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There is no winning the offseason. Football isn’t played in the offseason. So there’s no losing in the offseason for the same reason. We’re breaking new ground here.

Starting in mid-March every year and culminating with the draft is the cultivation of hope and a whole lot of “ifs”. Those turn into projections and likelihoods, and if the general manager behind the curtain punches the right buttons and pulls the proper levers, he sees an improvement of some significance once games are played.

When we’re optimistic and cheerful in March, we’re trying to find this year’s Kansas City Chiefs, the team that spent but not overly while making the right moves in the right places. The team that, like the Chiefs, has the potential to rebound quickly from a dreadful season, or dreadful seasons.

So far that team is the Cleveland Browns. After qualifying for the playoffs just once since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999 and compiling a record of 51-109 over the past decade, the Browns might just have a chance to not suck.

There’s a six-step process happening in the land that winning forgot, and it’s ongoing.

1. Money, lots of sweet, sweet money

The Browns entered free agency with the third most cap space in the league at just under $50 million. But that only partially describes their riches. After Cleveland there was a significant drop, with no other team in their stratosphere.

But having money is irrelevant if it’s not spent properly. The Raiders, for example, interestingly decided against retaining the young talent they developed (LaMarr Houston, Jared Veldeer), and instead they were replaced by either the aging (Justin Tuck), or the injury prone (Donald Penn and LaMarr Woodley). A veteran to plug into an important hole is just fine, but not at the cost of your own youthful talent, and not when they’re the focus of your franchise reconstruction.

2. Pressing reset

Among the notable departures for Cleveland were T.J. Ward, Willis McGahee, D’Qwell Jackson, Davone Bess, Jason Campbell, and Brandon Weeden. Led by general manger Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine, the new regime smashed the reset button at quarterback after doing the same in their backfield earlier this past season with the Trent Richardson trade. Already the 2012 draft is but a memory, with both of the Browns’ first-round picks wasted.

“Admitting you wasted an entire draft” leads the football franchise building 12-step program. Brian Hoyer remains as the quarterback holdover atop the depth chart while he recovers from a torn ACL. In a small sample size of essentially two starts (he was injured quickly in a third) Hoyer provided some desperately needed optimism highlighted by a win over the Bengals when he finished with 269 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a 103.9 passer while completing 65.8 percent of his attempts.

3. Upgrading pain trains

Losing Ward wasn’t an enjoyable experience, because waving bye to a hard-hitting safety who essentially acts as another linebacker against the run is never a fun thing. He was smartly replaced by another safety who also rattles jaws: Donte Whitner.

Whitner falls in line with the Kam Chancellors of the league, the safeties who leave a mark in the most literal way while establishing a defensive tone early. The Ward-for-Whitner swap is a polarizing one, but at worst the Browns break even in their play against the run, with an upgrade in coverage while getting an even more physical safety.

That physicality is the main attraction of the purchase. Whitner also had a career high 12 passes defensed in 2013, a season when Pro Football Focus graded him as the sixth best safety in the league.

4. Another dynamic defender

Elsewhere, the defensive-minded Pettine was also gifted inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who came at a premium and an overpayment at $14 million guaranteed and $10 million in just the first year of a four-year contract. But with their cap space the Browns cared so little about that, and now they’ve replaced D’Qwell Jackson with an inside linebacker who hasn’t missed a game over the past three seasons despite his age (32). During that time he’s averaged 120 tackles per season, and in 2013 he had six sacks and a career single-season high four interceptions.

Most impressively, Dansby was highly efficient in coverage with 19 passes defensed. Over his nine seasons prior to 2013 he was averaging under five passes defensed. He joins a front seven that had 40 sacks last year, and last year’s sixth overall pick Barkevious Mingo is set to take a step forward with Pettine’s guidance.

5. Key offensive pieces

Ben Tate entered the offseason as the best running back available, though in today’s NFL that title comes with far less celebrity. When he was signed by the Browns the injury concerns flowed, because that’s what happens when you’re a running back who has missed 24 games over just four seasons, and you’re fresh off of ending a season on the injured reserve with a rib issue.

While hair is yanked over Tate’s potential combustion, there’s plenty of reason for joy. At the age of 26 Tate has only 479 career touches, which means he’s not really 26 in running back years. To compare, LeSean McCoy is also entering his age 26 season, and the league’s 2013 leading rusher has 1,421 touches. Tate was preserved in a backup role behind Arian Foster, and with his 421 career carries he’s averaged 4.7 yards per attempt. But the 41 missed tackles he forced in 2013 is the true measure of Tate’s elusiveness. That matched Jamaal Charles, according to PFF’s Mike Clay.

Then there’s Andrew Hawkins, sniped from the Bengals with an aggressive restricted free agent bid that wasn’t matched (a four-year contract worth $13.6 million). Hawkins appeared in only eight games this past season due to an ankle injury, but he looked very Tavon Austin-like. Of his 12 receptions, three of them went for 30 yards or more.

An offense that already had Josh Gordon’s speed on the outside and Jordan Cameron up the middle added Hawkins’ slot shiftiness, and brute force from Tate. Now, about that quarterback.

6. To the future

The Browns have 10 draft picks, and seven are spread out over the first four rounds. That includes two first-rounders after the Richardson trade and the fourth overall pick, when one of the top three quarterbacks (Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater) will be available. Whoever it is, the Browns’ rookie quarterback joins Gordon, Cameron, Tate, and Hawkins to form a solid young nucleus – one where Hawkins is the oldest at 28, and Gordon is still just 22.


Stability at quarterback — and a new scheme that more effectively utilized Jamaal Charles – propelled the Chiefs back to the playoffs last year. Whether the Browns can “go all Chiefs” in 2014 depends on either their potential quarterback draft pick or Brian Hoyer’s recovery and ability to be a bridge to a brighter future. Or both.