Draft the running back first
The following is not a prediction. Far from it, in fact.
It is a hope, a wish. It could also qualify as a plea.
It has to do with the future of the Cleveland Browns as a National Football League entity; a seminal moment in the history of this once-proud franchise.
In exactly eight weeks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will call to order the 2018 college draft in Arlington, Texas, and place the Browns on the clock. That precise moment is the subject of this rant.
Speculation as to which name the Browns should write on that initial card has run rampant the past couple of months, centered around the notion this team has slogged along for the last 19 seasons minus a so-called franchise quarterback.
Browns General Manager John Dorsey now sits in a unique position with picks one and four in his gun belt this year and a team starving for help on the offensive side of the football.
He has the luxury of choosing from what arguably could be the best quarterback class since the great 1983 group that produced six first-rounders, including three Hall of Famers.
Whether Dorsey uses that shot on a quarterback with his opening draft salvo is the focal point of all the speculation by the thousands (it seems) of draft pundits throughout the NFL universe.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is almost dead certain Dorsey will place a quarterback’s name on one of those first two cards. It might be Josh Rosen of UCLA or Sam Darnold of USC, maybe even Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen of Wyoming.
Part of the fueled pundit speculation also centers on one other player whose collegiate résumé warrants strong consideration for the top spot. And he is not a quarterback.
He is a (gasp!) running back, a position that for the last 22 lotteries has been stigmatized, relegated to the relative scrap heap of draftdom regarding the first overall selection.
His name is Saquon Barkley from Penn State. It is the name I believe Dorsey should place on that first card Goodell will announce on April 26 for a myriad of sound reasons, not the least of which is he is the best player in this draft class.
Dorsey, hopefully a proponent of taking the best player available, is in position of nailing the best running back and the possibility of also adding his franchise quarterback with the first two picks.
It is a win-win situation, but only if he makes his selections in that order. If he chooses quarterback – and Darnold would be the best choice there – with the No. 1, kiss Barkley goodbye. He won’t be there at No. 4.
Either the New York Giants at No. 2 or Indianapolis Colts or some other team that trades up will grab him and feature him in their attack for the next decade.
Avoiding selection of a running back with the top pick has become de rigueur in the NFL. The quickest way to get a failing grade from pundits is to take a running back with that pick. For some reason, the position has been devalued with regard to the overall top pick.
It stems from the spectacular failure of Kenneth Leonard (Ki-Jana) Carter, ironically another Penn Stater, to assimilate smoothly to the NFL and become a star, or at the very least a success. He didn’t come close and thus established the dreaded avoidance of taking a running back with the No. 1 pick.
Selected there in the 1995 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, Carter in eight NFL seasons played for three teams, rushed for 1,144 total yards and scored 20 touchdowns. Little did he know at the time that he established a draft hex on the top spot for his position.
Since the lottery began in 1936, 23 running backs have been selected No. 1 overall, but only one since 1986 – Carter. The previous longest gap for running backs was eight years (1969-77) between O. J. Simpson and Ricky Bell.
What makes Barkley so appealing that it vaults him above the quarterbacks? First of all, he is a generational talent. That one player who comes along only once in a generation and immediately makes a difference. He is a game changer.
Or as draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. put it, Barkley “is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.” And you do not pass on him. He is an immediate starter. Besides, whomever Dorsey takes for a quarterback will sit at least one season.
The Browns, at one time known for their stud running backs, need a stud running back and Barkley checks off all the boxes. He is powerful, quick, fast, has great hands for the passing game and is a strong, willing blocker.
New Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley coached Le’Veon in Pittsburgh the last five seasons and developed him into a star running back. Barkley would be his Le’Veon Bell in Cleveland.
Those who argue quarterback first and then running back are correct when they suggest the running back class this year is deep. But when you have a chance to get the best at two positions instead of settling for less than the best, you take it.
Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Rashaad Penny are fine running backs in this class. But Barkley is clearly the best of the lot, a perennial Pro Bowler for the next 10 seasons.
But what, some argue, if the Browns target only one quarterback in this class and he’s not there at No. 4? What do they do? They settle and take the No. 2 quarterback on their board.
Again, it’s a win-win situation because that quarterback – whether it’s Darnold or Rosen or Allen – is still going to be the future leader on offense and Barkley will be his main running back.
There are more reasons to take Barkley at No. 1 than pass on him and grab the quarterback. His impact will be more immediate no matter who Dorsey brings in to mentor the new rookie quarterback.
He would make the offensive line, the right-now-slightly-better-than-average offensive line, become that much better. He and Duke Johnson Jr. would be a dynamite pair and a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
Then there’s this: Dorsey is not drafting for the Kansas City Chiefs anymore. He’s drafting for a team that gets a shot at the best player at the beginning of each round. The mind-set there is totally different than picking for a team roughly two-thirds of the way into each round.
Well what about Dorsey’s terrific selection of running back Kareem Hunt for the Chiefs in the third round last season? Hunt stepped in when Spencer Ware went down in the exhibition season and had an outstanding rookie season. Doesn’t that count?
Yes to a certain extent, but the GM also was very fortunate. His main focus was drafting the Chiefs’ next franchise quarterback in the opening round and he traded up for Patrick Mahomes. Besides, the draft’s best running backs went very early and he settled on Hunt.
The best reason, though, to take Barkley No. 1? He will not become the next Ki-Jana Carter. He will change that don’t-draft-a-running-back-No. 1 stance once and for all.
Again, this is not a prediction. It is clearly a plea for Dorsey to make wise decisions for a team that so desperately needs help, primarily on the offensive side of the football.