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CLEVELAND -- Dwayne Bowe wants to go from zero to 15.

Touchdowns, that is.

Bowe isn't making numerical guarantees, but he knows this: Signing a two-year deal with the Browns sparks plans of "going back to the Dwayne Bowe of 2010," he said.

Bowe scored 15 touchdowns in that breakout 2010 season, which landed him a $56 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Bowe has scored 13 touchdowns in the four years since, including zero last season, when the Chiefs did not throw a touchdown pass to a single wideout.

Kansas City cut Bowe on March 12.

"I have a chance to revitalize myself," Bowe, 30, told ESPN.com via telephone Tuesday. "Just sit back and watch."

The Browns signed Bowe to a two-year, $12.5-million contract worth $9 million guaranteed, despite a push from the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team Bowe confirmed was interested.

Bowe's visit to Cleveland in mid-March was a bit nostalgic. He watched Chiefs game video with Browns general manager Ray Farmer, who was Kansas City's director of pro personnel from 2006 through 2012. Farmer showed Bowe several ways the Browns can play him, "just utilizing me more" downfield, Bowe said.

"Him knowing what I can do, seeing me in practice, making crazy plays, splitting the safeties, he knows I still can do that," Bowe said. "I couldn't showcase that last year. He was pulling up old plays, saying, 'We are going to use you just like that.' Moving around, going on motion, trying to hit the deep ball, trying to break plays."

Bowe has four years of at least 70 catches and three with at least a 1,000 yards but hasn't topped 801 yards since 2012. Pro Football Focus credits Bowe with 31 drops in the last four years.


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CLEVELAND -- Miles Austin signing a one-year deal with the Eagles symbolizes the Browns' slight offensive overhaul of playmakers.

Approaching free agency, Austin seemed like a reasonable re-sign for the Browns. He wouldn't command major money, and he's dependable on third down. But the signing of Brian Hartline made Austin expendable. They have similar skill sets and are not burners but reliable possession guys.

If that's a wash, the bigger issue is the lack of a replacement for Jordan Cameron, who signed a two-year deal with Miami. The Browns' whole approach to tight end has been murky. They targeted Charles Clay but Buffalo outbid everyone. Then they offered Cameron a contract in what seemed like a desperation move.

Now Dwayne Bowe slides into a prime playmaking spot. So, for the sake of argument, let's say the Browns directly replaced the Austin/Cameron combo with Bowe/Hartline. This isn't specific to positions, but under a broader pass-catcher category.

Let's see what comes and goes, based on a two-season, unscientific sample size:

*Coming: Bowe (30 games, 117 catches, 1,427 yards, 12.2 ypc, 5 TDs), Hartline (32 games, 115 catches, 1,490 yards, 12.9 ypc, 6 TDs)

*Going: Cameron (25 games, 104 catches, 1,341 yards, 12.9 ypc, 9 TDs), Austin (23 games, 71 catches, 812 yards, 11.4 ypc, 2 TDs)

Cameron and Austin both have missed games due to injury, so here's the breakdown of the average per-game production.

*Bowe/Hartline: Combined 7.48 catches, 94 yards and 0.35 TDs per game

*Cameron/Austin: Combined 7.29 catches, 89.7 yards and 0.45 TDs per game

And, of course, the total numbers:

*Coming: 232 catches, 2,917 yards, 11 TDs

*Going: 175 catches, 2,153 yards, 11 TDs

*Difference: 57 catches, 764 yards.

ANALYSIS: When Cameron and Austin are healthy, they pose a more potent scoring threat, but the Browns get slightly more in receptions and yardage with Bowe and Hartline. Not sure, as it stands, the Browns offense got much better -- maybe slightly, if Bowe and Hartline can recapture their 1,000-yard past. The tight end need is glaring, and options are bleak. The Browns can comb the second-tier free agents or rely on the draft, which isn't considered strong for tight ends.

