5 Positions the Cleveland Browns Will Be Watching at the Scouting Combine
When the NFL Scouting Combine begins next week, the Cleveland Browns will certainly be paying attention. With needs at multiple positions, especially on defense, and a new coaching staff looking to make the team its own, evaluating potential rookie talent is especially important.
Here are five positions the Browns will be watching intently at the combine and a few players who might find themselves rising on their draft board if they look as good as their billing.
With the Browns switching from a 4-3 defense to 3-4 under new coordinator Ray Horton, they will need to pick up a new crop of players better suited to their new system.
Though some current Browns defenders should be able to make the switch with little difficulty, and though the powers that be will also likely look to free agency to bring on a few experienced professionals, there will still be a need to supplement the system change with draft picks.
Defense will be the Browns' top draft priority this year, with no position being more important than pass-rushers. In fact, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and ESPN's Todd McShay and Mel Kiper, Jr. all have the Browns taking one with the sixth overall pick, with Miller and McShay both going with LSU's Barkevious Mingo and Kiper going with Florida State's Bjorn Werner.
Clearly, Mingo and Werner will be getting a lot of the Browns attention over the course of the combine, but they aren't the only top-tier pass-rushers they'll be examining. And, the Browns may also choose to bring on another one in a middle round, so their closer looks won't be limited to just the best in the class.
Beyond Mingo and Werner—whom Kiper sees more as a 4-3 defensive end but still believes the Browns will draft him—Texas A&M's Damontre Moore should also be on the Cleveland's radar at No. 6. He has the skill set of both a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker, making him even more valuable to Cleveland if they run a hybrid-style system.
BYU's Ezekiel Ansah, Georgia's Jarvis Jones—who has both health and work-ethic questions swirling about him—and Oregon's Dion Jordan could also be in play for the Browns in the first round; their combine showings will determine if they're worthy of a pick that high.
Mike Buchanan of Illinois might draw some interest from the Browns in the middle rounds. The concern over Buchanan, however, is his size. The combine should help clear up whether he's a better fit in a 4-3 rather than a 3-4.
Overall, the Browns have a very solid offensive line, but there's always room for improvement, specifically at the right guard position, which belonged to Shawn Lauvao in 2012. Lauvao gave up three sacks, nine quarterback hits and 15 pressures last season, graded poorly in run-blocking and also racked up eight penalties. The Browns may be able to do better in the draft.
Though defense needs to be the main focus of their draft-day attention, that doesn't mean the Browns can't use one of their picks to bolster their offensive line—not when last year's first-round picks Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden rely so heavily on it performing well.
The main problem is that the Browns don't have a second-round pick, giving it up to grab receiver Josh Gordon in last year's supplemental draft. If they want a starting-caliber guard, then they can't wait until later than the third round to do it.
That could put Kentucky's Larry Warford in their sights. Warford's stock is on the rise after a strong Senior Bowl performance, and if he looks even better at the combine, he could go too early for the Browns to nab him. However, if he's still around at the beginning of the third round, Cleveland would be very smart to pick him up.
Wisconsin's Travis Frederick played center in college but looks to be a guard in the NFL. He's another third-round potential pick for the Browns, as is Arkansas' Alvin Bailey.
Otherwise, they may hope for someone they graded out into later rounds to shine at the combine and rise up their draft board, becoming worthy of that third-round pick.
With Sheldon Brown an unrestricted free agent and having over a decade of NFL experience, the Browns may want to get younger at cornerback this year. They do have Buster Skrine to go alongside Joe Haden, but it would be better for the team to find someone of Haden's caliber to join him and keep Skrine in the nickel.
The 2013 cornerback class is certainly deep—there is top-tier talent to be found, but there are also starter-worthy players who will be available in middle rounds as well. The Browns will have a number of corners to watch at this year's combine.
Utah State's Will Davis might be an option for the Browns in either the third (if they don't go offensive guard) or fourth rounds. Though he had an impressive 2012 season, his relatively quiet Senior Bowl showing dropped his stock some. This could be repaired at the combine, but if not, he might be a good mid-round steal for Cleveland.
Illinois' Terry Hawthorne could also be a good mid-round pickup. He has solid return skills, which would benefit the Browns, especially if Josh Cribbs goes elsewhere in free agency.
Tons of soon-to-be rookie corners are presently graded out between rounds two through four, giving the Browns a number of options. They'll need to give many of these prospects close looks at the combine to find the right one for them.
Cornerback isn't the only area of the Browns secondary that could use improving this year; they would also be smart to pick themselves up an additional safety. This isn't a pressing early round need, but if they can find someone to push their current starters, T.J. Ward and Usama Young, and provide competition for Tashaun Gipson and Eric Hagg, then they'll be in a better position.
Horton has experience running the attack-style defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which means that he wouldn't mind finding a safety who not only stops the run and stays with receivers and tight ends but also rushes the passer.
Georgia Southern's J.J. Wilcox could be intriguing to the Browns. Wilcox has played multiple positions—running back, receiver, kick returner—but settled at safety in his final collegiate season. Wilcox's speed has allowed him to play man coverage well, and he could end up as either a safety or corner in the NFL. That kind of versatility in the secondary could make him a perfect mid-round value pick for the Browns.
With returner/receiver Josh Cribbs and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi both unrestricted free agents this year, the Browns may want to add some depth and talent to their receiving corps via the draft.
Though they've been linked to a number of free agents—Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers among them—if someone stands out to them at the combine, their personnel decisions might become a little more difficult.
Defensive needs are far more pressing for Cleveland this year, so receiver might be a position best saved for their final two rounds. It'll be harder to find significant talent at that point, but not impossible—not if the Browns have done their homework, which includes a hefty amount of combine-based evaluations.
With Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin on the outside and Greg Little working the slot, the Browns would be best to look at both speedy, burner-type receivers as well as those better suited for possession duties. The former may temper their need to pick up the pricey Wallace in free agency while the latter would help round out their present receiving corps.
The top receiver prospect in this year's draft class, Keenan Allen of the University of California, probably isn't in the Browns plans with so many defensive needs that take priority. However, someone the Browns may end up considering in the third round is Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson, whose draft stock seems to be rising on a daily basis.
If Patterson is still there when the Browns pick early in the third round, they may not be able to resist drafting him. However, it's likely that the combine makes Patterson's stock rise so high so quickly that he will become unavailable.
Virginia Tech's Marcus Davis might be more in the Browns wheelhouse, with great size, above-average speed and a mid-round grade. Basically, the Browns need to find someone who stands out, but not too much, so that they can get a receiver who meets their requirements without overpaying.