. That’s foolish, in my opinion. That’s not going to happen.”

Pro Bowl selections: Cleveland Browns

December, 27, 2013
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Alex Mack's bargaining position just improved, in free agency and with the Browns.
Mack was selected to his second Pro Bowl as results of voting were announced Friday by the NFL.

He will be joined in Hawaii by left tackle Joe Thomas, who is going for the seventh time in seven years, wide receiver Josh Gordon (first), tight end Jordan Cameron (first) and cornerback Joe Haden (first).

In a quirk of NFL nature, the Browns have more Pro Bowl selections than wins.

Thomas’ selection continues a streak of excellence that started when he was drafted. He and Jim Brown are the only two players in team history to reach the Pro Bowl in each of their first seven seasons. He also is the tenth in NFL history to do that, with the previous nine all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mack will be a free agent after the season, and since he joined the Browns the team has gone 23-56. He said he’d be open to staying, but Pro Bowl centers don’t often get a chance to maximize their earnings, and pick where they want to play.

Haden, too, improved his bargaining position with the selection. His contract is up after 2014, and if the Browns want to keep him they’ll probably have to give him an extension prior to next season.

With Haden and Gordon both possible candidates for new deals prior to 2014, the Browns may be happy they saved so much salary-cap space for the future.

Regarding the Browns' selections:
  • The selection of Mack and Thomas for the second time together (2010) marks the first time a pair of offensive linemen made multiple Pro Bowls since Gene Hickerson and Dick Schafrath did it from 1966-69.
  • Cameron joins Milt Morin, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow as the only tight ends to make the team.
  • Gordon, Braylon Edwards and Webster Slaughter are the only receivers to make the team. Gordon has a very good chance to lead the NFL in receiving yards and yards per catch.
  • Haden is the first cornerback to go since Frank Minnifield in 1990.

The Browns really have no major snubs in the game, as everyone who had a solid season made the team. About the only player who could have made it but didn’t was safety T.J. Ward. He was selected as an alternate. Ward also could be a free agent after the season.

The five selected are the most for the Browns since they had seven in 2007.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

A look at some salary cap numbers

December, 27, 2013
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As the season winds down, it seems a good time to provide some facts about the Cleveland Browns' salary cap situation.

-- The Browns used $113.5 million of this season’s salary cap.

-- Which means $24 million went unused.

-- The team used $4.17 million of its cap space on quarterbacks, 4.34 percent of the total cap and 59.34 percent below the league average.

-- No running back used more than $775,000 of the cap -- and that was Chris Ogbonnaya.

-- The receiver who cost the most under the cap was Davone Bess, $2.68 million; he’s ninth on the team in cap space.

-- Gary Barnidge used the most salary cap space among tight ends, $1.4 million.

-- While the Browns were 70.6 percent below the league average in cap spending at running back and 51.1 percent below the league average at wide receiver, they were 25.8 percent above the average on the offensive line.

-- That’s partly because they have 11 linemen under contract, and because Joe Thomas costs $11.4 million under the cap.

-- The total cap space used for the offense: $39.03 million, 28 percent below the league average.

-- Defensively, the four top players under the cap are Joe Haden at $9.09 million, Paul Kruger at $8.2 million, Ahtyba Rubin at $7.474 million and Desmond Bryant at $7.5 million.

-- Signing bonuses have a lot to do with some of those figures. Bryant was given $5 million and Kruger $6 million to sign their contracts.

-- Barkevious Mingo's salary cap figure is $2.97 million, more than Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor and T.J. Ward.

-- The Browns are using more than the league average at every position but safety.

-- Total spending on the defense under the salary cap: $54.825 million, nine percent above the league average.

-- Heading into 2014, the Browns have $95.7 million in cap space committed to players, which means they have $40 million in cap space to use on roster bonuses, draft picks, free agents and restructured deals.

-- The biggest candidates for new deals this offseason: Haden and receiver Josh Gordon. The biggest roster bonuses due players: $4 million to D’Qwell Jackson, $1.7 million to John Greco.

Thomas: Alex Mack has great value

December, 27, 2013
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Take a good look at the Cleveland Browns' offensive line on Sunday.

It’s debatable how many linemen will be back. If it weren’t so hard to completely retool, the case could be made that the Browns will have four new starters in 2014 to go with left tackle Joe Thomas.

That’s a stretch, of course, and a good deal of speculation.

But the Browns haven’t seemed enamored with their guards all season, there’s been a lot of rumblings about the inconsistencies of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack is slated to be a free agent.

