Some things in Cleveland never change. Like the last stubborn drips of dirty roadside snow or clinging to the words of an offseason Browns' press conference, constant reminders linger of better days ahead. During the nascent football month of March, hope seems to spring eternal yet again, as the Browns are on the verge of again making some wholesale changes to a roster that rapidly aged and cracked down the stretch of 2010.
Or, in other words, what else is new?
Beyond the mysterious spectrum of a likely labor lockout and the arrival of yet another new head coach to the lakefront, the Browns will enter April's draft with a variety of options. Unlike this time last year, the first-round directive of the front office has yet to fully reveal itself. The mission of the 2010 draft seemed to target two specific areas – secondary and quarterback. While this focus was predictable, the team's approach to the 2011 draft is anything but.
For the moment, this much we know….
1. WANTS AND NEEDS
Although Eric Mangini's ultimate legacy with the Browns will be frequently edited over the next several years, one thing is clearly annotated regarding the team's most recent ex-coach. Mangini was among the more polarizing figures in team history. While the most strident of his supporters would argue that Mangini was the victim of attempting a nearly impossible task in reforming the overall culture of the organization, his detractors point to the idea that the ex-coach was overly reliant on securing players who exhibited more character attributes than actual talent. And while both sides make valid arguments, the result of Mangini's exodus has left the roster without a clear identity.
Beyond issues of character, the types of players that littered Mangini's rosters were squeezed into a "power principle." And for a time, Mangini experienced some success with the likes of a power-running offense and physical defensive play. Midseason victories over the Saints and Patriots proved the pinnacle of Mangini's vision. However, as the 2010 season wore on, it became obvious that the Browns were one of league's slowest teams on both sides of the ball. When the running game faltered, the offense lacked a Plan B. Defensively, the entire unit slowly ground to a predictable halt.
Entering 2011, the arrival of Pat Shurmur as the team's head coach signals that the Browns are eager to achieve a more dynamic sort of offensive attack – at least if we consider the West Coast Offense roots of nearly every vital member of the organization. Perhaps the same could be said regarding the team's defense, which currently faces a major personnel overhaul as a shift to a Dick Jauron-led 4-3 scheme is in the works. Much of the current existing roster doesn't seem to fit within either of these new visions. Traditionally, successful West Coast offenses feature smaller wide receivers with speed, athletic types of blockers and all-purpose running backs. On the defensive side, a shift to a 4-3 requires athletic defensive ends and outside linebackers, mixed with more bulk inside.
In other words, the Needs far outweigh the Wants.
In conservative terms, the Browns have huge holes at the following positions: Wide receiver, right tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker.
Or if you're ready to burden yourselves further, upgrades are also needed at: Right guard, defensive tackle, inside linebacker, cornerback, safety
Do the math and the Browns currently only possess arguably a dozen core players spread around the roster.
Not exactly the most encouraging of projections, but then again if you're into surprises or you happen to be the general manager of the Browns, at least you'll agree that options abound.
So with an imposing list of roster needs, where exactly do the Browns go from here?
2. THIS IS AN OFFENSIVE ORGANIZATION
I meant to say "offensive-minded." I was still thinking about that list of Needs, then I remembered just how many head coaches have run through Cleveland in the past decade.
Anyway, in a departure from the last three coaching regimes, the Browns will now be led by someone who exclusively boasts an offensive-minded background. And to clarify, I'm still referring to team president Holmgren, although the Browns' new head coach will certainly have some input regarding April's draft. In theory, the combination of Shurmur and Holmgren should produce a draft that focuses on reviving one of the league's most consistently inefficient offenses.
A recent comment from Holmgren could be construed as a nod towards the lack of offensive playmakers on the current roster.
"I'm looking for a home-run hitter."
Although this comment could be considered vague as it relates to which side of the ball Holmgren was referring to, at least the phrase "utility infielder" was not used. At the least, Holmgren is admitting that playmakers are needed. Given the league-side shift towards rewarding teams who throw the ball, combined with the idea that Peyton Hillis and Ben Watson were the Browns' leading receivers in 2010 - the message here is implied. Simply put, the Browns desperately need a playmaker at wide receiver.
