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Finally, a Competent Front Office in Cleveland

Browns President Mike Holmgren (right) and GM Tom Heckert (left) pose with 1st Round Pick Joe Haden during the 2010 NFL Draft.

Yesterday our own Matt Loede reported that Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas and the Cleveland Browns have reached an agreement on a seven-year, $84 million contract extension. The extension includes a reported $44 million in guaranteed money.

The huge payday makes Thomas the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL and all but ensures that the four year veteran will finish off his career as a Cleveland Brown.

All that money – roughly $32 million to be exact – Browns fans wanted the team to spend this off-season, didn’t go to the ‘big-name’ free agents that were available. Fans wanted established talent in Cleveland, and understandably so. When free agents like Ray Edwards (Falcons), Santonio Holmes (Jets) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Eagles) went to the perspective teams, many fans were left scratching their heads wondering why President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert weren’t making the same moves for the Browns. After all, it’s easy to look at the so-called “Dream Team” in Philadelphia and wonder, “Why couldn’t the Browns do that?”.

Instead of blowing money on veteran free agents, Holmgren and Co. spent money on areas they knew were critical to the team’s success this season and into the future. So far the off-season moves look like this:

Usama Young (FS) – signed via free agency
Brandon Jackson (RB) – signed via free agency
Dimitri Patterson (CB) – signed via free agency
Richmond McGee (P) – signed via free agency
John Greco (OG) – acquired via trade w/St. Louis Rams for undisclosed 2012 NFL Draft pick.
Brett Johnson (CB) – claimed off waivers from Seattle Seahawks
Billy Yates (OG) – resigned (placed on reserve/retired list on 8-15-11)
Brian Schaefering (DL) – resigned
Marcus Benard (LB) – resigned
Evan Moore (TE) – resigned
Jayme Mitchell (DE) – resigned

All those players were brought in because the front office believes these guys can be key contributors for the Browns this season. None of them are ‘big name’ players, which means they won’t command a ton of money and more money can be spent on keeping proven talent, like Joe Thomas, in a Browns uniform.

I’ve said all along that fans need to believe and trust in the direction Holmgren and Heckert are taking this franchise. They clearly have a plan for the future. What exactly is that plan you might ask? To develop the young talent on the roster, get better through the draft, keep key veteran players around to provide leadership and to keep “homegrown” talent in Cleveland. When Holmgren and Heckert believe that this team is one or two players away from pushing them over-the-top, that’s when fans will see the Nnamdi Asomugha and Santonio Holmes type signings.

Keeping homegrown talent in Cleveland has proven to be difficult prior to Holmgren and Co. It’s not easy to bring players in who actually want to be in Cleveland. The organization has literally been a mess since their return in ’99. Whenever a new regime comes in, they spend the first few years cleaning up the mess the previous regime made. Inconsistency has been a major problem for the Browns and their record over the years reflects just that. The lack of stability has been a huge factor when it comes to keeping what very little talent the Browns have drafted, in Cleveland Browns uniforms.

The Browns have not done a very good job at evaluating talent. For example, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl last season with 12 of their 22 starters being players that they have drafted. In comparison, only T.J. Ward, Joe Haden, Alex Mack, Joe Thomas, Ahtyba Rubin, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie were actually drafted by the Browns. However, Massaquoi and Robiskie probably wouldn’t start on very many NFL teams and neither were drafted under the current regime. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack (C) are the team’s only 1st Round selections since their return in ’99, actually still with the team.

Drafting starters isn’t an easy concept. Since the team hired Tom Heckert as GM, T.J. Ward (S), Joe Haden (CB) and Ahtyba Rubin (DT) have been consistent starters. This year Phil Taylor (DT), Jabaal Sheard (DE), Colt McCoy (QB), Owen Marecic (FB), Jason Pinkston (OG) and Greg Little (WR) should find themselves in the starting line-up at some point this season.

It has long been speculated that if the Browns didn’t lock-up Thomas with a long-term deal, the four-time Pro Bowler and back-to-back 1st Team All-Pro selection would walk away from the Browns. Thomas confirmed those suspicions with his recent comments surrounding his contract situation.

When asked if he ever questioned his desire to be in Cleveland long-term, Thomas replied with a very honest answer.

“Certainly, a couple years ago. There were a lot of questions about the future of this franchise, a lot of in-stability not only in front office, the coaching staff and players.”

Proof the organization is heading in the right direction was provided by Thomas with his comments surrounding his contract situation. Thomas hasn’t been shy about the fact that he wants to play on a winning team. Since he’s locked-up in Cleveland long-term could very well mean that there could be a winning team in Cleveland before too long.

“Being on a winning team is obviously extremely important for me. The things that I have seen here in the last couple years, the type of coaches that we are bringing in here, the type of players we are bringing in, the staff that we put together, it’s really exciting for me to see the direction that this franchise is headed. That was the main reason that I wanted to stay here, that I wanted to sign a long term extension and continue to work on this journey.”

So rest easy Browns fans. It’s going to take time before there’s a Super Bowl contender in the city of Cleveland, but we’re getting there. When the league’s best left tackle decides he wants to stay in Cleveland, it’s a clear sign that the team is working its way to the top. With a fairly easy schedule and a strong preseason showing from the Browns so far, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team could finish 8-8.

If the Browns can finish the year with a .500 record, fans can probably start turning their attention to the team’s next goal: An AFC North Championship, and the playoffs.

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