December 19, 2014

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NFL draft 2011: With lots of spots to fill, GM talking confidently

General manager Tom Heckert had been on the job less than four months when he ran his first draft for the Browns.

He inherited a lame-duck coach set in his ways, loyal to his favorite veteran players and specific about the type of draft pick he wanted.

He was overshadowed by a president with a big nickname, bigger personality and huge resume.

A year later, Heckert is set for his second draft in Cleveland, which begins tonight in prime time with the first round. Again he’s picking in the top 10 — a foreign concept during his nine years with the Eagles — but plenty has changed in 12 months.

Coach Eric Mangini is gone, replaced by Pat Shurmur, a friend from the Philadelphia days. Heckert and Shurmur share a history and philosophies, on and off the field.

President Mike Holmgren remains the leader of the organization, but he’s taken a step into the background. Heckert was the front office’s public voice at the scouting combine, then he sat alone behind the microphone last week in the team’s predraft news conference.

One thing’s clear: This is Heckert’s draft.

One more thing’s clear: He’s got a lot of work to do.

“I think we are in a situation where we can draft anybody and it will help us,” Heckert said of a club that went 5-11 the last two years. “We have some holes to fill all over the place.”

Heckert believes that gives the Browns an advantage. Instead of reaching for a certain position because they think they’re a player away from the Super Bowl, the Browns can stick to their plan of taking the most talented player.

In this year’s class, that leaves them with a handful of options.

LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson might be Cleveland’s top-rated player, and could be available when they draft at No. 6. Georgia receiver A.J. Green has been linked to the Browns for months and would be a popular pick for a team desperate for playmakers, touchdowns and weapons for quarterback Colt McCoy. If Green’s not there, Alabama receiver Julio Jones might be seen as a suitable — possibly preferable — alternative.

Pass-rushing defensive ends are needed after the switch to the 4-3 defense, and North Carolina’s Robert Quinn and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers are extremely gifted physically. Both have serious questions, with Quinn coming off a suspension for the 2010 season and Bowers refuting rumors that he has a degenerative condition in his knee.

Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller are candidates, but likely will be gone in the top five. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley was the best player in the BCS title game but has some character concerns.

“We are going to try to the best of our ability to stick with our philosophy of taking the best available player,” Heckert said.

Depending on the top five picks, the Browns might be in a position to trade down and acquire an extra pick to fill another hole in the roster. Holmgren told the Plain Dealer on Wednesday the Browns are talking trade with other teams.

“But the deal has to be right,” he said. “It has to make absolute sense to us, otherwise we take the player.”

“It’s what we think of the risk-reward,” Heckert said. “The further you trade down, you just aren’t going to know who’s going to be there.”

The Browns’ next picks are at Nos. 37 (second round) and 70 (third round). They have a pick in every round and two in the sixth as part of the trade that brought running back Peyton Hillis from Denver for quarterback Brady Quinn.

The draft goes three days for the second straight year. The first round is tonight, the second and third rounds are Friday night, and the final four rounds begin Saturday morning.

The Browns will likely target a speedy receiver, multiple defensive linemen and defensive backs. Depth on the offensive line would be nice, and a quarterback project in the late rounds is possible. Speed and playmakers at any position are welcome.

An added level of intrigue — or annoyance — comes from the lockout, which remains in limbo and subject to the decisions of judges. Because league business has been frozen, the draft comes before free agency, so teams haven’t been able to fill any needs since last season.

“It’s going to be different without free agency,” Heckert said. “But it really hasn’t affected us at all.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.