Here's where the potential payoff comes: The Browns need either Bowe or Hartline to become legitimate red-zone threats. Hartline already has expressed the desire for this. Travis Benjamin led the Browns receivers with three touchdowns a year ago. If one of these two players changes that trend, this swap can be a success.

NFL Nation TV gets scandalous?

March, 31, 2015
Mar 31
8:00
AM ET

Join us today at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT) for NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast 50 as we catch you up on the latest in free agency and offseason storylines, including the San Francisco 49ers cutting Jonathan Martin and bringing in a bevy of veterans for visits and the Atlanta Falcons getting fined $350,000 and losing a draft pick for piping in noise to the Georgia Dome during games.

Host Paul Gutierrez (49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by four other NFL Nation reporters throughout the expanded show.

Jeremy Fowler (Cleveland Browns reporter) will give us the latest on Browns general manager Ray Farmer’s four-game suspension and what it means for the franchise, as well as provide an update on Johnny Manziel's rehab stint.

Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) will update us on the Titans’ thoughts on what to with the No. 2 overall draft pick, and if quarterback Marcus Mariota might be their No. 1 target now.

Meanwhile, Harvey and Wells will chime in with a co-Main Event to discuss lame duck coaches, from Marvin Lewis to Chuck Pagano.

The other co-Main Event features Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) and Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) as they discuss the latest hissing match and tampering charges flying from the East Coast.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

Todd McShay's latest mock draftInsider adds nearly 700 pounds to the Cleveland Browns' roster.

McShay has Cleveland selecting 339-pound Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton at No. 12 overall and 329-pound offensive tackle Ereck Flowers at 19.

If Shelton falls to 12, the Browns' personnel brass will celebrate with awkward, middle-aged fist pumps. Guessing the Bears (7) and Giants (9) don't let that happen. Shelton is visiting with the Browns privately.

The Browns can't address quarterback with the way this mock draft plays out (he puts Marcus Mariota at No. 2 to Tennessee), so the team can fill two of their biggest needs this way, McShay said.

"Shelton is the No. 9 player on our board, so he's a value here, and there are good receiver and right tackle prospects to be had with the Brown's No. 19 pick," writes McShay, who adds Shelton can be a "dominant force against the run and a double-team magnet in the middle of Cleveland's defensive front" if consistent.

McShay makes a ton of sense here. If Shelton is available, the Browns won't hesitate.

As for Flowers, McShay writes he's got a massive frame and is effective as both a run-blocker and pass-protector.

Drafting an offensive tackle is not an indictment of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, but a team feeding one of the positions it values most while planning for future roster maneuvering. Schwartz is a free agent after 2015. Alex Mack can opt out of his contract after a year. Joe Thomas has played eight years and can't go forever. The signing of a high-upside tackle who can sit for a year if necessary isn't so bad. Plus, the mid-to-late-round depth at tackle might not be as good as, say, receiver.

McShay's scenario leaves the Browns thin at outside pass-rusher, a position with several elite players in the first round. But a DL/OL combo is a safe play should Shelton be available. He's the catalyst for this arrangement.

The Browns have plans to move former first-round pick Phil Taylor to nose tackle. He's in a contract year. Taylor has enough versatility to move outside if Shelton is an immediate contributor.

 

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CLEVELAND -- Crowd noise doesn't hurt feelings. Text messages do.

The NFL's investigation into the Browns' game day smartphone communication was never about a suspension or even a loss of a draft pick.

Not entirely, anyway.

That the league had to discuss the general manager's inbox over something that seems so trivial has implications beyond league guidelines.

Ray Farmer had done damage in his own building, without the long-term track record to mask the problem. Farmer has done some good things -- particularly by filling several needs in last year's free agency and in parts of the draft -- but he's known for two struggling first-round picks and this investigation until proven otherwise.

Regaining the trust of other Browns' officials has been and should be a crucial component for the second-year general manager's job performance evaluation. Whether Farmer sent one text or 200 won't change the league-wide assumptions, fair or not, that he questioned jobs, embarrassed counterparts and exacerbated the well-worn dysfunction storyline in Cleveland.

