What's the old saying, if you don't have a quarterback, stop the teams that do?
That's not it, but it might as well apply to the Cleveland Browns, whose signing of Tramon Williams reminds that the team is stockpiling defensive backs to combat three opposing divisional teams with a combined 22 years of quarterback stability, a stark contrast to the Browns' 22 starting quarterbacks since 1999.
Earlier Friday, NFL Nation highlighted how much of a premium the Browns place on the defensive backfield -- 26.6 percent of the team's 2015 salary owed, a number that could mushroom if safety Tashaun Gipson gets a long-term extension. Joe Haden, Williams and Donte Whitner will get a combined $27.5 million in average yearly earnings over the course of their deals. The team invested a first-round pick in corner Justin Gilbert, a fourth-rounder on Pierre Desir and undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams started games in the slot.
It's fairly easy to figure out why the Browns would enact this strategy -- facing Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco four times a year and, yes, Andy Dalton twice (Dalton is not in the class of his AFC North peers but is an established four-year starter).
The Browns gave up a league-worst 141.6 rushing yards last year, but they offset that issue with a top-10 passing defense that helped the Browns rank first in the league in takeaways.
Consider the Browns' performance last year against AFC North quarterbacks:
Roethlisberger: 44-of-76, 593 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions
Flacco: 41-of-67, 529 yards, three touchdowns, one interception
Dalton: 24-of-57, 203 yards, zero touchdowns, four interceptions
Total: 109-of-200 (54.5 percent), 1,325 yards (220.8 per game), five touchdowns, seven interceptions
Conclusion: The Browns won two division games last year and will need another solid performance from the defensive backfield to get two or more in 2015. With quarterback still an uneasy position, secondary is arguably the biggest part of the Browns' identity.
One of the best ways to crystallize a general manager’s priorities is through his spending. Where teams invest the most money can help illustrate where they believe games will be won or lost. Yes, some numbers can be skewed (many franchise cornerstones are still on cheap rookie deals, for example).
For the Browns, however, it’s become clear Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine believe the defensive backfield and offensive line are the two money positions. The signing of cornerback Tramon Williams to a deal worth roughly $7 million per season affirms that position. The Browns have one of the league’s best (and highest-paid) corners in Joe Haden and several promising young corners but still targeted Williams, a productive and durable corner who just turned 32.
Many teams invest heavily in corner and offensive line, but not many do so as aggressively as Cleveland.
- Cleveland is one of three NFL teams paying more than one cornerback an average of $7 million a year. The Jets have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, with Buster Skrine close behind in the $6.25-million range, and the Broncos have the Aqib Talib-Chris Harris combo.
- The Browns and Seahawks are the only NFL teams paying three defensive backs an average of $7 million or more per year. The Browns signed Donte Whitner to a four-year, $ 28-million contract last offseason.
- The Browns dedicate 26.6 percent ($35.42 million) of the current payroll of $137.6 million to the defensive backfield, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System.
- The Browns dedicate 45.6 percent ($62.71 million) of their payroll to defensive backs and offensive linemen.
- The Browns are one of two teams paying both a left tackle (Joe Thomas) and a center (Alex Mack) at least $8 million a year. The Jets do the same with tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold.
- The Browns owe 42.3 percent of their 2015 money to seven players, including signing-bonus proration – CB Haden ($11.7 million), OT Thomas ($10.2 million), LB Paul Kruger ($8.2 million), C Mack ($8 million), DE Desmond Bryant ($7 million), S Whitner ($6.75 million), CB Williams ($6.5 million). Five of those players are on defense.
- The Browns’ highest-paid skill player in 2015 (Andrew Hawkins, $5 million) ranks 10th on the team.
The addition of Dwayne Bowe (due roughly $4.5 million after proration) tilts the overall receiver number to $16.17 million, or 11.7 percent of the team’s 2015 salary pool. But Farmer hasn’t exactly dispelled the notion that he doesn’t place a premium on skill players. The team’s quarterbacks, running backs, wideouts and tight ends combine for $28.42 million, or 20.6 percent.
