CLEVELAND – The conclusion of Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday sets off a hectic NFL off-season as the league unfreezes rosters for impending changes for all NFL teams. For the Cleveland Browns, many roster decisions loom and await scrutiny from the impatient fan base and media. Contract decisions on popular players like return specialist Josh Cribbs and kicker Phil Dawson will be key in determining the outlook of this team. However, a green owner and a brand-new team of decision-makers coupled with a busy off-season calendar, make it unlikely the franchise will announce any decisions until the appropriate deadline.
For non-playoff teams like the Browns, league rules leave fans drooling in speculation on potential free agents and trade opportunities while some other team claims Super Bowl victory. Cleveland, alone, has been subject of several NFL rumors including contracts for Cribbs and Dawson and even trade speculation for quarterbacks Alex Smith and Michael Vick. However, those decisions can wait until early March when teams are forced to make declarations on unrestricted and restricted free agents, alike. For now, the NFL offseason schedule dictates a different focus.
The NFL Scouting Combine will take place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN from February 20-26 where hundreds of prospective athletes attempt to make an impression on even more hundreds of scouts and personnel executives for their shot at an NFL contract. So while some teams are making roster changes now, the Browns focus should be elsewhere.
Owner Jimmy Haslam III, in his first year as majority owner, has shown to be both attentive and deliberate at the same time. Laying the foundation for a franchise he intends to build into a perennial winner, he is clearly taking his time, one step at a time. The entire Browns front office team, headed by the experienced Joe Banner, CEO of Football Operations, is also growing on the job, in a sense, as Mike Lombardi, Rob Chudzinksi and the scouting staff left over from the last regime are working together for the first time.
That means the Browns are awfully near-sighted these days when it comes to making major roster decisions. Right now, determining which athletes can make the jump from college to the NFL and identifying which players can help the Browns win is the top priority. Unfortunately, that does not include current Browns players, who have done no winning to speak of. Any focus on the current Browns roster at all would be finding positions of weakness for the sake of improvement upon replacement.
Haslam has already indicated an open competition will take place for starting quarterback, so the few draft-worthy QBs at the combine will get some attention. Another position group sure to receive due diligence is the crowded class of defensive tackles and ends, despite the shift in defensive philosophy anticipated under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Other areas of need for the Browns include linebackers, cornerbacks and depth on the offensive line, wide receiver and safety.
So as much as we would all love to know if Dawson and Cribbs are going to continue their careers in orange and brown, we can only wait until league deadlines force the patient hand of this new Cleveland owner.