NFL DRAFT PREVIEW: What Should the Browns Do?

The NFL Draft kicks off tonight and the Cleveland Browns have 10 picks to work with. Guest Columnist Rich Passan reviews what he thinks the team should do in the draft.

Ray Farmer is no longer a rookie when it comes to the National Football League’s annual college draft. And if his performance as a lottery neophyte last year is any indication, buckle up for this year’s ride.

What we learned last year about the Browns’ general manager was that even though he was a newbie at actually picking players, not just evaluating them, he did not act like one. He did not stand still for long. In his first shot at running a draft, he made five trades.

In reshaping the roster in his image and that of Mike Pettine, his rookie head coach, Farmer moved up and down the draft like a seasoned professional, turning his original 10 selections into six. It was almost as though the so-called draft experts had no idea what to expect next from him.

After one season, though, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Farmer’s philosophical bent lies. Does he lean toward drafting the best player available on the board, or does he put more emphasis on need? Last year, it was a little bit of both.

Three of his picks have a good shot at turning into draft gold. Second-round choice Joel Bitonio, a guard, had the best rookie season for a Cleveland offensive lineman since tackle Joe Thomas in 2007. Running back Terrance West and outside linebacker Chris Kirksey, both third-round selections, also had solid seasons and did not look out of place.

Where Farmer came up painfully short, strangely enough, was the first round, which most experts believe should be the easiest to gauge in terms of quality of talent. He had two shots at getting it right and missed on both, at least from a performance standpoint, garnering a gigantic F grade.

Two trades yielded cornerback Justin Gilbert and controversial quarterback Johnny Manziel in the opening round. Gilbert, whose attitude helped nail him to the bench, never fit into the secondary scheme. The immature Manziel was a colossal bust both on and off the field.

Because of the uncertainty of whether Manziel can successfully assimilate to the professional game and become a quality NFL quarterback, the notion that Farmer might try again at the position this year is not off the table. He is known to have fallen in love last year with University of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who forsook his senior year to enter this year’s draft.

Farmer did strike it rich in free agency last season with inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Donte Whitner and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. Dansby and Whitner were particularly helpful in a leadership capacity.

Free agency might not be the direction the Browns head this season. Owner Jimmy Haslam III indicated the club might not be nearly as active as last season. “I think you’ll see us playing less (there),” he cautioned two months prior to the lottery.

This season, Farmer enters the draft after embarrassing himself and his employer in what has been labeled Text-Gate. The GM confessed to Haslam that he texted the bench during games this past season, in direct violation of league rules. Thankfully that only led to Farmer’s suspension and not draft considerations lost.

Farmer has more two shots at getting things right in the opening round on April 30 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. The Browns own selections 12 and 19, the latter obtained in a deal last year with the Buffalo Bills.

There is a chance, albeit slim, that Farmer, in another effort to correct his quarterback situation, might dangle his first two picks and possibly a starter or next year’s No. 1 to move up to No. 2, where the Tennessee Titans, not nearly as desperate to draft a quarterback, reside, and grab Mariota. He struck early last season, dealing the fourth overall choice to the Bills, who took Sammy Watkins.

The GM again this year has 10 picks including four of the first 77, with extra selections in the first, fourth and sixth rounds. The big question is whether he deems this draft deep enough to use all 10 picks, or duplicate some of last year’s moves.

A good guess is that he won’t exactly place wide receiver at the top of his value list.

“Name the last big-time receiver to win a Super Bowl,” he argued last year, defending his decision to ignore a decent field of wideouts. “Name the last mega-guy.

“(Josh Gordon) matters to me because I like the guy and I think he’s a really good player, but at the end of the day, when you look at teams that have those mega-receivers. . . . name the last guy who won a Super Bowl. . . There are none. The last guy who really helped his team get there was (Terrell Owens).”

So Farmer gambled and went the free-agent route to replenish a wide receiver corps that was mediocre at best and that missed Gordon, serving a drug-related suspension, for the first 10 games. The Cleveland passing game, as it turned out, was one of the worst in the NFL.

All eyes will be on will Farmer this year to see if he takes a sober look at what went down last season in the aerial game, and whether he believes he needs to strengthen what is unquestionably the weak spot on offense. Quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, Manziel and Connor Shaw were forced to work with the diminutive trio of Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin, as well as the somewhat taller Miles Austin.

At the same time, there are other holes to fill, especially in the trenches. If Farmer is from the school that preaches that games are won and lost there, look for substantial draft activity along the lines.

The Browns are set on the left side of the offensive line with Thomas and Bitonio and get even stronger with the return of center Alex Mack from injury. It’s the right side that Farmer needs to improve, and he’ll have the opportunity this year.

Tight end is another problem position. Unless the Browns outbid everyone else for Jordan Cameron, an unrestricted free agent who has trouble saying healthy and reportedly wants out of Cleveland, he’s gone, and there is no reliable pass-catching tight end on the roster.

If Cameron leaves, the draft will not help, with what is considered by many to be a position woefully shy of quality talent. Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, Nick O’Leary of Florida State and Notre Dame’s Benjamin Koyack top the list, but are not worthy of selection in the first round.

The defensive line, considered the strength of the defense at the beginning of last season, turned out to be the weak link. It surrendered yards in bunches infantry-style and wound up as the worst run defense in the league. Long-term and, in some cases, season-ending injuries along the line were a major factor.

