While working on my senior thesis in college, the head of the history department taught me a valuable lesson: Explore the facts before you form a thesis.
Overall, the Cleveland Browns organization sits at a crossroads. Possessing the sixth overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, a fundamental choice will be made regarding the direction the franchise will undertake.
Pass receiver or pass rusher?
The choice will prove to be the pendulum point as to how it will address the basic adaptation to a pass-happy league. The correct selection may finally send the Browns down a path of success.
When the facts were explored, there were some surprising findings that were found when weighing the options of choosing a pass rusher over a pass catcher among the top 10 selections of the NFL Draft.
Let's work our way through the process.
So, do the Browns...
A) Give their young quarterback a weapon to become more potent?
B) Establish a pass rush to get to the already talented quarterbacks in the AFC North?
Each choice is viable and easily arguable. Well, that was the assumption.
The two names of highest recognition pertaining to a potential selection at No. 6 are Georgia's A.J. Green and North Carolina's Robert Quinn (acting under the assumption both quarterbacks, Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, and Marcell Dareus will be drafted in the top five.).
Since Cleveland lays claim to the worst set of wide receivers in the NFL, Green seems the obvious answer.
Or is he?
In the last 10 years, 17 wide receivers have been selected in the top 10 overall selections. The group averaged 37 receptions, 497 yards, and three touchdowns during their rookie campaigns. Only three — Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Peter Warrick — of the 17 started an entire season to put some of those numbers into context. Individually, Johnson has the best single season with 66 catches and 976 yards. Two tied with eight touchdowns catches.
The entire list includes:
Darrius Heyward-Bey, 9 receptions, 124 yards, 1 touchdown
Michael Crabtree, 55-741-6
Calvin Johnson, 48-746-4
Ted Ginn Jr., 34-420-2
Braylon Edwards, 32-512-3
Troy Williamson, 24-372-2
Mike Wlliams, 29-350-1
Larry Fitzgerald, 58-780-8
Roy Williams, 54-817-8
Reggie Williams, 27-268-1
Charles Rogers, 22-243-3
Andre Johnson, 66-976-4
David Terrell, 34-415-4
Koren Robinson, 39-536-1
Peter Warrick, 51-592-4
Plaxico Burress, 22-273-0
Travis Taylor, 28-276-3
As one looks over the list, the bust potential is relatively high. Does A.J. Green sway more towards an Andre Johnson or a Koren Robinson? It's a decision that has to be made with a critical eye toward Green, who was dynamic at Georgia displaying smooth route running, nimble feet, and superb pass catching ability.
While Green is the object of affection for many Browns' fans, we'd be remiss if Alabama's Julio Jones wasn't at least named in the conversation. Jones' talent should push him into the top 10 conversation.
Now, it's only fair to look at those pure pass rushers and how they fared historically coming into the league as rookies:
Chris Long, 40 total tackles, 4 sacks
Vernon Gholston, 13-0
Derrick Harvey, 19-3.5
Gaines Adams, 38-6
Mario Williams, 47-4.5
Terrell Suggs, 27-12
Julius Peppers, 35-12
Justin Smith, 53-8.5
Andre Carter, 46-6.5
Jamal Reynolds, 4-2
Courtney Brown, 4.5 (sacks)
It was certainly surprising to find less pass rushers selected in the top 10 than wide receivers during the same time frame. It's also disheartening to see the lack of true impact among the list. Only three became stars, two more are solid professionals and the rest are outright busts.
In fact, the real sweet spot to select pass rushers during the past 10 years was found between picks 11 and 13 — Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware, John Abraham, Shawne Merrimen, Brian Orakpo, and Shaun Ellis. Even Kamerion Wimbley and Brandon Graham are solid professionals or are still growing into their respective role. The only bust became with Buffalo's selection of Aaron Maybin in 2009.
Quinn will continue to be in the conversation simply because of his raw slate of athletic ability. He has the natural talent to be considered the top overall prospect in this draft, if he had played a down in 2010. Quinn's ability to bend the edge is readily apparent even in drills. Teams proclaim they are always searching for those who can get to the quarterback, and Quinn has risen to the top of that list.
The final say may come down to how the Browns' draft board is set.
If the team chooses to go wide receiver early, then defensive line should be addressed immediately following.
Arizona's Brooks Reed and Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard appear the most likely candidates to be on the board for Cleveland at No. 37 overall if defensive end warrants attention. The team may be lucky to find Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, Georgia's Justin Houston or Iowa's Adrian Clayborn available, although that seems unlikely.
The situation at defensive tackle is more promising. Iowa's Christian Ballard can play inside or outside and may be available. Oregon State's Stephen Paea, North Carolina's Marvin Austin, and LSU's Drake Nevis all enter the conversation in the second round.
Meanwhile, if the team decides to go with a pass rusher to start the process, five promising receivers may still be on the board.
Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin is a stunning physical specimen, but has both issues on and off the field. Maryland's Torrey Smith has the speed with the potential to be drafted late first round, although some teams project him to the second round. Miami's Leonard Hankerson has a history with the Browns quarterback coach George Whipple, who was the former Hurricans offensive coordinator. Troy's Jerrel Jernigan currently holds the highest rating for any senior target and is fantastic in open space. Finally, Kentucky's Randall Cobb has quickly risen up draft boards.
Each scenario is enticing and solid talent can be found throughout, but which is the correct path for the Cleveland Browns?
I was certain defensive line was the correct course to take at No. 6, as the Browns veer down the fork in the road and establish an identity. Now, it appears the selection of Green (or Jones) is far more appealing while looking at league trends over an extended period.
Maybe fans of the draft, and fans of the Browns in particular, should have learned a lesson over the last two years. Whoever is projected to Cleveland throughout the entire process, then takes a step back as the draft nears, that is the talent most likely to be the selected on draft day.
Or the Browns could throw a huge monkey wrench into the equation and select a quarterback.