Decisions made this offseason will be vital for the long-term future and success of the Cleveland Browns.
While no games have been played under new general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine, the focus of the new regime this offseason has been very positive. The team brought in Karlos Dansby, Andrew Hawkins, Ben Tate and Donte Whitner in free agency. While the team did lose a few players including veterans D’Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward, the overall influx of talent is a net positive and the personnel moves seem to fit the scheme that coach Pettine will run. Now that the Browns have managed to keep Pro Bowl C Alex Mack, the free agency period should be considered a big win for the team.
The real test for the new regime in Cleveland will be how to use the team’s 10 draft picks. May’s three-day event could determine if the Browns can begin to challenge for the AFC North title and finally rid themselves of more than a decade of embarrassment.
This year’s draft class has been touted as one of the deepest in recent history. It’s a perfect opportunity for the Browns to significantly improve their roster if they draft wisely. But that’s a big “if.” The Browns have had some awful luck with first-round picks since returning to the NFL in 1999. That might be putting it kindly. But 2014 could be the year they put the Tim Couches, Courtney Browns and Gerard Warrens of years past behind them.
This year’s optimism isn’t just because of a new general manager—it’s the new approach to the draft. General manager Ray Farmer has been clear that the strategy for this year’s draft will be to pick the best player available. This is a welcome difference to what the Browns have been doing recently: reaching for a player they love with no regard to the value of the pick. For example, it was clear even on draft night that QB Brandon Weeden was a big reach in the first round. No other team seemed remotely interested in selecting him that high. And RB Trent Richardson was a reach too—and the Browns even traded up in the first round to get him.
The problem with taking players too high isn’t limited to the first round. The team took CB Leon McFadden too high in the third round last year, and WR Greg Little was a disaster in the second round in 2011. It’s scary to think of what would happen if the Browns did take the best player available in every round. They would certainly make the most of their 10 draft picks using that kind of strategy.
While picking the best player available is, on the whole, a good way to go, there are a couple of needs that the Browns have to address pretty quickly. As is the case for quite a few teams, the Browns need a franchise quarterback. The “have nots” of the NFL are pretty easy to spot: Teams without a good quarterback are not going to be competing for championships. Seeing as how the Browns recently parted ways with two of their quarterbacks, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, it is more apparent than ever that the Browns will draft a quarterback with one of their first few picks.
There are three quarterback prospects that get most of the national media attention: Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, and Johnny Manziel. With other highly rated position players available at the top of the draft, it seems a near certainty that the Browns will be able to select one of those quarterbacks with their first selection, at No. 4 overall.
But there are significant questions surrounding each of them. Bridgewater originally looked to be the most NFL-ready of the bunch, but his poor performance at his pro day left a lot to be desired. Manziel doesn’t have the height-weight combination for a typical NFL quarterback, and his off-the-field antics are always a cause for concern. Bortles, who seems to be a good fit for the Texans at No. 1 overall, has a lot of development potential but is far from a finished product. He’s talented, but raw and unpolished. When picking a quarterback high in the first round, teams are making a huge monetary and organizational investment in the player; they’re hoping for as little risk as possible.
The Browns have to decide if they should skip on a quarterback at No. 4 so they can select a safer, higher rated prospect.
Doing so might not be a bad idea. There are plenty of options that could be available at No. 4 if they decide to go with value over need. One such option is Clemson WR Sammy Watkins, who would form a dangerous receiving pair with Josh Gordon. The Browns could also address the right side of the offensive line with a guy like Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews. Either of these highly rated linemen would be an instant upgrade over RT Mitchell Schwartz. The Browns could even go defense with their first pick and choose South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, although it seems unlikely he will be available when the Browns are on the clock.
The NFL Draft is more about value than need. There is no question that Cleveland needs to address the quarterback position, but at No. 4 the best player available won’t be a quarterback. And the Browns won’t miss out on the next tier of passers because they pick again at No. 26 and 35 overall. With pick No. 26, the Browns would be in position to draft someone like Fresno State QB Derek Carr, who has been rising up draft boards recently. Or at No. 35, the Browns could turn their attention to Alabama’s A.J. McCarron or Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
After choosing a QB, they could proceed to pick the best players left on the board during each of their remaining selections.
Something that separates good drafting teams from bad ones is the ability to find good players in the later rounds that turn out to be bargains. The quality of depth in this year’s draft can benefit teams like the Browns who have lots of picks and a wide variety of needs. Not only can the Browns get solid backups with their later picks, they can grab starters or soon-to-be starters by using the “best player available” strategy. This could include a host of positions, including cornerback, offensive guard, wide receiver, and inside linebacker.
While it might be difficult for fans of a 4-12 team to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Browns fans can at least take comfort in the fact that management may have found a good drafting strategy. We’ll find out on draft night.