Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Peering into the draft crystal ball

Well, that didn’t take long.

The dust from the National Football League’s annual college draft has hardly settled and the first 2017 mock drafts have arrived.

Several Web sites have already checked in with a crystal-ball look at what will go down next April in whatever city the NFL decides to move to after two years in Chicago.

And for Browns fans, there’s good news and bad news. First the bad news. The early, highly premature mock analysts are using Las Vegas oddsmakers as a measuring tool to determine the draft order next year.

Why is that bad news? Because those so-called experts have made the Browns prohibitive favorites to win no games – subject to change, of course – and ultimately wind up with the No. 1 draft pick next season for the first time since the 2000 lottery.

That bears repeating. The Browns are early favorites in no games this season. Another season of misery. But that, believe it or not, is also the good news.

If the upcoming season unfolds the way Vegas sees it, it means the Browns will have first crack at the draft in a year when many potential future superstars will be on all the boards.

Let’s face it. The Browns are going to stink this season. They are going to be embarrassingly bad. So bad, in fact, they top every early mock that has been released. And there is a near consensus as to whom the club will take. (Unless, of course, they trade down. Just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?)

Rob Rang of CBS Sports, Steve Palazzolo Pro Football Focus, the guys at Walter Football, Matt Miller at the Bleacher Report and SB Nation’s Dan Kadar all believe the Browns will take Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, odds-on favorite to win the next Heisman Trophy.

Chris Burke over at Sports Illustrated disagrees, but believes the Browns will, indeed, chose a quarterback. His choice is Miami of Florida’s Brad Kaaya, who plays in a pro-style offense for the Hurricanes and is more NFL ready than Watson.

Besides, Burke noted, Kaaya is a couple of inches taller than the 6-2, 210-pound Watson, whose production numbers dwarf those of the Miami quarterback.

What makes the next draft that much more intriguing is the Browns probably will have two cracks in the top 10, holding Philadelphia’s pick as a result of the deal that enabled the Eagles to take Carson Wentz this year. (Unless, of course, the Browns trade . . . oh never mind.)

A variety of reasons prompted the aforementioned analysts to select Watson as the top choice.

Wrote Rang: If Cleveland is drafting No. 1 overall, the experiments with Robert Griffin III and rookie Cody Kessler were a failure. Watson lacks ideal size, but has the arm, athleticism and moxie to potentially turn into a franchise quarterback.

Palazzolo: (Watson) has the strong arm to drive the ball into tight windows, though it’s his touch on two-level throws that impresses most. There’s still room to grow from a quarterbacking standpoint as he can learn to get through his reads better and his accuracy wanes at times.”

Kadar: Watson’s career arc has him hurtling toward the Heisman Trophy. . . . Beyond his deep-ball delivery, he is an impressive product.

Miller: Cody Kessler is not your quarterback of the future. . . . The future will come when Deshaun Watson enters the draft. . . . He is not so different from RGIII other than he is more accurate and hasn’t been hit with major injury-related setbacks to this point of his career.

Walter Football: College football’s version of Russell Wilson. . . . The sky’s the limit for him.

Countered Burke: Playing percentages here. There is no question Deshaun Watson will be a Heisman favorite. . . . There’s also little question that on paper, Kaaya – who is 6-4 and plays in a pro-style scheme – better fits the NFL prototype.

While all but Burke agree on Watson as the top pick, there is a division of opinions with that second choice, which could be as high as seventh and as low as 12th.

Rang and Kadar agree the Browns will take Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette. And why not? Fournette probably will be Watson’s top challenger for the Heisman. The 6-1, 230-pounder ran for an amazing 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, backing up a 10-touchdown, 1,034-yard performance as a freshman.

Palazzolo likes Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell as the second pick, Walter Football favors Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (Fournette will be gone by then in its mock), Burke likes offensive tackle Roderick Johnson, who blocks for Cook at FSU, and Miller thinks Ohio State inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan would look spiffy in a Browns uniform.

By now, you’re probably saying to yourself it’s ridiculous, ludicrous, preposterous and every other adjective ending in ous to be discussing what Miller called his “Way Too Early Predictions.”