Now throw in the need for a dynamic pass rusher or two to improve a rush that was woefully inadequate last season, the need to improve the depth along the offensive line and in the secondary and the requisite wide receiver or two, and you have the template from which Farmer will operate.

This year’s draft class is at least as good as, if not better than, the class of 2014, with 84 underclassmen eligible to be selected. Last season, six of the first 10 choices were underclassmen, including four of the first six. This year, those figures very well could be higher. Pre-draft mock drafts indicate that as many as a dozen underclassmen will be gone by the time the initial round is halfway completed.

At the same time, that pattern drops the more experienced four-year players into the lower rounds. Many teams love to pan for draft gold in the middle and later rounds in hopes of unearthing gems. Last season, Farmer disdained such moves, choosing instead to be a spectator, and sat out the final three rounds of the draft after making his fourth-round selection.

So what do the Browns do in the first round? How desperate are they to try again to finally latch on to their quarterback of the future? Is there one who qualifies as a franchise quarterback? The answers beg other questions.

Can Mariota make a successful switch to the NFL, or was his collegiate success rooted solely in the system in which he thrived? Successful college quarterbacks who play in a gimmick offense such as the one Oregon uses (an up-tempo spread) rarely transition successfully to the pro game. Mariota never huddled up and never called a play with the Ducks. Everything in the NFL will be foreign to him.

The difference between taking the snap five or seven yards behind center and lining up under center to take a direct snap is incredibly huge. Several quarterbacks available in this draft have never taken a direct snap under center in a pro set.

The timing is vastly different. Spread quarterbacks do not have to take three-, five- or seven-step drops as do most NFL quarterbacks. Their reads on pass plays are a lot different, too, especially with progressions. In college, the primary receiver is usually open. Not so against the more sophisticated defensive schemes in the NFL.

The quality of the quarterback class this year drops off sharply after Mariota and Jameis Winston, expected to be the top pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So if the Browns are unable to swing any kind of deal to move up and land Mariota, they most likely will have to wait until the later rounds to dip into the quarterback pool.

Quarterbacks such as Brett Hundley of UCLA, Garrett Grayson of Colorado State and Baylor’s Bryce Petty almost certainly will be there in the second round and perhaps even lower, should Farmer choose to strengthen other areas first.

If he applies the trench theory to his 2015 style of picking, it wouldn’t surprise to see the GM aim for both lines with his top two picks. Defensive line should be a top priority with the likes of Washington’s Danny Shelton, Malcolm Brown of Texas and Oregon’s Arik Armstead certain to be there at 12 and maybe 19. All are solid run-stuffers.

Addressing the pass rush, so disappointing last season given Pettine’s reputation for harassing opposing quarterbacks, also ranks high on the priority list, and there are a few solid candidates to fill that role, most notably Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida, Missouri’s Shane Ray, Randy Gregory of Nebraska, Bud Dupree of Kentucky and Clemson’s Vic Beasley.

But if Farmer chooses to go offense with the 12th selection and concentrates on the line, he can choose from among tackles T. J. Clemmings of Pittsburgh, Andrus Peat of Stanford, LSU’s La’el Collins, Tyler Sambrailo of Colorado State, Miami of Florida’s Ereck Flowers and Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M and won’t go wrong.

Shoring up the right side of the line will enable Pettine to move Mitchell Schwartz one slot over to right guard. Schwartz has been inconsistent at right tackle, especially against speed rushers, and should be much more effective working inside next to Mack.

As for receivers, Farmer has no excuse to pass on them entirely again this year. It’s entirely possible that he will shock everyone and go after West Virginia’s Kevin White, Amari Cooper of Alabama, Louisville’s DeVante Parker, Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong, Auburn’s Sammie Coates or Oklahoma’s Dorial Green-Beckham with either of his first two picks. If he demurs and waits, he’s likely to find USC’s Nelson Agholor, Justin Hardy of East Carolina and Ty Montgomery of Stanford in the middle rounds.

It’s also possible the abundantly talented Green-Beckham, who hasn’t played since 2013 after being suspended twice at Missouri and then kicked off the team for multiple run-ins with the law, will slip because of his numerous off-the-field problems. The question is whether the Browns would still be interested should he drop, especially after their problems with Gordon.

As for what specific areas Farmer will address in the draft, that depends, in large part, on what he does in free agency. The unrestricted free agent market is rife with quality defensive linemen and wide receivers, so it’s possible by the time the draft arrives, a few need positions will be already filled.

With the Browns roughly $45 million under the salary cap, and despite what Haslam said about not being as aggressive in the market this year, Farmer might just be tempted to open his owner’s pocketbook and grease the slide toward the lottery.

Another area the GM needs to seriously address is the kicking game, as the club’s special teams, especially in the return game, left a lot to be desired. Inadequate field position often hamstrung an offense that needed all the help it could get, and didn’t deliver results.

Garrett Hartley, signed late last season after Billy Cundiff was released, is not a lock to return as the placekicker. Neither is punter Spencer Lanning, whose consistent inconsistency did the defense no favors.

Only one area on the roster does not need help. The Browns’ running game, featuring West and Isaiah Crowell with untested Glenn Winston in reserve, provided surprisingly solid results last season. Other than that, Farmer has a wide-open field to improve a roster that won seven games for the first time since 2007 against one of the easiest schedules in the league.

With the eighth-toughest schedule in the NFL looming this season, it is incumbent upon the Cleveland general manager to not miss with at least his first two picks this year as he did last year, then hope he experiences many “we can’t believe he was on the board when it was our turn” moments the rest of the way.

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