Throwback Thursday: 2014 Cleveland Browns still in the NFL

Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Amazingly, 15 players from the Cleveland Browns 2014 team are still in the NFL, but even more amazingly, only two are still with the Browns.

The 2014 Cleveland Browns had talent, as evidenced by the fact that no fewer than 15 of the players from that team were still on active NFL rosters last year. However, 13 of them play for other teams, which is a sad commentary on Cleveland’s ability and willingness to hang on to talented players.

That 2014 team was 7-4 at one point and it was not a fluke. They were clicking on offense under quarterback Brian Hoyer and five stud offensive linemen led by perennial All-Pro Joe Thomas. However, when center Alex Mack went down the offense imploded.

Ownership’s recommendation was to start Johnny Manziel when the team was 7-7 with a shot at the playoffs. Surely, the rookie would lead a charge to the playoffs, right? Well, the Browns got thumped twice more to go 7-9 for the season.

There are only two members of that team who have continued to play with the Browns through 2019.  Joel Bitonio, a rookie guard on the 2014 team, is still a star player and is headed to the Pro Bowl this year. Linebacker Christian Kirksey, also a rookie on that team, has had to fight through significant injuries the past few years, and, given the salary cap situation, may not be with the team in 2020.

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Can it really be true that there are 13 other players from the 2014 Browns who are still in the league? Not only that, but many are starting and some are going to the Pro Bowl.

Johnson Bademosi is a special teams ace for the New Orleans Saints, who also played an important role as an extra defensive back in the nickel or dime formation. With the Lions, he was a Pro Bowl alternate on special teams.

Travis Benjamin is still a feared kick returner for the Los Angeles Chargers and is also used as a productive third wide receiver, playing in 47 games with 16 starts.

Taylor Gabriel is a wide receiver for Chicago, after being cut two years later, in 2016. That year the Browns convinced themselves that they were loaded with talent because they drafted four wide receivers:  Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, and the inimitable Corey Coleman. However,  Taylor Gabriel has been by far the most successful and has more lifetime receiving yards than those four combined.

Tashaun Gipson made the Pro Bowl with the Browns in 2014 and has been a very reliable safety for Jacksonville and Houston with 62 starts (only two missed games in four seasons). However, last year was not a particularly good year for him, as Pro Football Focus rated him lower than in previous years.

Joe Haden was cut by the Browns in 2017 even though he had seven million dollars guaranteed on his contract. Cleveland did save about $4 million dollars, but Haden has regained his game with the Steelers after successful surgery to repair injuries which had slowed him down with the Browns.

He has been added to the Pro Bowl roster this year. He’s one of the leaders of the Steelers defense, with 42 starts in three years. Haden may not have been worth his full contract, but he was worth $4 million, which is all that the Browns saved by getting rid of him.

Brian Hoyer went 10-6 as a starter for the Browns over two years, which was enough to get him fired in favor of Johnny Football. He’s considered a decent backup now. He has a Super Bowl ring from backing up Tom Brady.

Dion Lewis was cut in pre-season and never played a down for the Browns. He has had 3,399 yards from scrimmage after being cut by the Browns, playing for New England and now Tennessee. He has a Super Bowl ring from New England and has missed only one game in the past three years. His numbers were not as impressive this year, however.

Alex Mack is a six-time Pro Bowler, and it is possible that he might someday join his buddy Joe Thomas in the Hall of Fame. However, from what we know Mack was not enthusiastic about playing in Cleveland and was probably headed to a different team no matter what the Browns could have offered. With Atlanta, he made it to the Super Bowl only to fall prey to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Barkevious Mingo played mostly on special teams for Houston this year but had 22 starts after leaving the Browns. The Browns drafted him based on the belief he would be a monster pass rusher, but not so. Ridiculously, they got rid of Jabaal Sheard to make room for Mingo, but soon cut Mingo. New England signed Mingo as well as Sheard.

Jordan Poyer is a safety and slot corner who is consistently ranked in the top 20 and higher by Pro Football Focus, who named him Buffalo’s most underrated player in 2019.  He has 47 starts with Buffalo versus one miss. He was AFC Player of the Month in December 2017.

Craig Robertson is a situational linebacker and sometimes a starter for New Orleans. He has played in 62 games for New Orleans including 28 starts.

Mitchell Schwartz, now with Kansas City, made the All-Pro First-Team in 2018.  He’s an Iron man, No. 2 on the all-time consecutive snap streak, though his streak (7,894) was broken at 7,894. Still, it is incredible that he got within 75 percent of Joe Thomas (10,363). He still has never missed a game; 128 starts, 64 for KC.

Jabaal Sheard is a starter for Indianapolis, with 53 starts since leaving Cleveland. He has been credited with 28.5 sacks. As noted previously, he was sent packing by the Browns based on the expectation that Barkevious Mingo would replace him. He received a Super Bowl ring with Mingo while they were together with the Patriots. Sheard did most of the heavy lifting, however.

Buster Skrine has had 52 starts at cornerback since leaving the Browns. This year, he appeared in all 16 games and was on the field for 68 percent of the total defensive snaps last year. These days he is often used as the third cornerback.

How could the Browns let this much talent go?

One reason is that new GMs and coaches like to show improvement, and for that reason they are motivated to clean house their first year, eliminating the veteran players of their predecessor. They can assume that they will usually not get fired for having a bad first year, and the second year is more likely to improve. Sashi Brown took it to an extreme, paring the roster of veteran talent in order to save salary cap and allowing the team to stockpile draft choices.

Several players didn’t reach their full potential with the Browns, but developed better on other teams. Gabriel, Lewis, Robertson, Sheard, and Schwartz fall into this category.

In this way, they act as a farm team for the rest of the NFL, have particularly supported the New England Patriots with starting players almost every year. If you don’t believe it, ask Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton, and Jamie Collins.

Still, other Browns moves were simply brainless:  Gipson, Hoyer, Hayden, and Skrine and Schwartz should have been kept.

In addition, the effect of Johnny Manziel was far greater than a simple whiff on a draft pick and damaged the organization at a number of levels. That will be the subject of a future DPD article.

It is truly pathetic that the Browns have misjudged talent on their own team.

One of the takeaways is that probably in 2020 the Browns have enough talent to contend if they don’t start auctioning players off to other teams that are in the “win now” mode.

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Hopefully, the Browns will resist the temptation to jettison players this time.  Keep your fingers crossed that the new GM will have the guts to stay with most of the 2019 players.