Of course, it’s way too early to make prognostications such as these. But it sure is fun to talk about them. It’s the kind of fodder that feeds the NFL public relations machine continuously and keeps the league in conversations virtually on a year-around basis.

Never a dull moment with this monolithic enterprise.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Draft weekend notebook

One position was conspicuously absent in the 14-player haul the Browns took away from last weekend’s National Football League college draft.

Sashi Brown, Hue Jackson, Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry filled holes via the lottery all over the roster except one: running back.

Only five names have an RB next to them on the current roster: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr. and three guys who probably won’t be on the roster when the Browns open the season in Philadelphia on Sept. 11.

So why no running back? The Browns didn’t exactly blow the opposition away infantry style last season. In fact, Crowell and Johnson ran for 1,085 of the club’s 1,529 yards in 2015, an average of just 95½ yards a game.

The Browns ran the ball only 38.5% of the time last season and scored a measly four touchdowns, all by Crowell. That’s not Hue Jackson type football. His football is much more 52-48 pass to run than 62-38.

So again, why no running back? Could it be Jackson sees Crowell and Johnson, two entirely different runners stylistically, a little differently than the previous Cleveland coaching regime?

Maybe he sees them more like Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the running tandem he had as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati last season. Hill, the 6-2, 235-pound banger between the tackles, rushed for 794 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. Crowell is 5-11, 225 pounds and a between-the tackles kind of guy..

The shifty 5-10, 210-pound Johnson gave the Browns a dimension they haven’t had for several seasons as a receiving threat out of the backfield. The rookie was the team’s third leading receiver last season with 61 catches for 534 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He picked up another 379 yards on the ground.

Bernard, a shifty 5-9, 205-pound scatback, was a little more versatile for the Bengals, racking up 730 yards on the ground and another 472 through the air on 42 catches.

Overall, the Bengals rushed for 1,805 yards (113 a game) last season and produced 13 touchdowns.

So one can see there are a couple of distinct similarities between the two teams. The big difference, however, lies in the guys who play in front of them. The Cincinnati offensive line is one of the best in the league. The Browns cannot echo that boast, especially now that Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz are gone.

It will be very interesting to see just how Jackson formulates his offense with a new quarterback in Robert Griffin III and some fresh new faces in the wide receivers room.
*       *       *
Here we go with the stupid rhetoric with regard to who the starting Cleveland quarterback will be in Philadelphia.

Stop it, Sashi Brown, with the nonsense that the competition for whom that man will be is wide open. Griffin is your quarterback. You know it. He knows it. The fans know it.

During the news conference following the final day of the draft, it was suggested by some in the media that Griffin didn’t have anything worry about competition from third-round pick Cody Kessler.

“I beg to differ with that,” Brown declared. “I think Cody is a guy I would not want to sleep on at all if I wanted to be starting quarterback of the Browns. He’s going to come in serious (and) ready to work.”

Really? You honestly believe that?

“Robert has four years of NFL experience, is tremendously athletic and serious about becoming a starting quarterback in this league. There is no reason he can’t, but this is going to be a competition.” No it’s not.

Stop it already. You have no idea what you are talking about when you talk like that. Stop trying to sell the fans on Kessler, who was one your several reaches and probably would have been on the board two rounds later.

There will be competition for the starting job only in the sense both quarterbacks will wear the same uniform in practice and on game day. You hurt your credibility when you try to foist that canard on the fans.

Who are you trying to convince? The Third? He’s too smart to fall for that. It sounds more like you’re trying to convince yourself.
*       *       *
The new denizens of the draft war room have pronounced themselves satisfied and excited with the results. That is to be expected.

But based on the overall talent level of this class, which is questionable at best, I have to seriously wonder whether the problem lies in evaluating all that talent.

When the club was thrilled to grab defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah at the top of the second round because he had a mid-first-round grade and they didn’t expect to see him there, the first seeds of draft doubt began to creep in.

And when that very bizarre fourth round unfolded, those seeds gave way to full doubt. The Browns sure do look at players in a strangely different way. But I don’t do this for a living, so what do I know?

From this standpoint, the lack of war room experience proved costly, at least in the short term. Brown & Co. were overmatched this time around. Hopefully they learned some valuable lessons.
*       *       *
The middle of the Browns’ offensive line will be different this season. Cameron Erving gets first crack at the pivot after a highly disappointing rookie season playing just about everywhere else but center and left tackle.

