After months of endless speculation, crazy scenarios and unprecedented buildup, the NFL Draft arrives tonight.
Not the entire draft. The event has grown too large to be limited to one day. The draft starts at 8 o’clock tonight with the first round, continues Friday night with the next two rounds and concludes Saturday afternoon with the final four rounds.
The weekend will define the Browns’ future.
That’s not an overstatement.
The Browns can continue to win four or five games per season no matter what happens in the draft. But if they want to return to relevance and reverse their fortunes, they must seize the opportunity available this weekend — especially because general manager Tom Heckert doesn’t believe in free agency.
The Browns have a league-high 13 picks in the seven rounds. More importantly, they own a selection in the top five (No. 4), two in the first round (No. 22), three in the first 37 picks, four in the first 67 and five in the top 100.
The potential is there for at least three impactful players, and they could transform the inept offense.
The Browns have running back, wide receiver, quarterback and right tackle targeted and could address all in the first four picks.
“We obviously want to score more points than we have in the past,” Heckert said last week. “It’s not a secret, we need guys that can score points and hopefully we can add to that.”
The names, the order and the intermittent defender will begin to be revealed tonight.
The most obvious question comes at No. 4. Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and cornerback Morris Claiborne are the favorites, with Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill an outside possibility. Richardson is considered the best of the bunch by many experts and has become the choice of the Cleveland fans, but NFL Network’s Mike Mayock predicted Wednesday the Browns would take Blackmon.
Even if the Browns gave a higher grade to Richardson, they could pick Blackmon because he fills a more immediate need. Heckert could also like the combination of Blackmon and a running back at No. 22 (Boise State’s Doug Martin) better than Richardson and a receiver at 22 (Baylor’s Kendall Wright or Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill).
“This draft is not about the fourth pick, it’s about the draft,” Heckert said.
With quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III locked in as the first two picks, only Minnesota at No. 3 stands between the Browns and the player they hope to select. The Vikings are trying to trade the selection for the right package of picks, and some within the league think it will happen. If a deal doesn’t get done, Minnesota will choose from USC left tackle Matt Kalil, Claiborne and Blackmon.
The Browns will be waiting and ready.
“We’re extremely happy and excited with whoever is going to be there at four,” Heckert said.
The Browns could also have the option of trading down for the third time in four seasons. Heckert was the talk of the NFL last year when he dealt the No. 6 pick to Atlanta for a slew of choices. The Falcons took receiver Julio Jones, while the Browns used the picks to get defensive tackle Phil Taylor, receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic. They also received Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2012, which turned into No. 22.
“Somebody asked the question is it time to not worry about gathering up picks, and we think we’re getting close to that point,” Heckert said. “I think we’re further along than we were last year in terms of talent. So to move all the way down to (the No. 27) pick, it would be tough for me to do this year.”
That doesn’t mean Heckert won’t be wheeling and dealing. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed he’ll make at least one trade.
Not only does he have a history of draft-day trades, he doesn’t want to use all 13 draft picks because that’s too many players to add to the final 53-man roster. Both sixth-round picks and two of the three seventh-rounders are compensatory and can’t be traded. But Heckert has two fourth-rounders and two fifth-rounders with which to work.
“If there is somebody we don’t think is going to be there, we can move up,” Heckert said.
And he didn’t rule out moving down.
“If we think we can get a similar type of player and get something for it, why wouldn’t you do that?” he said. “It has nothing to do with building for the future. I think it’s just smart.
“The more draft picks you have the better off you’re going to be. Everybody knows it’s a crapshoot sometimes, so the more chances you got in there the better chance you’re going to get good players.”
The draft is a giant unknown, even with the countdown clock nearing all zeroes. None of the Browns’ 13 picks is a lock.
Perhaps the biggest questions are: Will the Browns take a quarterback, when and which one?
Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden is the likeliest, at No. 22, No. 37 or somewhere in the middle after a trade. Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins and Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler are possibilities in the second or third round, and San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley could be a developmental pick in the late rounds.
Tannehill or Weeden would be the only ones expected to immediately challenge incumbent Colt McCoy. But Heckert wouldn’t speculate whether the Browns would come out of the draft with a new starting quarterback.
“I can’t answer that. I really can’t,” he said. “But if we don’t, we’re not upset about it at all. But if we do, we do.”
The rest of the draft will be spent looking for a right tackle, adding depth to both lines and the secondary. An outside linebacker is also on the list of needs.
Bad drafts in the 13 years since the Browns returned have left the franchise in its state of disrepair. They set the path to losing and the too-frequent front-office turnover that inevitably followed.
Heckert is the latest hope and in his third draft in Cleveland. He believes the roster is taking shape and his plan is coming together.
“My philosophy is building through the draft, so you better draft good players,” he said.