NFL Nation: Cleveland Browns
CLEVELAND -- Crowd noise doesn't hurt feelings. Text messages do.
The NFL's investigation into the Browns' game day smartphone communication was never about a suspension or even a loss of a draft pick.
Not entirely, anyway.
That the league had to discuss the general manager's inbox over something that seems so trivial has implications beyond league guidelines.
Ray Farmer had done damage in his own building, without the long-term track record to mask the problem. Farmer has done some good things -- particularly by filling several needs in last year's free agency and in parts of the draft -- but he's known for two struggling first-round picks and this investigation until proven otherwise.
Regaining the trust of other Browns' officials has been and should be a crucial component for the second-year general manager's job performance evaluation. Whether Farmer sent one text or 200 won't change the league-wide assumptions, fair or not, that he questioned jobs, embarrassed counterparts and exacerbated the well-worn dysfunction storyline in Cleveland.
For good measure, Farmer might even issue a "So ... we're cool, right?" to his staffers before disappearing on a four-game suspension.
This is a chance for the Browns to follow through on their word, to show over time this isn't as messy as it seems.
Farmer must get out of his own way.
Maybe things are all good now. Browns officials have stood by Farmer, who was contrite at the NFL combine. Coach Mike Pettine says he's "very comfortable" in his relationship with Farmer, sees football in the same way as him and both parties moved on from the mistake. Owner Jimmy Haslam calls Farmer an "exceptional human being" who is remorseful for his error.
But Pettine, in particular, had reason to fume when he first found out. Many successful NFL teams have a common thread -- a GM and head coach who respect each other.
Without that, Farmer and Pettine have no chance. Both say the respect is healthy. Whether they keep a united front during potential rough stretches of the season will determine just how healthy.
Advice for Farmer: Don't sit in the owner's box during games in 2015. It undermines your coach.
Forget a hammer-drop. The league is using a chisel on the Browns, who have been under investigation since early January over Farmer's improper text messages during games. For nearly three months, the Browns have handled new assistant coaching hires, free-agency plans and NFL draft scouting under this cloud. These are not extraordinary tasks, but they can be complicated when sanctions loom.
With 10 draft picks still intact for 2015, the suspension for Farmer is far from crippling. Farmer's texts probably did not help the team gain a competitive advantage, but they clearly broke the rules.
Yet Atlanta lost a 2015 fifth-round draft pick over piping in artificial crowd noise.
The bigger internal challenge for the Browns is this: Will the ruling exacerbate an already brutal offseason or serve as a clean break?
The Browns clearly would prefer the latter.
An avalanche of issues, beginning with Kyle Shanahan's departure and fueled by Josh Gordon's suspension, among other concerns, gave power to the "same old Browns" crowd. The Browns seem desperate to change that storyline, but questions remain as to whether they really know how to do so.
They could prove they do by using the heavy load of picks to pump out a productive draft class: Not being duped into any bad trades; getting the players they want; staying relatively low-key. Then have Farmer sit out for a few plays.
The NFL was served best by asking Farmer to take time off during the season. That way, the punishment hits Farmer where it hurts, but isn't so mean-spirited as to remove him from the draft room in April.
The Browns probably have some good stories to tell. They have players they like, especially on defense. Offseason workouts breed optimism. They'll soon welcome back quarterback Johnny Manziel.
It seemed like everything was on hold while the team waited for the NFL's ruling.
The Browns now have reasons to feel more relieved than handcuffed.
CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns fans and media have expended months of offseason energy on the team’s search for a quarterback who can exorcise the numbing streak of 22 starters since 1999. Sam Bradford. Marcus Mariota. Nick Foles. They must be vetted, pursued, contractually rewarded.
That chase might be dead.
Grieve if you must.
Anything is possible, but it still comes back to this with the Browns’ quarterback situation: Giving Josh McCown $6.25 million guaranteed on a three-year deal would have been unlikely had the team felt the chances of trading for Bradford or Mariota were good.
They vetted the other options before closing on McCown.
