October 22, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
47°F
test

Browns’ plan is sound, but missing a receiver

I have one problem with how the Browns handled the first six days of free agency.

That’s about 100 fewer than many fans have with general manager Tom Heckert’s approach.

For me, the missed opportunity was failing to sign a veteran receiver from a talented and relatively deep pool. The Browns need an upgrade of talent at the critical position, and would benefit from someone with a history of success in the league.

I understand not wanting to give Pierre Garcon $21.5 million guaranteed. Or paying Robert Meachem, Mario Manningham and Laurent Robinson like they’re No. 1 wideouts when they’ve never filled the role.

I just think receiver was the one position this offseason the Browns could afford to step outside of their comfort zone. The reward was worth the risk.

Heckert disagreed and will turn to the draft to find another threat for whoever lines up at quarterback. It’s also important to remember free agency isn’t over. Heckert could add talent through the draft and leadership through a lower-tier free agent. Former Steeler Hines Ward might not be able to run anymore, but he could have a profound effect in the locker room.

The fans aren’t willing to wait to see how the roster shakes out. The wailing began Tuesday when the first free agent signed elsewhere. And it hasn’t stopped.

Why won’t the Browns do anything? Why did they let Peyton Hillis go? How are they going to replace Eric Steinbach? Who are the bums they did sign?

The anger hasn’t dissipated, either. Some fans were even seen crying in their green beer Saturday.

Heckert’s warning that the Browns wouldn’t “go crazy” in free agency didn’t resonate with everyone. Some people don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.

They don’t want to listen when Heckert and president Mike Holmgren preach patience. When they correctly point out that the NFL’s best teams don’t load up in free agency. When they try to explain that the highest-profile free agents are overpaid, and others are available for a reason — their team doesn’t want them.

Fans have every right to be frustrated, disappointed and angry with all the losing the Browns have done over the last 13 years. Especially when they haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007.

The fans are right when they say the Browns lack playmakers and desperately need an infusion of talent. And at this time of the year, free agency’s the only way to improve the roster.

It just doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

The Redskins always make a huge splash in March — last week was no exception — then they sink in December. Many of the league’s best-run organizations — Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis — make zero headlines in the spring, then grab plenty of giant ones in the playoffs.

Those who’ve complained the loudest in the last week — it might be a minority of fans, but it’s a vocal one, with Twitter and talk radio magnifying the frustration — scream as if they want the Browns to keep all their free agents, then go sign the best from other teams.

It doesn’t work that way. The NFL isn’t Major League Baseball, and the Browns aren’t the Yankees. The NFL is ruled by a salary cap, so throwing millions at the wrong fit or getting into a bidding war for someone who isn’t a difference-maker isn’t wise.

The Browns were among the least active teams in the first stretch of free agency, but they still made plenty of moves to analyze.

  • I love the re-signing of nickelback Dimitri Patterson. In today’s pass-first NFL, a team needs at least three cornerbacks. Patterson played mostly against three-receiver sets and was on the field for about half the plays in 2011. He’s the best nickelback the Browns have had since they returned in 1999.
  • I like the signings of defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker – their only additions from other teams. The Browns needed an upgrade at right end to complete the defensive line, which has become the best unit on the roster.
  • The Super Bowl-winning Giants showed once again how a dominant front four can carry a team. (I know, an elite quarterback is necessary, too). Rucker and Parker are veterans who can mentor the young group, and they have tread left on their tires. Rucker should instantly improve the run defense
  • I’m good with letting Hillis get away and not even offering a contract. The running back who turned into a cult hero in 2010 became more trouble than he was worth in 2011. He disappointed coaches, alienated teammates and frustrated the front office with a series of self-inflicted soap operas. Kansas City is a good fit for Hillis with easygoing Romeo Crennel as head coach, familiar face Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator and Jamaal Charles as the lead back. But even if Hillis has a bounce-back year, that doesn’t make it a bad decision by the Browns. He had overstayed his welcome.
  • I understand the economic realities behind the decision to release left guard Eric Steinbach, but this is my least favorite of the roster moves. Steinbach is 31 years old, coming off back surgery that cost him the entire season and he was due $6 million in 2012. Jason Pinkston didn’t miss a snap in his place, improved throughout his rookie season and will make $465,000. The ideal scenario is for Steinbach to come back for about $3 million. He could go back to left guard, while Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao fight for the right guard spot and provide much needed depth.

As aggravating as it can be for fans to watch big names sign elsewhere in March, the key to the Browns’ offseason — and any hopes of ever reaching the playoffs — arrives in April. Heckert has put all the eggs in one basket: the draft.

That’s also where the fans’ attention should turn.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.