The NFL Draft is always highly anticipated by Browns fans.
Never quite like this.
Two extra weeks due to a scheduling conflict at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall drew out the drama. The movie “Draft Day” increased the buzz. Then there’s the seven-round marathon itself. The Browns have 10 picks, including two in the first round — Nos. 4 and 26 — three in the top 35 and five in the top 83.
It finally starts tonight at 8 o’clock.
“It’s absolutely critical we have a solid draft,” rookie coach Mike Pettine said at minicamp last week. “We don’t have to hit a grand slam. We have a chance to make some significant changes to the roster in some areas we feel there’s a need.
“It’s a players’ league. Coaches can only affect it so much. It’s critical for us.”
The Browns have more options than they have picks, starting with their first selection.
They could sit tight at No. 4 and take the top position player on their board, whether it’s a receiver (Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans), pass rusher (South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, Buffalo’s Khalil Mack) or offensive lineman (Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews).
They could trade down within the top 10 and address perhaps the biggest need on the roster by grabbing the best cornerback (Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller).
Or they could do what they haven’t done since 1999 and select their franchise quarterback. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles are options at Nos. 4 or 26.
Then there’s Texas A&M lightning rod Johnny Manziel. Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported Tuesday the Browns won’t take him at No. 4, but if they did he’d attract unprecedented attention and would make Cleveland the story of the draft.
Ray Farmer is the man at the wheel for the next three days. He’s never run a draft and has been a general manager for less than three months — assistant was removed from his job title Feb. 11 after the firing of his bosses, CEO Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi — but will have final say over picks and trades.
Owner Jimmy Haslam, according to ESPN, reiterated that at a draft meeting Tuesday by telling Farmer, “At the end of the day, this is your call.”
Farmer may not have to worry about Haslam interfering, but that doesn’t reduce the pressure. In less than two years on the job Haslam has fired a number of people he hired and wants to see a significant improvement in the win-loss column in 2014.
“I’ve definitely worked to get here,” Farmer said. “I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming. It’s actually intriguing. It’s actually interesting from my perspective that everybody is so juiced about the NFL Draft. This is bigger than a lot of sporting events. Nobody’s playing anything, but yet everybody’s fired up to see what happens. This will be Christmas in May.”
Banner wasn’t a football guy and his lone draft class appears underwhelming, but he left Farmer a few parting gifts. The biggest is the 26th pick he acquired in Week 3 for running back Trent Richardson, who flopped in Indianapolis.
Banner was initially criticized for the deal, as well as for trading fourth- and fifth-round picks in last year’s draft for third- and fourth-rounders this year. The result is 10 picks for Farmer in what’s been called the deepest draft in decades.
The Browns have plenty of needs. The list includes a cornerback to start opposite All-Pro Joe Haden, a receiver to pair with All-Pro Josh Gordon, an inside linebacker, depth along the offensive line and a running back to complement Ben Tate.
Finding a franchise quarterback supersedes any need at another position, and the Browns have been looking for one since they returned in 1999. Brian Hoyer is determined to keep the job in 2014 and Farmer and Pettine support the idea. They also know they must find a long-term solution — they worked out 11 prospects — and that usually comes near the top of the draft.
The problem is, each of the quarterbacks comes with sizable question marks. The Browns have shown significant interest in Bridgewater and Carr and could target one at No. 26 or with a trade into the teens. If they wait until the second round, Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo and Alabama’s AJ McCarron come into play.
“We talk about the ‘it factor’ a lot with quarterbacks — that type of personality, those traits you want to have in your quarterback, a guy that’s confident, assertive and poised, that can handle teammates when they need to be handled and things are going on in the offensive huddle,” said Pettine, who defers to coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains on the technical issues.
“I think that’s important. It was a great process and I think we’ve done a good job getting the board stacked and hopefully it plays out the way we want it to on draft day. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re very much on the same page with what we’re looking for.”
Clowney is expected to be drafted with the No. 1 pick, but even that’s not a lock. Nor is it a given that Houston will keep the pick. The uncertainty at No. 1 is typical of the unpredictable nature of this draft’s top 10.
What the Browns do at No. 4 will be dependent on who’s taken in front of them by Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville. The Browns will then choose between making a pick and looking for a trade down.
“I know the phones have been ringing off the hook,” Pettine said.
If the Browns stay at No. 4, Robinson could be the choice despite the presence of seven-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas at left tackle. Robinson would begin his career at right tackle or guard.
“Very, very interesting prospect as to what he can possibly bring to a franchise,” Farmer said.
The next three days are the next step in the Browns’ attempt to go from doormat to contender. After a solid free agency, a great draft could alter the future of the franchise.
“To their great credit, this new group and the group that preceded them inherited a pretty good team, a pretty competitive team,” former Colts GM and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said on a conference call. “So they’ve got a chance to move fast with this group. All is not dark in Cleveland. In fact, there’s a lot to be happy about. But it all comes back to the (quarterback).”