The Cleveland Browns are in an ideal situation heading into the 2017 NFL draft. All they have to do is not screw it up.
Cleveland has 11 picks this year, including two first-rounders for the fifth time in franchise history. With that many picks, it should be impossible not to come out of the draft with a bright future. But years of bad drafting have left Cleveland fans, and everyone else, skeptical that the Browns can get it right this time.
“Collecting all these draft picks, it’s going to be hard to, in my opinion, screw it up,” said Jeff Simmons, a lifelong Browns fan. “But if any one franchise can do it, it’s the Browns.”
Draft day failures are the reason they haven’t had a winning campaign in nine seasons. Their selection struggles go back even further than that. The Browns have been using the draft to set themselves back since 1999, when the team returned to Cleveland and took quarterback Tim Couch with the first overall pick. Couch never panned out, and he was the first of 26 quarterbacks to start for the Browns over the past 18 seasons.
That’s just scratching the surface.
The Browns’ sad draft history
Their other misfires include, but aren’t limited to:
- Remember Brady Quinn? The Browns traded up to select him in the first round of the 2007 draft, and it cost Cleveland its first-round pick the next year. He started 12 games for them, going 3-9, before Cleveland gave up on Quinn and traded him to the Denver Broncos.
- The Browns could have had Julio Jones. Instead, they traded with the Atlanta Falcons and got five picks. On paper, that sounds like a great deal, but Cleveland used those picks to draft Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Phil Taylor, Greg Little, and Owen Marecic.
- There are only two players from the first round of the 2014 draft who are no longer in the NFL; the Browns drafted them both. Justin Gilbert played just 23 games for the Browns. Johnny Manziel washed out of the NFL after eight starts.
- In fact, the Browns had six first-round picks from 2011-14. None of those players are with the team anymore.
This year is the Browns’ chance to finally leave those draft nightmares in the past and start working toward turning around years of futility in the draft.
Are there signs that this won’t be a typical Browns draft?
The approach Cleveland has taken this offseason has been different, and it all started last year with the hire of new chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta.
If you saw the movie Moneyball (or even better, read the book), you may recognize DePodesta’s name. He was Billy Beane’s assistant when Beane was the Oakland Athletics’ general manager. He used his Harvard education to help Beane perfect the revolutionary approach the A’s utilized to change the team’s fortunes.
Beane and DePodesta successfully built the A’s roster with a limited payroll by using advanced statistics to find market inefficiencies and underrated, cheaper talent. They were also willing to move on from any player whose performance justified a greater salary than the team was willing to pay.
We’ve already seen shades of a shift toward this in Cleveland. After DePodesta was hired, the Browns started making moves to stockpile picks for the next two seasons.
Before the 2016 draft, the Browns passed up on the opportunity to draft a potential franchise quarterback. Instead, they worked out a deal to send the No. 2 overall pick to Philadelphia. The Eagles got Carson Wentz, and the Browns moved back to No. 8 and grabbed three additional picks from Philadelphia, including a 2016 first-rounder.
“I think this is a trade when you probably look back at it that will work out for both teams,” Browns general manager Sashi Brown said this year at the combine. “It allowed us to be in the position today where we have two 1s, two 2s, and had two 3s as well. So we do like the trade for our side, and I think time will tell how all these guys that came out of that trade will develop.”
And the Browns weren’t done. A trade with the Tennessee Titans let Tennessee move up to No. 8, giving Cleveland two more picks.
We’ve seen more of the new approach this offseason, when the Browns pulled off an NBA-style trade with the Houston Texans to acquire quarterback Brock Osweiler and his $16 million cap hit. The Browns got a 2018 second-round pick for their troubles. Now Cleveland has 22 picks over the next two years to add talent.
The Browns need a total rebuild, and for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007, getting talent through the draft is the only way to climb out of that hole and build something sustainable. DePodesta said that having as many picks as possible can only help their cause.
“How are we going to increase our chances? We need to have more picks. So, if we have the same number of picks every year as everyone else, we don’t expect do better than anyone else,” DePodesta said, via The MMQB.
Which current players can the Browns build around through the draft?
Cleveland got off to a good start this offseason by shoring up the offensive line, which surrendered an NFL-high 66 sacks and 140 quarterback hits last year. The Browns signed former Green Bay Packers center J.C. Tretter and paid a boatload of money to right guard Kevin Zeitler. They extended left guard Joe Bitonio, and with perpetual All-Pro Joe Thomas anchoring the left tackle spot, the remade line is solid.
Although the Browns’ offensive line didn’t give him much help last season, Isaiah Crowell rushed for nearly 1,000 yards. Just imagine what he should be able to do behind the improved line.
