July 29, 2014

Medina
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Brian Dulik: Just because Browns draft lacks pizzazz, doesn’t mean it’s not right way to go

If you live for the NFL Draft and all of its monotonous overhype, then the Browns definitely ruined your weekend.

But if you place more importance on Cleveland actually winning games, then CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi deserve two hearty pats on the back.

Instead of wasting midround picks — and salary-cap space — on players they didn’t deem worthy, the Browns’ brain trust unloaded four of them in exchange for legitimate assets.

That’s just smart football, even if it left local draftniks and sports radio hosts as sour as month-old milk.

“We were trying to focus on players that we thought made us better,” Banner said Saturday night. “On offense, we think we have a lot of young guys that we’re not quite sure what they’re going to be over time. We were inclined to give them time to develop. On defense, we felt it was clearer to identify the talent out there and the talent we had, and made moves to make it even better.

“We were open to the idea of trading for future picks, but more than anything else, we were trying to focus on improving our team.”

Without a doubt, Cleveland did that during the three-day event, even though its final two selections were borderline wacky.

First-round pick Barkevious Mingo (Louisiana State) should start at outside linebacker, while third-round choice Leon McFadden (San Diego State) is already penciled in opposite top cornerback Joe Haden.

The Browns also flipped four mid- to low-round picks (104, 111, 139, and 164) into quality wide receiver Davone Bess, two 2014 midround selections and the No. 217 overall choice in a frenzied 16-hour span.

And as Banner was quick to add, Cleveland also considers wide receiver Josh Gordon part of its 2013 draft class, since the club forfeited its second-round pick to choose him in last year’s NFL supplemental draft.

“As far as the draft went (Saturday), how we had the players stacked with the (rounds) just didn’t match up,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said, echoing Banner’s assessment. “But our goal is to win — and it always will be — so we’ll approach it from that standpoint.”

When several reporters suggested the moves indicated the Browns had already given up on the 2013 season, Banner responded defiantly. The longtime Eagles executive even baited his critics by saying, “Listen, we’re not asking for a free pass for this year. We expect to improve and we expect it to be conspicuous.”

Banner continued, “We’re not going to reach all of our goals or fill all of our needs this year, but we think we’ll play exciting, aggressive football. And I think it will be clear that the team is continuing to improve — as it has for the last year or two — and positioning itself well to have a chance to become very good and sustain it.”

Illustrating just how strongly Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III believes in his management team, he allowed them to make a trade with the archrival Steelers. Cleveland dealt its fourth-rounder in exchange for Pittsburgh’s third-round choice in 2014.

It marked the teams’ first trade since May 14, 1968, when the Browns acquired Bill Nelsen in a quarterback swap for the immortal Dick Shiner, but Banner made it clear it won’t be their last.

“I prefer to trade within the division because you don’t make a trade that you don’t think you’re going to win,” he boldly stated. “We’re not afraid at all of making a trade within the division if we think it benefits us.”

Cleveland’s new front office also freely gambled with its last two picks, taking a pair of NCAA Division II All-Americans from beyond-obscure schools. Regardless of how they turn out, again, Browns backers can’t fault their team for being aggressive in low-risk, high-reward slots.

East Central defensive end Armonty Bryant is a tantalizing talent who sold marijuana to an undercover officer — on campus — on consecutive days last September.

The 6-foot-4, 263-pounder was suspended for the rest of the season, but immediately excused himself after being drafted by Cleveland, saying, “Good people make mistakes.”

Chadron State tackle Garrett Gilkey was one of three D-II players invited to the Senior Bowl, where he won rave reviews. The 6-5, 314-pounder is much more mature than Bryant, having overcome excessive bullying in high school, but it’s a large leap from the Rocky Mountain Conference to the NFL.

“Those picks are mostly the work of Mike Lombardi, John Sandusky, John Spytek, Ray Horton and the crew,” Banner said, praising his top personnel people and putting them on notice in the same sentence. “They found value in those spots and we felt they had the chance to help us.”

Hopefully, Browns fans will find value in the well-defined, committed plan that Banner, Lombardi and Chudzinski have created.

NFL franchises routinely make short-term gains while laying the foundation for long-term success. Heck, two of the four worst teams in 2011 made the playoffs last year.

Just because it hasn’t happened in Cleveland is no reason to stop trying.

Haslam has placed great faith in this group of executives, which — for now — should be good enough for all of us to do the same.

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.