"Human reason can neither predict nor deliberately shape its own future."—F.A. von Hayek
At fourth overall with the first three picks essentially locked up according to media consensus, the Cleveland Browns sit in an unfortunately familiar position on draft day: the driver's seat.
I will commence my fool's errand of predicting each of the Browns' 13 draft picks in order with a large disclaimer: I firmly believe the Browns will trade out of the fourth spot and my certainty grows stronger by the day.
First, consider the Browns' recent draft history: in 2009, 2010 and 2011 the Browns owned top-10 picks. 2009's trade-down (notably executed by Eric Mangini and GM George Kokinis, neither of whom remain with the organization) plopped Mark Sanchez on the lap of the New York Jets and eventually landed the Browns with an excellent young center in Alex Mack.
At seventh overall in 2010, the Browns stayed put and drafted another instant success: cornerback Joe Haden out of Florida. Haden's impressive generosity and spirit immediately ingratiated the lockdown corner to the tightly-knit Cleveland community and serves as the ideal model for player-fan relations.
Presented with their second top-5 pick in three years, the Browns opted again to trade down in 2011, selecting defensive tackle Phil Taylor. Taylor produced from day one and combined with fellow rookie Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin to form a pleasantly surprising young nucleus on the defensive line.
Many analysts and fans, including ESPN's Jamison Hensley, have dismissed the notion of the Browns trading down and in the same breath justified that theory by pointing to the organization's excess picks.
To which this columnist responds: exactly. If the Browns want to continue to enjoy the opportunity to pick multiple first-rounders, they will trade down. If the Browns want to avoid the pressure of adding one piece to the offense (Richardson, Blackmon) with expectations of a Canton induction before their first snap, they will trade down.
If the Browns want to continue to take chances on players like Montario Hardesty and Greg Little, they will trade down.
But, rules are rules and this draft will pick straight up from where the Browns stand.
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If the Browns choose to remain at the fourth overall pick or cannot find a suitable trade-down partner, only LSU's Morris Claiborne merits a fourth overall selection of the remaining candidates.
I myself wrote off the possibility of the Browns selecting Claiborne for weeks, but upon closer examination of the draft field and team needs, Claiborne actually fits perfectly into the Browns' scheme and kills two birds with one stone.
The Browns re-signed Dimitri Patterson to fill the nickel role while Buster Skrine impressed in preseason and performed quite well when called upon in 2011. Still, in a league where five-wide receiver sets grow more common by the season, competing for a postseason bid increasingly requires depth at cornerback.
Additionally, the smash-mouth nature of the Browns' "black-and-blue" AFC North Division would dictate a selection this high geared toward running the ball or stopping the run. I myself have both advocated for and predicted that the Browns would take Trent Richardson for this very purpose.
However, two primary factors combine to reveal Claiborne as the Browns' most likely selection at fourth overall: first, the relatively short career-length of NFL running backs, even when they do succeed, compared to corners (think Darrell Green) and second, Claiborne would solidify the Browns' defensive backfield as veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown could switch to free safety and replace departed free agent Mike Adams.
Greg Little shook off the rust from his one-season absence from football toward the end of the 2011 campaign, acrobatically and entertainingly demonstrating the rookie split end out of UNC could hack it in the league.
As the Browns replaced the oft-injured Mohammed Massaquoi at flanker, role players like Josh Cribbs and Jordan Norwood took sufficient advantage of their opportunities to solidify their roles within the receiving corps.
A playmaking threat across from Little would considerably open the field for Colt McCoy to show what he can do in 2012. Baylor's Kendall Wright fits that mold ideally and the Browns hosted the receiver for a visit on April 4.
At outside linebacker, Lavonte David has shot up the charts of real-life and armchair draft analysts alike.
The lone knock on the Nebraska Cornhusker stems from his size at 233 pounds soaking wet. But NFL linebackers come in all shapes and sizes (Ask John Carroll's own London Fletcher) and Lavonte David demonstrably possesses the kind of un-coachable instincts an NFL linebacker requires.
With their first two picks, the Browns may find themselves in poor position to address their rushing and run-stopping game. If that works out to be the case, expect the early-to-middle rounds to focus on the front seven and particularly rushing on offense.
Additionally, even should Scott Fujita avoid sanction from the NFL as a result of the Saints' BountyGate scandal, Fujita and D'Qwell Jackson's veteran presence could provide David with an ideal apprenticeship.
If the Browns favor the potential longevity of Morris Claiborne over the mouth-watering ball-carrying talent embodied by Trent Richardson, their sights will firmly rest on Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead at this slot.
Second and third round picks fall right into GM Tom Heckert's wheelhouse, (Pro Bowlers Shady McCoy and DeSean Jackson were both Heckert second-round specials in Philadelphia) and if Pead remains at 67th overall the Browns won't be able to resist.
Pead's pass-catching ability and willingness to block make him an attractive prospect as an all-around back, but particularly impressive was his 1,000+ yard season in 2010 in the midst of team struggles. That demonstrates a very desirable degree of competitiveness in the former Bearcat.
If Georgia's Cordy Glenn and Stanford's Jonathan Martin find new homes before the Browns' selection at 22nd overall, expect them to patiently await their new right tackle in the mid-rounds.
While some correctly assert that the swinging-gate nature of the Browns' recent misadventures at right tackle clearly deserves an early-round solution, Stephenson would be an absolute steal at 100th overall.
With quickness and strength equal to some of his early-round counterparts, Stephenson enters the draft as a rare under-the-radar gem from a major program.
The honorable-mention all-Big 12 selection could be just the remedy for the Browns as they look to replace the departed Tony Pashos, who occasionally obstructed pass rushers during his tenure with Cleveland.