Even if the Browns offered Eagles coach Chip Kelly the 19th overall pick for Sam Bradford -- like they reportedly did to the Rams when Bradford was still there -- Kelly would need much more than picks 19 and 20 to move into Mariota’s range. Not sure why he would want to do that unless Cleveland would part with the 12th overall pick, which is too steep for the injured quarterback.
The Browns’ top two quarterbacks in training camp could very well be -- as it seemed all along -- McCown and Johnny Manziel.
Even Browns center Alex Mack knows that.
"It’s going to be a quarterback battle," Mack said. "Josh McCown’s coming in. I think Johnny Manziel’s going to be back, and we will see how Johnny does."
Not the most attractive option, but the most likely.
The Browns could prove that wrong with an aggressive trade play in April. But when GM Ray Farmer talked up his current crop of quarterbacks when speaking to the media at last week’s owners meetings, he sounded like a guy who knows he has no choice.
If nothing changes, what exactly will the Browns get from a McCown-Manziel combo?
- Expect McCown to enter training camp as the first-string quarterback: McCown will be the safe play unless proved otherwise. The Browns had two offseason quarterback plans: one with Manziel, one without him. McCown has started 49 NFL games since 2003 and is being paid slightly above backup money, roughly $14 million over three years, with the chance to earn an extra $6 million in incentives. Based on that payout and McCown’s experience, the job is his to lose.
- The Browns could keep the starting job open early in training camp: The Browns could treat this training camp like the last, deciding on a two-quarterback race after the second preseason game. This gives Manziel the chance to assuage his 2014 ills with a more productive training camp while trying to minimize the pressure he faced as a rookie.
- Don’t expect the Chicago Bears McCown or the Tampa Bay Bucs McCown, but something in between: McCown had everything working in 2013 after throwing for 13 touchdowns and one interception -- including four Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers to get the ball. He won’t have that luxury in Cleveland. But he also won’t be as bad as his 1-10 record in Tampa suggests. McCown battled a thumb injury, shaky offensive line play and the abrupt departure of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. Expect numbers in line with McCown’s career -- 59 percent passer, slightly above a 1-1 touchdown/interception ratio.
- Manziel will come back refreshed and focused, but the on-field concerns remain: By all accounts, Manziel is taking his two-month treatment stint seriously. He could come back as a different guy. That will help him. But that doesn’t solve a few on-field concerns, including accuracy and his escapability, which was supposed to be a strength. The Browns had to cobble together a late-season plan for Manziel that backfired, but this time new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo can try to figure out which plays work best for Manziel.
- Connor Shaw will have the inside track on the third-string job unless a draft pick makes a move: The Browns brought in Thad Lewis for competition but they like Shaw, who doesn’t have a huge arm but showed savvy and toughness in a Week 17 near-win at Baltimore. Drafting a second-tier quarterback such as Bryce Petty or Garrett Grayson would fuel competition.
Names of teams getting some private time with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota have begun to trickle out, via NFL Network's Albert Breer and others.
The Bucs, Redskins and Jets reportedly are on the board with a Mariota one-on-one, with Tennessee already having worked out Mariota after his pro day. If you're counting at home, those teams comprise four of the top six picks. The Chargers also are reportedly involved.
The Browns' predicament -- two first-round picks and the ritualistic quarterback concerns -- will fuel interest in how much digging is necessary on the player considered by most analysts as the draft's second-best quarterback.
But here are a few reasons why the Browns might not need or get a visit with Mariota.
- Mariota's relationship with QBs coach Kevin O'Connell: O'Connell privately tutored Mariota before and even after taking the Browns job. He orchestrated Mariota's pro day throwing sequence. He knows Mariota better than most. The Browns can lean on that insight, cutting out the proverbial middle man on get-to-know-you sessions.
- Can't invite every quarterback to Berea: Teams only get 30 in-house visits for interviews/physicals. With hundreds of intriguing prospects, including several quarterbacks outside the first-round projections, the Browns must be judicious with those visits. Plus, if they have good intel on Mariota already, they can save the reservations for other prospects.
