October 25, 2014

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NFL combine notes: Browns GM wants to stock up on talent

INDIANAPOLIS – As a general manager, Tom Heckert’s first responsibility is to acquire as much talent as possible.

After a year in Cleveland, Heckert admits his job is a work in progress. He acknowledged Friday the perception that the talent cupboard remains bare.

“That’s valid,” he said at the NFL scouting combine. “We have to wait and see what happens this offseason and then reassess that. We have to get better players on this team.”

The Browns haven’t won a playoff game since 1994 and have never won the AFC North. They are chasing division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, as the Steelers lost in the Super Bowl and the Ravens made the second round of the playoffs.

How long will it take to close the talent gap?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Heckert said. “Hopefully it’s soon. We think we do have some good players. I do think we have enough players that we should be able to compete, and obviously we have to add more players and get better in a lot of positions.

“Even last year, we played good in a lot of games. I know our record (5-11) was the same as the year before, but I do think we’re a better football team. I think we’re getting there and we have a lot to do, but I guess this season we’ll find out.”

Unlike some of his predecessors, Heckert said the success of Pittsburgh and Baltimore doesn’t affect the way he approaches the draft.

“We have to worry about ourselves, really,” he said. “That’s the truth. We really don’t look at it like that.”

“We need to make the Cleveland Browns as good as we could make them,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “Based on what we’ve learned and what we know about this league, make the Cleveland Browns as good as they can be and we’ll be able to compete.”

Lockout lookout

The Browns have a rookie head coach, a remade staff and are installing new schemes on offense (West Coast) and defense (4-3). They would appear to be one of the teams hurt most by an extended lockout that shortens the offseason.

“I feel as though we’ve hired some great teachers and the systems that we are going to teach and employ are proven, and I trust and I’m confident that we’ll get it done,” Shurmur said. “We’re proceeding like business as usual. I think it’s important that we do that and whatever happens, 32 teams’ll be in the same situation.

“I’m not worried about it, just moving forward.”

Heckert took the same approach and said he isn’t spending his time tracking the labor negotiations.

“You really can’t,” he said. “(The lockout’s) supposed to start on (March 4) and if it does it does and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It’s not going to change anything drastically for us right off the bat.”

Switch fits D’Qwell

Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson missed all of 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle and the final 10 games of 2009 after tearing the other pectoral, but the Browns haven’t given up on him. Heckert said they’d like to have him back and will likely place a tender on him as a restricted free agent.

Heckert said Jackson’s been doing some of his rehabilitation at Browns headquarters and is a better fit in the 4-3 system to be installed under new coordinator Dick Jauron. Shurmur confirmed Friday they’d make the switch from the 3-4.

“I don’t think he’s a non-fit in a 3-4, but a 4-3’s probably better for him,” Heckert said. “He’s not a huge guy inside. In a 4-3, he can probably play Mike (middle linebacker) or Will (weakside). He’s just better-suited, body type.”

Heckert said size is the biggest factor in determining who can play in either defense. Linebackers in the 4-3 can be smaller, but they have to be quick enough to cover tight ends and running backs. The 4-3 end can be 250 pounds, compared with the 290-pound ends in a 3-4.

Heckert said anyone remaining on the roster can play in the 4-3. He called Scott Fujita an “ideal” strongside linebacker, said Chris Gocong can play all three linebacker spots and said Ahtyba Rubin would excel at either tackle spot.

Heckert acknowledged the Browns need to add linemen.

Keeping their own

Heckert plans to place tenders on other restricted free agents. The final decisions haven’t been made, but cornerback Eric Wright, fullback Lawrence Vickers, safety Abram Elam and receiver Chansi Stuckey are candidates.

Heckert also said he’s had preliminary talks with some of the players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents about returning. Offensive lineman Floyd Womack, quarterback Seneca Wallace and defensive end Jayme Mitchell are possibilities.

Under the collective bargaining agreement that expires Thursday, players with four and five years of service are restricted free agents. That could change under a new agreement, making five-year guys unrestricted. Jackson, Vickers and Elam have played five years.

NFL rules prohibit talking to other teams’ free agents, and their agents, until there’s a new CBA.

Phil the foot

Heckert said he talked to kicker Phil Dawson’s agent, Neil Cornrich, during the 2010 season about a contract extension and would still like to work out a long-term deal with the team’s longest-tenured player.

The Browns put the franchise tag on Dawson this week to keep him off the free-agent market. He would make $3.25 million in 2011 if he signs the tender, or can work out a multiyear deal. He joined the team in 1999.

“Any time we’ve got a guy that we like and we want, we’d love to have him long-term,” Heckert said.

Heckert said he tried to reach Dawson but hasn’t talked to him and Dawson hasn’t signed the offer. He wanted an extension for the past couple of years and seemed to be looking forward to testing the market.

A new CBA could eliminate the franchise tag, but that would be a significant departure from recent labor agreements.

Coaching veterans

Shurmur added experience to the coaching staff when he hired Ray Rhodes (defense) and Keith Gilbertson (offense) as senior assistants. Rhodes has 30 years experience, including five as an NFL head coach. Gilbertson, who was pro personnel director for the Browns in 2010, has coached for 38 years, including as a college head coach.

“I think he’s a tremendous coach and I’m glad he’s with us,” Shurmur said of Rhodes. “He has a great feel for players, he’s a tremendous teacher and from the evaluation of new players to helping us better the ones on our team, I think Ray’ll be a huge asset.”

Gilbertson was Seahawks receivers coach in 2008 under Browns president Mike Holmgren.

“Keith, he’s a coach and that’s what he wants to do,” Heckert said.

He won’t immediately fill Gilbertson’s front office spot.

Extra points

Heckert would have no problem drafting a cornerback with the sixth pick, even though he took cornerback Joe Haden at No. 7 last year. LSU’s Patrick Peterson is rated the top corner and could be gone by six.

• The Browns have seven picks in the April draft, including two in the sixth round (one from the Brady Quinn trade) and none in the seventh.

• Heckert said the team is confident in Tony Pashos and doesn’t have to find a right tackle. “I thought Tony played really, really well before he got hurt,” Heckert said, referring to a broken foot.

• Defensive lineman Robaire Smith said recently he’d be cleared to play after suffering a spinal bruise last season. Heckert said he fits at tackle in the 4-3, but Heckert hasn’t received the medical diagnosis.

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