Tom Heckert's pre-draft press conference was the kind of event that offered bits of information, but didn't reveal much of anything. Browns' fans seeking some sort of truth regarding the team's immediate future were probably disappointed in reading the vague transcripts. Yet, in an oddly satisfying manner, Heckert's delicate answers were the exact kind of late April shroud of mystery that all successful NFL franchises have to employ.
Or, at the least, he sounds like one.
Anyway, with so many team needs spread across the current roster, Heckert's job next week is both ridiculously challenging and obscenely easy. In this sense, Heckert's task in continuing a hopeful upward trend has to culminate in bolstering any of the team's multiple needs, while basically not tripping over a first-round land mine.
While fundamentally, all of this sounds great – the question most on our minds has not been answered. So, who are the Browns taking with their first pick?
Perhaps Heckert left some clues behind in his press conference…or perhaps he's waiting to find out just like the rest of us.
"Don't read into what I'm going to say at all but I think obviously quarterback is the number one then left tackle, defensive end, corners," Heckert said. "Those are the groups because you can't hide corners. You can't hide left tackles and if you can't get to the quarterback then you are in trouble. I think that's league wide. I don't know if anybody would disagree with that. That's not saying you don't need good players everywhere else too. It was a situation in Philly when we did that it wasn't just the position, those guys were rated the highest guys so we took them."
Completely ignoring Heckert's first statement, I choose to "read into" what Heckert stated here.
Much like Phil Savage before him, Heckert has revealed his priority list as it relates to building a roster. Although unlike Savage, Heckert already has some pieces in place. If we are to assume that McCoy is either the quarterback of the future and/or the quarterback for 2011, then we can rule out a first round selection of Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbard or virtually any other quarterback who will be elevated into the upper reaches of the draft.
On a much more concrete type of footing, the same can be said for left tackle, as Joe Thomas has solidified himself as one of the best players at his position. Coincidentally, the 2011 draft class is pretty weak at the position – as most of the tackle prospects appear better suited for the right side of an NFL offensive line – which conveniently enough is a major area of need for the Browns.
This brings us back to the defensive line and cornerbacks – both of which are clear priorities for the Browns. While it's easy to admit that the Browns' defensive line is currently the most severe of team needs, the cornerback position is far from settled. Haden certainly flashed some Pro Bowl potential during his rookie season, but Sheldon Brown will be another year older next season and it's hard to determine if Eric Wright can rebound from his season-long slump.
But then again – have you seen this team's defensive line? Even the most brilliant public relations expert would have trouble spinning the following…
(On what they have on their current defensive line behind Ahtyba Rubin)
"We have the guys that we have on our team and that's what we have right now," Heckert said. "We'll see what happens with Jayme (Mitchell), but we think they are serviceable guys. They really are. Are they elite guys? I don't know if we had elite guys last year and I think we were alright. We will find players."
Let's consider this both the soul-crushing part of Heckert's press conference, as well as the most soothing. In channeling the watery demeanor of Romeo Crennel, Heckert is declaring the obvious in that Browns will enter the 2011 season with Rubin, maybe Mitchell and some spare parts.
The need is overwhelmingly obvious – which Heckert states in a backhanded manner. If the season began today, either an undersized Marcus Benard or miscast Brian Schaefering would be the team's top defensive end. Rubin would again form the heart of the line's interior, but would likely break down as the season progressed, thanks to the lack of talent around him. As for Heckert's quick analysis of last year's defensive line play, he is mainly referring to players who were built more for last year's 3-4 scheme.
If the Browns' GM carefully considers his own words, then look for a defensive lineman selected with the sixth overall pick – followed by some more help in the later rounds.
But then again, considering the stark reality of the Brown' situation, mixed with the fluid nature of the draft, a first-round defensive line selection could come down to a choice between positions – as in, which is the higher priority: defensive tackle or defensive end?
Based on the talent that should be available to the Browns at number six, defensive tackle would seem to outrank defensive end. However, based on team need – defensive end should be the pick. Yet somehow the names of Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson and Vernon Gholston should raise a red flag with Heckert.
Since we're speaking of the lines - what about the state of the offensive line? That canyon-sized hole at right tackle – the one that John St. Clair will mercifully not handle in 2011 – has lingered for years.
(On if the right side of the offensive line needs a boast)
"We like Tony (Pashos), so if Tony does comes back and we have all indications that he's going to be fine," Heckert said. "We think Tony will be our right tackle and we like Shawn (Lauvao). Floyd (Womack) and Billy (Yates) are both free agents so we'll have to deal with that once things happen, but we are comfortable there. We really are."
Let's focus on the phrases "if Tony comes back" and "we think Tony will be our right tackle…" Not exactly the most inspiring of messages.
