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One Year Later: Grading the Cleveland Browns 2011 NFL Draft Class

Brian StepanekCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2012

One Year Later: Grading the Cleveland Browns 2011 NFL Draft Class

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    "Hindsight is always twenty-twenty."—Billy Wilder
     
    Maybe you didn't like the Cleveland Browns' deal with the Atlanta Falcons during the 2011 NFL draft, I didn't either.

    After watching Peyton Hillis ravage opposing defenses throughout 2010, I determined that the incoming quarterback guru, Pat Shurmur, required an offensive weapon with which to break in Colt McCoy.

    Two trades and a defensive tackle later, my ears burned with frustration—and even worse: humiliation.

    Who were the Browns to trade down with so many top talents on the table?

    Well, those Browns found Greg Little in the second round, who caught more passes than Julio Jones. They also parlayed that trade into four more starting-caliber players, as quarterback Brandon Weeden, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, fullback Owen Marecic, and to some degree, running back Trent Richardson can trace their arrival in Cleveland back to this one transaction.

    As we digest the Browns' 2012 draft class, the Class of 2011 reveals a great deal about the Browns' perspective when draft day rolls around.

    First, they aren't afraid to use a middle-round pick on a position they reputedly don't need—look at cornerback Buster Skrine and tight end Jordan Cameron in 2011. Similarly, the Browns confused some when they nabbed defensive tackle John Hughes out of Cincinnati and even quarterback Brandon Weeden; when the Browns like a player, they take him.

    Second, the Browns also avoid missing out on some serious talent by giving players the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questions of character; when the Browns like a player, they take him.

    Third, the Browns really aren't interested in what the so-called experts have to say. Particularly in the second round, the Browns show no hesitation to draft the 10th player taken at a given position (Greg Little in 2011) or leave numerous higher-profile options on the table, (Mitch Schwartz in 2012) when the Browns like a player...

    As we can already see only a year out, this strategy augurs well.

    Overall Class Grade: A


1. First Round, 21st Overall: Phil Taylor, Defensive Tackle, Baylor

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    Had I written for Bleacher Report in the spring of 2011, here's where I'd be hyperlinking to my column advocating for the Browns to take Julio Jones or A.J. Green at sixth overall.

    When Roger Goddell announced that Peyton Hillis wouldn't be sauntering onstage to introduce the newest Cleveland Brown for another 90 minutes, I spat out my beverage.

    But then GM Tom Heckert did me one further and traded up for a relatively under-the-radar defensive tackle in Phil Taylor. All that for a defensive tackle and some future picks? My roommates, a collage of aggressive East Coast types, relished in the bitter irony that the Cleveland Browns couldn't pull of a top-10 pick, let alone win some games.

    Boy, were we all wrong. In a trade-down with Atlanta, the Browns moved back 20 picks from sixth to 26th, ultimately settling at 21st after a trade-up with Kansas City.

    The Falcons snatched Jones, the Bengals took A.J. Green.

    Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns used that one trade to acquire Taylor, wide receiver Greg Little in the second round and fullback Owen Marecic in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

    In 2012, an additional fourth round pick from that Atlanta deal sweetened the package sent to Minnesota to ensure Trent Richardson's services, before the Browns lassoed themselves quarterback Brandon Weeden with the Falcons' first-rounder this year.

    Taylor combined with Ahtyba Rubin to form one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL, both enter the 2012 campaign as Pro Bowl candidates.

    Talyor's superhuman strength pummeled unsuspecting opponents, as the rookie wreaked havoc in rival backfields to the delight of Browns Backers in 2011.

    Not only did the Browns acquire a potential long-term starter with the selection itself, they turned one sixth overall into nearly as many potential starters. This precisely adheres to "building an NFL team from scratch, 101."

    If Cleveland develops into a playoff contender any time soon, this particular selection will likely resonate as the catalyst; it helped bear the Browns not only Taylor, but a brand new wide receiver, quarterback and running back from the first two rounds in only two years.

    Phil Taylor led all rookie defensive linemen with 59 tackles. The former Baylor Bear also recorded four sacks.

    Grade: A+ 

2. Second Round, 37th Overall: Jabaal Sheard, Defensive End, Pittsburgh

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    Jabaal Sheard finished third behind Taylor and Houston's J.J. Watt in tackles among all NFL rookies.

    In sacks, however, no one topped the Browns' second-round draft pick. With 8.5 sacks, Sheard surpassed nine other defensive ends taken before him.

    If Sheard improves on his numbers in 2012, a Pro Bowl invitation could be in order.

    With Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker providing an adequate bookend, Sheard could very well launch himself into prominence at his position.

    When you take the ninth player at a position in the beginning of the second round, and that player outperforms each and every one of those alternatives, your front office knows something others don't.

    Grade: A+ 

3. Second Round, 59th Overall: Greg Little, Wide Receiver, North Carolina

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    Again, Tom Heckert pilfered one of the top players at another position several picks below his counterparts with other franchises.

