Cleveland Browns: How a Trio of South Carolina Gamecocks Could Put Browns in Playoff Contention

Updated: February 15, 2013

By Sam Ingro
Senior Writer

The Cleveland Browns have their coaching staff in place, their scouting department firing on all cylinders and a very excited fanbase–now, the only thing missing is that pesky issue of filling out their roster.

With the Browns set to enter free agency and the NFL Draft with a ton of salary cap room, it should come as no surprise to see them be very active. For a new front office in Cleveland trying to make their mark, expect the wheeling and dealing to be at a frenzied rate among other teams in the NFL; despite owner Jimmy Haslam‘s cautious “build through the draft” approach.

While going through the draft is ideal, there are also a lot of holes the Browns will need to fill on the roster first. Coincidentally enough, a lot of the players to fill those spots could all be former South Carolina Gamecocks.

There is no favoritism or homer-ism here, but three of the best and most talented fits all happen to have gone to the same school. Last year, the Browns struggled to find a shutdown replacement across from Joe Haden. The top option, ironically, was another Gamecock in Sheldon Brown. While Brown had a solid year, the injuries have mounted, free agency is looming and it is time to find his replacement.

In terms of drafting to fill their needs, the Browns go into the draft at a severe disadvantage. Thanks to the 2012 Supplemental Draft, and the selection of Josh Gordon, Cleveland comes in missing a second rounder. While there are a handful of solid cornerbacks in the draft, the cream of the crop is slated to go off the board in the middle of the first and in the second round; likely out of the Browns’ reach.

This means they will need to turn to free agency at cornerback.

One of the best options here is Carolina Panthers’ free agent (and yes, former Gamecock) Captain Munnerlyn.

This past season, Munnerlyn had 61 tackles, nine defended passes, two interceptions and two touchdowns. In 16 games, he also added one kickoff return for 17 yards, and 14 punt returns for 72 yards. It is likely that after spending the past two seasons in Carolina, head coach Rob Chudzinskiwill have his eye on bringing Munnerlyn to town. At just 24-years old, he brings with him four seasons of NFL experience. In that time, he accumulated 208 tackles, two sacks, 27 passes defensed, five interceptions and two touchdowns.

Next up, the revolving door at the free safety position. Strong safety is locked down by T.J. Ward, but last season the other safety position was manned by a platoon of Eric Hagg, Usama Young and Tashaun Gipson. If the Browns expect to shut down the suddenly aerial AFC North competition, a more permanent solution is needed.

In this case, they turn to the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft and select South Carolina free safety D.J. Swearinger.

The heart and soul of the Gamecock defense, Swearinger brings attitude and confidence to his team’s secondary. His versatility gives the team many options, instead of subbing out to allow for a three CB look, Swearinger has the ability to play corner.

In meetings last season against two of the most dynamic and dangerous offenses, Clemson and Arkansas, he transitioned over to play some cornerback during both games. Playing press man coverage against one of the country’s best receivers, Sammy Watkins, proved that he is not just capable of bone-jarring hits. A heavy hitter, receivers and quarterbacks alike have to account for Swearinger on every single play. In his final season with SC he posted 79 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

The last piece of the puzzle gives Cleveland’s starting quarterback a dynamic weapon in the offense.

With Gordon and Travis Benjamin working the deep routes, and Greg Little working the intermediate routes, it leaves the middle of the field uncovered. Last season, that role was filled by Benjamin Watson. That’s right, the tight end position. In this case, the best available tight end happens to be another Gamecock, Tennessee Titan Jared Cook.

It’s no secret how much Chudzinski and Norv Turner utilize their tight ends; if you think Jordan Cameron and Brad Smelley will be the lone ones on the roster, think again. Cook brings veteran experience to an essentially young offense.

Just 25-years old, Cook’s 6’5″ and 248-pound stature makes him a huge target in the middle of the field. Expected to have a breakout season in 2012, Cook suffered due to poor quarterback play and a torn rotator cuff. Even with those issues, he still managed to haul in 44 passes for 523 yards and four touchdowns. Prior to being hurt, he hauled in 49 catches, 759 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. Those numbers alone make Cook a player that definitely needs a long look from the Browns’ front office.

