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Cleveland Browns commit to full-scale rebuild under new regime

When the Browns cut Karlos Dansby on Wednesday, Cleveland's newfangled front office gave it straight to the 34-year-old linebacker.

"They respect me enough to let me know, 'We're going to rebuild this thing and we're going to do it with younger guys and we appreciate everything you've been able to do for the organization, but we can't do that to you,' " Dansby told The Plain Dealer.

During a hushed free agency period for the team, the front office, led by Harvard-educated lawyer Sashi Brown, VP of player personnel Andrew Berry and former MLB executive Paul DePodesta, stayed quiet as all four of the club's top free agents -- Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin and Tashaun Gipson -- bolted for greener pastures.

With a boatload of money to spend, Cleveland has spent next to nothing, adding low-octane names like Justin Tuggle, Alvin Bailey, Demario Davis and Rahim Moore. While opponents break the bank for high-priced talent, the Browns seemingly have gone AWOL.

Cleveland in the crosshairs

Browns fans don't want to hear it, but this team was never going to be a "winner" in free agency. Per a league source familiar with the club's plans, the new front office fully expected the public backlash and understands where the criticism comes from.

The current thinking in Cleveland is that the Browns, at their core, can't be fixed through free agency. While eager to develop a winner, the new regime is comprehensively determined to go young and reshape the roster, starting with the Browns' 10 selections in next month's draft.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. There have been so many iterations of Cleveland's front office over the past 17 years that no mantra could feel fresh. Former general manager Ray Farmer also squawked about building through the draft, only to waste a bounty of picks on all the wrong players.

Brown has been criticized by some for being in over his head, while DePodesta's presence has generated a waterfall of corny "Moneyball" quips. The idea that an innovative baseball executive could help an NFL team has been met both with curiosity and plenty of resistance, with DePodesta overhearing his doubters at last month's NFL Scouting Combine.

"I was standing right in front of them in line [at the airport] and I could hear them in back of me and they were talking trash about me and the Cleveland Browns," DePodesta said, per Baseball America. "I said, 'All right, this is like 17 years ago in Oakland all over again.' That's part of the fun."

Starting over -- again

When you double down on a dismal 3-13 season by giving birth to one of the NFL's most unusual front offices, you're asking for trouble.

Old-school NFL people don't buy what the Browns are doing and neither do plenty of pundits and fans. The new leadership, though, feels a sense of positive resolve, the source explained. If people within the industry are rooting against this to work, the Browns are comfortable with that.

While Jimmy Haslam is derided for repeatedly blowing up the machine during his short tenure, the Browns owner and his wife, Dee, are on board with a total refurbishing of the roster. Laugh if you must, but there is a feeling within team walls that a genuine plan has taken hold.

That extends to Cleveland's top asset: new head coach Hue Jackson, who was briefed during the interview process about plans to blow up the roster left behind by Farmer and former coach Mike Pettine. Jackson is part of the healthy discussions and decisions over what to do with players -- and how to acquire more talent. The team's current direction should be no surprise to a coach who has seen his share of rebuilds.

As the Browns angle to stabilize their foundation over the next two drafts, the sense inside the building is that this offseason will be the hardest for fans to endure. The cupboard isn't just bare, it's a black hole, leaving this latest redo as the biggest rebuilding challenge Cleveland has faced since the franchise's return to the NFL in 1999.

The way out

It starts at the top with Haslam. He must keep his finger off the trigger after firing three coaches and a cavalcade of front-office henchmen since buying the team in 2012.

It's not a shock to see this latest front office enduring growing pains, with some agents grumbling about "confusing" tactics and "mixed messages" during the first few days of free agency. The Browns, though, must try something different this time: Seeing it through. After landing one of the game's most innovative offensive minds in Jackson, it's time for Cleveland to pattern itself after the rest of the AFC North.

The process will be painful, requiring the absolute gutting of a roster filled with subpar talent. The Haslams, though, must trust Jackson, Brown, Berry and DePodesta to create an entirely new organization from A to Z.

"I think Jimmy and Dee really want to do this right," DePodesta said in January. "It was one of the things that made a big impression on me when I was meeting with them -- that they were genuine, they were earnest. They really want to get this right. They don't want to keep changing things, because they know ultimately that doesn't lead to success. I think there is going to be that mindset here."

Generations of Browns fans have no concept of what it feels like to watch competitive football on Sundays, but Cleveland simply needs to scan the rest of the division for a CliffsNotes version of how to dig out. Surrounded by three of today's most consistent franchises -- the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals -- why not follow suit and give this unorthodox band of team builders a long leash to do the job?

Looking elsewhere for hope

It was just two years ago that embattled Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spoke openly about his prized offensive tackle, Jared Veldheer, choosing to leave Oakland in free agency, saying: "Losing Veldheer was a blow to me. He didn't want to come back. It wasn't about finances. The kid didn't want to play for the Raiders anymore, and I struggled with that."

Two promising drafts later, the Raiders have emerged as a sexy pick for the playoffs, with McKenzie saying of the free agency process: "It's good to see people call us and not always have to beg."

Losing key players, as Cleveland has done, is symptomatic of what the NFL's bottom feeders must endure. As ESPN's Adam Schefter noted last week: "Players treat the Browns organization like it's a college experience -- four years and done."

Changing that culture won't be easy. Every name we've mentioned above could be swept out of Cleveland if their "build-through-the-draft" philosophy churns out another two years of overly paid busts.

This remains a franchise with everything to prove and little to boast about. Understandably, plenty of people have given up on the Browns -- but they haven't given up on themselves. Rise or fall, this latest regime will be fascinating to watch.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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