In a way, the final two weeks of the NFL season for the Cleveland Browns will be similar to the stretch drive of a school year for a student.
The plan in school is to study like mad and raise the grades for the final report card so that mom and dad won't get on your case all summer. For players who care how their performance looks to coaches and general manager Michael Lombardi, games against the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers are final opportunities to make a favorable impression for the offseason.
There will undoubtedly be a few players who will follow the can't-wait-to-get-home course and mail it in. Those are players with whom Lombardi will likely part ways with in what should be an active offseason.
It's not a stretch to say there will be plenty of new faces on the roster when training camp opens in July. The Browns have seven picks in the first four rounds, including an extra choice in rounds one, three and four. The franchise also will enter free agency an estimated $23 million below what will be an estimated $126.3 million salary cap.
There will likely be a rookie quarterback on the roster to perhaps challenge Brian Hoyer for the starting job. With Edwin Baker the most impressive of a weak group of running backs, it's certain that something will be done to strengthen that area. Among other positions groups that need tinkered with include receiver, offensive line, inside linebacker, cornerback and perhaps safety if T.J. Ward isn't re-signed.
The uncertainty means that many players need to start securing their spots on next season's roster, starting now. If that's not enough motivation, then the pride factor should come into play.
Two players who have already stated their cases and probably don't need to show much more are center Alex Mack and Ward. Both could be unrestricted free agents in March, and as of today, there doesn't appear to be any noticeable movement toward re-signing either of them.
Mack's situation is curious. He's appeared in one Pro Bowl and is a model of consistency, having not missed a start in 78 career games since being selected 21st overall in the 2009 draft. Mack isn't always mentioned with some of the other elite centers in the NFL, but he's a better option than any player who will be available in the draft.
No one knows how the front office views Ward. He hasn't been a difference-maker since arriving in 2010 as a second-round draft pick, but in fairness to him he often gets washed up in the wave of praise heaped on safeties Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed.
Ward is a better-than-average option at one of the most important positions on the defensive side. A strong safety that can play half the field in cover 2, stay with tight ends in man coverage and perform like a linebacker when he walks into the box is as valuable as a dominant pass rusher and an outstanding cover corner.
The hunch is that Ward will test the market, which means he'll likely be gone. He's a Northern California guy with roots in the Bay Area, which would put the 49er and Raiders high on his wish list.
The lack of movement on a new contract for Mack is puzzling. His position is the second-most important on the line behind left tackle. There's a reason why the first player Paul Brown drafted for the expansion Cincinnati Bengals in 1968 was center Bob Johnson from the University of Tennessee.
Another potential free agent among the starters is right guard Shawn Lauvao, who probably is as good as gone. He's good for a holding penalty every game - check last week against the Bears. There will be better options available in free agency and the draft.
Changes are coming. No one knows that more than the players, which is why they better get good grades in these final two games.