If we are to read the signals slowly drifting out of Berea, the Cleveland Browns have quite the decision on their hands regarding the sixth overall pick in April's draft. Early media reports and mock draft projections, which unsurprisingly seem to parallel each other, seem to suggest that this year's choice has not yet revealed itself. The odd combination of a 2010 uptick in player development mixed with the arrival of a largely new coaching staff has completely clouded even the most modest of draft projections.
Unlike in past years, there does not appear to be a definitive position the Browns are targeting with their first round pick. Wide receiver and defensive end appear to be the closest thing to sure bets. However, limiting the dialogue to two positions leaves a number of other roster holes exposed, including the right side of the offensive line, running back, defensive tackle, all linebacker spots, cornerback and strong safety.
Contrast this idea with some recent draft directives, including Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert's 2010 focus on improving the youth and speed of the defensive backfield, Eric Mangini's 2009 mission to improve the mental and physical toughness of the team, or even Phil Savage's 2008 practice of draft abstinence, and it becomes clear that the Browns can virtually do anything with their first pick. And just maybe, those examples do nothing more than illustrate the team's current dilemma.
Beyond yet another shift in offensive and defensive philosophy, the Browns' roster represents a collection of players who rapidly aged in 2010. Despite the incredibly underrated performance Mangini delivered in reforming the culture in Berea, the former coach's team desperately needs an injection of youth at several critical areas. No greater evidence of this was found than during the painful stretch of games to close out last season. While a few potential core players emerged in the likes of Colt McCoy, Peyton Hillis, Alex Mack and Joe Haden, the rest of the team – particularly the defense – limped to another disappointing performance.
Regardless of the arrival of Pat Shurmur or Dick Jauron, a severe revamping of the roster – or worse, depending on your respective level of optimism – was needed. However, the question now becomes "where to begin?"
Defensive end probably serves as the logical and historical place to start. Currently, the Browns have gaping holes along the defensive line, a problem that could be traced to almost a decade of failing to draft effective pass rushers. While a switch to a 4-3 defense further complicates the issue, the best way to defend in a pass-first league is by neutralizing opposing quarterbacks. Also, in terms of history, it's worth pointing to Heckert's history in Philadelphia, where the Eagles invested several early draft picks on defensive linemen.
As for timing, the Browns may actually benefit from this deficiency. Most draft analysts are impressed with the volume of defensive end talent who will be selected in April. Among the prime names that could be taken in the first round include Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, North Carolina's Robert Quinn, Missouri's Aldon Smith and Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan. Other high profile defensive ends have emerged, but appear to be better suited to play in a 3-4 scheme, such as Cal's Cameron Jordan and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt.
The players who appear to have the best pass rushing potential are probably limited to Bowers, Quinn and Smith, at least when you consider their value at No. 6. As is the case when projecting how 21-year olds will fare as professional football players, there are some apparent strengths and weaknesses with all three.
Bowers is the most complete of the three prospects. Simply in terms of size and strength, the Clemson product already looks to be NFL-ready. At the college level, Bowers physically dominated opposing linemen, which could actually prove detrimental in the NFL. Because of his immense strength advantage, he did not need to fully develop a series of pass rushing moves. Once this advantage is more negated against more physical NFL blockers, Bowers could struggle to adjust. But then again, Bowers' performances against some of the better Division I talent speaks for itself.
Quinn could be considered the best athlete of the three, but is also an incredibly raw prospect. After missing the 2010 season because of North Carolina's agent benefit infractions, Quinn enters the draft with barely two years of college experience. When he did play, Quinn resembled a player who relied solely on his athleticism – similar to a faster version of Kamerion Wimbley. During several games in 2009, Quinn made the kind of looping pursuit plays evident of a player who was often initially out of position. However, if we reinforce the idea that the draft is nothing more than a gamble, Quinn could prove to have the biggest upside.
While Bowers and Quinn represent the more ideal type of defensive end prospect, Smith could emerge as the best of the three. Mixing a great blend of speed with some lightning-quick hands and feet, Smith is an explosive player – slightly reminiscent of a taller version of Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley. However, like Quinn, Smith's college resume is a bit thin, which in reality, is one of the reasons why so many draft analysts are enamored with him. Speaking of which, Smith's body more resembles that of a lanky wide receiver at this point in his development.
Currently, there is no sure bet among those three. Especially when you weigh the importance of the Browns selecting one of those with the sixth overall pick. While all three top pass rushing prospects are intriguing, it's again worth pointing to history. The past few NFL drafts have produced a mixed bag of defensive end talent.
From a scheme standpoint, the best young pass rushers currently in the NFL play more of a stand-up, 3-4 type of style, as opposed to the traditional alignment that Jauron will install in Cleveland. Brian Orakpo, Clay Matthews, Anthony Spencer, Elvis Dumervil and Woodley have all proven to be playmakers in the NFL, while more defensive end-specific names such as Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson and Jarvis Moss have been disappointments.
Of course, the upside of taking first round chances on defensive ends is the huge benefits that can result. Mario Williams, Justin Tuck, Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney have all turned around the fortunes of their respective defenses – or at least could be considered as franchise cornerstones. However, in this April's draft, it's nearly impossible to point to a particular prospect as capable of doing the same in Cleveland.
But then again, that's pretty much the point of the draft. There is no such thing as a sure thing.