November 23, 2014

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NFL scouting combine preview: 5 things to watch for this week

INDIANAPOLIS — Once again, the scouting combine introduces a new Browns regime to the NFL. It’s become an almost annual ritual.

The short-lived Eric Mangini-George Kokinis management team debuted in 2009, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert were newly in charge in 2010, and coach Pat Shurmur was added in 2011.

Just two years later, it’s CEO Joe Banner, vice president of player personnel Michael Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski representing the franchise. New owner Jimmy Haslam is at the head of the ship, but he won’t be here for the beginning of the ramp-up to the NFL Draft in late April.

Haslam was scheduled to be in Berea on Tuesday for all-day organizational meetings. The new regime planned to discuss where it stood heading into the combine and free agency, which starts March 12, the first day of the new league year.

The combine will host all 32 teams, more than 300 draft-eligible players and dozens of high-profile agents. Plenty of news, and even more rumors, will emerge during the week, and here are five things for Browns fans to watch for.

ON THE JOB

The entire coaching staff has been together for less than a month, and Lombardi and Chudzinski have been under the same roof only a bit longer. So it’s unknown how everyone will work together.

Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have a history. So does Banner with Lombardi.

But the collection of men has never worked together, and the Lombardi-Chudzinski and Chudzinksi-defensive coordinator Ray Horton pairings are brand new. Chudzinski is also working for the first time with Banner, the guy at the top of the power structure.

The combine is the debut of the Browns’ brain trust in public, and the occasion and timing are crucial.

In the next three weeks, the Browns must finalize their plan to improve the roster. The process started with the evaluation of the team’s current players and carries over to those eligible in free agency and the draft.

If the system works right, Lombardi and the scouting staff he inherited will identify the specific types of players Chudzinski, Turner and Horton desire. The personnel people and coaches will evaluate the college prospects in drills and interviews together for the first time this week, and will find out just how far they are from being on the same page.

QUARTERBACK QUESTION

The Browns are in the market for a quarterback yet again. Perhaps to assume the starting role, but at least to compete with incumbent Brandon Weeden in training camp.

Whether one’s worth drafting at No. 6 is in the eye of the beholder.

Most experts say no, but that doesn’t mean the Browns won’t have a different opinion and try to land the franchise quarterback that’s been elusive for a decade. The risk level is even greater without a second-round pick, because the pressing needs on defense – pass rusher and cornerback – then couldn’t be addressed until the third round.

But if Banner, Lombardi and Chudzinski fall in love with West Virginia’s Geno Smith or USC’s Matt Barkley, or even North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon or Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, all bets are off.

All the quarterbacks except Barkley (shoulder) are expected to throw at the combine. For Chudzinski and Lombardi, it’s likely the first time they’ll be seeing them in person, which is vital in the evaluation of the position.

“With Geno Smith, I see flashes of everything you want in a top-10 quarterback,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of his highest-rated quarterback. “I see a lot more inconsistency though than I see those flashes. So, to me, there is a real risk‑reward scenario there.”

The Browns are more likely to take a shot with a pick in the middle or late rounds. If they get lucky, he could push Weeden right away. If not, he could sit, develop and provide depth.

Those candidates include Florida State’s EJ Manuel, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, Duke’s Sean Renfree, Miami of Ohio’s Zac Dysert and Arizona’s Matt Scott.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR OWN?

Free agency begins March 12, and the Browns have decisions to make. The contracts of two of the most impactful Browns of the expansion era are set to expire, and the new regime must figure out if it wants to try to keep kicker Phil Dawson and/or receiver/special teamer Joshua Cribbs.

Dawson is 38 years old but kicking better than ever. It will take a multiyear deal probably worth $3.5 million-$4.5 million a year to keep him.

Cribbs is 29 and on the decline. Yet he’s still effective as a returner and especially in coverage on special teams, and could regain an offensive role under Turner. Cribbs won’t command big money anywhere but will be desired – especially within the AFC North.

Banner got rid of cornerback Sheldon Brown three years ago in Philadelphia, so it’s highly unlikely he’ll re-sign him at soon-to-be 34 years old. But Horton was complimentary of Brown at his introductory news conference and Brown was clearly the team’s second-best corner in 2012.

The Browns have plenty of salary cap space and an extremely young roster, so it seems short-sighted for Banner to dismiss these veterans without making an attempt to bring at least a couple of them back.

Other free agents: tight end Benjamin Watson, punter Reggie Hodges, linebacker Kaluka Maiava, tight end Alex Smith, special teamer Ray Ventrone, running back Brandon Jackson, receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.

PLAN AHEAD

Haslam and Banner have repeatedly said the Browns will continue to build through the draft and won’t look for quick fixes in free agency. But the Browns reportedly have more than $40 million in salary cap space and must spend a minimum of an average of 89 percent of the cap over the next four years, according to the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

With the conversion to a 3-4 defensive scheme and plenty of needs across the roster, it makes sense for the Browns to make at least a few “mini-splashes” by signing players from other teams.

The big names will get most of the ink, so here are the biggest that also fit the Browns’ needs. Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger had nine sacks in 2012 and would weaken a division rival, but some question whether he will be effective on a unit without Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Dallas’ Anthony Spencer had 11 sacks in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 scheme but surely benefited from being on the side opposite DeMarcus Ware.

The Browns need a corner to start opposite Joe Haden – even if they bring back Brown – and Pittsburgh’s Keenan Lewis, Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and New England’s Aqib Talib are the top options.

The possibilities at receiver are even more intriguing. Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe, Green Bay’s Greg Jennings, Miami’s Brian Hartline, New England’s Wes Welker and St. Louis’ Danny Amendola lead the list. Any one would fill a need and generate excitement.

Banner will be meeting with agents this week, expressing and gauging interest and laying the groundwork for possible deals in March. There are plenty of questions about his talent evaluation, but no one doubts his business acumen, including his negotiation skills.

TE’O’S TALE

Manti Te’o will be longing for Katie Couric. The Notre Dame linebacker infamous for his fake girlfriend won’t have the comfort of a one-on-one interview in a controlled environment this week.

The Te’o circus will grow even larger when he meets with a mob of reporters in what’s likely to be the most attended combine interview in history. No question is off-limits, and Te’o will have a difficult time sticking to the script provided by his agent and public-relations advisers.

That’s not the worst of it. At night, he’ll go through a gauntlet of 15-minute interviews with the teams. He will be asked for details, reasons and explanations and must convince the decision-makers he’s not unstable and is worth the millions paid to a first-round pick.

If he doesn’t win over enough teams, his slide could reach the second round.

“I would tell Te’o, you better look people in the eye,” Mayock said. “I know you’re going to be embarrassed and I know it’s going to be uncomfortable all weekend plus all the way up through the draft.

“But don’t be embarrassed. Don’t back away, admit what you did, look people in the eye, tell ’em your story and let the tape do the talking for you. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but be honest.”

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