Or if not a playmaker, at least a wide receiver who can bring some consistency to the passing game – as Shurmur noted at the Scouting Combine.
"Guys that can catch. Guys that can beat bump and run. I think those are the things you're looking for. I'm not trying to make a joke there. I think it's important that receivers make the routine plays routinely. Guys that have great ball skills – guys that can catch the ball when they're alone as well as when they're covered. I think that's important."
Naturally, there are few NFL executives or head coaches who are going to reveal any specifics regarding their team's draft plans. While it's an assumption – albeit a fairly safe one – that the Browns will take a wideout early in the draft, there is no guarantee of such a thing occurring. However, while mystery remains at one position, another seems to be quite transparent.
"I think there are some teams saying we need to get a quarterback in free agency or the draft," Heckert recently stated. "We're definitely not at that point. We have all the confidence in the world Colt's going to be good."
"I would say that based on what I know to this point, I'm extremely excited about working with Colt and him being our guy," Shurmur recently said.
For the first time since the dawn of the Tim Couch era, the Browns should likely enter the first rounds of an NFL Draft without strongly considering taking a quarterback. Although McCoy's rookie season consisted of only seven games, the Texas product has appeared to make enough of an impression to suggest that he is the team's quarterback of the future – or at least for 2011.
Of course, knowing Holmgren's fondness for scouting and developing quarterbacks, perhaps that last statement is a bit of an assumption. Or in the recent words of Holmgren:
"Oh, yeah, we will draft a quarterback. You can almost count on it."
After all, if recent history is a predictor of the future, McCoy serves as the perfect example of what could be – again. Despite the Browns' needs along the defensive line, Holmgren commandeered last April's draft room and spearheaded the McCoy pick.
History could again repeat itself. And the Browns' defensive line is still in shambles.
3. ON THE DEFENSIVE
In trying to predict the actions of an NFL front office, perhaps the following quote from Holmgren is most appropriate, or maybe it's just the easiest to decipher.
"Our philosophy is to take the best player on our board once it's set up."
Here it's worth considering just what type of prospects this year's draft has to offer. If anything, the 2011 draft is loaded with defensive talent. Unlike in recent years, there appears to be a variety of solid defensive line prospects available. Most draft analysts' mock boards are top-heavy with the likes of more traditional defensive ends such as Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, North Carolina's Robert Quinn and Iowa's Adrian Clayborn. Along with these three ends, there is a lot of buzz surrounding SEC defensive tackles such as Alabama's Marcell Dareus and Auburn's Nick Fairley.
Both positions are areas of need for the Browns – especially considering the coming shift to a 4-3 defense. In perhaps the most stark assessment of the current Browns' roster, only Ahtyba Rubin could be considered as a lock for a starting defensive line job in 2011. But again, it's nearly impossible to tell just how much of a priority the defensive line will be come April – let alone the eventual makeup of the Browns' draft board.
"It's a good group all the way around," Heckert recently stated. "There's a lot of guys who are going to go really early."
To return to the Wants versus Needs analysis, it's worth considering Heckert's history with the Philadelphia Eagles. While not the exclusive draft day architect of past Eagles' teams, Heckert served in an organization that drafted defensive linemen in the early rounds of many recent drafts. Now in Cleveland, Heckert could return to these roots – while also filling an immediate team need.
However, for anyone watching the Scouting Combine, it became apparent that two of the best performances were delivered by cornerbacks. LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara turned in blazing workout numbers, which only enhanced their respectively brilliant college careers. Adding to the allure of both players was Heckert's recent comments regarding the possibility of the Browns adding another corner high in the draft.
''I think we've got two really good cornerbacks and the third one…we'll see,'' Heckert recently said. ''We have a couple guys that we like on our team, but is that a position that we would look at? I think corner is just as good a possibility as anything. We drafted Lito (Sheppard) and Sheldon (Brown) 1-2. We did it in the same draft. I wouldn't have any problem with that. I mean, you've got to have three corners. If there's a really good one, you're not going to pass on him."
