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Minus a cap crunch, Banner and Lombardi still have a lot to do this Browns offseason

Feb 11, 2013 -- 6:00am

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By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

Plenty to do: The Browns’ roster isn’t loaded with talent – otherwise they wouldn’t be 5-11 every year -- but it’s not loaded with salary cap headaches, either. For that, Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi can thank former GM Tom Heckert.

Normally when there is a regime change, the new one inherits massive cap problems and an aging roster that needs to be deconstructed. Banner and Lombardi are lucky.

Heckert did the dirty work. He purged the roster of over-30 players and laid a young foundation at the expense of two losing seasons. Banner and Lombardi just have to build on top. They don’t have to bulldoze and uproot.

I’ve seen various reports of the Browns’ salary cap room. They range from $40 million to $48 million – and I haven’t seen the same figure twice. Suffice to say, the Browns are in great salary cap shape.

Here’s the problem. Salary capping was Banner’s wheelhouse. But now he has decided to reinvent himself as a personnel expert. And in a bountiful year of young GM candidates, Banner chose to resurrect friend Lombardi – five years out of the NFL after a not-so-glorious run -- as his chief personnel evaluator.

So things have been juxtaposed. Heckert’s expertise was personnel, but he did a good job of clearing cap space. Banner’s expertise was contract negotiating, and now he’s in charge of personnel. Typical for the Browns. Always bass ackwards.

Anyways, there’s a lot to be done. Here is our list of things to do.

1. Make a decision on the QB: As Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff once told me, “Until you find your quarterback, the search for him consumes you.” Banner and Lombardi – and owner Jimmy Haslam, for that matter – have damned Brandon Weeden with faint praise. But the reported alternatives to Weeden are less than scintillating: Alex Smith, Ryan Mallet, Brian Hoyer, Michael Vick, Chase Daniel. Chase Daniel? They ought to load up Weeden’s arm in Norv Turner’s offense and watch the spirals fly for another season. Is it too much to ask to have a quarterback start two years in a row?

2. Sort out the front 7: Is it a multi-front or a hybrid defense? Semantics aside, coordinator Ray Horton has to identify his three linemen and four linebackers and then the blanks become top priorities in free agency and the draft. Is Phil Taylor an end? Is Jabaal Sheard a linebacker? Is Billy Winn stout enough to play end in the 3-4? (I think not.) Is Chris Gocong a pass rusher? Which of those young guys – Craig Robertson, L.J. Fort, James-Michael Johnson – can line up inside next to D’Qwell Jackson in the middle of the 3-4? Sort this out and then the top draft need becomes clear – a Von Miller-Aldon Smith clone pass rusher.

3. Identify a veteran WR: I believe Josh Gordon is the Browns’ No. 1 receiver. I believe Greg Little is a No. 2 or No. 3, depending on whether they finally acquire a veteran. I think more speed on the outside would relegate Little to the slot, which would make a more formidable threesome. If they don’t sign a veteran better than Little, then what’s the use?

4. Locate a starting CB: A starting cornerback in free agency is a must. Other than a quarterback, this could be the costliest offseason expenditure.

5. Replenish the TEs: The only one under contract is Jordan Cameron, and he is still an unfinished project who hasn’t proved he can stay healthy for a full season or be a reliable target. Coach Rob Chudzinski is a tight ends aficionado, so this position should be fortified by training camp. Chudzinski and Turner always have had a strong No. 1 tight end. If that is to continue, a new tight end must be found, because Cameron can’t fill that role. And Ben Watson and Alex Smith are free agents.

6. Reprioritize the FB position: Chudzinski and Turner also espouse a traditional, lead-blocking fullback. Hard to imagine they would keep Owen Marecic in that role.

7. Reconsider Dawson and Cribbs: With all that cap space available, it’s inconceivable not to at least try to re-sign Dawson or Cribbs – or both. Dawson has declined to sign a multi-year contract the past two seasons. He has to weigh breaking Lou Groza’s franchise scoring record vs. the chance to finally kick for a winning team. It’s cost-crazy to franchise Dawson a third year in row. Cribbs has lost a mph or two on his returns, but his production on the coverage teams and as a specialty player make him a valuable player.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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