September 30, 2014

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Combine Notes: Browns coach Mike Pettine calls QB offseason priority, but drafting one at No. 4 isn’t guaranteed

Buffalo safety Jarius Byrd sacks Jets quarterback Geno Smith. Byrd is a possible free-agent target for the Browns. (AP photo)

Buffalo safety Jarius Byrd sacks Jets quarterback Geno Smith. Byrd is a possible free-agent target for the Browns. (AP photo)

INDIANAPOLIS — New coach Mike Pettine called improving the quarterback position an “obvious” priority for the offseason and said the search will be “meticulous.” But, like general manager Ray Farmer did earlier in the week, he left open the possibility of the Browns addressing another position with the fourth pick in the draft.

“With the number of picks we have if we don’t get the quarterback early, all options are on the table,” he said Saturday at the scouting combine. “We’re not locked in saying we have to take a quarterback early in the draft.”

Pettine cited the final four playoff teams as proof that a “championship” quarterback can come from many places. Denver’s Peyton Manning was a No. 1 overall pick, New England’s Tom Brady a sixth-rounder, Seattle’s Russell Wilson a third-rounder and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick a second-rounder.

“There are a lot of ways to win in this league,” Pettine said. “They come in all shapes and sizes. We’re looking for one that’s going to maximize our ability to win. Even though the quarterback’s a priority, we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where the quarterback has to win the game.

“I think that’s where some teams make mistakes. If you surround him with a great defense and a great running game and you protect him and teach your team how to not lose games first and then to win them second … While the quarterback is a priority, we need to make sure we’re solid around him and make his job easier.”

Pettine used the Super Bowl champion Seahawks as a prime example.

“I think being a championship quarterback is not making him win the championship himself,” he said. “Would you put Russell Wilson in the top 10 in the NFL in quarterbacks? No. It’s a team sport.

“They played great defense. The supporting cast around him was tremendous.”

Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden started games for the Browns last season and are under contract for 2014, but Hoyer is the only one expected to return.

“I’ve always admired Brian from afar,” Pettine said. “He’s proven he can be successful in the NFL, but at the same time, you’re always looking to make the team better and that’s the most important position. So we’re going to do a lengthy evaluation on what’s available in the draft, what’s available in free agency, what’s on campus and make that decision for what’s going to give us the best chance to win.”

Pettine said he wasn’t far enough along in the process to give scouting reports on Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Lousville’s Teddy Bridgewater or Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.

DYNAMIC DUO
Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins would be a logical alternative to a quarterback at No. 4. He’s considered the top wideout in a receiver-rich draft after catching 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, and could create a dangerous tandem if paired with Josh Gordon, who led the league with 1,646 yards receiving.

“It would become a nightmare (for defenses),” Watkins said. “For me, Josh Gordon is one of the top receivers in the NFL. I’d kind of take some pressure off him with double coverage and them flipping the coverage to his side. For them to get me would be a great decision.”

Watkins said he’s met with the Browns formally and informally.

“He’s an explosive athlete,” Pettine said. “Anytime that you can add somebody to your team that can score points, that can make explosive plays, that’s what the NFL’s all about.

“Being a defensive coach, you think about, hey, we’re going to play great defense, run the football. I don’t think you can win that way anymore in the NFL. You have to have players that when they get their hands on the ball are special, and I think he falls into that category.”

FOCUSED ON FOOTBALL
Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam doesn’t want to be defined by the announcement Feb. 9 that he’s gay.

“I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player,” he said.

Sam, who became the first openly gay NFL Draft prospect and would be the first openly gay player, drew the largest media crowd of the week. But he said his life hasn’t changed much since the announcement that made him a household name.

“I have no endorsements. I’m just playing and training for the combine and pro day,” he said. “I’m not focusing on anything else but to earn my spot on an NFL team.”

Sam said his announcement has been generally well-received, with the positive outweighing the negative. He had special thanks for the Missouri community.

“There’s a lot of supporters, a lot of people want this,” he said.

Pettine would welcome Sam to the Browns — if he can play.

“I applaud what he did,” Pettine said. “In the NFL, it’s a results business. Can Michael Sam help the Cleveland Browns win? If he can, then there’s a good chance he’ll be a part of our football team.”

Sam said he’s heard the homophobic slurs used in the locker room.

“I’ve been in locker rooms where all kinds of slurs have been said and I don’t think anyone means it,” he said. “I think a little naive and uneducated, but as time goes on everyone will adapt.

“If someone wants to call me a name I’ll have a conversation with that guy and hopefully it won’t lead to anything else.”

MACK MEETING
Center Alex Mack plans to meet with Pettine and his staff before he’s scheduled to become a free agent March 11. Mack was a fan of fired coach Rob Chudzinski and departed offensive line coach George Warhop, who was in Cleveland for all five of Mack’s seasons.

“I welcome that because once he sits down and he senses where we’re headed and I can lay out the philosophy and the program from A to Z, and hopefully, we have that shared vision of what it should look like going forward and it’s something he wants to be a part of,” Pettine said. “I am confident when he sits in front of Kyle (Shanahan) and Andy (Moeller) and George DeLeone, that he’ll feel the same way.”

Shanahan is the coordinator, Moeller the line coach and DeLeone the assistant line coach.

BULK UP, KEKE
Pettine has talked to reporters a handful of times in his month on the job and has said multiple times outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo must add weight. Mingo, the No. 6 pick in 2013, played at about 235 pounds as a rookie and finished with five sacks, only two in his last 12 games.

“The obvious question that’s come up with him is his size and the ability to put weight on,” Pettine said. “That’s something that’s going to be a priority for us. I had some communication with Alex Mack when he was in Brazil and I know that Mingo’s down there. So the P.S. on my email said, ‘Make sure he’s getting enough to eat.’”

Added weight and strength would help Mingo at the point of attack as a pass rusher and run defender.

“We’ll make sure it’s not bad weight, that we do it the right way,” Pettine said. “He has freakish ability. I think putting on weight, it’s one of the easiest things to do. It’s harder to get more explosive, it’s harder to get more athletic. We’re looking forward to getting him back on campus and attacking that head-on.”

DQ DECISION
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is a three-time captain and has led the team in tackles three straight years, but he isn’t guaranteed to return. He’s due a $4.1 million bonus next month if he’s on the roster, which would be on top of his $2.6 million salary for 2014.

The Browns have more than $40 million in salary cap space, but that’s a lot of money to commit to a linebacker who will turn 31 in September.

“We’ll make that decision in the coming weeks,” said Pettine, who met with Jackson after he was hired. “It’s easy to see why he’s so highly thought of, the leadership ability and the intangibles to me are off the chart.

“It was within the first week I was hired. He was in town and bounced right up to the office and you could tell he’s special.”

IS BYRD THE WORD?
Three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd is scheduled to become a free agent and seems like a natural fit to join Pettine after a year together in Buffalo, but NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Bills want to keep him.

“The #Bills still want to do a deal with S Jairus Byrd,” Rapoport tweeted. “If not, I’m told they plan to franchise tag him. Won’t let him get away for nothing.”

Pettine couldn’t say much about Byrd because he’s under contract with another team.

“I had a great time with him in Buffalo,” he said. “He’s an outstanding player.”

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