September 21, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Savage moves make Browns legitimate contender next season

Free agency, like the draft, can be both exhilarating and dangerous.
Overzealous fans and media members see a couple of new faces, read two paragraphs of an Internet scouting report and explode with excitement. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never seen the players run or catch or tackle. It doesn’t matter if the scouting reports were written 20 pounds or two knee surgeries ago.
While people are normally averse to change, they are desperate for it when it comes to their sports teams. The grass is always greener, and that next signing or trade will be the one to put their team over the top.
Amid the hysteria, there’s little room and no time to take a step back and gain some perspective.
Disclaimer be damned, I’ve been swept up.
The signings and trades by the Browns since Friday morning make them the favorite in the AFC North.
Sure, the Browns must beat the Steelers for the first time in five years to assume the top spot, but the once-giant gap has been closed. The rivals had identical 10-6 records last season — the Steelers’ season sweep gave them the division title — and the Browns are the clear winner through the beginning of the offseason.
In four days, general manager Phil Savage has addressed the biggest needs on both sides of the ball. (The Steelers lost guard Alan Faneca, one of their top five players.)
Savage re-signed Derek Anderson to maintain continuity and depth at quarterback. He signed receiver Donte Stallworth to add speed, the only ingredient missing from an already-potent offense.
(Lengthy column aside: Bringing back Anderson was the right move. The three-year, $24 million deal isn’t outrageous and it buys the Browns time to make a final decision between Anderson and Brady Quinn. After 10 wins and 29 touchdowns in 2007, Anderson deserved another year to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
The return of Anderson also ensures offensive continuity, which means a better chance of winning in 2008. The rest of Savage’s moves, including trading his first three draft picks, carry the same immediacy.
Anderson isn’t a slam dunk to be a long-term success. He throws too many interceptions and may not have the intangibles of Quinn. But he’s 6-foot-6 and has a huge arm, so his upside is higher. He’s also liked by his teammates and has a track record in coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s offense.
In the short term, Quinn is the loser, but you never know what can happen. Anderson could get hurt or struggle, and Quinn would be the starter by midseason. Even if Anderson proves to be the real deal, Quinn would likely be granted a trade after 2008.)
The biggest impact should come on the defensive line. Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers bring nearly 700 pounds of run-stopping, pass-rushing girth to a unit that was abused last year. The pair combined for 14 sacks last season and should give the Browns production, flexibility and depth across the line.
The Browns are also relying on the improved line to free up outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. He went from 11 sacks as a rookie to five last year.
Of course, none of this is guaranteed. It may be more than circumstance that Stallworth is with his fourth team in four years. Williams has never been a full-time starter and was given $18 million guaranteed.
Then there’s Rogers, who has more issues than the Spears family. If he turns out to be a combination of Ted Washington (the old, fat version) and Gerard Warren (the lazy, unmotivated edition), Savage will be ripped for parting with reliable cornerback Leigh Bodden and a third-round draft choice.
But this is the perfect time for optimism, and Savage has given us plenty of reasons for it.
He fixed the offensive line over the 2006 and 2007 offseasons, with free agent Eric Steinbach and draft pick Joe Thomas the final pieces. He picked Anderson off the scrapheap, traded for the chance to draft Quinn and added Braylon Edwards, Jamal Lewis, Stallworth and Joe Jurevicius at the skill positions.
On defense, he drafted linebackers Wimbley and D’Qwell Jackson and defensive backs Eric Wright, Brodney Pool and Brandon McDonald. He even transformed the special teams by signing free-agent punter Dave Zastudil and undrafted rookie-turned-Pro Bowl returner Joshua Cribbs.
Over the weekend, Savage declared the playoffs a realistic goal for the 2008 season. He wasn’t just caught up in the moment. His patience, prudence and a few calculated risks have transformed the Browns into a legitimate playoff contender.
Football season can’t get here fast enough.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.