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The Cleveland Browns Have a Window to Win Right Now

Something that will get lost in a news cycle that currently features a massive contract extension for Joe Flacco and major cap issues and turmoil for the Pittsburgh Steelers (and the Bengals rare use of the franchise tag!) is that the Cleveland Browns have excellent position in the upcoming draft, and can really make a play for first place.

Like, right now.

Crazy talk?  Perhaps.  But the roster that Executive VP Michael Lombardi inherits returns a lot of core pieces in a weakened AFC, in a division that is aging very, very rapidly.  And for the first time in many years, the Browns overall performed really well at the skill positions and up front on the offensive line.  They also were one of the strongest units in the NFL against the run last season.  Where they didn’t perform so well was in terms of rushing the passer, and y’know, actually employing a passer.

The thing was, my number suggest that the Browns lost about two wins by 1) drafting Brandon Weeden, and then 2) starting him over the incumbent, Colt McCoy.  Lombardi is not a huge fan of McCoy either, but the point I’m trying to make is not that McCoy is the future of the Browns, but that there’s huge room for improvement to be made.  Acquiring a free agent quarterback who is a grade above McCoy makes the Browns instantly a .500 team in a conference where the burden for the playoff contenders is fractionally above .500.  In other words, one move puts the Browns right on the cusp of playoff contention.

That doesn’t even consider the upside that the Browns have with their top two skill players: WR Josh Gordon and RB Trent Richardson, taking steps forward in 2012.  Gordon, unfortunately, cost the Browns a 2nd round draft pick in this upcoming draft to take in the 2012 supplemental draft, so the Browns will have to be creative in addressing the quarterback position.

They can do it one of two ways: they can execute a trade down in the first round of the draft, being in unique position to do so at the sixth overall pick.  Then, like the Ravens did five years ago with Joe Flacco, they can trade back up to get the guy they want, whether that’s Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, Tyler Bray of Tennessee, or Matt Barkley of USC is the main question.

Alternatively, the Browns can spend a high first round draft pick to solidify their move back to a 3-4 defense, with someone like Star Loutulelei to play the Richard Seymour role in their Belichick-ian defense (they can also go and acquire the real Richard Seymour if they need a stopgap veteran).  One thing the Browns do really well already is cover the pass at the linebacker level.  For a guy who has always played defensive end, Jabaal Sheard does this really well.  The guy who will play the other OLB is probably not yet on the roster, but Lombardi has the whole offseason to find him.

But solving the QB situation will be tricky.  The Browns have been linked to Ryan Mallett of the Patriots (they have since denied interest in trading for him) as well as FA QB Matt Moore, most recently of the Dolphins (no one has denied interest in Moore).  Moore wouldn’t cost much to sign, and has exceeded expectations before.  And with an open competition at quarterback between Moore, Weeden, and McCoy, the Browns might have something going there.

Can a Moore-led Browns team find its way to the AFC playoffs?  I’m skeptical, but there’s definitely a window of opportunity to take advantage of?  The biggest advantage the Browns might have is their coaching staff: Rob Chudzinski is one of the more innovative offensive coaches in the league.  Norv Turner is calling the plays.  Already having established that offensive talent is present on the roster, Moore is probably good enough to light up the scoreboard against weaker defenses (so is McCoy, to be fair).  And in the AFC this year, there figures to be plenty of weaker defenses.

The Browns need to strike while the iron is hot here, make a move at quarterback — one that doesn’t feel like a stopgap, even if it ends up being one.  Whether that’s Moore, Nassib, or Bray, Chudzinski and Turner are the right men to get the best production out of them.  The biggest question is in the front office: whether Lombardi is the right man to move the Browns from a young, talented roster, and make them the AFC’s surprise team in 2013.

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