NFL Draft 2012: How Each Pick Fits into Cleveland Browns' Plan
Those of us who think way too much about football and actually spend brainpower opining upon these things have given the Browns’ 2012 draft choices grades ranging from A-minus to C-minus.
That is a rather large swing and raises several questions:
1) Did the Browns get duped into jumping up a spot in the draft for Trent Richardson? Mike Holmgren swears not: "We weren’t the Lone Ranger in that deal." (Not that the man who publicly cried "nepotism" on the RGIII trade would be likely to admit anything at this point.)
2) What on earth was the rationale behind selecting John Hughes in the third round?
3) Is Travis Benjamin going to be the Energizer Bunny or...Mr. Injury Prone? And is drafting one WR and signing two more as undrafted free agents going to establish a legitimate wide-receiving corps?
4) Is pushing Colt McCoy out the door really wise?
As much as it is "in vogue" to trash the Cleveland Browns' front office (and they do make it so easy), most of their 2012 draft selections do fit logically into a pattern that makes considerable gridiron sense.
That is because, generally, the personnel selected and the glaring shortcomings on the Browns' team actually form a seemingly sound strategic partnership.
Whether this will translate into a celestial alignment destined to rocket Cleveland up the AFC depth chart is another matter.
And the Browns' draft does indeed start with a rising star.
Round 1: Trent Richardson, RB
We've seen multiple showings of Richardson's BCS Championship-winning TD run, but this one is far more exciting to a Browns franchise that faces Ray Lewis, Lamar Woodley and Ray Maualuga twice every season.
Not that anyone is against the one-cut-and-score philosophy, but toughness is the very foundation of this division. And there does not appear to be anyone tougher than the former Alabama rusher.
Richardson ran for 1,679 yards last year, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. No, that is not a typo. Almost six yards every single touch.
The pride of the Crimson Tide scored 21 touchdowns. In a college football season. Again, not a typo.
While no one will be confusing Trent with Jerry Rice in the foreseeable future, he caught 29 balls for 338 yards, averaging almost 12 yards per reception and scoring three touchdowns.
He's 5'11" and 224 pounds. That translates as solid. He is also young: Richardson will be turning 21 this coming July.
The last time Mike Holmgren breathed Super Bowl air, he had a running back named Shaun Alexander. Big Mike sees Richardson as the next generation of that stellar runner. Except:
“I hope (Richardson) does what Shaun did for us, but (Alexander) wouldn’t block anybody.…Trent is not just a willing blocker, but a very, very good blocker.”
Make no mistake about it, Richardson isn't part of the plan—he is Plan A all the way.
Round 1: Brandon Weedon, QB
Cleveland wasted no time in signing Joshua Cooper, recipient of this pass, as an undrafted free agent. Any questions?
Cooper may not be Justin Blackmon, but he is going to provide a nice security blanket for the new QB.
Not that Weeden will need much emotional security from anywhere other than his own heart and his own hearth. The former minor-league pitcher is familiar with professional sports and has the essential home support to make a run at his second dream.
Weeden left baseball in 2007 and announced to his then-girlfriend, Melanie Meuser, that he was going to go back to college and pursue a football career. She thought he was crazy—but she married him anyway, and that faith is about to pay off in the form of a first-round NFL contract.
Whether the contract comes with the starting job may not have been officially announced, but most Cleveland fans cannot imagine the Browns not trying to trade Colt McCoy.
Holmgren favorite and nominal backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, never the most shy man in expressing his opinions, has openly declared himself willing to mentor Weeden, the soon-to-be 29-year-old who he clearly assumes will be under center Day 1. That willingness was notably absent for McCoy.
Despite his age, Weeden is bigger (6'4", 220 pounds), thus far sturdier and generally thought to possess the stronger arm. Holmgren views Weeden's chronology as a positive:
“Now, you couple that with his skill level, which is pretty obvious on film, and he has the potential, I think, to play well sooner because of that than other quarterbacks."
By the way, Weeden completed 72.3 percent of his passes in college. Not bad.
Round 2: Mitchell Schwartz, OT
Even though these videos are called "highlight" reels for a reason, this one sure makes it look like Richardson and three of his buddies could drive through the holes Mitchell Schwartz opens up.
Mike Holmgren may be in love with his offensive scheme and not in love with his (former) starting quarterback, but at least there's enough Bill Parcells horse sense left in the NFL that even a West Coast guy knows that it "all starts up front."
This is an intelligent choice to fill a need so enormous that the entire offense depends as much on Schwartz's success as it does on Weeden's.
The right side of the Browns offensive line was made of Play-Doh last season. (Do they still have Play-Doh? Am I dating myself?) Whatever. The right side of the line was positively malleable—and that is a bad thing.
Malleable: Capable of being altered or controlled by outside forces or influences.
So Schwartz needs to be the mirror image of Joe Thomas. Yes, that is a lot to ask. Schwartz knows it, too.
Joe Thomas is probably the best left tackle in the league, so I've got to understand my role. I feel comfortable playing either side...I try to do what it takes to win. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what it looks like. Football is not a beauty contest...All that matters is the production. I've always tried to do what it takes to be productive.
