CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Browns announced today the release of defensive end Frostee Rucker. Rucker, 29, had 48 tackles, four sacks, and a forced fumble while playing in all 16 games. The Browns reportedly paid Rucker $8 million in guaranteed salary in 2012 and were due to pay an additional $2 million next week for being on the roster.
It is unclear how much cap space the Browns will add after the move, but the new front office has deemed Rucker expendable. And despite production as a traditional 4-3 defensive end, it’s clear Rucker’s skill set does not match the needs of defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s new “attacking” system.
If there was one position group of strength heading into the off-season for the Browns, it was the defensive line. It took two years to acquire all the pieces for a deep and consistent rotation of players. But with new leadership steering the team under different philosophies, the Browns are signaling another overhaul in the type of athletes we will see on the field.
Rucker has been typecasted as a pass-rusher limited to the 4-3 alignment because he lacks the athleticism and speed to drop into coverage required in the 3-4 scheme. This evaluation has all but been confirmed and raises concern about the status of Rucker’s former linemate, Jabaal Sheard.
Horton has already declared his intent to to show multiple defensive fronts, often times with all linemen standing up at the line of scrimmage before executing the play. At 6’3″ and 255 lbs., Sheard is 30 pounds lighter than Rucker and only one inch shorter, but has played end with his hand in the ground for two years. Sheard also played defensive end for four years at the University of Pittsburgh before turning pro. Can he stand up and run with tight ends deep into the secondary? It’s a difficult question to answer. Two things Sheard has going for him are his age and contract. Only 23, Sheard has two years left on a four-year deal after being selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. So it’s apparently worth seeing if he can transition into the new defensive scheme.
Other players on the defensive line that could be affected by the overhaul include defensive tackle Ishmaa’ily Kitchen and defensive ends Hall Davis and Juqua Parker. Kitchen and Davis signed with the Browns in September as late additions to the roster. Parker, 34, was a veteran signed in free agency. All were serviceable backups throughout the season. Rookie tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes may also be expendable depending on the versatility they provide Ray Horton.
Working against these players is the 2013 NFL Draft class – deep with defensive ends, tackles and outside linebackers. With the owner and CEO having already made clear the draft will be their primary tool for building the franchise, it will be interesting to see which players make the cut.
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.
This hiring completes the front office for Haslam as the franchise now looks to complete Head Coach Rob Chudzinski‘s coaching staff and prepare for the draft which, according to Banner, will be Lombardi’s main role along with hiring a scouting staff.
The announcement triggers mixed emotions for a Cleveland fan base desperate for a winning and stable football franchise. Lombardi, who worked for NFL Network the last five years, has been critical of the former Browns regimes’ drafts. Lombardi also previously worked for the Cleveland Browns in the late 1980’s and early ’90s as a personnel executive and produced mixed results on the field.
When asked if any of Lombardi’s comments as a media analyst factored in the decision to hire him, Haslam responded “absolutely not.”
Beyond the skepticism of Lombardi’s ability as a talent evaluator, Browns fans worry about the relationship he has with Banner. As early as August of last year, Lombardi had been rumored the favorite to win this job. Of course, the Browns refused comment. Yet throughout today’s press conference, Banner and Lombardi both reflected on past working experiences, including their two drafts with the Philadelphia Eagles that resulted in multiple Pro-Bowl selections and deep playoff runs – although no Super Bowls.
Even Haslam’s natural command of the room could not contain the overwhelming feeling that Banner had to get “his guy.” Banner even went so far to say that, in his mind, Lombardi “was always a candidate.” Haslam added that multiple references around the NFL had high regard for Lombardi and what he brings to an organization.
Asked if his five years away from being inside the NFL has affected his ability to evaluate talent and assemble a team, Lombardi insisted his last job gave him the ability to stay current.
“[NFL Network] gave me an office where I would watch games and watch coach’s tape,” Lombardi said. He went to describe his ability to stay connected with coaches and scouts through a “barter” system of information and opinions on players to gain inside knowledge. Lombardi avoided getting into much detail about the current Browns roster, though.
He did, however, give credit to Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who tweeted “Browns hired Michael Lombardi as GM. Uh oh.. Am I in trouble??” referencing Lombardi’s comments on the second-round selection in last year’s NFL Supplemental Draft .
“That’s a pretty good tweet,” Lombardi joked. “Josh Gordon…he’s got nothing to worry about.”
That may be the only good news fans have been afforded to this point as Chudzinski and the Browns have yet to hire a defensive coordinator – a man who will have a large role in the biggest personnel decisions moving forward.
There has been speculation whether the Browns defensive scheme will shift to a 3-4 alignment or continue the 4-3 alignment Dick Jauron employed over the last two years. Such a shift would likely require personnel adjustments – and time – in order to be successful. The preferred schematic approach of the new coach will determine what the team does.
Haslam indicated that hire could be made “within the next three or four days,” perhaps meaning Monday or Tuesday of next week.
Until then, anxious Browns fans can only wait.
CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Browns made another announcement Friday as they have officially named Ray Horton the defensive coordinator. Horton replaces Dick Jauron, a fan favorite who has developed the Browns unit over the past two seasons.
Horton, the former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator, comes to Cleveland after leading the Cardinals defense to a statistically successful season in Arizona, despite an awful team record of 5-11, including a 58-0 shutout loss to the Seattle Seahawks on December 9. In 2012 alone, the Cardinal defense ranked 5th in passing yards against and 12th in total yards against.
Browns cornerback Joe Haden reacted to the news by tweeting, “Ray Horton is the man!!!”
It will be interesting to see what style of play Horton infuses in the young Browns squad. In Arizona, Horton ran an aggressive 3-4 style defense that relied on the talent and abilities of the secondary to shut down opponents’ passing games long enough for the rushing linemen and linebackers to get to the quarterback.
However, this Browns defense was built to run the 4-3 scheme for which former GM Tom Heckert stockpiled talent. There will be questions for players like Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and D’Qwell Jackson to see if they can adjust to a new system.
One question no one is asking is whether Horton will fit in the physical AFC North. Prior to working for the Cardinals, Horton spent seven seasons working with defensive backs for the Pittsburgh Steelers where he was especially involved with the development of All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu.
Overall, Horton has 19 years of NFL coaching experience with Washington, Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Arizona.