On paper, cornerback would not appear to be an immediate need, at least in the first-round sense. After a slow beginning to his rookie season, last year's first-round pick Joe Haden showed flashes of brilliance and appears poised to become the centerpiece of the Browns' secondary. However, in a league dominated by quality passing attacks, the Browns' front office could easily be tempted to take either Peterson or Amukamara.
4. THE NUMBERS GAME
To make things even more confusing – or to pile projection onto speculation – the considerations of the teams drafting ahead of the Browns need to be addressed. As if it's not hard enough to figure out the Browns' draft direction, let's compound the situation by taking a look at the needs of the teams holding the first five picks in April's draft.
Conceivably, four of these five teams need to find a quarterback – in a draft that doesn't feature a standout franchise prototype. However, the sheer value of the quarterback position in the NFL could likely elevate Auburn's Cam Newton or Missouri's Blaine Gabbard to such an elite status. Of course, the production of last year's overall top pick, St. Louis' Sam Bradford, could also help in inflating the stock of one of these quarterbacks. But then again, last year's draft seemed to offer a comparable level of quarterback talent, which led to teams like Carolina and Cleveland holding out until the later rounds to take the likes of Jimmy Clausen and McCoy.
But again, considering the complexion of this year's draft class, the first five picks could all come from the defensive side of the ball. All five of the teams picking ahead of Cleveland are in need of defensive help. Denver and Buffalo in particular suffered from a lack of defensive speed a year ago, while the Panthers and Cardinals have some gaping holes in their defensive backfields. Of course, to expand the debate - with the exception of Arizona, none of these teams feature a dynamic offensive playmaker on their current roster.
Also, with the slight exception of Peterson, the quality of talent that will be taken should be evenly divided by the time the Browns make their first selection. Using this logic, it would appear that the teams drafting ahead of Cleveland will likely dictate the Browns' first move. The top-five selection of a quarterback like Newton or Gabbard should signal that either one of the top defensive line prospects or perhaps even Peterson would be available to the Browns. Or, if one of the first five teams grabs a player such as Georgia's A.J. Green, the Browns' first pick will likely be devoted to the defense.
Again, considering the multiple needs on the current roster, the Browns should be able to find some quality help at the sixth spot – regardless of position, before resetting their draft boards.
But of course, any talk about an NFL offseason has to include a truly dark reality settling into view.
5. SUDDENLY NOT SO FREE AGENTS
Here's a cruel bit of NFL realism. There are an extraordinary number of NFL free agents available this offseason – especially to a team like the Browns who are capable of spending some money to improve their roster. But of course, the legal ramifications of a likely labor lockout have reduced these hopes to a dismal afterthought.
But still, we can dream….of adding a temporary, albeit expensive fix to the roster.
Wide receivers are available, such as Santonio Holmes, James Jones and Malcolm Floyd. The hole at right tackle could be fixed with the addition of Ryan Harris, Jammal Brown, Jared Gaither, Willie Colon or Tyson Clabo. Defensive ends such as Charles Johnson and Ray Edwards, along with linebackers Stephen Tulloch, James Anderson and Stephen Nicholas could help bridge the gap to a 4-3 defense. Cornerbacks are to be had including Brent Grimes, Jonathan Joseph and Chris Carr.
While none of the above players could be considered as a franchise game-changer, a few free agent additions could at least alleviate some of the Browns' many needs. In addition, having a bit of a safety net in free agency can also ease the burden on the Browns' draft strategy. Otherwise, the idea of actually taking the "best player available" inexplicably becomes a bit riskier.
Finally, in regards to the labor lockout, it's becoming cliché – but truly there are no winners in this process. Except for the billionaire owners, of course. But nothing short of a USFL-sized talent infusion can help a rebuilding team like the Browns in this regard. Perhaps the only silver lining to come from the lockout is the idea that building through the draft is the only sound way to become an NFL winner.
Also, it's now the only way.
6. WHAT WE KNOW
Come April, anything can happen.