General manager John Dorsey’s first major moves were completed last week when he reshaped the front office by adding assistant general manager Eliot Wolf, vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith and three members of the Chiefs scouting department, as well as keeping VP of player personnel Andrew Berry.
The work is only getting started.
Here are five issues facing Dorsey and the Browns as the offseason kicks into gear.
Will Crow fly?
Perhaps the only positive of having the youngest roster in the league is the lack of eligible free agents. Running back Isaiah Crowell is the only starter scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
The situation with Crowell is tricky. He’s never missed a game in four years, just turned 25 years old and has proved himself a capable NFL starter. But he’s never rushed for 1,000 in a season, isn’t elite and may be looking for a fresh start after growing increasingly frustrated by a lack of carries.
The Browns have a million needs and might not want to create another by allowing Crowell to leave. But with 12 picks, they could find a cheaper, better option in the draft.
Dorsey should offer Crowell a reasonable contract to return, which would keep the effective backfield tandem with Duke Johnson. If Crowell is intent on testing the free agent market, the Browns should let him go and look elsewhere.
Defensive tackle Jamie Meder will be a restricted free agent. He’s worth keeping at the right price.
Needy and greedy
The roster lacks not only talent but experience. Free agency is the place to find both, and Dorsey is expected to have about $100 million in salary cap space at his disposal.
The key for Dorsey will be identifying which positions are best enhanced through free agency as opposed to the draft. After quarterback, he should consider safety, receiver, cornerback, pass rusher and tight end in free agency.
The Browns didn’t have a true free safety, forcing Jabrill Peppers to play out of position, nor a No. 1 cornerback. Emmanuel Ogbah is a solid defensive end and especially strong against the run, but on third down he slides to tackle, and right end Myles Garrett would benefit from a veteran pass rusher coming off the other edge.
As for tight end, David Njoku and Seth DeValve could use a mentor with experience.
Finding the right vet
Fixing the never-ending quarterback problem starts with adding a veteran who can win right away and allow coach Hue Jackson not to force a rookie into the lineup for the second straight season. The right choice would allow the Browns to go from zero wins to as many as eight or nine, stabilizing and legitimizing a franchise desperate for respect and relevance.
Dorsey should have options. Kirk Cousins could be available if Washington decides against using the franchise tag for a third straight season. For about
$26 million a year, the Browns would have a top-15 quarterback and could use their first-round picks on other positions.
The rest of the candidates should be paired with the No. 1 pick, providing short- and long-term solutions. Kansas City’s Alex Smith leads this group. Dorsey traded for him once and could do it again, with Smith entering the final year of his contract and the Chiefs seemingly ready to move on to Patrick Mahomes.
Smith led the Chiefs to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons and topped the NFL with a 104.7 rating this season. He completes a high percentage of passes (67.5 this year) and doesn’t turn it over (five interceptions), which make him the anti-DeShone Kizer.
Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor and Minnesota’s trio of Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford are possibilities, as well as Bengals backup AJ McCarron.
An arbitration hearing next month will determine whether McCarron’s a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Jackson’s relationship with him and interest in him are well-documented. What’s unknown is if Dorsey likes him as much. McCarron’s only started four games in the NFL, so he’s far from a known commodity.
The young one
Tim Couch was the No. 1 pick in 1999. Since then, opportunity after opportunity has passed without the Browns drafting a quarterback higher than No. 22. Some missed opportunities are more painful than others — Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Wentz.
Unless Cousins is signed, this is the year the insanity must stop. Dorsey has done the preliminary scouting work on the top prospects, but the choice of a franchise quarterback goes well beyond that. He must be smart enough, dedicated enough and responsible enough to handle everything that comes with the job.
While Dorsey will have plenty on his plate before the draft begins April 26, nothing will be more important than this decision. It will most likely come down to USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and possibly Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
One more year?
Left tackle Joe Thomas wanted to wait until the offseason to meet with his family to discuss whether to return for a 12th season. The offseason is here, and Thomas’ decision will greatly affect the team’s course of action over the next few months.
If Thomas returns, the Browns can expect to have an elite left tackle and one of the league’s top offensive lines. If he retires, which would start the five-year clock on his induction into the Hall of Fame, the Browns would move left tackle right behind quarterback on their list of priorities.
Spencer Drango is a capable sixth lineman but not a starting left tackle. Shon Coleman told The Chronicle at the end of the season he would like the chance to replace Thomas if he retires, but he was inconsistent this season at right tackle. The simplest scenario would be spending the No. 4 pick on the best lineman in the draft, but that pick could otherwise be spent on a cornerback, running back or receiver.
Thomas said his decision will be based on if he’s still playing at a high level, his love for the game and health. The first two seem like givens, so his health is the variable. He missed the final nine games after tearing his left triceps, but even if he’s comfortable with the recovery, 10½ Pro Bowl seasons have taken their toll on his ankles, knees and back.
I think Thomas will play one more year, but he’s got plenty of options if he decides the time is right to walk away.