By Sam Ingro
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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