November 24, 2014

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NFL combine: Browns CEO Joe Banner says finding a new QB not a high priority

INDIANAPOLIS — Brandon Weeden will get a second chance to prove he’s the quarterback that will close the gap in the AFC North and lead the Browns into playoff contention.

CEO Joe Banner said Saturday he doesn’t expect to draft a quarterback in the first round and strongly indicated Weeden would return as the starter for his second season. Banner knows what he’s looking for in 2013.

“We see potential that we’re going to try to work with it and see what it’s going to develop into,” Banner said during the scouting combine. “Some of that is just going to come from how bad he wants it. So I think we’ll know a lot more than we know now shortly.”

The new regime of Banner, vice president of player personnel Michael Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski had withheld support for Weeden until this weekend. In fact, owner Jimmy Haslam said at the Super Bowl the team would bring in competition for the starting job.

But Chudzinski on Friday complemented Weeden’s arm and poise in the pocket, while stopping short of committing to him.

“I’m excited about getting Brandon out on the field and in the meetings and around the building,” said Chudzinski, whose offseason program begins April 1.

Banner went a couple of steps further.

“We want to give him the best chance to succeed,” Banner said. “We have a huge vested interest in him being successful. We think that we’re bringing in coaches that can maximize that. It will accelerate our ability to get to where we want to if he succeeds.”

The change in the message to the public follows film study by Lombardi, Chudzinski and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Norv Turner. It could also be a reaction to the alternatives available. The draft class of quarterbacks is considered weak, and the options aren’t much better through trade or free agency.

The Browns own the No. 6 pick, and the top 10 is usually where franchise quarterbacks are obtained.

“It’s not the focus of our thinking,” Banner said. “If we thought there was a QB at No. 6 that we thought was going to be a top player we would have to consider that. But if we picked a quarterback just ’cause we’re worried we’re not good enough there just to pick somebody who we’re not even that sure about, that would be a bad mistake.”

Banner didn’t rule out any means of acquiring another quarterback, but his focus was on the one he inherited.

Weeden started the first 15 games in 2012 after being the No. 22 pick in the draft. He opened the season with four interceptions in a loss to Philadelphia and finished with 14 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a 72.6 rating that ranked 29th in the league. He went 5-10 and missed the last game with a minor shoulder injury.

Banner believes he can take a significant jump in his second season, especially with the help of Chudzinski and Turner. Their offensive system focuses on downfield throwing, which should also benefit Weeden by taking advantage of perhaps his greatest strength.

“Chud told you yesterday they think they can work with Brandon,” Banner said. “He obviously has a lot of redeeming qualities. Most of the time you see big improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 in players who are going to become good players. He’s in the window where you need to see the kind of development if he’s going to be the long-term answer.”

Banner and Chudzinski referred to commitment and determination as imperative for Weeden to make the improvement they deem necessary. Jake Spavital, his quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma State, was quoted in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about West Virginia’s Geno Smith that Weeden didn’t compare as a studier of film.

“These are guys who have shown some potential,” Banner said, referring to Weeden and second-year receiver Josh Gordon. “But if they flattened at the level they are at now or didn’t have the determination to be the best they could be because of work ethic and things like that then they probably won’t be good enough to be on a team that will try to win a championship.

“On the other hand, they seem to have the ability that if they are willing to make the commitment, take the coaching, be part of kind of the culture that we are going to create in the organization with the team that is going to be a very physical, determined, hard-working group then maybe they can be part of the team.”

Banner was asked if there was an issue with Weeden’s work habits last year.

“My impression was that he took coaching well,” Banner said. “So I’m hoping that will be a positive thing.”

Weeden will turn 30 in October, but Banner said that doesn’t mean giving him another season is a waste of time.

“Would it be better if was 24? Of course,” he said. “But there’s no reason to think he can’t play five or six more years and if he can play well for us for five or six years, that would be great.”

The former regime of general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur publicly supported Colt McCoy during the 2012 offseason, then drafted Weeden and handed him the starting job. Banner said the backing of Weeden isn’t a smokescreen.

“I will not lie to anybody here. I will not mislead you,” he said. “I may not answer you, I may be incomplete in my answer. So I’m not telling you we would or wouldn’t pick a quarterback in the first round or the second round, I’m just not doing that. But I’m also kind of implying that that’s not what I expect to have happen.”

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