Written by Mike Sando and with analytical help from Bill Polian, Field Yates, Matt Williamson and Louis Riddick, the Insider piece graded all 32 teams on their free agency performance since the new league year opened March 10.
While Polian gave the Browns an incomplete grade, Williamson gives the Browns the "worst grade you possibly can give."
The Browns have signed five potential starters -- cornerback Tramon Williams, wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, defensive tackle Randy Starks, quarterback Josh McCown -- but didn't corner the market on true game-breakers. The Browns let several key free agents walk, including corner Buster Skrine and tight end Jordan Cameron.
While Yates considers the Williams and Starks pickups as "smart signings," Riddick said the Browns made moves without a clear-cut purpose, and Williamson was even harsher: "I just do not think anyone wants to play for the Browns. They are the new Raiders."
That's cold -- and might be slightly true. To be sure, money talks in most cases, and the Browns were decidedly frugal this time around, despite entering free agency with $40-plus-million in cap space. But it's fair to wonder whether the Browns' perceived dysfunction this offseason and turnstile of starting quarterbacks makes free agents think twice about Cleveland. Want me to sign? That will cost you double. The text investigation doesn't help. Which free agent would want their name in Ray Farmer's inbox?
Cleveland's message seemed clear: We like our roster and want to build through the draft, using free agency as supplemental income. That's fine. That plan can work. But the Browns also don't have the cachet of inactive free agency teams such as the Packers, Patriots and Ravens, who all have an established quarterback. The Browns entered free agency with a few needs and did not address all of them. With all respect to Jim Dray or Gary Barnidge, there's not a starting tight end on the roster.
That said, some of these signings are solid, particularly Williams, Starks and Bowe, who isn't an elite No. 1 but is an upgrade for this team. McCown is the classic bridge guy. He's done well in the past. Can't fault the team for signing him.
I've been told the Browns had set their sights on collecting several compensatory picks in 2016 in exchange for the in-house free agents lost. That played a role in the Browns' player evaluation. Four of the Browns' five biggest signings were recently released players, meaning they don't count against the team's compensatory formula.
As for receiver, Jeremy Maclin was the only top-shelf wideout available on the open market. The rest were locked up by their respective teams. Their genuine options at receiver were limited at best.
Now, pass-rusher? They could have helped their cause with more aggressive plays.
Giving the Browns a D is particularly harsh, but it's hard to give them an A or B based on the moves made, and the cap space available.
CLEVELAND – Alex Mack stands tall inside the Browns’ weight room on a dreary March day, wearing team workout gear and sporting a thick beard. He’s ditched the crutches and the wheeled cart he once used to support a shattered left fibula.
He’s looking like a 6-foot-4, 311-pound Pro Bowl center again. And he’s excited to talk about football again, bringing up unprompted his love for when a play is “executed correctly, touchdown” -- a fitting comment for the savvy orchestrator of an offensive line, whose presence was sorely missed in 2014.
That joy wasn’t there for the 11 weeks Mack spent on injured reserve after breaking his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. The more he got involved in team meetings and walkthroughs, the more sobering his reality became.
“I couldn’t walk out there and stand next to the guys. I had to wheel out there on a little cart,” Mack said. “They didn’t necessarily need my support -- they’d rather have me protecting the passer. That was tough.”
Mack is slowly regaining his form.
The center will participate in the Browns’ offseason workouts, though to what extent is still being worked out. Mack acknowledged it's possible he won't go full-on during team OTAs, but that's not because of a setback. Mack and the training staff plan to be overly cautious because the goal is a fully healthy return for Week 1 in September. The Browns’ rushing offense dipped from 146.4 rushing yards per game with Mack to 90.5 without him.
Helping cope with a rigorous rehab was a series of offseason trips, including a week with three other NFL players on a USO tour in the Middle East, which Mack chronicled in a feature for clevelandbrowns.com. He spent a week in Turkey helping teammate Gary Barnidge’s American Football Without Barriers initiative. Mack also served as a volunteer for the Browns’ First and Ten program, which assisted with a Play 60 football festival for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Special Olympics.
