The Cleveland Browns made one of the bigger splashes in the NFL Draft. The first under Ray Farmer, the Browns came in with ten picks overall and two first round picks; one of two teams with two in the first round. The Browns came in with needs and as the draft went along, found out one of those needs got even bigger with the announcement of a possible suspension for Josh Gordon. Farmer and Mike Pettine stuck to their draft board, executed their plan and came out with six players, all picked in the top four rounds with ten picks set for the 2015 NFL Draft.
The dream scenario for the Browns seemed to be to have Khalil Mack available at their pick. With the surprise pick of Blake Bortles by Jacksonville, Mack was indeed available. At that point, Farmer held an auction for the fourth pick between Atlanta (for Mack) and Buffalo (for Sammy Watkins). Buffalo ultimately won and the Browns moved down from the fourth pick from the ninth pick as well as a 1st and 4th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft; a bounty for the pick.
The Browns gave up a fifth round pick to move up from ninth pick to eighth pick, which immediately prompted most to assume they were getting their quarterback. It was a huge surprise when they took Justin Gilbert. My reaction to the pick was largely one of disappointment, at least initially.
Gilbert has incredible physical tools as well as great size for the position. He moves well and he has shown ability in press man, which is where it makes sense for the Browns. With Joe Haden in the fold (and now extended), Gilbert will fight and presumably will win the weak side corner spot. The Browns plan to run a ton of press man and he is not being asked to be the main corner, which are both good and work to his advantage. This move also puts Gilbert in less of a position to have to have to play the run, which to this point in his career, he has put in little or no effort in stopping.
Gilbert has had some lapses in judgment and made a number of false steps that allowed significant separation, especially in off man coverage. The combination of these two elements raises concerns. In press man, Gilbert could be right at home and he has the speed and hips to be left on an island without losing his shirt. He also has the ball skills to punish opponents with turnovers. The pick was a reach in terms of value, but on balance, it does make sense for what Pettine wants to do.
The Browns, not surprisingly, did not hold tight at the 26th pick and swapped spots with the Philadelphia Eagles at the 22nd pick, giving up the third round pick they got from the Pittsburgh Steelers last year (which the local media crushed them for at the time) and selected Johnny Manziel, causing the NFL universe to melt down.
Again, I felt this pick was a reach and personally, I would have opted for Derek Carr and then Teddy Bridgewater. Nevertheless, Manziel offers talent and upside for the Browns, but I think redshirting him is imperative, because of his youth and inexperience in college of just 26 starts. If rushed, I think the pick could blow up in their faces. So far, the Browns are enacting a plan that has him sitting at least initially, causing the national media to suggest some of the most outlandish and ill-informed takes possible. The most entertaining one is the Browns are ‘bullying’ Manziel.
With the right amount of time and development, he can be a quarterback with the fundamentals and technique that can also improvise when plays break down as opposed to being a quarterback that has to improvise to make plays and then try to learn the NFL on the fly. As it stands now, the Browns have a good plan in place. It will be interesting to see if they can stick to it.
While it is a little unfair to put Manziel in a box, they do seem to want him to play a similar style of quarterback as Russell Wilson. They want to run the ball, play great defense and let Manziel do the rest, eventually. The question is how that will look with Manziel as opposed to Wilson. They have different mentalities and styles.
After a day where the Browns had three trades and took two reaches in my mind, they really hammered value the rest of the draft, starting with Joel Bitonio in the second round. Bitonio played tackle for Nevada and appears to be able to help the Browns at tackle, but at least for now, is being slated at guard. The Browns and especially Farmer love Bitonio’s athleticism, mean streak and versatility. They talk about Bitonio as a guard, but there is always a hint that they really look at him as more than ‘just’ a guard.
So far, Bitonio has worked at both left and right guard and it seems more likely that he ends up playing on the right side given the players they have, but he can certainly play both. He could also end up moving outside to right tackle before all is said and done. Bitonio has the athleticism and the length to do the job, but should be a fantastic guard.
I loved the value and the fit for this pick. Bitonio is a fantastic fit for what the Browns want to do in their offense and scheme as well as a great fit for the culture this team wants to build. The running game and Manziel’s future pass protection are upgraded as a result.
