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I received a text message from my brother this weekend.  My brother is a smart kid (he’s 16), and knows plenty about football.  He plays Madden religiously, follows the Redskins’ every move, and unlike myself, has actually played the game on an organized team.  His message: “The Browns r going to be awesome this year.” 

Charles Robinson is the sports writer I’ve been reading regularly for the longest.  He’s with Yahoo! Sports, and I usually respect his opinion, though he doesn’t go outside the box as often as I’d like.  He said in last week's article that the Browns have “used every available avenue to thrust them into Super Bowl contention.” 

I’ve heard it other places too, my favorite being “Watch out for the Browns this year,” like someone thinks they have insider information I might have missed.  My response is always: “This time last year, people were saying the same thing about the 49ers.”  Some say, “True,” some say “This is different though.”  So I take it a step further.  “Last year, I said ‘Don’t get too excited about the Niners.  People were saying the same thing about the Skins last year.’ They said ‘This is different though.’”  By this point, people have usually stopped listening to me, either out of confusion, boredom, or stubbornness. 

So now that I’ve had my reactionary (no, not like Rush Limbaugh) response, and that’s had a week to chill, I can look fairly at the Browns and assess their situation.

The result: a major cop-out.  The only things that would surprise me is if the Browns win the AFC, or win fewer than 5 games.  That’s right.  I’m predicting somewhere between 5-11 and 13-3 right now.  Call me crazy.  At best I see them earning a first-round bye, but joining the ranks of teams to lose at home in the divisional round of the playoffs, like the Cowboys, Colts, Ravens, Chargers, Colts again, and Bears in the past three years.  They just don’t have the playoff experience on the roster to compete with the teams that have been there. 

Don’t worry, you’ll still get a specific balls-out prediction from me later, I won’t keep in cop-out mode for long.  But right now that’s all I feel like saying.  Because the thing is, looking at last year when everyone loved San Francisco, they also loved New England’s moves (though strangely, not as much).  So the question is, which is Cleveland more like?

On the one hand, like New England, the Browns aren’t trying to overhaul their roster.  They’re focusing on the glaringly obvious areas of need (DL, WR) and spending big money to fix them.  But on the other, like San Francisco, the Browns aren’t coming off of years and years of success; they’re trying to build on one season of momentum where a star was made (Frank Gore/Derek Anderson).  Also, a big reason I didn’t buy into the Niners is that they lost Norv Turner as a coordinator, and he was being replaced with a nobody.  And Frank Gore disappointed fantasy owners everywhere.

The Browns look to have the same offense again, but with Donte Stallworth added as a receiving option.  This should be great.  Anderson, Joe Thomas, Braylon Edwards and Jamal Lewis will be back after a breakout year for three and a resurgent year for the other.  But who knows if they’ll be able to do it again?  Anderson didn’t look so hot in the final games of last year, and you don’t have to look very hard for examples of players who were breakout stars in 2006 but struggled in 2007 (Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, and Vince Young all fell short of expectations).  Two years ago, D’Brickashaw Ferguson was the stud rookie lineman who helped get the Jets into the playoffs.  Last year, he was average at best.  Who’s to say the same won’t happen to Thomas?  Edwards I’m not so worried about, though he is a bit of an injury risk.  And Lewis is getting up there in years.  Personally I think he’s got another great season in him, because he’s reinvented himself as a hard worker, and last year he was in the best shape of his life.  Besides, there’s probably an unheard-of backup somewhere who can take over and become the next Ryan Grant or Ahmad Bradshaw if he’s needed. 

As for the new guys: first, Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers.  I know a lot more about Rogers, who has seen a lot of criticism, which has been warranted.  His weight fluctuates, his personality is a bit abrasive, and he doesn’t always play to his potential.  Williams seems like a great pull, but I’ve found that a team will only trade a player under 30 if A) they have too much depth at the position, B) they need cap room, C) he’s not worth the headaches, or most often: D) he’s not as good as the team offering the trade thinks he is.  And of course, all these boil down to: he’s more valuable to the new team than he is the old one.  Packer fans, what’s your opinion of this guy?  2nd-round pick-worthy?  Or did he benefit from more attention being paid to the scarier guys?  Has he peaked, or is there room to grow?  Finally, these guys both are new to a 3-4 defense.  It’s never an easy transition.  They have the right size and skill sets, but it’ll take time to make a nose tackle out of Rogers and a sometimes-end out of Williams.  Basically, the fact remains that this unit was horrible last year, and this can only be an upgrade.  But I think it’ll be more like from-30th-to-19th-best-defense than making the Browns a championship caliber team.

