BEREA — The Browns had their choice of every cornerback in the draft. They had offers to trade down. They could’ve divided their fan base by drafting a quarterback to replace Brandon Weeden.
But CEO Joe Banner, on the clock for his first pick in Cleveland, didn’t hesitate. He selected LSU pass rusher Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 pick in the NFL Draft.
“This is the outcome we were hoping for,” Banner said Thursday night. “You can tell the type of person he is, and we feel very good about this.”
“His athleticism speaks for itself,” first-year coach Rob Chudzinski said. “We see him as an outstanding pass rusher.”
Mingo is the latest logical step in Banner’s blueprint to transform the Browns defense into an attacking unit. Despite all the predraft chatter about Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, Banner’s focus remained on a pass rusher to play outside linebacker as the Browns convert to a 3-4 scheme under coordinator Ray Horton.
Oregon’s Dion Jordan and BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah were taken third and fifth by Miami and Detroit, but Banner stuck to his plan.
“It really started with our coaching search and Chud’s philosophy, which was part of the reason he got the job by playing an aggressive defense, making life uncomfortable for quarterbacks,” Banner said.
Banner’s big-money and headline-grabbing moves have all focused on improving the front seven of the defense, specifically the pass rush. He opened free agency by signing outside linebacker Paul Kruger from Baltimore for five years, $40.5 million. End Desmond Bryant from Oakland was next for five years, $34 million and outside linebacker Quentin Groves from Arizona for two years and $2.8 million.
Then came Mingo.
The 6-foot-4, 241-pounder is one of the most athletic defenders in the draft, running a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. He had eight sacks as a sophomore in 2011 and 15 for his three-year career, along with four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 11 pass deflections and 119 tackles.
“They need pass rushers,” Mingo said on a conference call. “They want somebody to get to the quarterback. I think I’m the best pass rusher (in the draft.)
Mingo said he “fell in love” with Cleveland during a predraft visit, but he didn’t know where he would land Thursday night.
“I just had a really good visit,” he said. “The coaches I talked to were very, very impressive.”
The feeling was mutual. Chudzinski and Banner opened their news conference by raving about Mingo’s character. LSU coach Les Miles, an Elyria High graduate, said similar things Tuesday in an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram.
“The thing that stood out to us was the kind of person he is, his outstanding character,” Chudzinski said. “He’s an extremely impressive young man, and we strongly wanted to put him in our locker room.”
The other obvious options for Banner and first-year general manager Michael Lombardi, who wasn’t available to the media, were Milliner, Smith or a trade down. Banner would’ve liked to regain the second-round pick spent on receiver Josh Gordon in last year’s supplemental draft, but he thought Mingo was too valuable to pass up.
“We did have some opportunities (to trade down), but we felt too strongly about the fit and character,” Banner said.
The addition of Kruger, Groves and Mingo would seem to make Jabaal Sheard expendable as he converts from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, but Chudzinski said “absolutely” the intent is to keep him.
“I’ve been really impressed with Jabaal during minicamp and how quickly he demonstrated he can make the adjustment to the 3-4,” Chudzinski said. “You can’t have enough pass rushers, and keeping those guys fresh is key.”
Cornerback was a more immediate need, because there isn’t a natural starter on the roster opposite Joe Haden. But Banner didn’t let that influence the decision and said he won’t “force-fill” a position.
“We’re not going to fill all the needs on this team this year,” he said.
Mingo is a bit of a projection, because he didn’t drop into coverage at LSU and will be expected to add muscle to his lanky frame. He’s not sweating the transition, nor is his former coach.
“In high school I saw him play corner, free safety, linebacker and defensive end,” Miles said. “He would give hell to just anybody.”
The transformation of the defense that began with the hiring of Chud has come into better focus in the last two months. Kruger and Mingo are the pivotal pieces coming off the edges.
“He just makes plays, just causes havoc and sacks quarterbacks,” Mingo said of Kruger. “With us two on the ends, it’s just going to be hard for offensive lines to slide one way or the other or do anything, really.”
That was the plan all along.
“We want a strong front and guys who can run, hit, are relentless,” Chudzinski said. “Affecting the quarterback in this league is key to winning games and playing great defense.”
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