The Browns continued to really hit home on value when they selected Christian Kirksey. Most everyone in the universe was expecting the Browns to take a wide receiver. They opted to take another glaring need at inside linebacker. Kirksey has speed, quickness, aggressiveness and is a natural leader. He is also young, only turning 22 this year.
The Browns have been routinely gashed by teams that could pick apart their linebackers in coverage. Teams would just look for where Craig Robertson was on the field and throw it at him. Eventually, the team last year just put more defensive backs on the field to compensate. Kirksey gives the Browns someone that can fly around in coverage, be it man or zone. He is slightly undersized, but at the very least should be an institution as a sub package player with a good chance to end up starting next to Karlos Dansby. If they hit on the pick, the front seven in Cleveland is done.
Before day two of the draft was over, the Browns used their sixth round pick to move up from the fourth round to the end of the third round to grab Terrance West. Along with the signing of Ben Tate and drafting of Bitonio, this pick helps the running game and sends a message about who the Browns will be this year. They want to pound the football and do it often.
West was a star in the FCS at Towson and became the biggest name in the playoffs, carrying Towson to the FCS Championship before they were defeated by North Dakota State. West is a tank, but he has more quickness than some might expect, able to make cuts as well as put his shoulder down and drive through contact. He is actually bigger than Tate and the Browns look like they want to force opponents to keep more size on the field to stop them, opening up options on the outside.
The value here was sound and the Browns had a unique connection with West as three coaches played their college football at Towson, so they had as much insight into him as anyone. Some people are projecting that West will surpass Tate as the starter, but the starter is somewhat immaterial. The Browns are hoping to have a ton of carries available for both of them.
It is unclear what the Browns wanted to do when they made their selection in the fourth round, but the feeling is that Pierre Desir was simply too good to pass up. The Browns took Gilbert, but went ahead and took Desir out of Lindenwood. Desir is even taller than Gilbert and made Haden the third tallest corner on the team. If it had not been clear already, the Browns were determined to be the Rust Belt’s answer to the Seattle Seahawks. In the second and third day, the Browns were fantastic on value and this might have been their best pick from that standpoint and could be a huge steal.
Desir is physical, has ball skills, and incredible length. He is not a finished product but he demonstrates a lot of talent and ability that can be developed. Desir played against a lower level of competition in college, but shined at the East-West Shrine Game and Reese’s Senior Bowl, not backing down to anyone. The Browns have one of the stronger corner groups on paper in the NFL with this pick as well as Gilbert added to Haden and Buster Skrine.
The Browns ultimately went ahead and dealt their seventh round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for a sixth rounder in the 2015 draft, giving them 10 total picks going into next year. The Browns did not draft a wide receiver, which was a stunning development to most everyone outside of Berea. They have signed free agents, both in terms of undrafted free agents as well as veteran free agents to fill out the roster.
Farmer has made the argument on multiple occasions that plenty of teams have won without top tier wide receivers and that most of the biggest receivers do not win the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, the receiver position was an area of need before the draft and especially if Gordon is out for any length of time, is an even bigger need now.
Wide receiver is a need. The Browns need more than one now. Yes, teams can win without big time receivers, but certainly, the Browns would like Manziel and Brian Hoyer to have some talented, reliable targets to throw the ball. All the spin in the world will not change that fact, but it is not a crime the Browns did not draft them, considering how they came out of this draft.
The Browns potentially have a top corner duo in the making, improved themselves substantially in terms of defending the pass and then put in a significant amount of effort in making it so they can run the football this year; a lot. And they did it all while getting what they hope is a franchise quarterback in Manziel. Running the football and defense is what they want their identity to be. So while the Browns leave this draft with some significant holes, they may have worked to eliminate some major ones for the foreseeable future. The fact that they have 10 picks heading into the 2015 NFL Draft would suggest they understand that as well.
Whether it is after sitting for a year or part of the year, Manziel can get a big helping of weapons next offseason and the group can grow and gel together. Most all of this draft will rest on the success of failure of Johnny Manziel, but they may have been able to largely finish the offensive line, the front seven and their secondary. The team only won four games last year, so if those needs can all be checked off of their list, they should be a significantly better team, even if they are not a finished one. The first draft under Farmer appears to have been a successful one, despite a pair of reaches in round 1, but the other four picks were good values and fits as well setting themselves up for the draft next year.