Browns ready to make next steps in franchise

The Cleveland Browns are moving on to another coaching era, leaving behind a two-year run by ex-coach Pat Shurmur that did nothing but continue the losing tradition of the last 14 seasons.

Shurmur finished off his short tenure with a 5-11 record in the 2012 season. It started with five straight losses, but signs of improvement surfaced with five wins in the next eight games to actually set off talk of a possible playoff appearance.

That ended with three straight losses to the end the season. Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert were fired a day later, putting into motion another coaching watch.

There were some promising signs despite the record. The Browns had the youngest team in the NFL, finishing with 16 rookies on the active roster. Two other rookies finished the season on injured-reserve.

Following is a season-ending report card:

OFFENSIVE LINE: This was one of the steadiest, most-productive areas on the roster. Other than an illness that sidelined guard Jason Pinkston, the line was able to start tackles Joe Thomas and rookie Mitchell Schwartz, guard Shawn Lauvao and center Alex Mack all 16 games. The offense was ranked just 25th overall (24th passing and 19th rushing), but pass protection was generally good. The line allowed 38 sacks, with many coming in the final weeks when the playoffs were out of reach. Thomas made his sixth Pro Bowl in as many seasons, and Schwartz solidified the right side. The next coach will feel comfortable working with this group.

THE NEXT STEP: This isn’t a powerful run-blocking line. It’s all about finesse. Developing a couple strong pulling guards would help or use more inside and outside zone runs where the guards don’t have to pull.

GRADE: C-plus.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: Strides were made because of the development of rookie Josh Gordon, who exhibited big-play skills with his strength and long strides. He finished with 50 receptions for 805 yards and five touchdowns, a great start to what should be an outstanding career. Greg Little struggled early with dropped passes, continuing a problem he had last season. He settled into a groove close to the midpoint of the season and finished with 53 receptions for 647 yards and four touchdowns. There’s a drop-off after Gordon and Little. Mohamed Massaquoi was injured most of the season and had just 17 catches. He likely won’t be back. Jordon Norwood is too fragile. Rookie Travis Benjamin flashed his speed a few times and should develop into a decent third or fourth receiver. Tight end Benjamin Watson had 49 receptions for 501 yards. Better yet is he avoided another concussion-marred season. His contract is up, which means he could be gone. Jordan Cameron didn’t do much in his second season at tight end (20 receptions).

THE NEXT STEP: There’s a need to target a veteran receiver in free agency that knows the ins and outs of the possession game. Adding another tight end is important.


RUNNING BACKS: Rookie Trent Richardson played most of the season with two broken ribs. Why Shurmur and Heckert let him play in pain can’t be explained. Richardson ran tentatively (who wouldn’t with cracked ribs?), rarely breaking off long runs. He had 950 yards and 11 touchdowns on 267 carries and probably would have reached the 1,000-yard mark if he hadn’t missed the last game with an ankle injury. Montario Hardesty showed the quick-hitting speed the Browns thought he had when he was picked in the second round of the 2010 draft. Brandon Jackson played in just two games and probably won’t be back. Chris Ogbonnaya didn’t contribute much. Owen Marecic was a disappointment at fullback, dropping each of the few passes thrown his way. He was inactive much of the season, giving Alex Smith time at fullback.

THE NEXT STEP: Make sure Richardson gets through preseason without any injuries. He’ll be much better at 100 percent. Find a fullback that can be a good lead blocker.

GRADE: B-minus.

QUARTERBACKS: Rookie Brandon Weeden won the competition with Colt McCoy early in camp and started 15 games. It was definitely a learning experience. Weeden shook off a horrible game against the Eagles in the opener and improved each week for a time. He then began to take backward steps from the midpoint on, showing a lack of decisiveness and accuracy. He finished with the lowest passer rating among NFL starters at 72.6, completing 57.4 percent of his passes for 3,385 yards, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. There’s no certainty that Weeden will be in the plans of the next coach. McCoy was hurt after a few plays in one game appearance late in the season against Denver. Thad Lewis played well in his NFL debut in the finale against the Steelers.

THE NEXT STEP: Your guess is as good as mine. The new coach could open up the competition between Weeden and McCoy or he could bring in other candidates. One thing is certain: Weeden can’t run an option attack.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Once tackle Phil Taylor returned from a pectoral injury midway through the season, there was improvement against the run. The defense was also missing tackle Ahtyba Rubin for much of the first half of the season with a calf injury. With Taylor and Rubin on the field together, rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes could be role players. Both rookies held up well. Hughes is strong on the inside against the run, and Winn showed the quickness to play the 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) or move to an end. End Jabaal Sheard started slowly as the line’s best pass rusher, but he finished strong and had seven sacks.

THE NEXT STEP: Adding a talented pass rusher opposite Sheard would help. The line simply doesn’t get enough pressure on quarterbacks.

GRADE: B-plus.

LINEBACKERS: Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson again led the way with 118 tackles as the defense ranked 19th in the NFL against the run. Jackson benefitted from the Taylor-Rubin duo lining up in front of him. He still takes good angles and makes plays from sideline to sideline. The group took a hit early in camp when Chris Gocong went down with an Achilles’ tendon injury. Gocong was coming off his best season as a pro. Scott Fujita was a non-factor, playing just four games before suffering a season-ending neck injury. Kaluka Maiava was a capable replacement in the lineup. The injuries also meant plenty of time for Craig Robertson, who showed upside in his first season of playing. Rookie James-Michael Johnson had 36 tackles but was hindered by injuries at the outset and end of the season.

THE NEXT STEP: Getting a healthy Gocong back will be a plus. The new coach should see that Robertson was an excellent addition by Heckert and should put him on the field. A quick, pass-rushing player on the outside is a big need.

GRADE: C-plus.

SECONDARY: Things started badly when cornerback Joe Haden was suspended four games after the opener for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The Browns were 0-5 in games in which Haden didn’t play (he missed the Dallas game with a leg injury). When healthy Haden is the best defender on the defense. Sheldon Brown held up well at the other corner, but he probably won’t be back next year at age 34. Buster Skrine is fine when covering slot receivers. Put him outside and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Safety T.J. Ward had 68 tackles, but he needs to make more impact plays. Usama Young and Eric Hagg were disappointments at free safety. At least rookie free agent Tashaun Gipson showed promise.

THE NEXT STEP: Find a cornerback to pair with Haden. A little Minnifield-Dixon look wouldn’t hurt. Someone needs to step up at free safety.

GRADE: C-minus.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Phil Dawson was nearly perfect, missing two of 31 field-goal attempts (one was blocked). He seems to have more strength in his kicking leg than he did when he was in his 20s. Dawson, who turns 38 this month, can test the free-agent market. He says he wants to return to the Browns, but do they want him? Punter Reggie Hodges struggled in his first year back after suffering an Achilles’ injury. He’ll likely be gone. Joshua Cribbs showed he’s still one of the best return specialists going with averages of 27.4 yards on kicks and 12.0 on punts. He’s also one of the best defenders on kicks and punts. He wants to come back, but don’t count on it.

THE NEXT STEP: Bring back Dawson but let Cribbs go. Dawson is a young 37. He has at least two more years remaining of playing at a high level.

GRADE: A-minus.

COACHING: Letting Shurmur go sums up his season. He lacks the necessary leadership skills and never seemed to have a solid grasp of things on game days. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress probably won’t be back, but defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is a possibility.

THE NEXT STEP: Hello, Chip Kelly.