I want to think the Cleveland Browns have turned the corner. Since the Holmgren-Schurmer regime was shown the door at the end of 2012, the Browns added some high-profile personnel to the front office (Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi) and coaching staff (Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner). They also lured a handful of pricey — although quality — free agents, headlined by Paul Kruger. It’s tempting to think a new day has dawned in Cleveland.
But Browns fans should (and, being the football-savvy bunch they are, probably will) temper their enthusiasm. Look at that list of names again. Chudzinski and Turner have, of late, guided offenses mostly renowned for their predictability, not innovation. Paul Kruger undeniably adds a pass-rush element to a team sorely lacking the same, but the centerpiece of the defense? This is not the stuff of which champions are built in 2013.
The 2013 Draft, in many ways, mirrored the Browns’ forays into the ranks of unemployed coaches and free agent players. The Browns made some deliberate moves that could improve their fortunes in the long run. But their Draft was also littered with questionable decisions that should make fans wonder whether they will, at any time in the near future, rise above a tough group of AFC North foes.
The Browns apparently couldn’t wait to get their card to the podium with Barkevious Mingo’s name on it. Mingo has talent and, seemingly, a team-first mindset, as sportsthink highlighted in its Top 50. His quick get-off and speed-to-power transition will trouble slow-footed tackles. But Mingo also has limitations. He may struggle to hold a line towards the quarterback, especially facing linemen with a decent punch. And it may be years before Browns fans can bear to face the television when Mingo drops into coverage.
Who would have made a better selection? Let’s put aside the Browns’ problems at quarterback for a moment. Imagine, as you watch Tavon Austin help transform the previously-plodding Rams offense, that he was wearing a Browns uniform instead. Along the defensive line, I would have favored Sheldon Richardson, even if he is an awkward fit for the Browns’ new two-gap front. Both players create more serious match-up problems for the opposition.
Moving on to Day 2, the 2013 team can’t be penalized (if you even want to call drafting their only decent receiver a ‘penalty’) for spending this year’s second rounder in the 2012 Supplemental Draft. Let’s presume that a wash.
The selection of Leon McFadden in the third is a bit of head-scratcher, though. McFadden made a good living contesting every pass his way in the up-and-down Mountain West. But he does not break on the back quickly or flip his hips to run with receivers especially well, and his straight-line speed is limited. He’s also small in stature. Whatever their needs in the defensive backfield, they certainly don’t exceed those at receiver, just for example. The Browns could not afford to take McFadden with players like Keenan Allen and Markus Wheaton on the board. Other players I would have favored over McFadden (at positions of dire need in Cleveland, incidentally), taken later in the third and the fourth, include Corey Lemonier, Alex Okafor, and Ryan Nassib.
The Browns’ best moves came by way of trading out of the Draft, exchanging picks in the fourth and fifth for corresponding selections in next year’s third and fourth rounds, respectively. Banner and Company should get at least a year’s reprieve before their body of work is judged too harshly by ownership, so even the sacrifice in the time value of the picks is probably worth the higher selections. They need players with a chance of competing with other teams’ starting eleven, and you just don’t get many of those from the fourth round on.
(Update: I neglected to address the Davone Bess trade. Good move by the Browns. Although Bess will never take the top off the defense, he will move the sticks on underneath routes. And the Browns acquired his services by essentially swapping late round picks with the Dolphins. You don’t find starters in the fifth round so much more frequently than the seventh. The Browns improved an area of need without rearranging their entire draft strategy.)
I did find the Browns’ late-round picks a bit inspiring, though. Jamoris Slaughter jumps off the tape. He shows really impressive foot-quickness, good play recognition and a lust for hitting. Although he plays much bigger than his size, he lacks the size and developed hand use to play rush linebacker, as Notre Dame sometimes used him. But if he can recover from a torn Achilles, improve his tackling and learn to play zone defense every down, he probably has the talent to play either safety position in today’s NFL. At the least, he will be a nasty special teams player.
Even Armonty Bryant’s highlights leave you wondering if he can make the leap from tossing around 250-pound linemen to repeatedly slamming into the 32 best offensive linemen on the planet. But he has size, some quickness off the snap, and a not-completely-undeveloped set of pass rush moves. The critical factor is that the Browns want him to serve a fairly limited role: occupying two gaps and pressing the pocket from the 3-4 end position. If he can add 25 pounds and retain some of the quickness and hand-use he flashed on tape, he could contribute to their defensive line.
As to Garret Gilkey, he certainly didn’t impress during his cameo at the Senior Bowl. But in the seventh round, he’s worth a flyer.
In many ways, the Browns go into the 2013 season not so far removed from 2012. They have an offense plagued by poor skill-position play and, most likely, uninspired play-calling. They should improve on the other side of the ball, particularly with the additions along the defensive line. With the Steelers in recession and the Ravens rebuilding, the Browns may notch a few more wins. But they need to collect better talent selecting sixth in the Draft to develop into a real contender.