Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Thoughts on Odell and Baker

He hasn't played a game for the Browns and yet he keeps finding his way into the headlines.

Browns fans saw how uncomfortable Odell Beckham Jr. looked at the news conference that heralded his arrival shortly after the stunning March 12 trade that uprooted him from New York and dropped him in Cleveland. He spoke cautiously to the Cleveland area media, no doubt making certain he did not say the wrong thing.

My how times have changed.

Here we are nearly two months later and the outgoing wide receiver has revealed how perceptively he is able to envision the future of his professional life and share it with a national magazine.

No longer does he feel like a stranger in the town that embraced him immediately upon news of the deal. In fact, he feels downright giddy about the direction his new team is headed.

He has totally fallen in love with Baker Mayfield, his new quarterback. “I would say he’s next, but I feel he’s now,” Beckham told Gentleman’s Quarterly recently in a piece that highlighted his appearance the fashionable Met Gala. “He’s Brett Favre. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”

Extraordinary praise, indeed, for someone who has played in only 14 National Football League games. But wait, there’s more hyperbole, this time with regard to the Super Bowl.

“I plan on being there (Cleveland) for the next five years and trying to bring as many championships there as possible’,” he said, “turning (the Browns) into the new (New England) Patriots.”

As if rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens didn’t have enough problems dealing with rookie cornerback Greedy Williams and his bold prediction of at least getting to the next Super Bowl, if not winning it.

Now along comes a five-year veteran who should know better with his out-there boast about what the immediate future holds. But it sure jazzed up Browns Nation, that global group of fans who would be thrilled first to see the Browns in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

If nothing else, this kind of bravado ramps up the pressure for a team most pro football observers have labeled the most interesting team for 2019.

It’s one thing to be excited about your new team. It’s quite another to share that excitement absurdly even though that team has not played one minute of football. That might prove difficult for Beckham. Humility is not his strongest trait.
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Speaking of Mayfield, his feud with national radio talk show host Colin Cowherd smacks of staged entertainment.

It all stems from Cowherd’s recent remarks about Mayfield and the upcoming season, an attempt to cool off the notion that the Browns have become an NFL darling. He touches a few nerves along the way.

“(General Manager) John Dorsey got fired by Kansas City,” he began his diatribe. “Baker Mayfield is a walk-on twice and Cleveland has been the laughingstock of the league. They’re three peas in a pod. They work together.” Nothing wrong there. It’s all true.

“I do think they are a nine-win team,” Cowherd added. “I do think they flirt with the playoffs. I think their schedule early is brutal, filled with unbelievably tough road games.”

And then he dropped a personal hammer. ”I also think Freddie Kitchens will get fired within two years and Baker will be on his third coach in four years because I don’t think Freddie can handle this group of dudes.”

Mayfield tweetly called Cowherd a “donkey.” To which Cowherd tweetly responded,” I wish you would LISTEN before ruining my weekend. I worked very hard on this. Sad. Still hope we’re friends despite out differences.”

Yeah, right. Cowherd is nothing more than a thin-skinned bloviator and bleeds when attacked. Believe that one and you should think about turning in your loyal sports talk show listener card.

It’s not just Cleveland and the Browns that Cowherd picks on. He is an equal opportunity annoyer throughout the sports world. That’s his job. It’s what generates calls, e-mails, tweets and more radio affiliates. And, most important: advertisers. He's good at it.

Mayfield in the past has acknowledged as much. That’s why I suspect he and Cowherd will milk this feud for all it’s worth because it keeps the Browns in the spotlight. Again, nothing wrong with that. Just don’t take it too seriously.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Draft scraps

Lost in the afterglow of how the Browns drafted is what the rest of the AFC North did last weekend in the annual National Football League college lottery. The division got stronger.

The defending champion Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals all had strong showings, arguably better than the Browns, who nevertheless remain favored to win their first division title since the return in 1999.

The Ravens provided second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson with some new weapons; the Steelers made moves attempting to replace Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier; and the Bengals made significant improvement along the offensive line.

Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin beefed up a Ravens wide receivers corps that lacked serious speed last season, and Justice Hill joins free agent signee Mark Ingram Jr. to form a much stronger offensive backfield.

The Steelers jumped up to No. 10 to grab Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, who will be plugged into the hole created by the unfortunate injury to Shazier; MAC receiver Diontae Johnson was taken to replace Brown, another MAC receiver; and Benny Snell, a running back, has already ingratiated himself by requesting to wear Bell’s old No. 26.

The Steelers also snatched cornerback Justin Layne, a Clevelander (Benedictine High School) who should have been drafted by the Browns, three selections after Cleveland took Sione Takitaki in round three.

The Bengals, who can’t do any worse than last season’s basement finish, improved their offensive line with tackle Jonah Williams and center/guard Michael Jordan from Ohio State. Linebacker Germaine Pratt and tackle Renell Wren upgrade the defense.