He won’t be handed the job. The Browns made certain of that by signing Mike Matthews of Texas A&M as a free agent. He is not your typical free agent, though. He has a terrific football pedigree and should not be discounted as just another free-agent signing.

He is the younger brother of Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews and cousin of Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews III . His dad, Bruce, is in the Pro football Hall of Fame. Uncle Clay played in the NFL for 19 years, 16 with the Browns (1978-1993).

So there is some serious talent there. The question is why wasn’t he drafted? Perhaps it’s because the 295-pounder is a tick shy of 6-2 and most teams like their centers to be around 6-4. That didn’t seem to bother the Arizona Cardinals, who needed a center and picked up 6-2, 310-pound Evan Boehm in the fourth round.

But those who know Matthews, a three-year starter in college, say that while he is not impressive in his workouts, he is a different player on tape. In other words, when the games are played, he shows up. He's a gamer.

So while Brown doesn’t want you to go to sleep on his third-round choice for quarterback, it behooves you to do the same for Matthews. This is one competition that could prove very interesting.
*       *       *
It’s safe to say Ohio State had a much better weekend at the draft than the Browns. Of the 15 Buckeyes eligible to be drafted, 12 were selected, all in the first four rounds. That’s two shy of the record, set by the 2004 Buckeyes.

Only wide receiver Jalin Marshall, safety Tyvis Powell and offensive lineman Chase Farris went undrafted. Seattle signed Powell, a big safety from Bedford, as a free agent. The New York Jets signed Marshall and Detroit picked up Farris.
*       *       *
Notebook: The Browns moved down the draft so much in round one, winding up at No. 15 after starting with the second overall pick, that NFL Network host Rich Eisen, as he went to a commercial break midway through the round, said, “The Cleveland Browns are up next. We assume they are going to make a pick.” . . . The Los Angeles Rams waited until nine of their allotted 10 minutes to make the first overall pick elapsed before turning in Jared Goff’s name. Why? They knew all along Goff was their man. . . . Have to assume either Joey Bosa or Zeke Elliott was the Browns’ target in round one. San Diego and Dallas blew that up in a hurry by taking the former Buckeyes at three and four. . . . Main theme for the Browns: Going down. . . . Corey Coleman was the best player left on the Cleveland board at No. 15? Hmmmmm. . . . Adding to the ineptitude was the acquisition of Jamar Taylor from Miami in a deal in the waning moments of the draft. The highly regarded cornerback coming out of college has been a huge disappointment for the Dolphins. Sort of like Justin Gilbert with the Browns. The old change-of-scenery excuse was used. Could that mean the departure of Gilbert for the same reason? . . . Preview of next season’s draft: Can you say Deshaun Watson?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The grade is in

Something was missing for the Browns and their large global fan base during the three-day extravaganza in Chicago last weekend, a.k.a. the National Football League college draft.

The wow!! factor.

Not once during the seven-round grind, during which the Browns traversed the lottery at least five times, could a tried and true Browns fan honestly say, “Wow! What a great pick!”

Fourteen times the Browns were placed on the clock and not once did the name ultimately called register anything more than a perfunctory clap because “these guys know more about these players than we do. We’ve got to trust them.”

Only the draft-o-philes, the small number of fans who follow the draft religiously almost from the end of the previous lottery, can tell you everything you need to know about a certain player.

No, this was a Browns draft that most likely will be known more for its quantity than its quality. Drafting an average of two picks a round, they selected many players who didn’t come close to appearing on most fans’ recognition radar.

It’s not as though Sashi Brown and his crew didn’t have a chance. They certainly did, but opted to draft down twice from their original overall No. 2 slot, thus taking themselves out of the running for a crack at the short list of elite players.

They opted to initially address the wide receivers, one of the many pressing needs on the club, surprisingly taking speedy Baylor wideout Corey Coleman, rated by many analysts as the third-best at the position behind Laquon Treadwell and Josh Doctson. It foretold a draft full of surprises for Browns fans.

