Passan: Browns Draft Grade Already In

Rich argues that the 2008 draft is already a winner for the Browns, and helps to correct a mistake made two years ago. Agree? Disagree? Let us know on the forums!

The National Football League college draft might be this weekend, but the Browns' final grade is in.

That's right, Phil Savage's due diligence in piecing together the semblance of more than just a contending football team has justified rewarding that work with a grade even before Commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium for the first time Saturday afternoon.

And that grade has to be a solid A with the likelihood of slapping a plus sign behind the A more than just a possibility.

What Savage did in the offseason through trades and the free-agent market has strengthened the Browns more, much more, than the draft would ever have.

So he can kick back Saturday when the first two rounds unfold and not get jealous as he watches his fellow general managers scramble to improve their teams. That's because he knows he has already improved his team.

When Savage entered the offseason, he had one specific goal. It was based on watching the Browns play sieve-like defense against the run for the better part of the last three seasons. He finally got sick and tired of watching opposing teams run the ball as if the Browns weren't there.

It was very much like last season's offseason when he ultimately repaired the offensive line to the point where it is now considered one of the top units in the NFL.

He thought he had solved his problems on the defensive line a couple of years ago with the addition of Ted Washington, the Great Battleship. But unbeknownst to Savage, Washington had suddenly grown too old and had nothing left in the ballasts.

Last season, the general manager added the unrelated Smiths via free agency along the defensive front. It provided only a slight improvement, but at least it pointed him in the right direction.

Two years ago, when he was preparing for the draft, Savage asked his coach if stopping the run or rushing the quarterback were more important. The coach, who should have known better, opted for the latter. Shouldn't have listened to the coach, let alone ask him.

Hello Kamerion Wimbley, goodbye Haloti Ngata. Ngata's subsequent landing in Baltimore made the move doubly ugly. One can only imagine how much better the Cleveland run defense would have been had Ngata been the choice. Strong defensive teams are built from the inside out.

Wimbley had a decent rookie season, but once opposing tackles caught on to his one-trick-pony style of pass rushing, his gear went from high to being stuck in neutral. It showed last season when his sack total dropped from 11 to five.

It bears repeating. The key to any strong defense is its ability to stop the run first. Do that and you force opposing teams to try something far more dangerous. Good offenses emphasize running the ball.

That's why when Savage pried Corey Williams away from the Green Bay Packers and Shaun Rogers loose from the Detroit Lions, he insured that the Cleveland defense would not be pushed around any more.

Those days – much like the days when the Browns' offense was so inept, it made some fans weep – are gone. Now, the defense has been significantly upgraded to the point where the fans can be more than just hopeful.

For the first time since the return, the Browns now have three units capable of winning games. For too long a time, the defense has prevented the club from winning more. That is no longer the case.

Factor in the much improved offense, one that was never out of a game last season except for the season opener, and the special teams, which helped the offense with marvelous field position almost all season, and you have something close to the complete package.

Like any team, there are weak spots. There is some uncertainty at linebacker and the secondary. But on defense, there is a domino factor. And it begins on the defensive line.

The improved defensive line, in theory, makes the linebackers more effective. And the fact that Williams and Rogers have been up close and personal with many quarterbacks around the league the last several seasons should help the secondary.

So now, Savage can be content with filling in some roster blanks and bolstering the depth on the second day of the draft. And should he get lucky and pluck a diamond out of the rubble of the day two, that plus at the end of that A would look awfully spiffy.

Unless, of course, he can't help himself and gives in to a devil-made-me-do-it move, preventing him from letting day one go by without at least some movement. If that's the case, and it involves early-round selections next year, all bets are off and that A grade become precarious.

Next year's early draft choices should be totally off limits no matter who is available. Period. Mortgaging the future should be a one-time venture.

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