For good measure, Farmer might even issue a "So ... we're cool, right?" to his staffers before disappearing on a four-game suspension.

This is a chance for the Browns to follow through on their word, to show over time this isn't as messy as it seems.

Farmer must get out of his own way.

Maybe things are all good now. Browns officials have stood by Farmer, who was contrite at the NFL combine. Coach Mike Pettine says he's "very comfortable" in his relationship with Farmer, sees football in the same way as him and both parties moved on from the mistake. Owner Jimmy Haslam calls Farmer an "exceptional human being" who is remorseful for his error.

But Pettine, in particular, had reason to fume when he first found out. Many successful NFL teams have a common thread -- a GM and head coach who respect each other.

Without that, Farmer and Pettine have no chance. Both say the respect is healthy. Whether they keep a united front during potential rough stretches of the season will determine just how healthy.

Advice for Farmer: Don't sit in the owner's box during games in 2015. It undermines your coach.

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CLEVELAND -- The waiting -- and the embarrassment -- might have been the hardest part.

The Cleveland Browns can easily navigate the four-game suspension to general manager Ray Farmer, especially since the punishment involves no loss of draft picks.

Forget a hammer-drop. The league is using a chisel on the Browns, who have been under investigation since early January over Farmer's improper text messages during games. For nearly three months, the Browns have handled new assistant coaching hires, free-agency plans and NFL draft scouting under this cloud. These are not extraordinary tasks, but they can be complicated when sanctions loom.

With 10 draft picks still intact for 2015, the suspension for Farmer is far from crippling. Farmer's texts probably did not help the team gain a competitive advantage, but they clearly broke the rules.

Yet Atlanta lost a 2015 fifth-round draft pick over piping in artificial crowd noise.

The bigger internal challenge for the Browns is this: Will the ruling exacerbate an already brutal offseason or serve as a clean break?

The Browns clearly would prefer the latter.

An avalanche of issues, beginning with Kyle Shanahan's departure and fueled by Josh Gordon's suspension, among other concerns, gave power to the "same old Browns" crowd. The Browns seem desperate to change that storyline, but questions remain as to whether they really know how to do so.

They could prove they do by using the heavy load of picks to pump out a productive draft class: Not being duped into any bad trades; getting the players they want; staying relatively low-key. Then have Farmer sit out for a few plays.

Literally.

The NFL was served best by asking Farmer to take time off during the season. That way, the punishment hits Farmer where it hurts, but isn't so mean-spirited as to remove him from the draft room in April.

The Browns probably have some good stories to tell. They have players they like, especially on defense. Offseason workouts breed optimism. They'll soon welcome back quarterback Johnny Manziel.

It seemed like everything was on hold while the team waited for the NFL's ruling.

The Browns now have reasons to feel more relieved than handcuffed.

Browns GM suspended four games

March, 30, 2015
Mar 30
10:50
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Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer has been suspended without pay for the first four games of next season for sending texts to personnel during games in 2014 and the team was fined $250,000, the NFL announced Monday.

The Browns, however, did not forfeit any draft picks in the punishment, which was announced by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent.

Farmer's suspension starts on the midnight of the Sunday before the Browns' Week 1 game and ends immediately after the team's Week 4 game. During his suspension, Farmer can't be involved in any team matters and is not permitted to be at the team's facilities or games. 

"There was no evidence in the NFL's review that Browns ownership or any other team executives had knowledge of the prohibited conduct. Once the violation was discovered, Browns management implemented new processes to ensure future compliance," the NFL said in its statement.

Farmer admitted to texting during games in violation of the league's electronic device policy. Farmer has not revealed whom he texted, but sources and reports have said the texts went to an assistant coach and an unnamed team representative on the sideline and that the texts dealt with in-game strategy and use of personnel.

