Of the many things said about the 2011 draft over the past few days, perhaps my favorite quote is also the shortest. When asked after the close of the first round who the number one prospect was on the Browns' draft board, GM Tom Heckert replied, "I can't tell you that."
And really – at this point, who cares?
In some respects, the Browns could have virtually not had a number one prospect on their draft board. In the end, the team's number one target proved to be an overall volume of picks.
Instead of banking their draft on a top-ten prospect, Heckert managed to turned the sixth overall selection into four additional picks, including Atlanta's 2012 first-rounder. In doing so, the Browns gained a unique bit of leverage throughout the rest of the weekend's draft, as well as created some great flexibility going into the 2012 offseason.
Because of the extra picks the Browns acquired from Atlanta, giving up a third-round selection to grab Baylor's Phil Taylor in the first round and trading two sixth-round choices to land Pittsburgh's Jason Pinkston didn't seem like too big of a cost - despite the team being in the midst of another roster overhaul.
Perhaps a similar argument could be made regarding the Browns' two fourth-round picks - USC's Jordan Cameron and Stanford's Owen Marecic - both of which appear to be talented prospects, but each of whom are clearly developmental players. These two picks received the most criticism from Browns fans over the weekend, considering that tight end and fullback were not the most pressing of roster needs.
However, if we further analyze - or just simplify - Heckert's brief history with the Browns, it appears that the second-year GM has remained consistent with his draft strategy - one that clearly points to the long-term health of the team. Heckert's strategy so far has been predicated on slicing the team's offensive and defensive needs into thirds. The early portion of Heckert's two drafts have isolated a particular need, while the later rounds focus on adding high-reward developmental prospects.
In adding second-round selection Jabaal Sheard to Taylor, Heckert has effectively targeted a major defensive need for the Browns. Much in the manner that the first two rounds of the 2010 draft centered on improving the team's defensive backfield, Heckert has now laid the groundwork to focus on another crucial need. If history repeats itself, then the Browns' 2012 draft should be predicated on the final defensive priority of finding some athletic linebackers.
A slightly different variation can be found on the offensive side of the ball, as second-round pick Greg Little and possibly Cameron help to shore up the team's long-suffering receiving corps. Little now joins Heckert's 2010 developmental prospect Carlton Mitchell just in time for Pat Shurmur to install his new West Coast offense.
This last point is significant in terms of the Browns' overall stage of rebuilding. Recent history suggests that most NFL wide receivers don't fully embrace the nuances of the professional game until at least their second or third season. In Mitchell's case, his speed, size and desire could help him forge a path in 2011, with Little hopefully to follow in 2012.
In terms of cost, these two players come much cheaper than a potential Julio Jones selection - and don't carry the same risk. After all, despite Jones' talent, he would have faced the exact same NFL learning curve - regardless of his team. However, in Cleveland, the success of the 2011 draft would have rested on Jones' ability to instantly become a productive player - if not a star.
This slicing theory as it relates to the Browns' offense is a bit more tenuous than the version underway on defense, but still shows some promise. If Colt McCoy can continue to progress at quarterback, along with the continued development of Peyton Hillis and the possible return of Monterio Hardesty at running back, then Heckert's 2012 work should focus on improving the team's offensive line and filling in any other gaps. Players such as Cameron and even Pinkston will not form the heart of this strategy, but could provide a nice bonus during the process.
At this point, it's worth remembering that extra first round pick at Heckert's disposal in 2012. Again – assuming that this year's prospects can show the promise of 2010's draft class – next April could see a prime offensive lineman and linebacker being selected with the team's first two picks next April.
Along the way, Heckert has added two more developmental talents who at the least should be able to crack the Browns' special teams lineup. It's difficult to gauge what type of pro player Marecic will become - at least based on his college career. While Marecic's iron man versatility forms a great narrative, at the moment he appears destined to become a quality special teams contributor.
In Buster Skrine's case, he brings speed to an overly slow pass defense. Skrine's size and small-college experience will no doubt make for a tough NFL transition; however the Tennessee-Chattanooga prospect is joining an incredibly thin defensive backfield in Cleveland.
Add it all up and within three years, it's possible that the Browns will have targeted all three portions of the defensive roster, with a possible upgrade coming to the offensive line and developing prospects at wide receiver. Most significantly, all of these positions will feature talent drafted in the first three rounds.
Yet despite the growing evidence that the Browns finally have a clear plan of improvement being implemented – there is a catch.
This is a process that will take some time. Regardless of both Heckert's proven and potential accuracy in evaluating and choosing talent, the end of this three-year window will not necessarily produce a playoff contender.
However, there is a good chance that the Browns will finally feature a stable roster of talent – one that is capable of taking that next big step.
Perhaps by that point, Heckert will be in the position to make a move similar to what the Falcons did Thursday night.