While Pashos is certainly an upgrade over the last two years of John St. Clair, it's obvious that the veteran tackle cannot be counted on to start a full season of games. Pashos has played in a total of 11 games over the past two seasons and even when healthy is nothing more than gap filler at this point in his career.
Adding to Heckert's dilemma is the unknown status of both Womack and Yates. Like Pashos, Womack's body is breaking down. However, the team's lack of offensive line depth would suggest that re-signing Womack for another year – assuming that free agency will one day occur – would be a smart idea. Yet, the most important component here could be Yates, who proved to be effective during his short run as a starter.
However, for Heckert to address the offensive line in the first round of the draft would signal that the Browns found a trading partner – more on this later. There is no offensive line prospect worthy of the sixth overall pick – yet in the sometimes misguided universe of draft value, taking an offensive lineman lower in the round could make some sense.
But just when you think an answer has presented itself, the question changes.
(On if taking a corner like Patrick Peterson with the sixth overall pick won't help if you do not upgrade your pass rush)
"I disagree with that," Heckert said. "You are going to play close to 60% nickel so you are going to have three corners on the field 60% of the time. If you don't have three of them they are going to find the one. They are going to and you have to roll coverage that way and then you are putting that guy on the island. The more cover guys you can have the better you are. You get a corner hurt, you can't have enough corners."
It's obvious Heckert realizes the shifting landscape of the NFL. In a league that is now governed by minimal defensive contact, passing the ball has taken on a monumental importance. This trend will only continue as the league office becomes more sensitive to both the plight of their exposed players and the NFL's public image – not necessarily in that order.
As it relates to the Browns, last season's addition of Haden represents the first piece of Heckert's cornerback triumvirate. Playing in a pass-happy AFC North, the Browns desperately need to add another top-flight cornerback – both because of and despite their defensive line deficiencies.
The pick here would presumably be LSU's Peterson, who is clearly one of the best cornerback prospects to enter the draft in years. Peterson's game is similar to Haden, in that both players are solid tacklers and skilled in coverage.
However, in order to land Peterson, the Browns need some help from the teams drafting ahead of them.
(On the possibility of trading up)
"I would say it's probably unlikely but I have talked to some teams ahead of us just to see," Heckert said. "That's probably a tougher thing to do from our situation. We'd hate to give up picks to do something like that."
(On if they will likely trade out of the six spot of a certain guy isn't there)
"I don't think so," Heckert said. "I think it's more of what we think of the risk-reward. What we can get for that pick. The only way that would affect it is if you are trying to move down a few spots then obviously you aren't getting as much in return so then you have to think about who's going to be there. The further you trade down, you just aren't going to know who's going to be there so you are looking at the rest of the picks or anybody else you get in that. Really it's not going to affect us with who is there I don't think."
The greater truth regarding next week's draft is that the Browns' first-round pick will not exactly be made by Heckert. Of course, the decision process will be spearheaded by Heckert, but the reality is that the five teams picking ahead of Cleveland will ultimately produce this proverbial "best available player."
Of the teams selecting ahead of the Browns, it can be argued that the Panthers, Bills, Bengals and Cardinals all are in need of quarterbacks. If even two of these teams select a quarterback, this opens up the possibility of either a top wide receiver or defensive talent falling to the Browns at number six.
Of course, the interests of the three teams who don't take a quarterback under this scenario are the wildcards. The Broncos and Cardinals' picks will likely rival each other – as both selections should be geared towards the defensive side of the ball. A similar argument could be made between the Bills and Bengals – except that both teams will likely target offense.
What this could mean is that of a short list comprised of Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbard, A.J. Green, Marcel Dareus, Patrick Peterson and Von Miller – the leftover prospect could easily fall to the Browns at number six and form the "best available player."
Hypothetically, the pick could come down to a choice between either Peterson and Dareus, or Dareus and Miller. If so, then Heckert is bolstering a team need, but not the mock declared team need of adding a pass-rushing defensive end or playmaking wide receiver.
And we're back to where we started.
BEST AVAILABLE PLAYER
"You guys all know, we have some holes to fill all over the place," Heckert said. "We still have holes on defense and offense. We are going to try to the best of our ability to stick with our philosophy of taking the best available player. I know everybody says that, but we are going to try to do that. I think we are probably in a better position to do that than some teams. Some teams they may be one or two positions away from being really good so I think it's probably a positive for us that we can sit there and take the best available player."
Returning to the coded mantra of "best available player", Heckert has stated the only obvious truth anyone can gather a few days before the draft.
The Browns can virtually draft any player in the first round and target a specific team need. With the exception of left tackle, tight end, punter and possibly quarterback, the Browns' first pick will produce a player who in theory will fill an immediate need.
But we didn't need a GM to tell us that.