Ben Tate, Karlos Dansby and Andrew Hawkins
As the Cleveland Browns begin offseason workouts this week, it's a good time to review what they've done so far in free agency and what they still need to accomplish via additional moves and/or the draft:
On paper, the Browns already are a better team than they were at the end of last season. They have clearly upgraded themselves at running back (Ben Tate), wide receiver (Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson), linebacker (Karlos Dansby), and safety (Donte Whitner), and seem to have made at least incremental improvement (or perhaps more than that) at offensive guard (Paul McQuistan) and blocking tight end (Jim Dray). It's no small point that the additions give the Browns a combined 33 games of playoff experience. That, along with the fact that all are superb locker-room guys, can do plenty to help dramatically change the culture within the team and help create a winning attitude.
The Browns have been meticulous about addressing both sides of the ball, but to date, the biggest difference-makers seem to have been added to their defense. That shouldn't come as a surprise, given their coach, Mike Pettine, is a former defensive coordinator and no doubt feels he can place the most immediate stamp on the team on that side of the ball. Pettine has plenty of reason to believe the scheme that helped generate a strong pass rush and create turnovers when he ran the defenses of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills will do the same with the Browns. Generally speaking, the quickest path to success in the NFL is by having a dominant defense, and the Browns figured to have more pieces within their front seven and secondary on which to build than on offense. The philosophy is a good indication of how well Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, despite the limited time they've known each other, are working together.
By signing Dansby and strong safety Whitner, the Browns believe they did more than merely replace the holes at linebacker and strong safety, respectively, created by the departures of D'Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward. They have high expectations that Dansby and Whitner will have a significantly greater impact than their predecessors. Dansby and Whitner are more proactive when it comes to making plays and bring a little bit more of an edge than the defense had. They are tone-setters, and are arriving at the height of their productivity.
You get the distinct impression from all of the free-agent additions they genuinely WANT to be a part of the Browns and are happy to connect with such a passionate fan base.
The additions of Dansby and Whitner don't necessarily eliminate the need to draft a linebacker and a safety, but they appear to at least make the pursuit of those spots a little less urgent. As a result, the Browns have the opportunity to concentrate on other areas within the first few rounds (such as quarterback, cornerback, and offensive line), while also being able to address areas they've covered in free agency.
Burleson gives the Browns an experienced and talented candidate to fill the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Josh Gordon, while Hawkins should provide a spark as a slot receiver who does exceptionally well running after the catch. I can still see the Browns drafting a receiver fairly early, simply because there is too much depth at the position in the college crop to pass up on one that could have long-term success. Burleson is 32 and entering his 12th season in the league, so the Browns would be happy to have him contribute for at least one season or perhaps two.
Tate is arguably the Browns' most intriguing addition. By most accounts, he's an extremely talented and explosive player who was overlooked on his previous team, the Houston Texans, while in the shadow of featured back Arian Foster, and while dealing with injuries. Now that he's the No. 1 man at the position, Tate no doubt will be determined to show that he's worthy of the recognition Foster and the NFL's other top-notch backs have received. He also figures to have plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in the scheme of Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who strongly believes that everything the offense does emanates from a strong rushing attack. The Browns' use of an outside zone-blocking scheme should be a good fit for Tate, who learned with the Texans about what it takes to function well in a system that takes advantage of his ability to know when and how to cut in the direction opposite the one the line is blocking.
I would be shocked if the Browns didn't make quarterback a priority in the draft. It's just hard to imagine them not addressing the spot with a high pick after making such a major turnover there and not acquiring a quarterback in the open market.
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