It might be a wee bit premature considering we are only five games into the 2018 National Football League season, but it’s far enough to take an initial look at how this year’s draft class for the Browns is panning out.
The two first-round selections of quarterback Baker Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward is as close to a slam dunk as you can get without straining to peer even further into the promising future.
There is no question whatsoever that both young men have made an immediate and significant impact on their respective sides of the football, lifting the hopes of their diehard fan base loftier with each game.
Mayfield, reprising his college role of underdog overcoming massive odds to become a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall selection in the last NFL college draft, has been somewhat of a national wonder in a short period of time.
While Browns Nation had no other choice but to wait to see him as coach Hue Jackson stubbornly went with the mediocre Tyrod Taylor in an effort to stabilize his offense, Mayfield patiently waited and played the good and loyal soldier without complaint.
And then a national television audience can say they bore witness to the kid’s NFL debut after Taylor was concussed late in the first half of the game against the New York Jets. The moribund and dull Cleveland attack transformed. Just like that.
It quickly became clear the Browns’ offense under Mayfield looked nothing like the one operated by Taylor. In fact, it was the polar opposite. The fans not only loved it, they reveled in it.
There was a noticeable difference with Mayfield either under center or in shotgun formation. He made throws Taylor only dreamed of making. The anticipation that something positive was going to happen with Mayfield in charge became palatable.
That’s a feeling Browns fans have not experienced since the days of Bernie Kosar more than a generation ago. And the good news is the kid from Texas is just getting started and well on his way to becoming the face of the franchise, if he’s not already there.
Ward, the local kid from suburban Macedonia, has given defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who championed his selection at No. 4, everything he expected and more. He is flat out a playmaker, something the Browns haven’t had since Joe Haden’s early days many years ago.
Two huge thumbs up for round one. Can’t say the same for round two. Right now, those thumbs clearly point 180 degrees in the other direction with the selections of offensive lineman Austin Corbett and running back Nick Chubb.
With practically an entire board full of talent to choose from with the top pick in round two, General Manager John Dorsey puzzlingly selected Corbett, who succeeded Joel Bitonio at left tackle at the University of Nevada.
He was chosen ahead of the likes of Will Hernandez (taken by the New York Giants with the next pick), Braden Smith (Indianapolis) and Connor Williams (Dallas), all starters for their respective clubs.
Corbett began training camp at left tackle before flip-flopping with Bitonio at left guard early on and played just about every snap in the exhibition season, probably to determine whether he was ready to be a starter in the NFL.
Apparently he wasn’t as the coaching staff moved Bitonio back to left guard and went with rookie Desmond Harrison at left tackle, relegating a no doubt stunned Corbett to the bench, where he has settled in most of the season. He has logged just nine snaps in three games, a few times as a blocking tight end.
The only chance he has at regaining his starting status along the line right now is at right tackle, where Chris Hubbard has struggled thus far. If a change is made there, it will be either Corbett or Greg Robinson.
The 33rd pick in the draft should be a starter, especially at a need position like left tackle with the retirement of Joe Thomas. Corbett is languishing on the bench. That is disappointing, but does not preclude his emerging one day to become a starter.
So it seems as though Corbett right now is a wasted draft pick. Optimists would say it’s too early to tell.
Chubb is a different matter. He has been used sparingly with Carlos Hyde receiving the major portion of the reps, with Duke Johnson Jr. sprinkled into the mix on occasion. All of which does not leave Chubb with many opportunities as offensive coordinator Todd Haley struggles to find him some playing time.
He has carried the ball just 13 times in five games for 148 yards, an average of 11.4 yards a pop, and two long touchdown runs. The main reason given for his semi-tethering to the bench is his poor pass blocking, something he wasn’t called on to do at all at the University of Georgia.
Chubb logs most of his playing time on special teams and will probably remain there until Haley figures out a way to plug him into the game plan on a regular basis. That most likely would mean diminished work for Hyde if and when it ever happens.
Round three is a total miss thus far by Dorsey and his staff. The selection of defensive end Chad Thomas has been a dismal failure in many different ways with no relief in sight.
Thomas has logged just 19 snaps in three games. That’s it. Not even a sniff of coming close to contributing. He has not been listed on the injury report, so it has to be assumed he, too, has disappointed. A work in progress perhaps?
Dorsey opted for Thomas in the third round over defensive ends Sam Hubbard of Ohio State and LSU’s Arden Key, both taken later in the same round. Hubbard landed in Cincinnati and Key in Oakland and both have logged significant playing time.
Hubbard, a defensive star for the Buckeyes, has one sack and scored a decisive touchdown with a fumble recovery as the Bengals rallied to defeat Miami last Sunday. And Key was in the backfield harassing Mayfield quite often in the Browns’ loss in Oakland.
Thomas, meanwhile, remains the mystery man along the defensive front. His greatest claim to fame thus far is his ability to play nine musical instruments.
Round four yielded wide receiver Antonio Callaway, whose performance can be correctly labeled consistently inconsistent. You never know what you’re going to get from him from play to play.
There are times when he flashes and makes a terrific catch, counterbalanced by his numerous drops of seemingly easy receptions. He has been given every chance to replace the departed Josh Gordon, but his inconsistency might lead to fewer snaps, although the knee injury to Rashard Higgins could delay that.
His great speed is a weapon that some day will pay off. But the early returns suggest Callaway, who seems to have cleaned up his off-the-field problems after a stormy college career, is a shaky thumbs up.
On to round five where we find Genard Avery, listed as an outside linebacker. But this outside backer is very effective at rushing the passer and rapidly gaining the attention of his defensive coordinator with his playmaking.
He has progressed to the point where Williams uses him about half the time in his various packages, most of which are passing situations. The ultra-aggressive Avery has responded with a sack and a half, one forced fumble and another that should have been ruled a fumble in the Oakland loss except for a quick whistle.
Unlike a few of his fellow draft rookies, the solidly built Avery is not a work in progress. He is a vital contributor.
Round six, where general managers and personnel people hurl darts at the dwindling draft board and hope to get lucky, wide receiver Damion Ratley and cornerback Simeon Thomas arrived in Cleveland.
Thomas was the only draftee in this class who failed to make the final roster and is now on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad. The lanky Ratley has appeared in three games and logged 19 snaps on special teams and only one from scrimmage. A wasted round.
Scorecard: Three vital contributors in Mayfield, Ward and Avery; one who is the best bet to join that trio in Callaway; four young men taking up space on the roster and contributing virtually nothing; and one who didn’t make the final roster. Corbett and Chubb have a decent chance to improve that average. Final grade on or around New Year’s Day.
Next year, barring trades, the Browns have 10 selections, one each in rounds one, two, four and six; and multiple picks in rounds three, five and seven.
Scraps: In case you missed it, Nate Davis of USA Today has elevated the Browns to No. 13 in his weekly NFL power rankings. That’s oxygen territory for this franchise. They were 24th last week. . . . There were 99 passes thrown (54 completions) out of 110 dropbacks by Mayfield and Joe Flacco in the overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday and only 21 points. . . . The Cleveland defense finally did a good job on opposing tight ends, limited the Ravens’ quartet to only five receptions for 41 harmless yards. . . . The Browns have participated in 324 plays in back-to-back overtime games. The offense has been on the field for 150 snaps and the defense for 174 snaps. They have a solid excuse if things go wrong Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. . . . On the overtime play that angered fans when Brandon Carr of the Ravens clocked Jarvis Landry and wasn’t flagged, neither was Desmond Harrison, who pulled down Terrell Suggs on the play and was not flagged. Two bad non-calls offsetting each other.