NFL 2013: Why the Cleveland Browns Could Finally Contend

Michael W. Youngman@@MWYoungmanContributor IIIJanuary 19, 2013

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 16: Running back Trent Richardson #33 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half against the Washington Redskins at Cleveland Browns Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Much like other years, the Cleveland Browns 2013 offseason has begun in a state of flux. A new owner in Jimmy Haslam has triggered a series of changes in the organization from top to bottom, and this offseason is shaping up to be an active one for the Browns. So with that in mind, let’s look at the 2013 edition of the state of the Cleveland Browns.

When you review the structure of any NFL team, you must first examine who is at the top of the organization. Jimmy Haslam immediately brought in a new CEO in Joe Banner, whose success is well documented in Philadelphia; Banner was one of the architects who led the Eagles to four NFC Championships and a Super Bowl appearance.

The new brain trust of the Browns has now hired Michael Lombardi as VP of player development and personnel. Lombardi has extensive ties to Cleveland, including a stint in the front office prior to the franchise moving to Baltimore in the '90s.

The Lombardi hiring is at once surprising and expected. Lombardi has spent the past few years as an analyst for NFL Network and has not worked in an NFL front office in some time. But he has been in the conversation to come to Cleveland since Joe Banner was hired. The two had a close working relationship in Philadelphia, and it has been speculated that it would be Lombardi’s job to lose.

The team also has a new coaching staff after parting ways with Pat Shurmur and company on December 30. New head coach Rob Chudzinski is thought to be one of the most forward-thinking coaches in the NFL today. He had success in San Diego, Carolina, and Cleveland.

During his time as Cleveland’s OC, the Browns were ranked No. 3 in 2007 in total offense. That year Derek Anderson had his best season as a pro, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Chudzinski has brought in Norv Turner as the Browns' new offensive coordinator. Turner was Chudzinski’s former head coach in San Diego. Hiring a new offensive coordinator was not surprising, since the West Coast experiment under Mike Holmgren and Shurmur clearly failed, with Cleveland finishing near the bottom of the NFL offensively the past two seasons.

The only confusing move in the coaching moves was the release of Dick Jauron, who had put together a strong defensive unit. Jauron had converted Cleveland’s 3-4 defense to a 4-3 that was ranked No. 10 in the league in just one season.

Instead, Chudzinski has brought Ray Horton into the fold as Cleveland’s new DC. Horton has 19 years of coaching experience, most recently as Arizona’s DC the past two seasons.

One positive note is that Cleveland has its strongest roster going into the 2013 NFL Draft. For the first time since the team’s return to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns' front office does not have to look at its draft selections as taking the best available player. Instead the Browns can focus on specific team needs such as a defensive end, outside linebacker or free safety.

One big question that will need to be answered will be the future of former 22nd overall selection QB Brandon Weeden. Weeden did some great things his rookie season, including setting a few franchise records for a rookie. But he also appeared inconsistent at times, showing questionable decision-making ability. Weeden fits the mold of a Chudzinski QB, but with the sixth-pick overall going into this draft, no one can rule out the selection of a quarterback.

The biggest weapon that the Browns have going into this offseason is cash. The Browns are one of only six teams in the NFL with over $30 million in cap room and almost $49 million available to spend. The only team with more to spend than Cleveland is AFC North rival Bengals.

With this much cap space, the Browns can bring in some key veterans at the skill positions. This has not been the recipe for building a contender in the past, but the NFL saw a run on free-agent moves last season. Teams such as Tampa Bay and Washington spent tens of millions in FA acquisitions. For Washington, the move paid off, earning the team a trip to the playoffs for the first time in years.

The battle cry of Browns fans has always been “Wait 'til next year.” But for the first time since the team's return to the NFL, this empty expression may carry some weight. Many NFL insiders believe that Cleveland may finally be on the rise, which would make the AFC North the toughest division from top to bottom.

One final thought: Despite their departure from Cleveland, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert left the Browns in much better condition than when they came to the organization. If the Browns become contenders in 2013, they should share in at least some of the credit.