Apparently, it's fortunate for Mr. Schwartz that looks don't matter. Sporting News referred to this young man as having “an almost dumpy build” (it’s a brutal business).
At 6'6" and 318 pounds (but who's counting?), Schwartz has a strong reputation for playing hard. He’s also a former teammate of Alex Mack’s, which should help instill an immediate comfort level.
His competition is Oniel Cousins, who was forced (somewhat ineffectively) into the starting lineup after Tony Pashos was injured in 2011. If Schwartz performs as hoped, he may indeed single-handedly upgrade the O-line and improve both Weeden's and Richardson’s chances for immediate success.
Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have gambled quite a bit on a second-round pick, a fifth-round pick (Ryan Miller, Slide 8) and an undrafted free-agent tackle (J.B. Shugarts out of The Ohio State University) to fix what was an insurmountable weakness on this team in 2011.
Schwartz is a versatile lineman who can play tackle on both sides or guard. But unless there is a seismic shift in Ohio, Joe Thomas will be playing left tackle for the foreseeable future.
Versatility will serve him well in camp, when he's still competing for a starting job, but the Browns are expecting Schwartz to start immediately and make a home at right tackle for the next 10 years.
Round 3: John Hughes, DT
John Hughes has to know that he is the head-scratcher pick of the Browns' 2012 draft. He looks determined enough here and will probably come in with a chip on his shoulder that could help him. Hughes will be aware that:
The mindset here is that even if Hughes ends up being the player the Browns think he is, they still could have landed him much, much later in the draft.
In an offseason when a defensive end landed a $100 million contract, it's easy to overlook a young man who "prides himself on" being a run stuffer. But in the AFC North, every team has to run the ball in the snow at some point.
Whether it's Ray Rice (if he's playing) or whomever eventually suits up in the backfield for the Steelers and Bengals, these teams will "bring it" in December. So it's not a bad idea to have a plan for that.
The issue is whether Hughes is the right person for that plan. He's 6'2" and 309 pounds and absolutely looks the part.
Unfortunately, he has small hands for the position and Pro Football Weekly referred to him as having "only pedestrian athletic ability." Ouch.
Nevertheless, the non-cinematic Hughes racked up 141 tackles in his college career at Cincinnati: 51 in 2011 with 12.5 tackles for a loss. He also sacked opposing quarterbacks nine times.
Tom Heckert, always the wordsmith, summed up the front office position:
"He's a big, strong, powerful guy. He'll come in here and compete."
Round 4: Travis Benjamin, WR
And that is why the Browns drafted him. Oh, and they say he can catch.
Scouts and analysts reference Benjamin's special teams prowess when illustrating his immediate value to the team. Um, isn't that what Joshua Cribbs does?
Cribbs proved to be a clutch receiver for Cleveland in 2011, but even No. 16 can't do everything, although the stat sheet from 2011 makes a good case that he can: 41 receptions and four touchdowns as a wide receiver, 974 kick-return yards (average of 25) and 388 yards and a score on punt returns.
Cribbs is officially in the Steven Jackson-stud stratosphere. But perhaps Cleveland would like to not burn him out in 2012.
Whether Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur plan to mix and match these two athletes, revolving returns and wide receiving plays, or split the duties more formally between them, remains to be seen.
But Benjamin possesses dazzling speed and downfield capability—something that the Browns will put to use immediately.
Round 4: James-Michael Johnson, LB
Nobody is saying the kid is Ray Lewis, but he plays hard and seems to think he can intercept anything thrown in his area as well as hunt running backs.
Johnson is solidly a linebacker, but on a team a bit thin at safety, this is probably a very smart pick.
At 6'1" and 241 pounds, James-Michael Johnson has been clocked as fast as 4.56 in the 40-yard dash. He has a 37" vertical and broad jumps more than 10 feet. Ten. Feet.
Since Cleveland is not bringing back Titus Brown, Mr. Johnson may slide right into that role as well as jumping into the special teams mix.
After getting the big call, Johnson told The Plain Dealer:
As a pass-rusher, I would say I have good timing...I try to make sure my feet are rolling and I'm rolling through all of my blitzes. In pass coverage, I feel like I'm good at reading routes, reading off of the quarterback's eyes and getting my hand into the passing lanes.
Note to all young NFL players: That is how you express confidence without sounding like a jerk.
James-Michael started a lot of games at Nevada and was a strong leader as a team captain. His biggest drawback is being fooled by the good fake and change of direction.
Johnson is in position to fill depth in the linebacking corps and play from Day 1 on special teams.
You'll hear his name called early.
Round 5: Ryan Miller, Guard
Colt McCoy must have been spittin' nails after the Browns drafted their second offensive lineman of the weekend. Except that he seems too classy to spit nails, however one would do that. Regardless, he certainly could have used a little help in 2011.
At 6'7" and 320 pounds., Mr. Miller can certainly take up space and the former Colorado Buffalo has a reputation for toughness. He started 48 games (a school record), played all but one play in 2011 and "committed only two penalties, allowed one sack and one quarterback pressure in 850 plays."