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  1. MJM1MJM1

    February 16, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Bob, I enjoy these conversations. I don’t hate Mr. Lombardi. But based on his past performance in this position, and his recent work as an analyst, I believe he was handed this job over many other qualified candidates, not counting Tom Heckert, ONLY because of his personal relationship with Joe Banner.

    From my perspective, it is like the new owner of a newspaper making his brother-in-law editor, evn thoe hee wuz funkshunly iltiterate.

  2. Bob Evans

    February 16, 2013 at 9:34 am

    I just think…as I have said before…that the general hatred for Lombardi is not warranted. All GMs and talent evaluators hit on some draft picks and miss on others during their time in charge. A lot of the “busts” people refer to from his Browns era came in the later years of his drafts; i.e. Tommy Vardell in 1992, Craig Powell in 1995. Now I’m not saying that these players could have been much more than they were, but Vardell played two seasons (92 & 93) before suffering injuries in 94 & 95…by the time he was healthy again the Browns were in Baltimore and he was out of work bouncing around…who knows what happens with him if the team stays in Cleveland with a front office invested/dedicated to him.

    As for Powell, I’m not AS concerned about him being labeled a bust because he literally played one season in Cleveland as the No. 30 pick in the NFL Draft–which was one of the most messed up seasons in NFL history. Who knows what he could have been if the team stayed here.

  3. MJM1MJM1

    February 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    Bob, I truly hope you are right about Horton. And Heckert’s legacy will live on through the free agents his management of the cap and players made possible.

    Every Browns fan who lived through the disasters that Lombatdi’s drafts proved to be will understand the overwhelming let down that his rehire has created. And then to have Haslem call him one of the ‘great minds in all of football’ was like a blow to the gut.

    Bengals fans, fans of another poorly managed team, are truly happy that Lombardi is back in charge. ‘Just means more good players for us.’

    If Haslem had done even the minimal amount of homework on the team and its fan base, he would have realized that letting Banner retain Lombardi was the one best way to douse all off season enthusiasm imagineable.

    Nevertheless, keep writing and we will keep reading. Who knows? Maybe Chud and his coaches will one day have the courage of an Andy Reid and demand that Haslem place a qualified individual in tbhat position.

    So, since Jimmy has fled back to Tennessee to be with his gas pumps, and there is nothing any fan can do about this misguided decision, I guess I will try to focus on the possibilities and dreams that come each off season for the Cleveland Browns.

    Thanks for your website and interesting columns.

  4. Bob Evans

    February 15, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    MJM…I love your passion and comments, but you are way off on Horton. This happens all the time in the NFL, coaches bring in a system they have had success in. He is not demolishing the defensive line, it will be the same rotation of players with the exception of cutting Rucker–a guy who would have been gone anyways because of his roster/cap number based on his production last year, Juqua Parker–another vet that was brought in to fill a hole last year and Sheard who will be moving to OLB to assume his same pass rushing role from a stand-up position. The same strong points–Winn, Rubin, Taylor, and Hughes–will all be rotating in between the three DL positions.

  5. MJM1MJM1

    February 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    OK, Sam. Interesting article. But you kind of lost me with the ‘scouting staff firing on all cylinders’ statement. Google Michael Lombardi. Wikipedia says that after a series of failed drafts, he was finally, finally, finally released in 1995. I know that is true. I lived through those years.

    All the players you mentioned would look great in a Browns uniform. EXCEPT that this year’s version of Shurmer, Ray Horton, seems intent on gutting our improving D Line, and putting our best linebacker in a position where struggled in the past, all to switch to his 3 4 defense.

    Which means that we will be looking for linebackers. The Browns have a lot of money. But it is not endless. So….after the D line is demolished, and we somehow find linebackers to complete the switch, where will the resources be to take care of the secondary?

    And this team is better off now with Josh Gordon and his experience, than without Gordon and hoping against hope that Lombardi would somehow mystically find a quality player who could contribute in the second round. As I recall, the players chosen in Lombardi’s drafts would have a hard time in a D League, assuming that the NFL had such a league.

    With all that being said, however, your analysis that these players being able to help the Browns is spot on. I think any improvement in talent will need to come from Free Agency. Isn’t it ironic that the man that Banner and the best man at his wedding seem so intent on undermining is the same man who out him in this position to get these player

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