- Mariota’s selective process: With this high profile a prospect, Mariota will meet with teams he either wants to be drafted by or feels holds a good chance in drafting him. It’s not a speed-dating round. There’s strategy involved. Maybe Mariota’s camp feels Cleveland is out of range.The key question is simple: Do the Browns love Mariota? If they like him, no need to schedule a visit. You can consider him if he starts to fall past the Jets at No. 6. If you love him? Glean as much as you can.
CLEVELAND – Alex Mack stands tall inside the Browns’ weight room on a dreary March day, wearing team workout gear and sporting a thick beard. He’s ditched the crutches and the wheeled cart he once used to support a shattered left fibula.
He’s looking like a 6-foot-4, 311-pound Pro Bowl center again. And he’s excited to talk about football again, bringing up unprompted his love for when a play is “executed correctly, touchdown” -- a fitting comment for the savvy orchestrator of an offensive line, whose presence was sorely missed in 2014.
That joy wasn’t there for the 11 weeks Mack spent on injured reserve after breaking his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. The more he got involved in team meetings and walkthroughs, the more sobering his reality became.
“I couldn’t walk out there and stand next to the guys. I had to wheel out there on a little cart,” Mack said. “They didn’t necessarily need my support -- they’d rather have me protecting the passer. That was tough.”
Mack is slowly regaining his form.
The center will participate in the Browns’ offseason workouts, though to what extent is still being worked out. Mack acknowledged it's possible he won't go full-on during team OTAs, but that's not because of a setback. Mack and the training staff plan to be overly cautious because the goal is a fully healthy return for Week 1 in September. The Browns’ rushing offense dipped from 146.4 rushing yards per game with Mack to 90.5 without him.
Helping cope with a rigorous rehab was a series of offseason trips, including a week with three other NFL players on a USO tour in the Middle East, which Mack chronicled in a feature for clevelandbrowns.com. He spent a week in Turkey helping teammate Gary Barnidge’s American Football Without Barriers initiative. Mack also served as a volunteer for the Browns’ First and Ten program, which assisted with a Play 60 football festival for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Special Olympics.
The trips helped Mack “refresh,” he says, supporting troops while spreading support for a game that’s “given me so much.”
Mack rehabbed in the shadows all year, rarely appearing in the locker room and declining interviews on the final day of the season. Coach Mike Pettine during the season alluded to Mack dealing with “something more” than a traditional leg break, suggesting ligament damage was possible.
“We’re making some pretty steady progress, doing what we need to do to get out there for training camp,” Mack said. “But it’s more important that I’m out there for game day. Those two feelings have to balance out. It just takes time, having patience. Two weeks after the surgery, I wanted to be up and running around. I’m not 18 anymore.”
Considered one of the game’s best centers, Mack isn’t anticipating a production drop-off upon return. But he wasn’t exactly shocked to see the team's rushing numbers drop without him. That would have happened anyway, he said. The Browns were running the ball at a fervent pace, so he knew defenses would eventually adjust and the offense needed a counter move that never came.
Mack, who enters the second season of a five-year, $42 million deal, expects the offensive line to reignite the vibe they had in first five games of last season.
“The core of who we are is going to stay the same,” Mack said.
In between visits to various job sites, Mack took questions from troops overseas. He would answer a question about what drives him in life. Then a Browns fan asked him who will be “our quarterback this year?” Browns fans were everywhere.
The Cleveland Browns have 10 selections in the 2015 NFL draft, which will be held April 30 to May 2 in Chicago. Here's a breakdown of the Browns' selections:
First round: 12th overall selection
First round: 19th overall selection
Second round: 43rd overall selection
Third round: 77th overall selection
Fourth round: 111th overall selection
Fourth round: 115th overall selection
Fifth round: 147th overall selection
Sixth round: 188th overall selection
Sixth round: 201st overall selections
Seventh round: 229th overall selection
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for NFL Nation TV's Spreecast Episode 49 as we welcome in draft hopeful Brett Hundley and break down the latest in offseason league news.
Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined all show by Jeremy Fowler (Cleveland Browns and ESPN senior reporter), in addition to Hundley and two other NFL Nation reporters. Wells and Gutierrez will provide updates from the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.
Fresh off a record-setting career at UCLA, Hundley is one of the many former college players hoping to be claimed in this year's draft that begins April 30. He's regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in this year's class. He'll stop by for a few moments to discuss his pre-draft journey, and how prepared he believes he is for the NFL.
Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings reporter) will fill us in on the latest in the Adrian Peterson saga. Are the words of Peterson's agent a benefit or a hindrance? Also, what was up with the camel-riding birthday celebration the embattled rusher had over the weekend?
Fowler will help close things down by discussing the latest in the Browns' quarterback soap opera, and the television show they could be featured on later this summer.
Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.
The Browns' search for tight end help has not proven fruitful in free agency. Top target Charles Clay was transition tagged by Miami, then scored a five-year, $38-million offer sheet from Buffalo. The Browns weren't going to spend that much on Clay, no matter how much they liked him.
The Browns have had discussions with Cardinals tight end Rob Housler, according to a source, and mutual interest exists but nothing is imminent and no visits are planned as of now.
Housler had 84 catches for nearly 900 yards from 2012-13, but his production plummeted to nine catches and 129 yards last year. Housler recently visited the Falcons, according to ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.
Housler's rep is pretty clear: Speedy pass-catcher, not a stout blocker, which is required in Bruce Arians' system in Arizona. The Browns would like a blocking anchor, too, but the reality is they need downfield help from the tight end spot, and the options are fairly limited.
Dray and Barnidge are reliable players but won't break out very often. Housler's skill set is intriguing -- he's 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and ran a sub-4.5 40 coming out of college.
He seems like the classic one-year-deal upside pickup.
The Browns anticipated Bowe's release, contacted him quickly, brought him in for a visit and eventually signed him to a two-year deal.
In an otherwise slim receiver market, the Browns placed all their chips on Bowe, who might be the closest thing to a No. 1 receiver free agency had left.
Bowe didn't fulfill his five-year, $56-million deal with Kansas City, but that doesn't mean some of the ability that earned that money two years ago isn't still there.
The Browns must believe so, because they considered Bowe their best option.
Demaryius Thomas was never getting out of Denver; Dez Bryant was never getting out of Dallas. Jeremy Maclin got $11 million from Kansas City. Randall Cobb is terrific but belongs in the slot, where the Browns have depth. Plus, he wasn't leaving Green Bay.
The Browns needed the next best thing, which was either Bowe or Michael Crabtree, who still doesn't have a deal.
There were whispers in NFL circles that Bowe wanted $7 million a year, similar to Andre Johnson's three years and $21 million with the Colts. Even if Bowe got that much (terms are still not available), the Browns have the cap space to pay it and couldn't afford to go into camp without one more starting-caliber player on the outside.
Bowe doesn't come without risks. An arrest for marijuana possession, a one-game suspension for violating league substance abuse policies and a history of dropped passes (31 in the last four years, per Pro Football Focus) go on his résumé. But the Browns can manage those issues because of the on-field credibility needed at the position and his average of 66.5 catches per year since 2007.
General manager Ray Farmer has a relationship with Bowe from his days in Kansas City's personnel department. He should know whether Bowe's off-field issues are isolated or could mushroom into something bigger. The Browns just got done with Josh Gordon. Bowe's circumstances don't rival Gordon's. This is manageable.
At age 30 and without major injury issues, Bowe can inject some life into the passing game. Expecting him to play like a $56-million receiver would be unwise. He's a helpful option, not a savior.
In other words, the offseason signing of Bowe and Hartline should not preclude the Browns from taking a hard look at a receiver in the first two rounds of the draft.
If Farmer wants his team to have balance, he'll add more help. Otherwise, the Browns will showcase some of the same -- a big-play defense, a decent running game and major problems in the red zone.