The trips helped Mack “refresh,” he says, supporting troops while spreading support for a game that’s “given me so much.”
Mack rehabbed in the shadows all year, rarely appearing in the locker room and declining interviews on the final day of the season. Coach Mike Pettine during the season alluded to Mack dealing with “something more” than a traditional leg break, suggesting ligament damage was possible.
“We’re making some pretty steady progress, doing what we need to do to get out there for training camp,” Mack said. “But it’s more important that I’m out there for game day. Those two feelings have to balance out. It just takes time, having patience. Two weeks after the surgery, I wanted to be up and running around. I’m not 18 anymore.”
Considered one of the game’s best centers, Mack isn’t anticipating a production drop-off upon return. But he wasn’t exactly shocked to see the team's rushing numbers drop without him. That would have happened anyway, he said. The Browns were running the ball at a fervent pace, so he knew defenses would eventually adjust and the offense needed a counter move that never came.
Mack, who enters the second season of a five-year, $42 million deal, expects the offensive line to reignite the vibe they had in first five games of last season.
“The core of who we are is going to stay the same,” Mack said.
In between visits to various job sites, Mack took questions from troops overseas. He would answer a question about what drives him in life. Then a Browns fan asked him who will be “our quarterback this year?” Browns fans were everywhere.
PHOENIX -- What key things did I learn from spending time with the Cleveland Browns at the NFL owners meetings?
1) The Browns feel strongly that Josh McCown "stabilized" the quarterback position. Stabilized. General Manager Ray Farmer, coach Mike Pettine and owner Jimmy Haslam all used that word. The Browns believe McCown is the guy to bring order to the position. "He's proven that he can start in this league," Pettine said. The latter point could be argued, but it's clearly what the Browns feel. Or at least it's clearly what they say they feel. Pettine also said: "As we've talked about all along, when you surround your quarterback with the right scheme, and more importantly the right supporting cast, if you feel you have the right guy regardless of what the past history's been, if you feel you have a guy that can be credible for you and be functional, then you go ahead and make that move. That move we felt stabilized the position." There is nothing quite like being "stabilized."
2) A coach and GM can work together even after the GM texted coaches during games about in-game strategy. Pettine said at the combine he wasn't happy when he first learned of the text messages. A month later he said everyone was working well together and on the same page. Asked how that could be, he said: "If you talk to a lot of GMs, those three to four hours [during games] are among the most frustrating. There's going to be questions. 'Why are we doing this?' Fortunately Ray owns it and he chose that way as his outlet, but we get the opportunity to talk each week and we have our postgame audit and those questions get raised as well and we're not going to agree on everything 100 percent. But from a philosophy standpoint, we are very much on the same page. So it won't be 100 percent. Just like any other GM-head coach, it's not going to match perfectly. You're constantly in the process of educating each other, but we both feel like we're very much on the same page and we're moving forward to make this team better." Evidently the front office-coach relationship also has been … wait for it … stabilized.
3) The chances of trading up for Marcus Mariota never seemed lower, and the chances of a second-to-fourth round quarterback never seemed higher. Farmer said he covets numbers of draft picks. Haslam said the team would slowly but surely build more and more with the draft. Pettine was the only one to take it a little farther, saying quarterback was a position that justified giving up picks, but he likes having numbers of picks. Either the Browns have great poker faces, or they are just not that interested in Mariota.
4) The team expects Johnny Manziel back and they will give him a full chance to start. Despite offering excuses for his 2014 performance -- like Farmer saying last year's coaching staff changed the entire approach for Manziel's starts -- the Browns are going to give Manziel a chance to work with McCown. "When [Manziel] is back, it will be full speed ahead for him," Pettine said. "I think he's very anxious at this point."
5) The definiton of "changing an entire offense" can vary. Farmer said the Browns changed everything for Manziel. Pettine, politely, disagreed. "I know the run game stayed the same and I know we had some things in all year that were more suited for a mobile quarterback," Pettine said. "So there was a shift in emphasis there, but I wouldn't categorize those changes as drastic."
