Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 2/12/12
Anyone who watched the Cleveland Browns stumble to a 4-12 record in Pat Shurmur’s first season as head coach can attest to the fact that the Browns have a number of needs that they must address if they intend to seriously contend for the Playoffs in the ultra-competitive AFC North. The Browns have already addressed one of their five biggest needs by bringing in former Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress to serve as the team’s offensive coordinator next season. What are the Browns’ four other biggest areas of need?
 
1.) Wide Receiver
 
To their credit, the vast majority of Browns fans still remain loyal to the team despite over a decade of frustration and only one playoff appearance since their return to the league in 1999. However, this loyalty will be severely tested if the Browns fail to upgrade their wide receiving corps during this offseason.
 
Despite ending the previous season with little talent at wide receiver, the Browns did not do enough to improve the depth at this position during the 2011 offseason. Although the team did invest a high Draft pick on Greg Little, his frequent drops overshadowed his solid play throughout the season. The Browns’ sheer lack of depth and talent at wide receiver limited the entire offense’s productivity and prevented the Browns from coming back in multiple games throughout the season.
 
While some fans are clamoring for the Browns to use one of their first-round picks on a wide receiver, this is not enough. The Browns’ braintrust must bring in a veteran wide receiver who is reliable, who knows how to get open, and who will make life easier for whatever quarterback is behind center in the fall. Mario Manningham would be a solid choice for the Browns.
 
2.) Offensive Line
 
Some may question the high ranking of the offensive line on this list, given that this past season’s offensive line had two Pro Bowl players and the return of a healthy Eric Steinbach will mean that the Browns will start at least three Pro Bowl offensive linemen when the regular season kicks off in September. While the talent on the left side of the line is exceptional, the talent on the right side is abysmal. Tony Pashos allowed defenders of all shapes, sizes and ability levels to race past him all season long. Furthermore, the Browns’ depth on the offensive line is sorely lacking.
 
The Browns’ offensive line was a mess for most of the season. Although the unit slowly improved throughout the season, quarterback Colt McCoy spent many games running for his life and rushing throws in order to avoid the near-constant pressure that he faced from opposing defenses.
 
The addition of a solid talented veteran right tackle would help protect whomever is behind center this fall and also help clear the way for whomever starts at running back. Adding another lineman for depth in the Draft would also be a good move for the Browns, who need to ensure that the occurrence of another season-ending injury to a starting lineman will not mean another season of poor pass protection and run blocking.
 
3.) Kicker
 
Although D’Qwell Jackson had an unbelievable season, Phil Dawson should be the Browns’ MVP  for this past season. His solid clutch kicking single-handedly kept the Browns in some games, including the final game of the year against the Steelers in which he nailed multiple field goals in terrible weather conditions. Dawson also managed to post yet another solid season while dealing with the erratic long snapping of the now-departed Ryan Pontbriand.
 
Dawson is a free agent, and there is a great deal of uncertainty over whether the Browns will bring back the kicker that has started every season for the team since their return to the NFL in 1999.  Despite the fact that the Browns have several other priorities in free agency, bringing back Dawson should be at the top of their list. Few kickers can consistently navigate the treacherous conditions that are present in AFC North stadiums towards the end of the season. Dawson is one of them, and Browns fans should shudder to think about how badly this past season would have gone with a less reliable kicker.
 
4.) Running Back
 
The saga of Peyton Hillis is well-known, and recapping the highs and lows of Hillis’ past season would simply repeat what myself and many other writers have written multiple times before. Not so well known, however, are the Browns’ feelings about Hillis. Now a free agent, Hillis will undoubtedly be looking for the type of big payday that he sought from the Browns at the start of the season. Hillis possesses a unique skill-set and is one of the rare backs who can play on all three downs, but his injury history surely will raise red flags for any teams that are considering opening up the checkbook this offseason.
 
Bringing back Hillis would be a solid move for the Browns. When healthy, Hillis showed this season that he can still be a dominant back who can thrive against the tough run defenses of the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers. Hillis is also a great fit in the West Coast Offense. Childress showed in Minnesota that he knows how to successfully use talented running backs, and Hillis would be poised for another successful season with the Browns if they do decide to bring him back. If the Browns do not bring back Hillis, they will be forced to sign another free agent due to the fact that their depth at the position is quite thin. Hillis is familiar with the Browns' system, he remains a fan favorite, and most importantly, he's immensely talented. Allowing him to leave would be a huge mistake.
 

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