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns have the salary-cap space to match likely any offer for standout center Alex Mack.
Nothing is known, of course, and there is a game yet to be played. But Mack’s potential departure seems the most significant. With Maurkice Pouncey injured, there is a lot of talk that Mack is one of the three or four best centers playing.

“Cleveland’s a very easy place to come back to,” Mack said. “I like the coach. I like the players. I have a house here. Without a doubt it would be easy to come back.”

But Mack, like safety T.J. Ward, also has the opportunity to decide where he wants to play, and since he was Eric Mangini’s first-round pick the team has gone 23-56. The Browns could place the franchise tag on Mack -- they have the salary-cap room -- but the new CBA calls for him to be paid the average of the top five offensive linemen, not centers. That number will approach $10 million, and Joe Banner’s history has not been to overpay.

Thomas feels it’s important to keep Mack with the Browns.

“Very few people really understand how many things the center is actually responsible for,” Thomas said. “Obviously the quarterback has the ball in his hands and he’s the guy who ultimately makes the decisions. But when it comes to setting the protections and setting the blocking in the run game, nobody has more on their plate than the center.

“[Mack is] probably the best that I’ve seen and has to be one of the best in the NFL at understanding the mental side of the game and getting everybody on the same page blocking wise.”

Guard Shawn Lauvao was drafted the same year as Mack, and the feeling is the team will let him get to free agency.

“You take it with a grain of salt,” Lauvao said. “If they want to bring me back, so be it. If they don’t, I feel like [free agency is] a great opportunity.”

The Browns do have John Greco signed for next season, and he could play center. Schwartz is still playing under his rookie contract. But the team discussed trading for Eugene Monroe of Jacksonville during the season.

The team’s wild card is Chris Faulk, a 6-foot-6 and 323-pound player recovering from a serious knee injury he hurt in his senior season at LSU. The Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent and want to take a long look at him for next season.
The Miami Dolphins this season lived through a well-publicized and much-discussed incident between players that saw tackle Jonathan Martin leave the team and guard Richie Incognito suspended indefinitely for alleged bullying.

The Cleveland Browns avoided that kind of problem this season and players said it happened in large part because the team's player engagement representative is Aaron Shea, a more than capable former player. Coach Rob Chudzinski even praised Shea's efforts one day during a weekly news conference without even being asked.

"He does an outstanding job," said left tackle Joe Thomas, a team captain. "He's got a number of years of experience playing in the NFL. He knows what it's like being in the locker room, going through a rookie season with all the stresses of family, football, a new team and a new city.

"He understands the pressure of going out on Sunday and succeeding. He understands all the offseason pressure. He understands all the things the players can get into. That's why he's so valuable."

Many teams don't use the word "engagement," but instead refer to Shea's role as player development or player relations. The job requires multitasking, from helping making sure players find housing to keeping a careful eye on the locker room culture to helping players deal with a sudden influx of money.

Shea was a fourth-round draft pick out of Michigan by the Browns in 2000, and he played for the Browns from 2000-2005. He went to San Diego as a free agent in 2006, but a back injury ended his career. Because he was in a locker room, he understands the locker room culture, and players said because of that he was able to avoid or defuse potentially difficult situations.

"He can lead guys and show guys the proper way to handle those stresses and pressures that you're going to go through, not only in your rookie season but throughout your entire career," Thomas said. "And on top of that, he understands what locker room culture is. And he understands how to tell guys how to back off, to say: ‘These are the things you're expected to do, these are things you don't have to do and you can stand up for yourself.'"

It's probably no coincidence that Garrett Gilkey -- a former victim of bullying -- did not have his long hair cut off in preseason the way many rookies do. Gilkey said there were few instances of hazing in the locker room that he saw, and he said very few players had their heads shaved -- one because he volunteered.

Shea took over for Jerry Butler, one of the better player engagement guys in the league. Safety T.J. Ward said Butler's departure raised his eyebrows, but added: "Shea's been great."

"He has that first-hand knowledge and experience [as an ex-player,]" Ward said. "We trust him. Shea, he does a great job with us. He speaks both sides. He balances himself equally with the [front office] and the players.

"I know everybody on this team loves what he does."
What the Browns are going through is not new to Joe Thomas.

Since Thomas was the third overall pick in the draft by the Browns in 2007, he’s had one winning season. And six in a row with at least 10 losses.

The Browns' overall record since Thomas was drafted: 37-73, basically one win in every three games.