"I respect the league's decision and understand that there are consequences for my actions,'' Farmer said in a statement released by the Browns. "Accountability is integral to what we are trying to build, and as a leader, I need to set the right example. I made a mistake and apologize to Jimmy Haslam, [coach] Mike Pettine, our entire organization and our fans for the ramifications. Learning is a big part of who I am, and I will certainly be better from this situation.''

Farmer sent text messages throughout most of the season, a source close to the situation told ESPN.com. The texts took place during multiple games and continued at least until quarterback Johnny Manziel


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CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns fans and media have expended months of offseason energy on the team’s search for a quarterback who can exorcise the numbing streak of 22 starters since 1999. Sam Bradford. Marcus Mariota. Nick Foles. They must be vetted, pursued, contractually rewarded.

That chase might be dead.

Sorry.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSigns point to Josh McCown opening training camp as the starting quarterback for the Browns.

Grieve if you must.

Anything is possible, but it still comes back to this with the Browns’ quarterback situation: Giving Josh McCown $6.25 million guaranteed on a three-year deal would have been unlikely had the team felt the chances of trading for Bradford or Mariota were good.

They vetted the other options before closing on McCown.

Even if the Browns offered Eagles coach Chip Kelly the 19th overall pick for Sam Bradford -- like they reportedly did to the Rams when Bradford was still there -- Kelly would need much more than picks 19 and 20 to move into Mariota’s range. Not sure why he would want to do that unless Cleveland would part with the 12th overall pick, which is too steep for the injured quarterback.

The Browns’ top two quarterbacks in training camp could very well be -- as it seemed all along -- McCown and Johnny Manziel.

Even Browns center Alex Mack knows that.

"It’s going to be a quarterback battle," Mack said. "Josh McCown’s coming in. I think Johnny Manziel’s going to be back, and we will see how Johnny does."

Not the most attractive option, but the most likely.

The Browns could prove that wrong with an aggressive trade play in April. But when GM Ray Farmer talked up his current crop of quarterbacks when speaking to the media at last week’s owners meetings, he sounded like a guy who knows he has no choice.

If nothing changes, what exactly will the Browns get from a McCown-Manziel combo?

  • Expect McCown to enter training camp as the first-string quarterback: McCown will be the safe play unless proved otherwise. The Browns had two offseason quarterback plans: one with Manziel, one without him. McCown has started 49 NFL games since 2003 and is being paid slightly above backup money, roughly $14 million over three years, with the chance to earn an extra $6 million in incentives. Based on that payout and McCown’s experience, the job is his to lose.
  • The Browns could keep the starting job open early in training camp: The Browns could treat this training camp like the last, deciding on a two-quarterback race after the second preseason game. This gives Manziel the chance to assuage his 2014 ills with a more productive training camp while trying to minimize the pressure he faced as a rookie.
  • Don’t expect the Chicago Bears McCown or the Tampa Bay Bucs McCown, but something in between: McCown had everything working in 2013 after throwing for 13 touchdowns and one interception -- including four Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers to get the ball. He won’t have that luxury in Cleveland. But he also won’t be as bad as his 1-10 record in Tampa suggests. McCown battled a thumb injury, shaky offensive line play and the abrupt departure of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. Expect numbers in line with McCown’s career -- 59 percent passer, slightly above a 1-1 touchdown/interception ratio.
  • Manziel will come back refreshed and focused, but the on-field concerns remain: By all accounts, Manziel is taking his two-month treatment stint seriously. He could come back as a different guy. That will help him. But that doesn’t solve a few on-field concerns, including accuracy and his escapability, which was supposed to be a strength. The Browns had to cobble together a late-season plan for Manziel that backfired, but this time new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo can try to figure out which plays work best for Manziel.
  • Connor Shaw will have the inside track on the third-string job unless a draft pick makes a move: The Browns brought in Thad Lewis for competition but they like Shaw, who doesn’t have a huge arm but showed savvy and toughness in a Week 17 near-win at Baltimore. Drafting a second-tier quarterback such as Bryce Petty or Garrett Grayson would fuel competition.