It’s entirely possible the AFC North will be one of the strongest and most competitive divisions in the entire NFL this season after some wise drafting by the aforementioned trio of teams.
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John Dorsey really meant it when during the pre-draft meeting he had with the media said, “You can’t have enough cornerbacks on your team to move this thing.” Seeing is believing.

The Browns currently list 11 cornerbacks and six safeties on the roster, numbers that are likely to increase when the general manager fills out the roster by the time training camp rolls around.
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Third-round picks continue to confound Dorsey since arriving in Cleveland. The man who took Kareem Hunt in the third round while GM of the Kansas City Chiefs a few years ago drafted defensive end Chad Thomas and Takitaki in that round the last two Browns drafts.

Thomas hardly saw the field last season, but the Dorsey remains confident the pick will pay off. “I think Chad is a very talented football player,” he said. “Usually, guys in their second year make exponential strides and growth.

“I see him getting a lot of playing time this year. I can see him getting some rotational playing time and really developing into a really good football player.” Worth keeping an eye on, especially with the Olivier Vernon trade with New York.
*       *       *
Among the attributes that attracted the Browns to Takitaki were his motor, his explosive hitting, his speed and the fact he runs around a lot. Sounds undisciplined to me. The converted defensive end is just learning how to play linebacker.
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From the department of “wish I hadn’t said that” (future edition) come these gems from new Browns cornerback Greedy Williams after the Browns drafted him in round two Friday night:

“I know one thing: The Browns are going to the Super Bowl this year.  That’s a fact.” And: “John Dorsey has done a great job of getting the right guys in the right positions. I feel like this team will be the Super Bowl champs this year.” Then: “This team will be the Super Bowl champs. We’re going through the whole league, We’re definitely making the Super Bowl.” And finally: Omigod. Me and Denzel (Ward), we are going to tear up the league.”

The last time we heard “tear up the league,” it was uttered by Johnny Manziel all those years ago and we all saw how that turned out.
*       *       *
Duke Johnson Jr. is not an ex-Brown yet, having survived draft weekend. The guess here is the Browns will hang on to him until Hunt comes off the suspended list for the final eight games of the season.
*       *       *
What attracted Dorsey to kicker Austin Seibert in the fifth round? It certainly couldn’t have been the four field goals (in nine attempts) between the 40 and 49 the last three years. Or his one-for-three in 50-yards plus attempts.

The young man is nails from 45 yards in. But this is the NFL, where field goals from 50-plus yards are expected. Seibert was a much better punter at Oklahoma.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Dorsey must be satisfied with his defensive front, passing on a defensive lineman in the draft. Ditto the wide receivers. . . . Ten trades were consummated in the draft’s second round. . . . With draft choices like Sheldrick Redwine and Sione Takitaki, wondering why the Browns didn’t draft Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo or sign him as a free agent. . . . The Westgate Super Book in Las Vegas predicts the Browns won’t make the playoffs for the 17th season in a row. Tempted to take that bet.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Grading the Browns’ 2019 draft

 Time once again to take a deep dive into that annual exercise that frustrates the hell out of professional football fans throughout the nation. It is known commonly as the way-too-early grading of the National Football League college draft.

How in the world can all the so-called experts come to a definitive conclusion about the results of a draft when the players haven’t even suited up with their respective teams?

They can’t, of course. But that doesn’t mean they can’t venture opinions based on what they have seen from these players at the collegiate level. As long as they have the pulpit, what’s the problem?

Let’s be honest here. Fans themselves grade these drafts, too, and the only reason they dispute a particular expert’s grade is because they are not in agreement.

Why is it done every year? Because it’s fun to speculate and then look back in two or three years, when the drafts can be graded more accurately, and see how right or wrong they were.

Of course early grades should not be taken too seriously. It provides fans with good argument material, sustaining NFL talk until minicamps, training camps and then the regular season.

The draft grade gamut varies from year to year. The gamut this year for the Browns’ draft runs from a solid A to a C-, which proves once again that one man’s filet mignon is another man’s hamburger. It works that way every year.

The general consensus of the Browns’ draft last year was a shaky B. Turned out, at least after the first year, to be a strong A after General Manager John Dorsey a semi miraculously completely changed the culture of the franchise.

Five of his picks wound up either starting or playing a major role and a sixth has moved up and will start this season. Their contributions were vital in the club smashing numerous losing streaks and winding up a respectable (for them) 7-8-1.

The Rant, wiping egg off its face all season long and with apologies to Dorsey and the great job he did, gave it a C+. A C+!! Yikes!! Well, when you’re wrong, might as well go big.

And that, finally, brings us to this year’s Browns grade. The landscape this year was quite different. No first-round pick. No top-of-the-round selections. Clearly a tougher time than last year for Dorsey and his crew.

The Browns wound up with seven picks, five of them on the defensive side of the football. Of those seven, only two have a shot at becoming starters – second-round cornerback Greedy Williams and fifth-round inside linebacker Mack Wilson.

