October 23, 2014

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Tom Heckert has big decision to make for Browns

The NFL Draft starts four weeks from tonight. That should mean it’s time for the Browns talk to heat up, but it isn’t possible. It’s already at a fever pitch.

As has become the custom around these parts, the draft discussion starts too early — in the middle of the previous season — and only builds from there. With just under a month until the Browns are on the clock, the conversation is nearly around the clock on talk radio and social media.

So let’s add to the hysteria and set the stage for the next four weeks. They promise to be filled with rumors, speculation, intrigue and misinformation.

General manager Tom Heckert said this week at the league meetings the Browns won’t move up from No. 4 to No. 3, which makes sense. He added they are open to moving down within the top 10, which also makes sense.

The best offensive options are Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and perhaps Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

I suspect none has a top-five grade from the Browns’ scouting department. So instead of reaching slightly or taking LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne —the best player available but not a pressing need — a small trade down would allow the Browns to select one of the aforementioned trio at a spot they feel is more suitable.

Some have suggested this approach would constitute settling for leftovers. But if the Browns don’t feel Blackmon, Richardson or Tannehill is worthy of No. 4, trading down is the prudent move.

Heckert is correct to set a limit for how far he’s willing to move back, and president Mike Holmgren is on record as saying he’ll discourage another significant move back. Last year Heckert slid from No. 6 to 27 to pick up extra choices, including a first-round pick from Atlanta. The Browns can’t afford another year of passing on a top-10 difference-maker.

The most likely trade partner is the Rams at No. 6. Any feelings hurt in the failed Robert Griffin III trade talks — Holmgren said the Rams’ relationship with the Redskins sealed their deal and locked out the Browns — won’t stand in the way.

St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher confirmed Wednesday at the owners meetings the possibility of a deal with the Browns, and it’s the move that makes the most sense. The Rams need a receiver worse than the Browns do — that’s saying something — and don’t want to lose Blackmon to the Browns.

If the Rams gamble by staying put and lose, they will be forced to scramble. The next-best receivers, Baylor’s Kendall Wright and Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, aren’t considered top-10 talent.

If the Rams are willing to offer a third-round pick to move up two spots, the Browns will, and should, jump at it. At No. 6, they will get Richardson or Claiborne — Tampa Bay is expected to choose one at No. 5 — with even Tannehill a bit more palatable.

If the Browns are unable to move, they will have to make a decision at No. 4.

Claiborne is likely rated highest on their board, but they selected cornerback Joe Haden seventh in 2010 and the secondary isn’t a weakness. Claiborne would be a tough sell to many fans — and media members — but Heckert could make a convincing case. Three good cornerbacks are necessary in today’s pass-first NFL, there’s nothing wrong with building a dominant defense and Claiborne would be the best player available.

The Browns, however, are clearly leaning toward loading up on offense at the top of the draft. It only makes sense following a season that saw the defense rank 10th and the offense 29th in yardage and 30th in scoring (13.6 points per game).

Even if you remove quarterback from the equation, running back, receiver and right tackle are at the top of the wish list. All could be addressed with picks four, 22 and 37.

Finding the best combination is the puzzle Heckert will try to solve from now until April 26, when the draft begins in prime time with the first round.

Is Richardson, Floyd, California right tackle Mitchell Schwartz better than Blackmon, Ohio State right tackle Mike Adams, Boise State running back Doug Martin? Will the guys they want be on the board when they pick? What if they pass on Blackmon, then Floyd and Wright are gone by 22?

The Browns can put aside all scenarios and focus on talent alone at No. 4. Blackmon or Richardson?

Richardson is rated higher by many analysts, and NFL Films’ Greg Cosell — one of the best in the business — said he’s the top player in the draft. The Browns have Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya, but none is the clear-cut starter. Richardson would be a huge upgrade instantly, make people forget Peyton Hillis and take pressure off quarterback Colt McCoy.

But the fourth pick is high for a running back. The position’s shelf-life is short, every year the league moves more toward passing and other viable options are available in the second and third rounds.

Heckert may be compelled to simply grab Blackmon and fill the most gaping need. He was either unable or unwilling to sign a receiver in free agency and must add to Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi, Joshua Cribbs and Jordan Norwood.

Blackmon is widely considered the best at his position, but four is also high for a receiver, which has traditionally had huge bust potential. Blackmon was highly productive but is only 6-foot-1 and doesn’t possess elite speed.

Heckert will have plenty to think about over the next four weeks.

If the Browns hold onto the No. 4 pick, and the roster remains the same, I’d take Claiborne. You can never have too many elite players.

If he’s not there, Richardson’s the choice. He’s a better player than Blackmon, and the Browns can find a quality receiver at 22.

Let the draft talk continue.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.