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Names of teams getting some private time with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota have begun to trickle out, via NFL Network's Albert Breer and others.

The Bucs, Redskins and Jets reportedly are on the board with a Mariota one-on-one, with Tennessee already having worked out Mariota after his pro day. If you're counting at home, those teams comprise four of the top six picks. The Chargers also are reportedly involved.

The Browns' predicament -- two first-round picks and the ritualistic quarterback concerns -- will fuel interest in how much digging is necessary on the player considered by most analysts as the draft's second-best quarterback.

But here are a few reasons why the Browns might not need or get a visit with Mariota.

  • Mariota's relationship with QBs coach Kevin O'Connell: O'Connell privately tutored Mariota before and even after taking the Browns job. He orchestrated Mariota's pro day throwing sequence. He knows Mariota better than most. The Browns can lean on that insight, cutting out the proverbial middle man on get-to-know-you sessions.
  • Can't invite every quarterback to Berea: Teams only get 30 in-house visits for interviews/physicals. With hundreds of intriguing prospects, including several quarterbacks outside the first-round projections, the Browns must be judicious with those visits. Plus, if they have good intel on Mariota already, they can save the reservations for other prospects.
  • Mariota’s selective process: With this high profile a prospect, Mariota will meet with teams he either wants to be drafted by or feels holds a good chance in drafting him. It’s not a speed-dating round. There’s strategy involved. Maybe Mariota’s camp feels Cleveland is out of range.The key question is simple: Do the Browns love Mariota? If they like him, no need to schedule a visit. You can consider him if he starts to fall past the Jets at No. 6. If you love him? Glean as much as you can.

What's the old saying, if you don't have a quarterback, stop the teams that do?

That's not it, but it might as well apply to the Cleveland Browns, whose signing of Tramon Williams reminds that the team is stockpiling defensive backs to combat three opposing divisional teams with a combined 22 years of quarterback stability, a stark contrast to the Browns' 22 starting quarterbacks since 1999.

Earlier Friday, NFL Nation highlighted how much of a premium the Browns place on the defensive backfield -- 26.6 percent of the team's 2015 salary owed, a number that could mushroom if safety Tashaun Gipson gets a long-term extension. Joe Haden, Williams and Donte Whitner will get a combined $27.5 million in average yearly earnings over the course of their deals. The team invested a first-round pick in corner Justin Gilbert, a fourth-rounder on Pierre Desir and undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams started games in the slot.

It's fairly easy to figure out why the Browns would enact this strategy -- facing Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco four times a year and, yes, Andy Dalton twice (Dalton is not in the class of his AFC North peers but is an established four-year starter).

The Browns gave up a league-worst 141.6 rushing yards last year, but they offset that issue with a top-10 passing defense that helped the Browns rank first in the league in takeaways.

Whether Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel or [insert draft pick here] start for the Browns at quarterback, the team will keep loading up on defensive backs to soften the offensive blow.

Consider the Browns' performance last year against AFC North quarterbacks:

Roethlisberger: 44-of-76, 593 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions

Flacco: 41-of-67, 529 yards, three touchdowns, one interception

Dalton: 24-of-57, 203 yards, zero touchdowns, four interceptions

Total: 109-of-200 (54.5 percent), 1,325 yards (220.8 per game), five touchdowns, seven interceptions

Conclusion: The Browns won two division games last year and will need another solid performance from the defensive backfield to get two or more in 2015. With quarterback still an uneasy position, secondary is arguably the biggest part of the Browns' identity.

One of the best ways to crystallize a general manager’s priorities is through his spending. Where teams invest the most money can help illustrate where they believe games will be won or lost. Yes, some numbers can be skewed (many franchise cornerstones are still on cheap rookie deals, for example).