Cornerback Tramon Williams has been productive and durable. He has played in 140 of the past 141 games while with Green Bay. His 22 interceptions since 2010 is second in the NFL, behind Richard Sherman. According to the Cleveland Browns, Joe Haden and Williams are ranked first and second in pass breakups since 2010 with 87 and 82, respectively.
Those are the positives with the Browns' biggest free-agent signing. The risk is agreeing to a reported $21 million deal for a cornerback who just turned 32 and completed his ninth NFL season.
How the deal is structured will be telling, but as it stands Williams is in the $7 million-average-per-year range. That places him in a tie for 18th among cornerbacks, according to data from @SalaryCap101. Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also averages $7 million per year. That's more than Buster Skrine, who just left the Browns on a four-year, $25 million deal worth $13 million guaranteed and about $6.25 million per year.
An NFL contract truism: It's all about the guaranteed money, the rest belongs in the trash bin. Under most contracts, teams can cut players after a year with minimal blowback. I'm guessing Williams' deal doesn't match Skrine's $13 million in guarantees. The smart play would be giving Williams a healthy guarantee, but creating performance incentives to help reach that $21 million if he plays well until 2017.
Among cornerbacks signed this free-agency period, Williams would be fifth in APY, behind Byron Maxwell ($10.5 million), Brandon Flowers ($9.1 million), Kareem Jackson ($8.5 million) and Chris Culliver ($8 million). APY isn't a tell-all, but is a reference point for how a team values a player.
Signing Williams and defensive tackle Randy Starks are relatively low-risk moves for the Browns. The Browns get two starting-caliber players at an estimated $11 million a year combined.
But Williams capitalized on a booming cornerback market and forced the Browns' hand when they needed veteran help at the position. Green Bay stayed disciplined, according to ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky, likely offering Williams a two-year deal worth about $4 or $5 million a year. This was a nod to Williams' durability/productivity, but not an overpay after he was beaten too often, Demovsky wrote.
The Browns had to offer an attractive deal to pry Williams out of Green Bay. They must be very high on Williams -- they essentially passed on two much younger cornerbacks at the same price or lower. Skrine is 26 and Perrish Cox, age 28, just signed a three-year, $15 million deal.
Williams is still a quality cornerback. But on the surface, $7 million a year seems a bit high based on all the factors. Alterraun Verner, DeAngelo Hall, Sean Smith and Brandon Browner are all accomplished cornerbacks who make less than Williams.
As long as the Browns protected themselves in the deal's structure, this can be a happy marriage.
General manager Ray Farmer was not present, but that's not curious -- he's known to sit out pro days and favors private workouts. He'll probably watch the tape of Mariota's session.
In fact, he might have a pretty good idea how the day will go for Mariota -- apparently his new quarterbacks coach helped script the day.
NFL Network's Lindsay Rhodes tweeted live from the event that Mariota crafted his 65-throw script with Kevin O'Connell, who was training Mariota before accepting Cleveland's quarterbacks coach job. O'Connell is in attendance at Mariota's pro day.
News broke of O'Connell's hiring in late January, but the hire wasn't made official until Feb. 17. The Browns let O'Connell finish his sessions as a private quarterbacks coach (he helped Johnny Manziel last year alongside notable quarterbacks tutor George Whitfield) before officially joining the staff. The NFL did not take issue with O'Connell's transition.
O'Connell's influence on the pro day script is a reminder of the Browns' unique perspective on Mariota.
Obtaining Mariota would likely require, at the least, the Browns' two first-round picks (Nos. 12 and 19 overall) and mid-round picks. At the least. There's always a chance Mariota falls to the middle of the first round, but momentum does not seem to swing that way.
Though the Browns have been quiet to start the new league year, they consider Clay a top target as a versatile tight end/H-back option for the team's new offense. Even if the Bills maintain the inside track -- Rex Ryan and Bills brass reportedly escorted Clay into town as free agency began -- the Browns believe the Bills deal isn't done yet and expect to be in play.