Williams, who carried a first-round grade from many draft experts, was a surprise name on the board midway through the second round. He is expected to get the starting nod opposite Denzel Ward in the secondary.

Wilson, who carried a second-round grade by some and should have been the third-round choice instead of Sione Takitaki, will be given the opportunity to take the middle linebacker job away from Joe Schobert.

Of the first five selections, Takitaki, fourth-round safety Sheldrick Redwine and round-five placekicker Austin Seibert were clearly reaches. It’s hard to believe they were the best players on the board at the time of their selection.

Takitaki and Redwine, who most likely be included in certain sub packages by defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, were projected to go lower in the lottery.

Seibert, on the other hand, is being brought in to challenge incumbent Greg Joseph, who had an uneven rookie season after replacing Zane Gonzalez. I graduated from the school that says you don’t draft a kicker or punter before round seven, and fifth was way, way, way too high for Seibert.

Rounding out the class are sixth-round tackle/guard Drew Forbes, the lone offensive player chosen, and cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr., both of whom probably will wind up on the practice squad should they fail to make the final 53.

The selections of Williams and Wilson (A- and B+, respectively) have saved this draft in terms of starters. The others fall well short of warranting a high grade and their contributions will be relatively minimal.

If, however, it was Dorsey’s intention to strengthen the special teams and beef up positional depth, mission accomplished. But rarely is drafting in the NFL designed specifically for special teams.

I’m having no problems getting excited about the upcoming season. None whatsoever.  But I can’t get excited about what Dorsey accomplished this past weekend.

Final draft grade for 2019: C+ (yep, another C+, but I have a much better chance of being correct with this one)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

It’s the defense, dummy

 If there was any doubt which side of the football John Dorsey would address in the 2019 National Football League college draft this weekend, it was answered loudly in the seven-man class.

Having taken care of the offensive side of the football last season to the point where the Browns became a scary team in the second half of the 2018 season, defense was the major target this year for the club’s general manager.

Five members of the newest class, including the first four selections, will play under the watchful eye of new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and his staff.

Cornerbacks Greedy Williams, the club’s first pick of the lottery in the second round Thursday, and Donnie Lewis Jr., the final pick in the seventh round Saturday, join safety Sheldrick Redwine, a fourth-rounder, in the secondary.

Inside linebacker Mack Wilson, arguably Dorsey’s best pick (the first of two round-five selections) of this draft, joins fellow backer Sione Takitaki (third round) in an effort to strengthen the club’s weakest area on that side of the ball.

Placekicker/punter Austin Seibert (the other fifth rounder) and offensive tackle Drew Forbes (sixth round) round out the class, which strains to register on the scale of well-known candidates.

Williams, one of the highest rated corners this year, skidded surprisingly halfway through the second round, falling into the Browns’ lap for reasons that have not been verified. His selection was a no-brainer for Dorsey.

Redwine, who is comfortable playing corner, either safety or in the slot, became an obvious choice for those reasons. That versatility should play well in the many and varied Wilks schemes.

Lewis, if he makes the club, most likely will collect his paycheck through special teams work due to a very crowded secondary field.

When Takitaki was selected in round three, my first reaction was who is this guy? My second was Mack Wilson was still on the board and had a third-round grade while at least one NFL scout projected Takitaki for free agency.

In the end, it turned out Dorsey got it fright, just backward. It took him two extra rounds to realize it. Wilson, who played well for coach Nick Saban at Alabama, for some reason was still around in round five and the GM didn’t hesitate.

Anyone who plays full-time for Saban is well prepared to make a successful transition to the next level. One draft guru compared Wilson to another Saban alumnus, inside linebacker C. J. Mosley, who tortured the Browns for five seasons with Baltimore before moving on to the New York Jets.

Don’t be shocked if Wilson, who once proclaimed himself, via Twitter, “THE best linebacker in the country,” beats out Joe Schobert for the starting role at middle linebacker. He is a stronger tackler and is not a stranger at dropping back into pass coverage.

Wilson, whose real first name is Lyndell, is an absolute steal, much like linebacker Genard Avery was in the fifth round of last year’s draft.

Takitaki, meanwhile, probably will play predominantly on special teams, where his aggressive nature will pay dividends. It’s that hell-bent nature that enabled assistant GM Eliot Wolf to successfully persuade Dorsey to take him way too early.

Forbes, who played left tackle at Southeast Missouri State, is projected as a guard in the NFL and a long shot, at best, to make the final cut since Dorsey loaded up the offensive line room with several veteran free agents during the offseason.

Drafting Seibert, who kicked many an extra point following a Baker Mayfield scoring pass or run at Oklahoma, is a Dorsey warning shot that incumbent kicker Greg Joseph shouldn’t get too comfortable.

Sunday: The final (for now) grade of this draft.