April 21, 2014

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Browns have plenty to watch at NFL combine

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine walks into the NFL team's Play 60 football festival at their practice facility Thursday. The Browns hosted over 700 Special Oympians from the Cleveland school district. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine enters his first NFL combine today. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

INDIANAPOLIS — The scouting combine will again be the setting for the introduction of a new Browns regime to the rest of the NFL. For the second straight year, the Browns arrive at the unofficial start of the offseason with a new head of the football department and a new coach.

First-time general manager Ray Farmer and first-time head coach Mike Pettine have replaced CEO Joe Banner and coach Rob Chudzinski just in time for what owner Jimmy Haslam termed “THE crucial offseason for the Cleveland Browns.”

Here are five things to watch during the combine that begins today and continues into next week as owners, GMs, coaching staffs, scouts and draft prospects descend on Indianapolis and it becomes the center of the NFL world.

You can call him Ray 

Farmer is in his second week as general manager and faces his first major challenge. He might not come up for air until the draft is over in May.

Farmer was forced to hit the ground running when Banner and GM Michael Lombardi were dismissed by Haslam, and the combine will test his grasp on the multifaceted job he was handed. This will be Farmer’s first time running a combine. Not only must his scouting and coaching staffs have clear instructions on the information he seeks during the time in Indy, he will need a strategy as he meets face-to-face with the agents for potential free agents on his and other teams.

Farmer spent less than a year with Banner and Lombardi, so he has his own philosophies and the rest of the organization must adjust. It’s his responsibility to have those conveyed to the personnel staff and coaches before they interview and evaluate the draft prospects.

Here’s Johnny

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won’t throw a pass at the combine, but he’ll still be the most scrutinized draft prospect by teams and media.

Manziel was the most famous player in college football, and arguably the most exciting. Despite being only 6-foot, he’s on a campaign to be selected No. 1 overall by his home-state Houston Texans. If he doesn’t go No. 1, Jacksonville at No. 3 and the Browns at No. 4 will be in play.

But Manziel is far from a clean prospect. He doesn’t have ideal size and has a checkered past off the field. The most important part of the combine for him will be his 15-minute interviews with the teams. He will try to convince them he’s fully committed to his NFL career and won’t be derailed by poor decisions in his free time.

Manziel will meet with the media Friday and there won’t be an empty seat in the house.

The other guys

Manziel deserves his own category, even though he may not be the first or second quarterback drafted. But the combine is just as important for the other top quarterbacks.

Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles are in the mix to be the No. 1 pick and will sit down with their prospective employers for the first time. Bortles will also try to impress on the field, as he will throw during workouts. Bridgewater hasn’t announced his plan, while Manziel and Fresno State’s Derek Carr won’t throw.

Bridgewater and Bortles don’t have the off-the-field issues of Manziel, but they have questions to answer. Bridgewater looks skinny on film and reportedly has small hands, so the official measurements will matter to scouts. Bortles isn’t a finished product and must show teams he’ll develop fast enough and be able to handle the pressure of being a top-five pick instantly made the face of the franchise.

Let’s talk

If Farmer is going to reach new deals with free-agents-to-be center Alex Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward, or an extension with cornerback Joe Haden, much of the legwork will get done during the combine. Agents are everywhere, and Farmer and his negotiating team are expected to meet with the representatives for Mack, Ward, Haden and other players.

A deal with Mack won’t get done until he returns from a trip to Brazil and gets to know Pettine and Farmer. But that doesn’t mean Farmer can’t make a good impression on veteran agent Marvin Demoff and agree on the financial parameters of a contract.

Ward is the next priority for the Browns, but Farmer has to determine if he wants to commit upward of $10 million in guaranteed money to an undersized safety with plenty of production but also an injury history. If Farmer and agent Josh Arnold can’t agree on terms, Farmer may decide to apply the franchise tag – expected to be around $8 million — which would ensure Ward returns for 2014. That decision must be made by March 3.

Hello, world

Two weeks ago, Michael Sam probably would’ve conducted his combine meeting with reporters at an eight-person table. It’ll be standing room only at the main podium Saturday inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

Sam, an All-American defensive end from Missouri, announced Feb. 9 he was gay, becoming the first openly gay draft prospect in NFL history. It will be interesting to hear the questions he’s asked by the media mob and how he answers them.

Sam’s job won’t be over when he leaves the podium. He’s considered a tweener, so his workout for scouts will be important, especially for teams that may want him to convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

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