The Cleveland Browns’ recent history of handling Round 1 draft picks can easily make one, well, uneasy when it comes to the long-term prospects of these players. Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, two Round 1 draft picks from 2012? They’ve moved on, or have been moved onward, by previous regimes. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the team’s Round 1 draft pick from 2013, appears to be holding onto his roster spot by a thread, the only thing in his favor the return of former defensive coordinator Ray Horton who valued Mingo in more than a situational capacity. Johnny Manziel is gone, but cornerback Justin Gilbert, the first of two 2014 Round 1 picks, is trying to rebuild his reputation with a new coaching staff and has a very real opportunity to take advantage of—stepping in as a first-team defender while Joe Haden continues recovering from his offseason ankle surgery. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on returns on the Round 1 investments in defensive lineman Danny Shelton and offensive lineman Cam Erving and hoping that this year’s first-round pick, receiver Corey Coleman, heralds a new renaissance of Cleveland offense.
But the key word to pick up on in all of the above is the word “investments,” for that is what a draft pick is, most especially those selected in the first round. Barring extenuating circumstances—massive regime change, a gullible trade partner (ahem, Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson) or complete system failure (Manziel)—Round 1 picks don’t typically lose their standing on a team’s roster within their rookie contracts. For the most part, they are safe. The money, proscribed to them via the CBA, is the highest amount given to first-year players and the salary cap repercussions of cutting them therefore makes it nearly impossible that said will happen within the players’ first four years on the payroll (or five, counting when teams pick up the players’ options, something the Browns haven’t done recently). Essentially, this means that when a team is drafting a player or players in the first round, it is making a long-term investment.
This can be a bit dispiriting when it comes to the Browns, who have drafted 14 players in the Round 1 over the last 10 years yet only seven (including Coleman) are on the roster today. But remember, so many of these picks have not worked out because of so much incessant regime change. One coach’s scheme fit isn’t another’s; one general manager’s must-have, no-brainer pick is of no use to the next. The situation in Cleveland is different from many other teams around the NFL but the context of this argument is the same: Along with the hope of an immediate impact out of players drafted in the first round also comes the luxury of having time to turn them into successes in the longer term.
Many fans thinks it is paramount that first-round draft picks become instant impact players for their respective teams—after all, why would you draft someone that high, view someone so positively that you wouldn’t demand they take the field immediately? But the truth is that Round 1 draft picks have so much inherent roster security over the course of their first contracts that developing them is part of the package. The Browns don’t just see the potential for Coleman, for example, to help out the offense in 2016 but to become a league-leader at his position given time. So while we’re all quick to point out that Erving’s rookie year was for the most part forgettable, while we blame the former Browns coaches for spending so much time cultivating his “versatility” at numerous positions on the line rather than honing in on his talents as a center, there’s actually another (up to) four years for Erving to become the kind of player who makes good on his Round 1 pedigree.
The lesson: Patience is a virtue when it comes to Round 1 draft picks. Players drafted in later rounds, meanwhile, have to make good on their reps, no matter how many or how few, in order to justify roster spots and cap space being carved out for them. They are the players who must deliver as rookies; Round 1 (and, to some extent, Round 2) players have traded their higher-level talents for the luxury of being afforded time to make due on their potential. You’re buying talent but you’re also buying time.