6) The Browns may not take a receiver in the first round because they will draft the best player available." I think its hard to go wrong when you take the best players that are available," Farmer said. Pettine said the Browns will try to make the team better in the draft. In his mind "value" trumps need. "If you're picking at 30 [be sure] you're getting a player that's 15th on your board," he said. "That you're not picking at 30 for a guy that's ranked 50th on your board because he plays a certain position."
CLEVELAND -- Ten weeks since the league revealed it would investigate the Browns' text-messaging habits on game days, the case is still open. This week's NFL owners meetings brought no clarity but did remind that the end is near. As ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, two of the league's four teams under investigation -- the Browns and the Falcons, for manufactured crowd noise -- could get hit with "severe" sanctions in the next few days.
Here's to making this easy for the NFL, with what could have saved them the two-plus-months of probing.
Take away a draft pick, maybe a fourth- or fifth-round pick, and put the case to rest.
If general manager Ray Farmer texts 17 weeks' worth of inflammatory stuff, hit the Browns with a third-round pick on general principle.
But no need to go nuclear, not for this.
The Browns have 10 picks this year, including six in the first 115 picks, an advantage no other team has through the first three-and-a-half rounds as far as volume. Taking away one of the team's fourth-round picks (115th overall) or the fifth-rounder (147th) would be manageable but still punish the team for what's a clear violation of the rules.
As colleague Pat McManamon pointed out, the context of the texts means less than the existence of them. "It's the fact that you broke the rule," said Goodell, via McManamon. "Any violation of our rules is something we take very seriously."
A general manager sending texts to fellow employees breaks NFL communication rules. At the NFL combine last month, Farmer publicly acknowledged he sent texts on Sundays and apologized for it. He claimed emotions got the best of him. Former general managers can sympathize with Farmer. Watching the players you picked struggle on the field is pure agony, they say. But Farmer broke the long-standing NFL mantra that coaches coach, not general managers.
Think about the rule-breaking here, though. If the league ranked its violations by level of significance, sending fairly harmless game-day texts wouldn't be high. The most damage done by Farmer is by the feelings of coaches and players he potentially hurt.
Suspending Farmer could happen, but doing so during draft season would be mean-spirited. Navigating a draft without a GM cripples the entire franchise. I suppose the league could postpone the suspension start date, or opt for a fine, which would be easier for the team.
The NFL has to do something -- this is a bad look for Farmer and the Browns -- but the actions, on the surface, seem more petty than damning. They shouldn't warrant the loss of a high pick.
Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons officials were informed at this week's NFL owners meetings in Phoenix of the discipline they face for violating league policies, league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
The discipline is expected to be announced next week, with one source saying it is expected to be "severe."
Browns general manager Ray Farmer admitted to texting during games in violation of the league's electronic device policy. Farmer has not revealed who he texted, but sources and reports have said the texts went to an assistant coach and an unnamed team representative on the sideline and that the texts dealt with in-game strategy and use of personnel.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank acknowledged in February that the team broke NFL rules by piping artificial crowd noise into the Georgia Dome over the past two seasons. He said what was done was "wrong," and affected the competitive balance and fairness on the field.
"Severe" discipline in these cases could be a hefty fine, a loss of a draft pick or picks, or other penalties. But, as one source said Wednesday and others verified, "it's coming soon."
While the Browns and Falcons issues are expected to be resolved by next week, there is more uncertainty surrounding the New England Patriots' Deflategate controversy. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday that there is no timeline for a verdict, as the league is focused on getting it right. He said the investigation doesn't have to be wrapped up and discipline announced before next month's draft.
Goodell also said Wednesday that competitive advantage would not be a vital factor in the league's rulings.
"The violation of the rule and the integrity of the rule is not necessarily whether you got an advantage or not," he said. "It's the fact that you broke the rule. That's a more general comment. We don't want people breaking the rules.
"There are 32 clubs who are going to be operating under the same rules."
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has said Farmer owns his mistake and that the Browns will accept the consequences. He stands firmly behind his general manager. He had said Tuesday night that the team was not yet aware of any sanctions.