Yet Thomas has been nothing but dependable and excellent in that time. He’s started 110 games at left tackle, the third-longest active streak among active linemen (behind D’Brickashaw Ferguson of the Jets and Eric Winston of Arizona). Thomas has not missed an offensive snap since he was drafted, and he’s on his way to his seventh Pro Bowl in seven seasons -- and probably a spot in Canton as well.

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/David RichardStar offensive lineman Joe Thomas has remained classy despite suffering through another losing season in Cleveland.
If the definition of professional is doing your best when you feel your worst, Thomas fits it perfectly. He gives everything he has every play of every game even though he’s been playing for a team that almost seems to have forgotten what it means to win.

Given his stature in the league -- Thomas has also been a finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Award for Community Service -- and his status with the team -- a captain -- his words always carry weight.

Here’s how he addressed the Browns' situation, and another season with double-digit losses: “Hopefully this is the last year.”

The problem is that Thomas said similar things last year, and the year before, and the year before, etc., etc.

“Obviously it’s not fun when you’re losing or when you finish the season with more losses than you do wins or the last couple games are not in the playoff hunt,” he said, adding: “Hopefully it’s going to be different next year. You just got to keep pushing forward. You can’t let yourself get frustrated. If you get frustrated, you get the tendency to think it’s helpless, or hopeless.”

Thomas said he thought the Browns would be in the playoff chase at this point, that when they started 3-2 and 4-5 it was a sign of good things. He still thinks if they had won one or two more close games they’d still be there, even though they’d be 6-8.

“Because of the way the AFC is,” he said.

He also knows that injuries to quarterbacks and the trade of Trent Richardson and the use of different backs hasn’t helped.

“You gotta play the hand that’s dealt,” he said. “And that was the hand that we were dealt with injuries and different things that happened throughout the season. It would be nice and it would be helpful to have one quarterback and running back throughout the season, but that was not in the cards this year.”

Thomas even was asked if he wondered if the Browns front office wanted to win this season, or if it was building for the following ones. Two draft picks last season were traded for picks in 2014, and Richardson was dealt for a first-round pick.

The running backs brought in after Richardson were little help, and the belief is the Browns knew this would be a tough season.

“I think that would be better served to ask those people in charge,” he said. “Obviously the players are doing everything they can and the coaches are doing everything they can. That’s the way it has been and the way it always will be.”

He said players are too busy during the season to wonder about that kind of thing.

“We can’t really worry about trying to break down the thoughts and mindset of the guys that are putting together the team personnel-wise,” he said.

When Thomas signed his contract extension two years ago, he said he did it because he believed in Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur.

Now he’s saying he believes in the new front office and coach Rob Chudzinski.

As he spoke, the clear thought came to mind: This is a guy who deserves better.
Considering Norv Turner’s offense ...

One might think the quarterback jumble that took place last week might affect the Browns playcalling, but clearly the coaching staff held little back when they played New England.

The Browns had 23 different combinations of offensive skill players on the field against New England.

The most common was a three-receiver, one tight end, one back set that included Chris Ogbonnaya, Davone Bess, Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Jordan Cameron (18 plays). That grouping has been the most common one used this season as well.

The second most common was one that had two tight ends, two receivers and running back Fozzy Whittaker (10 plays).

Seventeen of the different personnel groupings were on the field for one or two plays.

Clearly the Browns cut little back.

The most common personnel groupings:

One back, two receivers, two tight ends -- 31 plays

One back, three receivers, one tight end -- 25

Two backs, one receiver, two tight ends -- five (once with Joe Thomas at tight end)

Two backs, two receivers, one tight end -- four plays (two with Thomas again at tight end)

One back, one receiver, three tight ends -- three plays

Three receivers, two tight ends -- one

Two backs, three tight ends -- one (Oniel Cousins as the tight end)

The Browns called 16 passes on the 18 plays Gary Barnidge and Jordan Cameron were lined up at tight end. Two were touchdowns.

Not surprisingly, the Browns ran every time Thomas lined up at tight end. And one of the runs was the 34-yard reverse by Josh Gordon. On that play, Thomas flipped to the right side to line up at tight end, with Gary Barnidge sliding in to left tackle. The look helped sell the play as an inside handoff to Willis McGahee to the right side, but McGahee pitched to Gordon on the end-around. Jordan Cameron, a third tight end, technically lined up in the backfield on the play, as an H-back outside Thomas.

This kind of personnel usage would reflect the aggressiveness that Rob Chudzinski wants to bring to the team.

A quarterback with one day of practice?

So what.

Play aggressive and get after the Patriots suspect defense.

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