It more than likely was a nod to the Browns' draft board, which undoubtedly told them their No. 1 target was gone by No. 8, necessitating the second trade down. But that does not absolve them from close scrutiny in the remaining six rounds

Slotted either first or second in all but one of those rounds enabled them to take the best player off the board. They led off the second and third day of the draft and yet made some rather bizarre selections.

Second-guessing decisions made by those whose job is to make those decisions is a fun sport and always rears its homely little head in matters such as the draft. So here we go.

At the beginning of day two, the Browns were in position to take UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, a wow! factor player who would have been a top five pick until revealing  recently he might need microfracture surgery on an injured knee. Scared everybody in round one and he slipped into day two.

Word filtered out during day one that noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews said Jack did not need that delicate surgery and was not the risk factor originally believed. So he was there to be taken the next day.

Either the Browns either didn’t buy what Dr. Andrews said or didn’t want to take the chance he might be wrong and selected defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah instead to kick off day two.

Four picks later, the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn’t get Jack’s name up quickly enough to the NFL clearing house. The Jags wind up with a sure-fire starter and the Browns wind up with a player who might be good enough to crack the starting lineup.

The way it works in the NFL is you expect players selected in rounds one and two to come in right away and win a starting job. The Browns have failed spectacularly in that department the last few years with one exception: guard Joel Bitonio.

Round three produced Carl Nassib, who could be a situational pass rusher; offensive tackle Shon Coleman, a standout in Auburn’s running game; and another surprise, quarterback Cody Kessler with Connor Cook still on the board, prompting coach Hue Jackson to caution, “You’ve got to trust me on this one.”

At the beginning of day three, the Browns had the first two selections in round four, opting for outside linebacker Joe Schobert with the first pick and trading the second to Oakland.

Linebacker definitely needed to be addressed, but the secondary, which lost both starting safeties, was a more urgent position. Strong safety Miles Killebrew, a big hitter who has linebacker size at 6-2, 215 pounds, was sitting there. Detroit took him later in the round.

Killebrew would have been a much better replacement for the departed Donte Whitner, giving the Cleveland secondary some size. Schobert has to beat out Paul Kruger, Armonty Bryant, Scott Solomon (update: the club has terminated Solomon's contract) and Barkevious Mingo to get playing time.

Other second guesses involve the other three peculiar picks in the fourth round – wide receiver Ricardo Louis, safety Derrick Kindred and tight end Seth DeValve.

Louis comes out of a run-first, run-a-lot program at Auburn, Kindred is a smaller version of Killebrew and DeValve will never be as famous as he is now as the most surprising selection of any draft in recent memory. All received extremely low grades from analysts, considerably lower than where they were taken.

Rashard Higgins, a highly productive wideout from Colorado State with much better credentials than Louis, was disregarded. Surprisingly, he was there in round five and the Browns did not make the same mistake. He will be a better pro than Louis and could see a fair amount of reps.

Where the Browns really hit it big was, ironically, their last choice. Inside linebacker Scooby Wright III will come in and play well enough to force Christian Kirksey back outside and partner with veteran newcomer Demario Davis in the middle

The most unfair grades in the sports world, those awarded immediately following any draft, are in for the Browns from around the NFL universe. They range from an A grade by the folks at Pro Football Focus to a C- from more than a few.

At the same time they drafted for the present, Brown and Co. began stockpiling choices for the future, concentrating on the early rounds. The only problem there is securing a large number of draft picks means nothing if those selecting do not apply wisdom to those selections.

If this year’s Browns draft by the Browns is any indication, there is some cause for concern for the future. In order to consider this draft a success, they need to get at least four starters and at least four other significant contributors out of it.

The Berea brass say they are pleased and excited about what went down last weekend. Of course they are. What else would you expect them to say?

It’s encouraging the wide receivers corps and pass rush have been upgraded, as well as the overall team speed. The offensive and defensive lines remain iffy, as well as the secondary.

There were some hits, most notably Corey Coleman, Ogbah, Nassib, Higgins, Wright and possibly Shon Coleman. But the misses outweigh the hits. The fourth round was a huge mess. The biggest beneficiary for those selected after round three is special teams coach Chris Tabor.

Final grade: B- (and that’s being extremely generous)