Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mixed bag on third day

In the end, it’s all about perception. And it was summed up perfectly Saturday by Paul DePodesta, the Browns' chief strategy officer.

Questioned why the Browns seemed to be reaching for more than a couple of their 14 selections in the National Football League’s annual college draft that concluded Saturday, DePodesta said, “That’s just the nature of the draft. . . . Everyone does have different values on different traits.

“There were guys taken quite high that we didn’t have rated highly at all.” Maybe that explains why the team drafted several “who’s he?” players among its 14 choices – the most for the club since grabbing 15 in 1976 – in a dizzying display of maneuvering up and down the lottery.

Based on his maiden voyage through the NFL draft after spending most of his professional career in baseball, it seems as though DePodesta’s chief strategy was to rise and fall like an elevator in what can be best described as a roller coaster ride the last three days.

Of the 14 selections, only six were made where the Browns were originally slated to select as they singed the telephone lines in an effort to bolster a roster that had gaping holes.

When it was all finished, DePodesta pronounced himself satisfied with the outcome. “It wasn’t a game of accumulating draft picks, but getting players we wanted,” he said, summing up the three-day grind. “And we got just about all of them.”

Now all those players have to do is perform and live up to the brass' expectations to justify what can be best described as one of the most unusual drafts by the Browns in a long time.

The well-balanced 14-player stash includes one quarterback, four wide receivers, (it’s about time) one tight end and two (badly needed) linemen for the offense, and two linemen, a pair of linebackers and two backs for the defense.

One thing is certain: Change is on the way. The culture of this team has changed dramatically since 8 o’clock last Thursday night.

It became evident that DePodesta, coach Hue Jackson, chief scout Andrew Berry and de facto General Manager Sashi Brown went for production for the most part, seeking players who were playmakers on the collegiate level.

Players like wide receivers Corey Coleman, Jordan Payton and Rashard Higgins produced consistently during their college careers. The bonus there is Payton and Higgins, both 6-1, 200-pounders, finally give the Cleveland receiving corps some size.

It also gives Jackson a considerable amount of latitude to load up with four-and five-receiver formations if he chooses to do so. The NFL has steadily become a pass-first league, which means if he chooses do disdain his balanced-attack philosophy, he won’t be hurting for receivers.

The big question mark for the offense is whether linemen Shon Coleman and Spencer Drago (what a great football name) can make up for the loss of center Alex Mack and tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Coleman probably has a better shot than the lumbering Drago.

It generally takes at least a couple of years before offensive linemen can successfully transition to the NFL. There are exceptions, though, like Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Mack and Schwartz.

Quarterback Cody Kessler, taken in round three, will work on his learning curve in his rookie season. The surprise pick will back up quarterback Robert Griffin III until The Third gets hurt, which means he probably will be tested reasonably early.

On defense, the Browns clearly improved their pass rush by drafting Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib early in back-to-back rounds. Both men come off highly  productive seasons, but are on the light side for lineman playing in a 3-4 front.

It will be interesting to see if the Browns try to beef them up to the 300-pound neighborhood as they now will face more sophisticated offenses that feature, in many cases, much bigger opponents. It's also possible they might be used as hybrid outside linebackers/defensive ends who can play upright or with a hand on the ground.

While the Browns made some wise decisions, they balanced that out with a few that can be best described as strange, most notably Seth DeValve, whose name and football exploits fall into the “what!!, who is this guy?” category.

When Brown & Co. made the Princeton tight end the team’s last of four fourth-round selections with one of their compensatory picks, it raised eyebrows around most of the pro football media universe.

Hardly anyone, it seemed, knew who this guy was. Surely, that had to be a typo on the television screen. Then again, perhaps it was a Harvard nod to a fellow Ivy League school. Still, nobody had a clue when DeValve’s name appeared on TV. It looked like a made-up name and was clearly a head scratcher.

The pro football folks at RotoWorld, after summarizing DeValve’s statistical career at Princeton, wrote: We’ve gotta be honest: We’d never heard of DeValve before the draft and looked up all this on the fly.”

His name did not appear on most draft analysts’ lists, but the Browns sure knew about him and thought enough of him to make him the 138th overall pick. Maybe it was his chiseled 6-3, 245-pound frame and impressive private workout that resulted in the pick. He ran a 4.68 40 and had 23 reps in the bench press.

It certainly wasn’t DeValve’s college stats that impressed the Browns. In five injury-filled years, he played in 36 games, catching 112 passes for 1,325 yards and only seven touchdowns. He is a classic diamond in extremely high rough. 

The first three Cleveland picks in the fourth round were just as puzzling, making that round as close to a disaster as you can get. This is where teams begin to find the hidden gems, the players who, for some reason, fall.

Players like wide receiver Ricardo Louis, outside linebacker Joe Schobert and free safety Derrick Kindred. Louis had mediocre numbers at Auburn mainly because the Tigers ran the ball two-thirds of the time. Schobert forced four fumbles last season and had 9½ sacks, but was given a fifth-round grade by most analysts.

Kindred is a banger, but a free safety should be more of a ball hawk and he has problems in that area. He’ll probably wind up on special teams.

Trey Caldwell, a smallish cornerback from Louisiana-Monroe, was taken with the fourth selection in a four-pick fifth round. He is more of an athlete than football player and probably will wind up on special teams with Kindred and a few of the aforementioned not yet ready to play on a steady basis in the NFL.

But pick No. 14 late in the final round is ready. He is a gem. An out-and-out steal. He is not fast. He is not quick. He is just a football player. He makes plays. His greatest asset is his instinct and football intellect. There is a place for him on this football team, perhaps as a starter.

I saw Scooby Wright play many times for the University of Arizona. I don’t know how he does it, but he seems to be around the ball a lot and it’s not by accident. In his sophomore season in 2014 at Arizona, he recorded 164 tackles (100 solo) in 14 games, 31 for loss. He has a feel for the game you can’t teach.

The 6-0, 240-pound Wright (real name Philip) was off to a good start again last season when he suffered broken foot and torn knee meniscus in game three, racking up 23 tackles along the way, and was done for the year.

The new regime’s initial draft had some solid hits and several misses. But at least it made up for the previous regime’s frustrating inattention to the wide receiver position. We’ll sum it all up Sunday along with the final grade.

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