When Jimmy Haslam officially took the helm as the new owner of the Cleveland Browns in 2012, the majority of Browns Nation expressed a sense of optimism.
Haslam, CEO of the well-known truck stop chain Pilot Flying J, had earned a reputation around the NFL as being a solid businessman with a strong football background (Haslam had prior minority ownership experience with the Pittsburgh Steelers). After suffering through years of lackluster leadership under seemingly uninterested owner Randy Lerner, fans were ready to embrace the new owner’s hands-on approach.
Many fans have since withdrawn their confidence in Haslam, though, as Pilot Flying J has come under federal investigation in recent months. This had led to justifiable speculation that Haslam may soon be charged with some serious infractions that could lead to hefty fines and/or time in prison. Until then, fans are left hoping that he has had no involvement in the company’s wrongdoings, so he can continue his duties as leader of the championship-starved franchise.
Despite the black cloud that has now been cast over Jimmy Haslam, as well as the recent news of the two-game suspension that has been handed to wide receiver Josh Gordon, the Browns have been able to put together a rather productive offseason. The coaching staff was assembled in January, starting with the hiring of former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as head coach. Although it was a somewhat surprising hire, the move went over relatively well with Browns fans who took a liking to the offensive prowess displayed by Chudzinski’s Browns offense during the 2007 season.
After helping Cam Newton develop into one of the game’s top quarterbacks in Carolina, Chudzinksi has returned to Cleveland in hopes of doing the same with current Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. Chudzinski will be assisted on the offensive side of the ball by former Chargers head coach Norv Turner. Leading the defense will be former Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
The hiring of Turner and Horton should go a long way in easing the transition to head coach for Rob Chudzinski, as Turner is a former head coach himself and Horton was in the running for numerous head coaching jobs across the league this past offseason. Amidst the flurry of new hirings came the rather unpopular, but seemingly inevitable, decision by Haslam and CEO Joe Banner to hire Mike Lombardi as a member of the front office staff. Lombardi became a somewhat notorious figure around Cleveland for poor drafting during the Bill Belichick era, and many fans fear that he may just repeat the cycle during his second stint with the team.
The hiring of Horton as defensive coordinator marked the end of the short-lived 4-3 defense in Cleveland while marking the beginning of yet another transition back to the 3-4. The majority of the Browns’ offseason moves have been made to address this switch, as evidenced first and foremost by the addition of pass-rushers Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, and Quentin Groves via free agency.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Browns signed free agent quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer, and wide receiver David Nelson. Campbell and Hoyer will battle to replace Colt McCoy (who was traded to the 49ers) as the second-string quarterback behind Weeden, while providing veteran presences within the group of quarterbacks and fallback options if Weeden regresses in his second year. Nelson will team with newly-acquired Davone Bess, as well as talented youngsters Josh Gordon and Greg Little, to form a solid receiving corps that will prove as a crucial factor in whether or not the Browns offense will take a giant leap forward in 2013.
Two Browns mainstays were let go in the offseason, as well, as kicker Phil Dawson signed with the San Francisco 49ers and return specialist Josh Cribbs signed with the Oakland Raiders. Former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham was signed to replace Dawson.
Defense remained an area of emphasis during the Draft, as four of the team’s five picks came on the defensive side of the ball. With the sixth pick, the Browns selected defensive end/linebacker Barkevious Mingo out of LSU. This pick felt like a bit of a reach, especially after it was later revealed that the team turned down multiple offers that would have allowed them to trade down.
With no second round pick (the Browns took Josh Gordon in last year’s supplemental draft), the Browns did not pick again until the third round, where they selected San Diego State defensive back Leon McFadden (no, not Leon Sandcastle). To further address the secondary, the Browns selected Notre Dame’s Jamoris Slaughter in the sixth round. Defensive end Armonty Bryant and offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey rounded out the Browns’ picks in the seventh round. While all picks are expected to contribute to a certain degree, Mingo is obviously the true make-or-break player in this draft for Banner and Lombardi as they look to gain the trust of Browns fans.
Although a plethora of key acquisitions were made during free agency and the Draft, one glaring weakness that still remains a major question mark is the secondary. Presented with the opportunity of being able to draft the best cornerback in this year’s draft (Dee Milliner) and pairing him with the talented Joe Haden, the Browns opted to add yet another piece to the front seven. Although McFadden and Slaughter may prove to be solid picks, no one is expecting them to fully accommodate for the serious lack of talent that exists within the Browns’ secondary (Buster Skrine, anyone?).
Tight end is another area that was attended to during the offseason, but, like with the secondary, it was not addressed to its fullest potential. After missing out on signing any of the top free agent tight ends, Gary Barnidge and Kellen Davis were signed to replace the outgoing Benjamin Watson. Many would probably agree, though, that the Browns were better off with Watson.
One thing that was evident during the 2012 season for the Cleveland Browns was a lack of veteran leadership. The team was consistently competitive but lacked the leadership and experience to close out games. With the acquisitions of veterans, such as Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, and Davone Bess, paired along with the hiring of proven coaches, the Browns hope to have filled the leadership void from a season ago.
Although some weaknesses still remain, the Browns have made the necessary offseason moves to help them finally move out of the AFC North cellar.