And the impact of the rebuilt line doesn’t stop there. If the Browns draft a quarterback to develop into the franchise signal caller the team has needed since 1999, he’ll have a solid line to play behind. That, coupled with Crowell’s production, should ease a young player’s transition to the NFL.
Corey Coleman, last year’s first-round pick, has the potential to become the Browns’ top wideout this season. Last year’s quarterback woes and injuries kept him from contributing much in his rookie year.
On defense, the Browns acquired outside linebacker Jamie Collins from the New England Patriots via trade last season. Collins only played in eight games, but finished 2016 third on the team for tackles and added two sacks. The Browns signed him to an extension this offseason, locking him up for the next four years. He could have an even bigger impact on the defensive side if the Browns can add an edge rusher to complement him.
Who do the Browns need to draft?
- Take Myles Garrett with the first overall pick. Garrett is a game changer, and could single-handedly overhaul Cleveland’s pass rush, which ended last season with the second-fewest sacks in the league. Garrett had 24 sacks over his first two years at Texas A&M. He was injured last season, but still managed to notch 8.5 sacks. He’s got rare explosion and athleticism, and teams don’t often get the opportunity to draft this caliber of player. Do not pass on him.
- Draft a quarterback, but don’t reach for one. So in other words, do not draft Mitchell Trubisky first overall. There’s also a rumor that they could trade back into the top 10 picks for Trubisky, which would be a bad idea. This isn’t the strongest quarterback class, and if the Browns are not in love with any of these guys, they should wait. This is a lesson they should have learned after Couch. And Quinn. And Weeden. And Manziel. If need be, the Browns could just give Cody Kessler a shot next season while the quarterback of the future develops. Kessler showed potential last year when healthy.
- Get some secondary help. The Browns ranked 21st in the league last year against the pass, but Pro Football Focus ranked Cleveland’s secondary 28th in the league for 2016. It’s a deep class for cornerbacks and safeties. Improved pass coverage should help the front seven get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
- Find offensive playmakers. After letting Terrelle Pryor go in free agency, the Browns lack dynamic playmakers who are dangerous with the ball in their hands. They could go with someone like tight end O.J. Howard, who is a versatile playmaker, with the 12th overall pick. If they want to wait until later in the draft, someone like wide receiver ArDarius Stewart out of Alabama may be a good choice in the third round.
- Add a lineman, but not until Day 3. Right tackle is really the only question after bolstering their line during the offseason. The Browns could still bring back Austin Pasztor, and they have Cam Erving and Shon Coleman on the roster to compete for the job. This isn’t the best draft class for tackles, but Cleveland should consider a developmental prospect, like Florida’s David Sharpe, who should be available in the fourth round.
But the most important thing the Browns have to do is use each pick wisely.
“We don’t get any points or win any games for having the most picks,” DePodesta said. “We need to turn that into talent.”
Can the Browns turn things around in one offseason?
After a 1-15 finish in 2016, it’s easy to look at the Browns and say there’s nowhere for the team to go but up. However, it’s hard for fans to give Cleveland the benefit of the doubt.
“I think every year there’s less and less confidence that they’re going to do something that will actually turn the franchise around,” Ryan Born, a Browns fan from Springfield, Ohio, said. “You look at how many first-round draft picks they’ve had since 1999, you look at how many No. 1 overall picks they’ve had. How many quarterbacks can you possibly draft in the first round that never pan out?
“I think we’ve just gotten used to the fact that they don’t get it right, and I don’t know — it’s hard to have that hope anymore.”
DePodesta knows that he and his colleagues have their work cut out for them.
“[Rebuilding a team] is like redoing a house — you need to rip down all the walls and get it down to the studs,” DePodesta told MMQB. “When you do that, you look at it and go, ‘wow this looks terrible.’ We never want to go through this again and I think that is our attitude.”
The Oakland Raiders were in a similar situation a few years ago, without the luxury of loads of cap space, which the Browns do have. They had a long string of losing seasons, a revolving door at quarterback, and a defense that couldn’t stop many teams. Now they’re coming off their first playoff appearance in 14 years, and it all started with the draft. Since 2012, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has made a habit of trading back to acquire more picks, and made some franchise-changing decisions in the draft.
The Raiders took Khalil Mack fifth overall in the 2014 draft, and he was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year and has already been named a first-team All-Pro twice in his three-year career. Quarterback Derek Carr was a second-rounder in 2014, and was an MVP candidate throughout last year until a fractured fibula in Week 16 cut his season short.
There might not be a Carr waiting for the Browns this year, but they can bounce back if they approach each pick like it’s their only pick. Eleven solid picks would help start a turnaround in Cleveland. A couple of wasted ones, and it’s just another year of the same old Browns.
If that happens, there’s only one thing left for Browns fans to do.
“Drink,” Simmons said. “It’s the Browns. That’s a very real possibility that they might not get it right.”