The scouting combine begins Thursday in Indianapolis. Not only does it start the run-up to the draft April 26-28, it leads into free agency, which begins March 13.
The heavy lifting in the restructuring of the Browns roster will take place in the next two-plus months. Whether they’re able to improve on last season’s 4-12 mark and begin an upward climb to respectability, contention and the playoffs will depend largely on what players they re-sign and acquire from now until the end of April.
The combine won’t determine whom the Browns will draft by itself, but it’s a step in the process. It’s also the only setting where 32 teams — coaches and front office personnel — more than 300 draft-eligible players and hundreds of agents and media members gather for several days. Impressions are made, trades are discussed, players are re-signed and the groundwork is laid for free-agent signings.
Here are five areas that will hopefully receive some clarity in Indy.
Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is grabbing most of the headlines entering the combine, especially in Northeast Ohio. He’s been called the most exciting player in the draft and told Dan Patrick on Tuesday he will run a sub-4.5 40-yard dash at the combine.
He said he probably won’t throw, but there will still be plenty to learn about the Heisman Trophy winner who burst onto the scene in 2011. His height is at the top of the list.
If he’s only 6-foot, his stock will fall with some talent evaluators. If he’s 6-2 like Aaron Rodgers (he’s likely to be somewhere in the middle), the lovefest will gain even more momentum.
The other key evaluation will take place behind the scenes, as teams get to interview Griffin for the first time. He’s a sharp guy who is close to earning a master’s degree, but the scrutiny he’ll endure over the weekend will be a new experience and could create some uneasiness.
Griffin is a good bet to impress in interviews and in whatever drills he does on the field. He’s a special athlete.
Let’s make a deal
Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is the team’s top priority when it comes to keeping its free agents. Talks began last week, and both sides want to reach a multiyear deal.
The combine is a good place for general managers and agents to meet, so an agreement may be reached. If not, the Browns could be forced to use the franchise tag to keep Jackson for 2012. The deadline for applying the tag is March 5.
Jackson isn’t the only notable free agent. Running back Peyton Hillis is set to hit the market March 13, and the Browns’ feelings on bringing him back are unclear after a season filled with more drama than highlights. That could change in the next few days, as their intention to re-sign him or willingness to let him go might become apparent.
The same should be true for the rest of their free agents. Kicker Phil Dawson can be franchised for the second straight year, but if the tag is needed for Jackson, the Browns may allow the only holdover from the expansion team of 1999 to test the market.
Cornerback Dimitri Patterson and tight end Alex Smith were unsung contributors in 2011 and the team would like to re-sign them. A deal seems likely for Smith, but Patterson may be looking for starter money while the Browns have him valued as a nickelback.
The Browns may also make a surprise cut or two. Guard Eric Steinbach, right tackle Tony Pashos, cornerback Sheldon Brown and linebacker Scott Fujita are over 30 and scheduled to make millions, and all but Brown missed time to injury in 2011. The Browns could try to restructure their contracts or move on.
Despite all the talk about Griffin, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon remains a real possibility for the Browns at No. 4 in the draft — especially if they sign free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn.
Blackmon is known for his physicality and not his speed, but he can’t run too slowly at Lucas Oil Stadium. If he runs a 4.6-second 40, many scouts would take him out of consideration for a top-five or top-10 pick.
More likely for the Browns is a receiver at No. 22 or 37 — if they don’t have to give up the picks for Griffin. After Blackmon, Baylor’s Kendall Wright could be the fastest of the group, and the Browns need speed to pair with the size of Greg Little and Joshua Cribbs.
The 40 time isn’t the end-all, be-all, but speed matters at receiver and the combine gives teams the opportunity to time everyone on the same surface.
A Colt commitment
General manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur haven’t faced the media since just after the season, when they expressed their support for quarterback Colt McCoy but didn’t commit to him as the starter for 2012. They’ll have plenty of chances in the next few days.
All the talk about Flynn and Griffin wouldn’t disappear with a public reaffirmation of McCoy, but it would fade into the background. A pledge to McCoy as the starter isn’t likely, but it would free up the Browns to address other needs in free agency and the draft and completely shift the focus.
While momentum builds for Flynn or Griffin, there is an argument that McCoy deserves more time. He’s started only 21 games, was new to Shurmur’s West Coast Offense last season and hasn’t exactly been surrounded by an arsenal of weapons.
How the Browns proceed at quarterback will be the story of the offseason and define their future.
X-rays and MRIs
North Ridgeville’s Jordan White posted huge numbers as a receiver for Western Michigan — leading the nation with 140 catches in 2011 and adding 1,911 yards and 17 touchdowns — but he may not hear his name called on draft weekend.
White tore the anterior cruciate ligament in each knee early in his career. He responded with three productive years as a starter, but will be prodded by doctors this week like never before. NFL teams want every piece of information possible to manage their risk.
If White gets positive feedback from the doctors, he can focus on improving his draft status. If not, he’ll have to hope to be signed after the draft and make it the hard way.