Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Decisions, decisions: We don’t know much about the new Browns’ football operatives other than their Harvard University graduation dates and academic degrees.
But soon we will get a read on their football smarts and where they intend to take the 3-13 team they inherited.
As the NFL calendar turns to the scouting combine in Indianapolis next week and then the opening of the 2016 transaction season on March 9, the Browns’ new braintrust will provide answers to the following questions:
These two players personify the 2014-15 “amateur hour,” a.k.a., the Ray Farmer years.
Just put aside Manziel’s off-the-field issues for a moment. Who on Earth thought a 5-foot-11, 180-pound quarterback who never called a play in a huddle in college could compete and succeed against the likes of the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals? And Farmer traded up for him, too.
As for Bowe, who was steeply declining as a receiver over his final three years in Kansas City, the fact he was guaranteed $9 million in a two-year contract despite having no other suitors does not speak well of Sashi Brown, the chief contract negotiator at the time and now Browns executive vice president of football operations. Consider it Brown’s one mulligan.
It’s a travesty that none of these key players was re-signed prior to this point. You can’t blame it on the uncertain future of the last regime. Somebody -- An owner? A president? -- has to navigate the course of the franchise through the choppy waters of constant regime changes.
It may be too late to retain any of these players. Their agents know the salary cap is ballooning again and teams will have money to spend. That’s why the smart teams re-sign their good free agents before it gets to this point.
Franchising any one of these players is out of the question. The estimated 2016 franchise tag values are: $14.4 million for a receiver (Benjamin), $10.6 million for a safety (Gipson) and $13.5 million for an offensive lineman (Schwartz).
None is worth those figures, of course. But each was worth re-signing to multi-year deals.
3. Will Joe Thomas be traded?
After reflection, the franchise left tackle recaptured the enthusiasm he lost at the end of the season and recently reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Browns despite eight consecutive losing seasons and five regime changes in his nine years in Cleveland.
But Thomas was almost traded to Denver at the Oct. 31 deadline, and the forces behind that effort remain in power. Brown has tried to reassure Thomas and fans that Thomas won’t be traded.
It doesn’t make sense to trade Thomas now. The Browns may lose center Alex Mack and right tackle Schwartz to free agency. Trading Thomas, which would not occur until close to the April 28-30 draft, would be exceptionally stupid inasmuch as new coach Hue Jackson probably will be breaking in a rookie quarterback at some point in the 2016 season.
But Thomas’ team-friendly contract -- $8.5 million in 2016, and $9 million in 2017 and 2018 -- makes him a very tradable commodity again at the 2016 trade deadline and beyond. They key is finding and grooming a successor.
4. How smart will the Browns be in free agency?
It has become cliché for owner Jimmy Haslam to say “we want to build through the draft” and “we won’t be big players in free agency.” And then he goes out and pays Bowe $9 million to make five receptions and ignores the receiver position in the draft.
The fact is the Browns need to be active in free agency to some degree. Their roster is decrepit and they may lose four veteran starters in free agency.
So how will this new analytics-dependent management group fare in free agency? It will be fascinating to watch.
5. How will the Browns conduct their pre-draft process?
Farmer famously eschewed pro days, claiming he could accomplish much more by skipping the staged workouts and immersing himself in film study.
How stupidly arrogant.
If Farmer had attended the pro day of, say, Justin Gilbert, maybe he would have stumbled on an Oklahoma State employee who could have clued him in on Gilbert’s habitual tardiness for team meetings and walk-throughs and his inability to study or grasp the game plan or playbook.
Or maybe he would have been advised by an OSU employee to phone Brandon Weeden, the former Browns quarterback who was Gilbert’s teammate and couldn’t believe it when Gilbert was tabbed the eighth pick in the 2014 draft.
If Farmer had attended the pro day of Manziel -- as much of a dog-and-pony show as it was -- maybe he would have learned firsthand of Manziel’s severe drinking problem and his anger issues.
So the new Browns’ football ops have to get out on campus and do their research.
Real football is a people business.
Are the new Browns up to it?