"Even though it's not a positive, it's not something I'm proud of, it's not a badge or something I'm wearing, but I'm definitely trying to take the positive out of it," Farmer said Monday. "What did I learn? How am I better? And then how does this help me moving forward?"
Coach Mike Pettine admitted he was not pleased when the texts began, but he said at the league meetings that he and Farmer had talked it through.
"We both feel like we're very much on the same page and we're moving forward to make this team better," Pettine said.
In the Falcons' case, at least one employee was put on administrative leave. The front office and previous coaching staff said they were unaware of any wrongdoing. Blank said the Falcons cooperated fully with the NFL's investigation.
"Of course it bothers me," Blank told ESPN.com. "Absolutely it bothers me. We have great respect for the shield and the integrity of the game, the integrity of competition. So that bothers me a great deal. We will deal with it."
Some around the league have argued that silent counts have rendered crowd noise more irrelevant, and it's difficult to discern how much of an advantage the artificial noise gave the Falcons.
They went 3-4 at the Georgia Dome during the 2014 season and were blown out there 34-3 by the Carolina Panthers
The mere notion of this idea should have the Cleveland Browns holding their breath until they turn blue.
Because if ever a rule gives a team a competitive advantage, this change would do so. What team would you rather be? One that tries a 33-yard extra point in 12-degree weather with swirling December winds for a game-winning extra point that decides a playoff spot? Or one that tries the same kick in 70-degree weather in a dome with no wind?
Rich McKay, co-chair of the league’s competition committee, said support is growing for a changing the extra point, and a suggestion will be made at the league’s May meetings.
“There’s movement to make a change,” McKay said, “and make it this year.”
McKay said there seems to be an emphasis on making the kick “a football play” instead of the automatic kick it is now.
One option that will be discussed: A two-point try would place the ball at the 1 1/2 yard-line. A one-point kick would put the ball at the 15.
This puts different degrees of difficulty on the kick depending on weather and stadium. One could say that different levels already exist, but the farther the kick, the higher the margin of error.
Browns special teams coach Chris Tabor was very vocal last season when the league experimented with the extra point snapped from the 20 in preseason.
Tabor said then that it puts a team like the Browns at a disadvantage as the weather gets colder. After the preseason ended, Tabor said the Browns should strongly oppose the change. The only change since Tabor spoke is that the league is pondering moving the extra point to the 15.
The numbers show it. Since 2001, teams made 83.8 percent of kicks from 32 or 33 yards with the temperature below 30. In that same time, dome teams made 93.5 percent from that distance.
Since 2001, teams made 97 percent from extra-point distance (including extra points) in cold weather.
Moving the kick back takes it from near-certain to a kick with uncertainties. Maybe that's what the league wants, which is fine except in this case certain teams will feel the effects more than others.
The NFL for decades has operated under a certain set of rules with numerous records set in that time. Now, suddenly, the game will change drastically -- almost like baseball suddenly deciding a strikeout in the seventh inning should take four strikes instead of three.
Jimmy Haslam is the Browns' representative and vote in these matters and because a change affects teams differently, he should weigh in. Strongly.
A talented wide receiver class issued another reminder of how deep it really is, courtesy of UCF's Breshad Perriman, who recorded abnormally high 40 times for a 6-foot-2, 212-pound human.
Pro day times can be unpredictable -- the combine rarely produces sub-4.3 times -- but what's clear is how fast, fast, fast Perriman is.
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) March 25, 2015
The Cleveland Browns will take a hard look at picking a receiver with one of its first three picks -- Nos. 12, 19 and 43 overall. The Browns could very well eschew the first-round receivers and go offensive/defensive line with their top picks, or even pass-rusher, banking on the depth to help them in the second round (someone like USC's Nelson Agholor comes to mind).
But Perriman comes to mind because his speed might not be enough to creep into the top 12, making him a realistic option at No. 19 instead. He's a classic deep threat, perfect for go routes, an element this offense needs. A wide receiver didn't lead the Browns in catches of more than 40 yards last year. A tight end, Jordan Cameron, did.