For the Browns, however, it’s become clear Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine believe the defensive backfield and offensive line are the two money positions. The signing of cornerback Tramon Williams to a deal worth roughly $7 million per season affirms that position. The Browns have one of the league’s best (and highest-paid) corners in Joe Haden and several promising young corners but still targeted Williams, a productive and durable corner who just turned 32.

Many teams invest heavily in corner and offensive line, but not many do so as aggressively as Cleveland.

Consider:

  • Cleveland is one of three NFL teams paying more than one cornerback an average of $7 million a year. The Jets have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, with Buster Skrine close behind in the $6.25-million range, and the Broncos have the Aqib Talib-Chris Harris combo.
  • The Browns and Seahawks are the only NFL teams paying three defensive backs an average of $7 million or more per year. The Browns signed Donte Whitner to a four-year, $ 28-million contract last offseason.
  • The Browns dedicate 26.6 percent ($35.42 million) of the current payroll of $137.6 million to the defensive backfield, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System.
  • The Browns dedicate 45.6 percent ($62.71 million) of their payroll to defensive backs and offensive linemen.
  • The Browns are one of two teams paying both a left tackle (Joe Thomas) and a center (Alex Mack) at least $8 million a year. The Jets do the same with tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold.
  • The Browns owe 42.3 percent of their 2015 money to seven players, including signing-bonus proration – CB Haden ($11.7 million), OT Thomas ($10.2 million), LB Paul Kruger ($8.2 million), C Mack ($8 million), DE Desmond Bryant ($7 million), S Whitner ($6.75 million), CB Williams ($6.5 million). Five of those players are on defense.
  • The Browns’ highest-paid skill player in 2015 (Andrew Hawkins, $5 million) ranks 10th on the team.

The addition of Dwayne Bowe (due roughly $4.5 million after proration) tilts the overall receiver number to $16.17 million, or 11.7 percent of the team’s 2015 salary pool. But Farmer hasn’t exactly dispelled the notion that he doesn’t place a premium on skill players. The team’s quarterbacks, running backs, wideouts and tight ends combine for $28.42 million, or 20.6 percent.

ESPN Insider's free agency grades came in today,Insider and the Cleveland Browns did not meet the minimum requirements to stay eligible.

Written by Mike Sando and with analytical help from Bill Polian, Field Yates, Matt Williamson and Louis Riddick, the Insider piece graded all 32 teams on their free agency performance since the new league year opened March 10.

While Polian gave the Browns an incomplete grade, Williamson gives the Browns the "worst grade you possibly can give."

The Browns have signed five potential starters -- cornerback Tramon Williams, wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, defensive tackle Randy Starks, quarterback Josh McCown -- but didn't corner the market on true game-breakers. The Browns let several key free agents walk, including corner Buster Skrine and tight end Jordan Cameron.

While Yates considers the Williams and Starks pickups as "smart signings," Riddick said the Browns made moves without a clear-cut purpose, and Williamson was even harsher: "I just do not think anyone wants to play for the Browns. They are the new Raiders."

That's cold -- and might be slightly true. To be sure, money talks in most cases, and the Browns were decidedly frugal this time around, despite entering free agency with $40-plus-million in cap space. But it's fair to wonder whether the Browns' perceived dysfunction this offseason and turnstile of starting quarterbacks makes free agents think twice about Cleveland. Want me to sign? That will cost you double. The text investigation doesn't help. Which free agent would want their name in Ray Farmer's inbox?

Cleveland's message seemed clear: We like our roster and want to build through the draft, using free agency as supplemental income. That's fine. That plan can work. But the Browns also don't have the cachet of inactive free agency teams such as the Packers, Patriots and Ravens, who all have an established quarterback. The Browns entered free agency with a few needs and did not address all of them. With all respect to Jim Dray or Gary Barnidge, there's not a starting tight end on the roster.

That said, some of these signings are solid, particularly Williams, Starks and Bowe, who isn't an elite No. 1 but is an upgrade for this team. McCown is the classic bridge guy. He's done well in the past. Can't fault the team for signing him.