Then there’s the loss of Leigh Bodden.  Decent up-and-coming corners are hard to come by, and the Browns now have no hope of drafting one, with no picks remaining in the first three rounds.  Right now they’re looking at a couple of sophomores as their starters: Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald.  And the best names still available at cornerback are the likes of Hank Poteat and Terry Cousin. 

I do like the signing of Rex Hadnot.  He was part of a strong run-blocking line in Miami that helped Ronnie Brown play like a Pro Bowler before getting hurt, and enabled decent stats by Jesse Chatman and Lorenzo Booker in relief.  And he’s got room for improvement, being only 26.  And if I remember correctly, he’s got experience at guard and center.

So at bare minimum, the Browns have improved their front-line defense to mediocre, and padded the depth chart on the offensive line and at wide receiver, which is what they needed most of all.  And if that’s all it is, it’s pricy, but they have the cap room.  I could easily see them missing the playoffs again next year; right now I’m leaning toward an 8-8 finish.  But I still stick to my cop-out.

Now, a quick word on all the other teams’ free agency activity, alphabetically:

Arizona: When the free agent class is weak, spend money retaining your stars – makes sense to me.

Atlanta: A lot of 4th-year guys to fill out the depth chart and Michael Turner to give you a running game – they might actually be rebuilding the right way!

Baltimore: New coach John Harbaugh isn’t exactly shaking things up, is he?

Buffalo: Marcus Stroud is the big story, and I don't think he’s worth the price they paid.

Carolina: There’s a lot to dislike about the Panthers’ offseason so far, and player movement is at the top of the list.

Chicago: Lance Briggs is back, and there is much rejoicing.  Marty Booker is back, and there’s… more confusing him with Muhsin Muhammad.

Cincinnati:  They got Manning!  No, not Peyton.  Or Eli.  Or Danieal or Ricky Jr.  They got Roy Manning.

Denver: Some good roster-patching moves, nothing earth-shaking, which is often a recipe for success.

Detroit: Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith ought to help the pass defense, but not, you know, a lot.

Green Bay: Brett. Favre.

Houston: Jacques Reeves… I’ll trust i b4 e that this guy sucks.

Indianapolis: Their roster isn’t being plundered by teams who can afford it—is it really the offseason?

Jacksonville:  I haven’t seen this roster change this much in a long time, and I don’t think I like it.

Kansas City: They signed kicker Nick Novak, who’s been part of the failure carousels in Washington and Dallas at kicker.  He is to football teams what that slice of American Cheese sitting in my refrigerator is to my appetite.  You pray to God that you’ll never need it so badly that you actually use it.

Miami: They’ve made a bunch of signings, which put together might win the Dolphins a game.

Minnesota:  They won the Overpay Bernard Berrian Sweepstakes, and it’s hard to imagine him doing much that Troy Williamson couldn’t.  Ooh - topical humor alert: "Even Eliot Spitzer thought they were overpaying."

New England:  Letting Stallworth go and keeping Jabar Gaffney seems like a classic New England move.  Gaffney’s a Patriot kind of guy, and he’ll have a key role next year.

New Orleans:  Boring.  They need more than this.

New York Giants: Lost Gibril Wilson, replaced him with Sammy Knight – looks fine on paper, I guess.

New York Jets: Faneca, Pace, Damien Woody, Chatman, Tony Richardson – heck of a class of names, but we’ve learned that means nothing.

Oakland: Javon Walker and Gibril Wilson, you’ll regret taking the money.

Philadelphia: Goodbye, yesterday’s free-agent splashes (Kearse/Spikes), hello today’s (Samuel).

Pittsburgh: Not exactly tripping over themselves to replace Faneca.

San Diego: A.J. Smith seems to be waiting to exhibit his draft genius again rather than spend on free agents.  Disclaimer: “Draft genius” does not include wide receivers.

San Francisco:  I can’t believe Isaac Bruce is going to be a 49er.  Justin Smith also joins last year’s crop of disappointments.

Seattle:  Get the message, Shaun Alexander?

St. Louis:  Gus Frerotte is out, Trent Green is in.  Sounds familiar.  Is it 1998?

Tampa Bay: Warrick Dunn, Cadillac Williams, and Earnest Graham sounds like a crowded backfield, but with the injury reputation in Tampa, it sounds just about right.

Tennessee: Possibly my favorite signing is Alge Crumpler becoming Vince Young’s new favorite target.  I think that one’s gonna work.

Washington:  One line: Todd Collins re-signed.  That’s it.  So refreshing.

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