After asking NFL evaluators at the combine about the receiver depth, the sentiment was last year's crew has a slight edge, but the depth in this crop is evident. That's why, when coupled with GM Ray Farmer's penchant for building up front and the signing of Dwayne Bowe, the Browns might treat receiver as a mid-round consideration.
No doubt, the temptation will be there on Day 1 with both picks, especially 19.
In other Browns draft news: Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and quarterbacks coach Kevin O'Connell attended quarterback Garrett Grayson's pro day at Colorado State. Grayson is considered a top-five quarterback prospect but well behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
Which is the reason the Rams said no. To trade Bradford, the Rams had to get a quarterback in return.
Which means Johnny Manziel was never offered in the deal. Not that anyone ever thought he was. Just that it’s important to note the Browns didn’t offer Manziel along with a first-round pick.
Which means the Browns are counting on him to at least compete for the quarterback spot in 2015. Which the Browns reiterated all week at the league’s annual meetings. The non-offer on the Bradford deal buttresses the statements.
Fisher said the Browns made an offer well after the combine and a few days before the Rams acquired Nick Foles from the Eagles.
The Browns offered the 19th pick in the draft.
The Rams said no, and would not have accepted the 12th pick for the same reason — the trade did not leave the Rams with a viable option at quarterback.
“At that point, you still don’t have a veteran quarterback,” Fisher said. “Nick, for us, was a perfect fit. I had talked with Chip [Kelly] and he thinks Sam is a perfect fit so this was a good deal. For us, we get a younger quarterback that’s won a lot of games in this league, can make all the throws and is healthy. I know he’s had shoulder issues but everybody has.”
Fisher said there were numerous offers and numerous discussions, but none involved a player.
PHOENIX -- Competitive advantage will not be a vital factor in the league’s ruling about Ray Farmer's in-game text messaging last season.
“The violation of the rule and the integrity of the rule is not necessarily whether you got an advantage or not,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday. “It’s the fact that you broke the rule. That's a more general comment. We don't want people breaking the rules.
"There are 32 clubs who are going to be operating under the same rules.’'
Which means the context of the texts from the Cleveland Browns' general manager to an assistant coach isn’t as important as the fact they happened -- because they mean Farmer violated the league's ruling about electronic devices.
The league’s investigation continues. Goodell said it will be a focus the next couple of days.
A decision, though, probably will not come this week.
The Browns could be fined or lose a draft pick. The investigation is being led by Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Vice President of Football Operations.
It’s interesting that the situation has dragged on this long. Farmer admitted one month at the combine that he did text during games, and he admitted he was wrong to do so.
“It definitely gave me more pause and that pause in my mind was rooted in, ‘I know I did something wrong and I answered to that,’” Farmer said earlier in the week. “Again, at the end of the day, every trial I face or every circumstance that's not positive or whatever, it'll make me better.
“I saw this at a buddy's office. He had a saying on a little rock, like a little statue thing. He had a saying on there. It said that 'thunderstorms come in everybody's direction. Those that really get it learn to dance in the rain.’
"So that's one of the things I've kind of taken away from it. Sometimes you've got to learn to dance in the rain.”
Farmer said he has not been hampered by the thought of a potential sanction. He said the possibility of losing a draft pick has not interfered with his attempts or ability to trade one.
“I guess I could [make a trade],” Farmer said. “And then if I traded enough of [those picks], they wouldn't have [any] to take.”
Farmer was joking.
Goodell was not.
“Any violation of our rules,” Goodell said, “is something we take seriously.’'
The Cleveland Browns have 10 selections in the 2015 NFL draft, which will be held April 30 to May 2 in Chicago. Here's a breakdown of the Browns' selections:
First round: 12th overall selection
First round: 19th overall selection
Second round: 43rd overall selection
Third round: 77th overall selection
Fourth round: 111th overall selection
Fourth round: 115th overall selection
Fifth round: 147th overall selection
Sixth round: 188th overall selection
Sixth round: 201st overall selections
Seventh round: 229th overall selection