July 29, 2014

Medina
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For Browns top brass, the future is now

The restructured hierar-chy of the Browns will be on display for the first time when the NFL convenes for the scouting combine this week in Indianapolis.

New president Mike Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert lead the operation, joined by the old scouts, new personnel department and retained coaching staff. They will don Browns shirts and attempt to work as a unit as they evaluate the workouts of more than 300 draft-eligible players and interview dozens at the world’s largest athletic meat market.

Holmgren isn’t worried about things running smoothly.

“I have no doubts it’ll be fine,” he said last week in an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram. “Tom Heckert is really good. I’m sure there’s a lot of similari-ties how we approach things. I don’t have one concern.

“I know — I know — it’ll work the way it’s supposed to.”

He does have one issue.

“What I have to think about is what is my role going to be,” he said. “That’s what I’m focusing in on. That one’s a work in pro-gress.”

Holmgren, who made his reputation as a coach, is a president for the first time and has spent the past seven weeks assembling a front office. Heckert was hired to run the player personnel side, and his busy season begins in earnest this week.

Because he didn’t arrive from Philadelphia until January, his familiarity with the Cleveland scouts, coaches and their systems isn’t where he’d like it to be. Therefore, the Browns’ draft board isn’t as far along as those of other teams.

“We’re in good shape, we just have some work to do,” Heckert said recently.

The combine is a necessary step in that process, and is quickly followed by the other part of player procurement: free agency. The NFL calendar begins March 5, when free agents can be signed and trades can be made. That also means the Browns’ free agents would be allowed to leave if they haven’t been signed.

The Browns — and pretty much everyone involved — are working under the assumption that a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players union won’t be reached by March 5. That creates a year without a salary cap — the Browns plan to spend wisely, but without a preset limit — but it also man-dates players have six years in the league to be eligible for unrestricted free agency. More than 200 players with four and five years will become restricted free agents instead, and their team can match any offer they receive.

The Browns’ most prominent free agents fall into this category, including running back Jerome Har-rison, linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Matt Roth, fullback Lawrence Vickers and safety Abram Elam.

The Browns must decide which ones they want to keep — and how badly. If a new contract isn’t worked out, the Browns can place a tender on the restricted free agents. The more salary in the one-year tender, the greater the draft compensa-tion another team must give up to sign the player. The ceiling is first- and third-round draft picks.

Holmgren and Heckert have been quiet about their plans regarding specific players, but may shed some light during interviews in Indianapolis. They also will be asked about the un-certainty at quarterback, where Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn are under contract but coming off disappointing seasons.

If they decide their long-term answer isn’t on the roster, they will become larger players in the free-agent and trade markets. It will also make quarterback a greater possibility in the draft.

“Holmgren has to assess quarterback before he goes anywhere else,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call last week. “If you like Brady Quinn, forget about quarterback.”

The Browns are coming off 4-12 and 5-11 seasons and have holes across the roster. That creates a variety of options with the seventh pick in the draft, as they could choose a quarterback, cornerback, safety, receiver or linebacker. Later in the draft, they could target tight end, running back and the lines.

Kiper has the Browns taking Florida cornerback Joe Haden at No. 7.

“He makes the most sense, in terms of value,” Kiper said. “Joe Haden has the potential to be an elite corner. He’s a kid with a lot of talent.”

Heckert’s biggest addition to the personnel department was Jon Sandusky as director of player personnel. Heckert also hired him in Philadelphia.

“He knows football, he really does,” Heckert said. “He’s a great evaluator. There was never a doubt in my mind that I’d try to get him.”

The recent hires have been a combination of guys who worked with Holmgren in Seattle and Heckert in Philadelphia. It should ease the transition, especially at the combine.

“We spend an awful lot of time together, so you not only better be good at what you do, you better be able to get along with them and have that rapport,” Heckert said. “It helps things out a lot.”

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.