    Despite drawing opponents' top cover-corner on a weekly basis and an offense incapable of padding his statistics in any way shape or form, Greg Little managed to nearly outshine Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

    Little's 61 catches earned him second among all rookies, as the former Tar Heel shook off the rust after a year of inactivity resulting from an NCAA violation committed as a freshman and sophomore at UNC.

    The physical and character concerns with which Little arrived amounted into little more than some creative touchdown celebrations. Given that Little's name regularly appeared on the list of "players with the most catches without a touchdown," until after Thanksgiving, he clearly accumulated some serious frustrations.

    Recording a productive season as a rookie within the Browns offense would have been impressive, but managing to rank among the best rookies? 

    Greg Little absolutely exceeded expectations and will either suffer or benefit from the quarterback change, depending on how Brandon Weeden pans out.

    No receiver drafted after Little managed to catch half as many passes as the former Tar Heel in 2011.

    Grade: A+

     

4. Fourth Round, 102nd Overall: Jordan Cameron, Tight End, Southern California

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    This selection registered as a head-scratcher, considering the Browns' depth at the position (Benjamin Watson, Evan Moore) and the apparent need elsewhere.

    Cameron's ability to launch his 6'5", 255-pound frame 37.5" clearly inspired Tom Heckert and Mike Holmgren to take on the one-time BYU basketball player as a project tight end.

    After watching the production of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and to a large extent Watson and Moore in Cleveland, Cameron could easily yet develop into a wise investment.

    Expect to see the Browns extensively test Cameron in the preseason in 2012.

    Grade: Incomplete 

5. Fourth Round, 124th Overall, Owen Marecic, Fullback, Stanford

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    Owen Marecic earned notoriety when he scored a touchdown as a fullback 13 seconds before returning an interception for a touchdown from the linebacker position, earning the very rare distinction of scoring from both sides of the ball in a college game.

    That two-way tenacity tempted the Browns into investing a fourth-round pick in the fullback.

    When Marecic watched a pass bounce from his face mask during a preseason contest with Detroit, the Joe Sixpack sitting three feet over my shoulders echoed everyone's sentiments precisely: "We gave up Vickers for this?"

    Marecic will live with the high expectations left by his predecessor: Vickers moved on to Houston, where he cleared the way beautifully for Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Dallas recognized Vickers' value, snatching up the powerful lead blocker with a $2.4 million deal over the next two seasons.

    The Browns likely drafted Marecic with the desire to diversify the skill set at fullback; they hoped he could bring the nastiness he demonstrated at linebacker to his blocking assignments and that Marecic could provide an athleticism as a receiver and ball-carrier exceeding that of Vickers.

    2012 will see a new running back behind Marecic and a new quarterback in front of him; in these new surroundings, the second-year fullback will need to demonstrate his ability to fit within the new offense.

    Still, Vickers was a bona fide long-term starter, one of a few on the Browns' roster during the 2010 season. Marecic will have to achieve a similar status in order to reconcile this pick with the alternative.

    Grade: C

6. Fifth Round, 137th Overall: Buster Skrine, Cornerback, Chattanooga

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    Buster Skrine arrived in Cleveland with a dependable veteran and a young star featured at his position.

    A fifth-round draft pick might find reasons to underachieve or fade into the woodwork.

    Not Buster Skrine.

    Coming on strong as his opportunities multiplied, Skrine excited coaches, fans and media as a potential long-term Cleveland Brown.

    Should Sheldon Brown make the move to safety at any point in the next few seasons, expect Buster to be in the mix competing for a starting cornerback job.

    The Browns invested in Skrine's speed in the fifth round. If he can emerge as a legitimate starter, this will go down as one of the absolute steals pulled off by GM Tom Heckert.

    At the least, Skrine looks like a capable nickelback—a more than adequate haul in the fifth round.

    Grade: B+

7. Fifth Round, 150th Overall: Jason Pinkston, Guard, Pittsburgh

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    I suspect GM Tom Heckert acquainted himself with Pinkston while researching Pitt Panther running back Shady McCoy while Heckert was still with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Pinkston filled in at guard in 2012 and performed admirably as the season wore on.

    While the Browns' offensive line struggled, Pinkston eventually began to strive between the veteran presences of Alex Mack and Joe Thomas.

    Again, the Browns may have found themselves a long-term starter in the fifth round. In 2010, the Browns invested a third-round pick at guard when they selected Shawn Lauvao out of Arizona State.

    As the Browns waited for Lauvao to establish himself, Pinkston emerged as a quality rookie, and his consistent improvement made him the surprise of the 2011 draft class.

    Grade: A- 

8. Seventh Round, 248th Overall: Eric Hagg, Safety, Nebraska

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    By Week 7, Eric Hagg found his way onto special teams and by Week 17, found himself recovering a fumble against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    With Mike Adams on his way to Denver, the Browns will expect Hagg to compete with Usama Young at the free-safety spot, though his role will likely involve supporting Young and T.J. Ward at safety while acting as a human missile on special teams.

    The sheer odds against a seventh-round pick remaining with the same team as a potential contributor are astounding.

    If Hagg even manages to fill in adequately at safety and make some plays on special teams, he blows the expectations of this pick out of the water.

    Grade: B

     

    You can follow me on Twitter: @StepanekButton 

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