The Cleveland Browns were on the outside looking in this season as all three of their rivals in the AFC North made the playoffs while the Browns stayed home. Through a series of shrewd moves last year and some wise personnel moves, the Browns may be poised to challenge that group next season.
The Browns very quietly finished in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense in 2011 with a young and aggressive unit that will only get better. They signed LB D'Qwell Jackson today ensuring the mainstay of the group is taken care of as they build for the future. Along with Jackson, young corners like Joe Haden and Buster Skrine have the secondary in excellent shape in a division with some outstanding quarterbacks and receivers. Up front, Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor anchor a strong defensive front.
On offense, Cleveland struggled, lacking playmakers and depth along the offensive line. When Eric Steinbach was lost for the season, it hurt Cleveland up front. They've got an outstanding opportunity to get better in a hurry this off season, however.
The big question in Cleveland is whether or not to stay with Colt McCoy at quarterback. Rumors abound throughout the NFL about the Browns pursuing Green Bay backup Matt Flynn in free agency or trading up to secure the rights to Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.
The Browns are in an enviable position due the trade with Atlanta last season which yielded multiple draft picks. If the Browns don't trade up to get Griffin, they look to be able to add a skill position player, possibly Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Griffin's Baylor teammate, WR Kendal Wright. With their later pick, look for the Browns to choose from one of several impressive young linemen who will still be on the board, possibly Ohio State tackle Michael Brewster.
In short, the Browns have put the pieces together on the defensive side and have the chips to cash in this off season to make their offense much more formidable. If Cleveland continues this pattern of making wise personnel moves on the offensive side, look for them to be contending in the AFC North in 2012.
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