I've been told the Browns had set their sights on collecting several compensatory picks in 2016 in exchange for the in-house free agents lost. That played a role in the Browns' player evaluation. Four of the Browns' five biggest signings were recently released players, meaning they don't count against the team's compensatory formula.

As for receiver, Jeremy Maclin was the only top-shelf wideout available on the open market. The rest were locked up by their respective teams. Their genuine options at receiver were limited at best.

Now, pass-rusher? They could have helped their cause with more aggressive plays.

Giving the Browns a D is particularly harsh, but it's hard to give them an A or B based on the moves made, and the cap space available.

 

 

 

CLEVELAND – Alex Mack stands tall inside the Browns’ weight room on a dreary March day, wearing team workout gear and sporting a thick beard. He’s ditched the crutches and the wheeled cart he once used to support a shattered left fibula.

He’s looking like a 6-foot-4, 311-pound Pro Bowl center again. And he’s excited to talk about football again, bringing up unprompted his love for when a play is “executed correctly, touchdown” -- a fitting comment for the savvy orchestrator of an offensive line, whose presence was sorely missed in 2014.

That joy wasn’t there for the 11 weeks Mack spent on injured reserve after breaking his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. The more he got involved in team meetings and walkthroughs, the more sobering his reality became.

“I couldn’t walk out there and stand next to the guys. I had to wheel out there on a little cart,” Mack said. “They didn’t necessarily need my support -- they’d rather have me protecting the passer. That was tough.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
AP Photo/Tony DejakBrowns center Alex Mack broke his leg in the Oct. 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mack is slowly regaining his form.

The center will participate in the Browns’ offseason workouts, though to what extent is still being worked out. Mack acknowledged it's possible he won't go full-on during team OTAs, but that's not because of a setback. Mack and the training staff plan to be overly cautious because the goal is a fully healthy return for Week 1 in September. The Browns’ rushing offense dipped from 146.4 rushing yards per game with Mack to 90.5 without him.

Helping cope with a rigorous rehab was a series of offseason trips, including a week with three other NFL players on a USO tour in the Middle East, which Mack chronicled in a feature for clevelandbrowns.com. He spent a week in Turkey helping teammate Gary Barnidge’s American Football Without Barriers initiative. Mack also served as a volunteer for the Browns’ First and Ten program, which assisted with a Play 60 football festival for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Special Olympics.

The trips helped Mack “refresh,” he says, supporting troops while spreading support for a game that’s “given me so much.”

Mack rehabbed in the shadows all year, rarely appearing in the locker room and declining interviews on the final day of the season. Coach Mike Pettine during the season alluded to Mack dealing with “something more” than a traditional leg break, suggesting ligament damage was possible.

“We’re making some pretty steady progress, doing what we need to do to get out there for training camp,” Mack said. “But it’s more important that I’m out there for game day. Those two feelings have to balance out. It just takes time, having patience. Two weeks after the surgery, I wanted to be up and running around. I’m not 18 anymore.”

Considered one of the game’s best centers, Mack isn’t anticipating a production drop-off upon return. But he wasn’t exactly shocked to see the team's rushing numbers drop without him. That would have happened anyway, he said. The Browns were running the ball at a fervent pace, so he knew defenses would eventually adjust and the offense needed a counter move that never came.

Mack, who enters the second season of a five-year, $42 million deal, expects the offensive line to reignite the vibe they had in first five games of last season.

“The core of who we are is going to stay the same,” Mack said.

In between visits to various job sites, Mack took questions from troops overseas. He would answer a question about what drives him in life. Then a Browns fan asked him who will be “our quarterback this year?” Browns fans were everywhere.

“I ask myself that question,” said Mack, jokingly. “It’s going to be a quarterback battle. Josh McCown’s coming in. I think Johnny (Manziel’s) going to be back and we will see how Johnny does.”

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