If an NFL team makes Clay an offer, the Dolphins have a seven-day window to match.
If the Browns and/or Bills make an offer, the Dolphins have seven days to match. The Browns, of course, have experience with the transition tag, using it on center Alex Mack and matching Jacksonville's five-year, $42-million offer in 2014.
Clay, who has 127 catches for 1,364 yards and nine touchdowns the past two seasons, could replace tight end Jordan Cameron.
But with the Bills cutting tight end Scott Chandler on Wednesday, perhaps they feel awfully good about their chances to obtain Clay's rights.
After Kelly's press conference tease, the Cleveland Browns, naturally, become one of the first guesses as to which mystery team made the call.
There was correspondence. The belief is that before the Browns signed Josh McCown Feb. 27, they talked with the Rams about Bradford and backup quarterback Austin Davis, St. Louis’ restricted free agent who started eight games last season. That’s where the momentum stopped, if it ever existed.
What seems clear is the Browns probably could have had Bradford if they were willing to part with at least one second-round pick for him. Some will say Bradford’s talent was worth a second-round pick. Others will point to his injury history and assume a team that desperately wants to build through the draft should stick to its formula. I could have seen Cleveland contemplating a third-round pick, nothing more.
In the end, the Cleveland staff felt comfortable with McCown, who signed a three-year, $14 million deal with an extra $6 million in incentives. That’s better than typical backup money, which means the Browns plan to get a return on the investment. Coach Mike Pettine said he “absolutely” brings McCown to Cleveland with the expectation he helps on the field in 2015.
Could the Browns have had Bradford instead? Possibly. Were they eager to make it happen? Signs point to no.
They wanted Skrine back.
Drafting Gilbert No. 8 overall meant the Browns weren’t going to keep up with Skrine’s rising market, which involved about a dozen teams by the end of the weekend.
Skrine is set to sign a four-year, $25-million deal with the New York Jets for around $13 million guaranteed. If the Jets sign Darrelle Revis, Skrine is in a beautiful situation in New York as a standout No. 2 corner.
Joe Haden no longer has the luxury of a steady running mate on the outside unless Gilbert maximizes his enormous potential.
If Gilbert wasn’t on the roster, Skrine might still be in Cleveland.
Skrine will be missed. He broke up 49 passes in four seasons, with four interceptions in 2014. Yes, he makes mistakes. He ranked second in the NFL with 15 penalties last season. But he can offset some of those mistakes with resiliency and elite speed. Coaches raved about him.
Skrine held off Gilbert from starting all season. If promising fourth-round pick Pierre Desir does the same in 2015, then the Browns have a real problem with Gilbert.
It’s all on him now. The Browns let Skrine walk because they made their bed at corner.
No wonder Joe Haden is working out with Gilbert in South Florida. Clearly he must know he’s got as much riding on Gilbert as the Browns do. He can’t do everything. He’ll need Gilbert to play well.
Ray Farmer will need him to play well, too.
When asked on a Tuesday conference call how close he came to signing with New England, Hartline acknowledged the decision was indeed "close."
Josh McCown gets the best of Tom Brady once again! (cue sarcasm font)
Obviously, a few factors here: Money and location. Hartline isn't about to discuss figures, but here's to guessing the Browns offered more money. And the Canton, Ohio, native had a chance to go home, which he's openly relished the last few days.
But Hartline also sounds optimistic about the on-field product brewing in Cleveland, reminding local media that this team was 7-4 not too long ago. Hartline admitted he didn't expect much when first visiting the team, but left Berea pleasantly surprised.
"The past is the past," Hartline said. "I'm not going to chose a place based on where they've been. I believed in the vision."
If Hartline can follow through on his goal to be a red-zone focal point -- 12 of his 298 career receptions have scored touchdowns -- the Browns will have gotten a sweet deal.
Speaking of receivers: I'm told that as of Monday afternoon, the Browns are still interested in free agent receiver Cecil Shorts III. Pairing Shorts with Hartline, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and a high draft pick would have a sagging receiving corps suddenly looking up.