Brooks' impressive strength (36 bench-press reps) and athleticism could have launched him over prospects like Senio Kelemete and Lucas Nix from better-known programs.
The Miami University RedHawk would provide staunch competition to Lauvao and Pinkston at the guard positions and in fact, hopefully push one or the other into the sixth-man role.
Considering the competition the Browns face on their long road to NFL legitimacy, building competently around the football will be essential to any offensive scheme—pass-happy, or otherwise.
North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins and linebacker Vontaze Burfict combined to create a swirl of pre-draft chatter about their personalities and managed to pigeon-hole themselves into the ubiquitous "character issues."
If you buy into that sort of thing, you'd have passed on Cam Newton, Phil Taylor and various other high-quality NFL starters.
Conflicting reports describe the Browns as both highly interested and specifically uninterested in Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
After listening to torrents of negative commentary outlining every personal foul and academic shortcoming of Burfict's college career, the Sun Devil will enter the league with a massive chip on his shoulder.
With Lavonte David already on board, the Browns can afford to take a chance on Burfict and see what he can do on special teams, a unit which quietly regressed partially as a result of the linebacker exodus associated with the switch back from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
What better way could Burfict rectify his underwhelming track speed than by flying down the field on punt and kickoff coverage?
I would love to see this guy with a 20-yard shot on Antonio Brown, Lardarius Webb or even the best quarterback in the league, Joe Flacco.
The Browns have demonstrated considerable interest in an early-to-mid round quarterback, which likely explains their meetings with Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden.
But the potential for addressing other needs earlier in the draft, specifically the second and third rounds, could preclude taking a sure-fire backup that early. The possibility of Cousins or Weeden remaining at 100th overall shrinks daily.
Wilson enjoyed success from early on at NC State and after a stint in the Colorado Rockies organization, the gunslinger originally from northern Virginia transferred to Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to a Rose Bowl.
If Wilson stood three inches taller, (he's listed at 5'11") he would easily rank above prospects like Weeden and Tannehill.
Wilson could easily free up $6 million in cap space over the next two seasons by usurping Seneca Wallace's backup job.
Neiko Thorpe quietly enjoyed a great season for Auburn, as the senior gracefully switched from cornerback to safety.
Thorpe's effectiveness at both positions (84 tackles as a sophomore cornerback) on a national championship-winning team make him a fantastic value pick in the fifth round.
The Auburn defense needed significant rebuilding after their championship campaign, and Neiko Thorpe's draft stock suffered as the Tiger defense's prestige quickly declined.
Neiko Thorpe could immediately compete with Patterson and Skrine for the nickel position and his size and strength make him an attractive prospect to assimilate through special-teams opportunities.
Razorback wide receiver Greg Childs never caught fire as an upperclassman like so many expected, largely a result of a ruptured patella tendon suffered as a junior.
For those unfamiliar with the agony of reconstructive knee surgery, a ruptured patella tendon meant no more football until very recently (See Bentley, LeCharles or Baxter, Gary).
Childs returned from the injury in nearly half the normal rehabilitation time, but that toughness perhaps hurt the senior receiver's performance in 2011 as he failed to recapture the explosiveness displayed in his earlier career.
However, this spring, Greg Childs improved his 40-yard dash time between the NFL Combine and his Pro Day by over a tenth of a second to 4.39. This kind of speed, with Childs' size and strength could make him a very nice late-round project.
Additionally, the resilience and persistence demonstrated by Childs' reaction to what most players regard a career-ending injury make the Razorback a potentially great locker-room influence.
As previously stated, the Browns' special teams requires some upgrades on the coverage units, so expect some late-round linebackers.
I will never object to drafting a lineman from Wisconsin or a linebacker from Penn State.
Stupar's pro-day 40 time of 4.63 and his special-teams credentials as an underclassman in Happy Valley make him an ideal late-round sleeper for the Browns.
Also, Stupar's status as an academic all-Big Ten selection could possibly offset Burfict's various brain-related questions.
The former Nittany Lion seems like the kind of character who will appreciate every opportunity he gets at the next level (Read: won't screw it up by doing something stupid or getting lazy).
Tydreke Powell's modest production at North Carolina could keep the defensive tackle waiting longer than he'd prefer.
Under-the-radar performances at the combine and Senior Bowl in addition to the preconception that Quinton Coples likely attracted significant attention away from Powell as a Tar Heel figure to keep GM's and analysts guessing through draft day.
The Browns don't need a starter at defensive tackle and can afford to take on a project player to compete for a spot in the rotation this late in the draft.
As the Super Bowl champion New York Giants demonstrated all too effectively in 2011: you can never have enough depth on your defensive line.
While California's Bryan Angerer and Florida State's Shaun Powell could be drafted as early as the fifth round, Drew Butler has somehow managed to fly under the radar despite his status as the best player at his position in the nation's most competitive conference.
The Georgia Bulldog would provide insurance against Reggie Hodges' healing Achilles tendon and healthy competition for the veteran punter.
2012 Cleveland Browns post-mock starting lineup
Wide Receiver: Greg Little*, Kendall Wright*
Tight End: Evan Moore, Ben Watson
Tackle: Joe Thomas*, Donald Stephenson
Guard: Jason Pinkston, Brandon Brooks
Center: Alex Mack*
Fullback: Owen Marecic
Running Back: Chris Ogbonnaya, Brandon Jackson, Isaiah Pead*, Montario Hardesty*
Quarterback: Colt McCoy*
Cornerback: Joe Haden*, Morris Claiborne*
Safety: T.J. Ward*, Sheldon Brown
Defensive End: Jabaal Sheard*, Frostee Rucker
Defensive Tackle: Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor*
Linebacker: Chris Gocong, D'Qwell Jackson*, Scott Fujita, Lavonte David*
*First-, second- or third-round pick by the Cleveland Browns.