As a fifth-rounder, Miller's versatility will improve his chances of landing a spot on the line early in his career. He's an exceptionally tall guard, so the coaches will need to find the right fit for his bend-and-push talents.
He is a high-character young man who volunteered extensively while in college. That's good, because former lineman Eric Steinbach is much-beloved in Cleveland and will be missed on and off the field.
Some analysts express concern over the shortness of Miller's arms and overall strength, but Cleveland wants more than reserve duty out of this pick.
I think [my tough, nasty side] came from high school when we ran the ball every play. It's just kind of a country boy mentality of nothing in life is easy and you get what you work for and it's always just kind of been do or die for me and really most days of my life.
Oh, he's going to fit in just fine.
Round 6: Emmanuel Acho, LB
Pro Footall Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki describes Acho as "bad-bodied, knock-kneed and stiff." Bet you wouldn't say that to his face, dude.
NFL.com was a bit more kind (or accurate depending upon how Acho's career plays out) and credits the former Longhorn linebacker with good instincts, a great work ethic and marvelous character.
Let's face it: Every pick below the second round is a total crap-shoot and every player a long shot. But that doesn't mean that a quality young man can't make it on special teams and perhaps pleasantly surprise coaches—and fans.
While the Browns are strong at linebacker, they are not deep. This is therefore a wise move by Holmgren and Heckert.
For a more complete examination of Acho the player and the man, read "Grading Cleveland Browns Picks in Round Six and Seven."
Round 6: Billy Winn, DE
In yet another testament to the emergence of the defensive line as a coordinator's weapon of choice, Cleveland decided to add depth here with Mr. Winn.
Mr. Nawrocki was (marginally) nicer to Winn:
Winn has caught the eyes of evaluators the past two years with his physical
talent, but he always leaves you wanting more...If line coach
Dwaine Board can light a fire underneath Winn, he could turn out to be a steal.
Winn's talent would have probably led to a higher pick but for a rather dismal combine in which he ran a 5.00 40-yard dash. On his pro day, however, he was timed twice at 4.82.
His highlight reel doesn't show him to be a speedster, for sure, but it's hard to see the lack of effort that concerns Nawrocki.
Other analysts concur that the motor is there, it just needs to be matched by some coached-up technique and focus.
Projecting at anywhere from the second to the fourth round by numerous experts, snagging Winn in the sixth could turn out to be the value pick of the Cleveland draft.
The Browns face Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. A fresh defensive line is an absolute "must have," and Winn is going to be part of it.
Round 7: Trevin Wade, CB
On a team that boasted the second-best passing defense in the NFL in 2011, one would not expect the front office to use a draft pick on another cornerback.
But with the Browns thin at safety, picking up a young gentleman who has experience at nickel could be an excellent plan.
Wade had 52 tackles and two interceptions in 2011,despite injuries that truncated his playing time.
He had quite the ballhawk reputation at the beginning of his college career in Arizona, but production trailed off badly in his junior season before rebounding somewhat last year. This inconsistency will carry into camp as Wade tries to prove that he is still an interceptor at heart.
Coaches will note that his two most productive seasons were in zone.
When asked about his strengths, Wade told clevelandbrowns.com:
[I blitzed] and I am also experienced at the nickel position. I'm very good at changing directions very fast and also at full speed.
Trevin's shuttle run at the NFL combine was 4.0 and (combined with a three-cone mark of 6.87) is probably largely responsible for his status as a NFL draft pick.
Trivia: Trevin is related to former major leaguer Hubie Brooks.
For more, see Round Seven Draft Grades.
Round 7: Rounding out the Draft with Brad Smelley, FB/TE/RB
The universal response to Brad Smelley seems to be: "The more you see, the better he looks." That's not a quote from anyone in particular, but it sums up the attitude pervasive in every scouting breakdown.
While there's a lot of fun to be had in the fact that Smelley's former (and current) teammate Trent Richardson reportedly praised his fullback to the Browns' brass, the more video one watches, well—the better he looks.
Brad started his football life as a quarterback before coming off the bench his freshman year at Alabama as a pass-catching fullback.
Smelley can catch. He can really catch. And once he catches the ball, he puts down his head and plows into anything in his path.
While too small to really do much good as a blocking fullback in the NFL (at least as of now), Smelley is going to compete immediately as a receiving TE. Immediately.
To see more, go to Cleveland's Draft: Grades for the Final Rounds.
Because the more you see...
On the whole, the same applies to the entire Browns' draft. There is a lot to criticize about the managerial machinations of Holmgren and Heckert, their egos and certainly their treatment of some players (notably McCoy).
But, unless Hughes turns out to be a delusional misstep, the Cleveland Browns 2012 draft picks are all useful pieces to what appears to be a reasonably sane pigskin puzzle.
Richardson should be a star of solar-system magnitude and Weeden could succeed as the most prominent planet as early as 2011.
It's May and anything is possible. At least one of these picks will result in that familiar "what were they thinking?" despair. But if even four of them perform as hoped, fortunes could be looking up.
On other NFL fronts, Junior Seau's death forces one to question our role as fans in these tragedies.