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The Cleveland Browns started the 2016 campaign with little to no expectations. However, no one could have predicted it to be as bad as an 0-11 start. It has been their worst start in franchise history, even for a team as terrible as they have been since returning to the league in 1999.
As I was watching the Houston Texans battle the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football, I thought to myself, how did the Raiders do it? It wasn’t too long ago when Oakland was sitting in the exact same position Cleveland is. They fell to 0-10 before turning it around to finish with a 3-13 record. Since that first victory of 2014, Oakland has compiled an 18-14 record, including an 8-2 record which currently has them sitting in first place in the AFC West. They need one win in the last six games to lock up their first winning season since 2002.
The Cleveland Browns haven’t finished a season over .500 since 2007 and before that, 2002. Cleveland and Oakland have been down in the dumps for far too long, but the Raiders seemed to have righted the ship and I believe that Cleveland has taken similar steps to turn the franchise around.
The Oakland Raiders hired Reggie McKenzie back in 2012 and he took over a team that was $30 million over the cap. Over the next couple seasons, he cut veteran contracts and was forced to swallow $73.9 million in dead money in an effort to clean house and start fresh.
The Browns front office has shadowed these moves by cutting ties with Paul Kruger, Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby. They even traded Barkevious Mingo to New England for a fifth-round draft pick. Acquiring draft picks is something the new regime has been focused on since day one.
Since 2012, Oakland has not shied away from trading down in the first round to accrue more picks. Although that is the goal, the key is nailing your picks, especially in the top rounds. The Raiders have achieved this by drafting players at key positions as well as costly positions too. Pass rushers, defensive backs and wideouts are the highest paid positions on the market and they have highlighted those areas in the first round.
2016: S Karl Joseph (14th overall)
2015: WR Amari Cooper (4th)
2014: LB Khalil Mack (5th)
2013: CB D.J. Hayden (12th)
It’s too early to tell about Joseph and Hayden has been decent over the years, but they definitely got it right with Mack and Cooper. Mack has been stellar, racking up 15 sacks in just his second season and has eight this year. Cooper surpassed the 1,000-yard mark as a rookie and continues to blossom as he already has 900 yards with six games left.
With this possibly lingering in their minds, Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta filled these voids with their first three picks of their regime. They took Corey Coleman in the first round, Emmanuel Ogbah in the second and Carl Nassib in the third. All seem to be promising players, but need time to grow.
Although Cleveland seems to be mocking the plan McKenzie has laid out, they still aren’t there yet and probably won’t be for a couple years. The Raiders found their quarterback in the second round of the 2014 draft. The Browns opted to pass on Derek Carr for the likes of Johnny Manziel and we all know how that story ends. The verdict is still out on Cody Kessler, but I don’t think he is the quarterback of the future. Kessler was forced into the starting role due to injuries while Carr shined in training camp and won the job outright.
Another advantage Oakland has over Cleveland is they used free agency to build on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Left tackle Donald Penn was signed back in 2014 and re-signed this offseason. Left Guard Kelechi Osemele and Center Rodney Hudson were both acquired via free agency. Even on the defensive side of the ball, they signed nose tackle, Dan Williams.
Cleveland took a step back in this area. Although they kept the great Joe Thomas, they let Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz both become free agents and walk out the door. This kind of regression is evident on the field with our dismal pass protection and run blocking. The offensive line is definitely an area of concern. Once Cleveland plugs the holes in the offensive line, they can start moving forward.
Sure the Browns still need a quarterback, but they have young core players in place. Time is needed for them to grow and develop. Cleveland has numerous draft picks and plenty of money to spend in free agency. They shouldn’t overpay for veterans past their prime, but they should target free agents who make a living in the trenches and throw some money into an offensive line. I believe once this problem is addressed the offense will look ten times better regardless of who is quarterback.
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