Being drafted by Cleveland Browns has long meant a college player would be starting as soon as they got in the building or soon thereafter, whether they were ready or not.
But in 2013 not one of the team’s draft picks began the season starting on either side of the ball. Now that the year is over, though, it’s clear there are windows of opportunity for special players to sneak in and become instant starters.
That’s especially true given the perceived depth of this year’s wide receiver talent pool, which is a significant area of need for a team that’s void of competency after Josh Gordon.
Free agency decisions—including the pending negotiations with Alex Mack and T.J. Ward—will also play a big part in that availability.
Taking care of the crucial quarterback position would alleviate a lot of the woes of the team’s inept offense. But which prospects are a good fit and can come in on day one and excel at the position? There’s a debate raging on this year’s signal-caller crop, but we’ll get into that in a moment.
Other positional players with the best chance to start immediately for the Browns include interior linemen, inside linebackers and defensive backs.
Let’s take a look at what realistic options the team has of upgrading those areas by adding instant impact players during May’s draft.
There isn’t a more NFL-ready quarterback prospect in the 2014 class than former Louisville standout Teddy Bridgewater.
After weeks of breaking down the quarterback prospects, it’s clear Bridgewater’s polish outshines the rest of the crop.
As a pocket passer he is calm, diagnoses defensive sets and makes smooth progressions when his primary receivers are taken away. Having the mental ability to process all of that information quickly is one of the biggest challenges for college quarterbacks when transitioning to the NFL.
Getting the ball accurately and quickly comes next, and it’s something Bridgewater does with precision. He fits passes into tight windows, knows when and how to use touch to throw his receivers open and has the velocity needed to make all of throws offenses need from their quarterback.
If Bridgewater slides to the Browns at No. 4, or they decide he’s worth the price of admission and trade up, he would undoubtedly be the team’s opening day starter.
If you want to pick a wide receiver from the 2014 NFL draft class who could instantly start for the Cleveland Browns, you could probably draw a name out of a hat and be fairly confident with it.
That’s both a testament to Browns’ struggles at the position and the depth of this group.
Sammy Watkins, a likely top 10 pick, could start for pretty much every team in the league. So we’ll skip over him and go to Allen Robinson, a standout receiver from Penn State who could be available when the Browns pick at No. 26 or with their second-round selection.
Robinson is bigger, faster and stronger than anyone on the Browns roster not named Josh Gordon. The 6’3”, 210-pound receiver appears to have everything they hoped they were getting when they picked Greg Little in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Not just a big and athletic target, Robinson can make defenders and has the strength and burst to extend plays and rack up yards after the catch.
A pairing of Gordon and Robinson could eventually contend with top duos in the league, no matter who is behind center.
With Kyle Shanahan almost surely bringing his zone-blocking scheme to the Cleveland Browns this year, they have to find athletic guards who can move quickly.
Stanford’s David Yankey appears to be the best in his class, not just in that regard but overall. He has the technique, size and athleticism it takes to make the leap and become an instant NFL starter.
That’s especially true if he’s selected by the Cleveland Browns at the end of the first or early second round.
Shawn Lauvao has had a rocky run in Cleveland and is a free agent who will not likely be re-signed. In 11 games in 2013 at right guard, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him No. 70 out of 81 eligible guards. That reaffirms every bad or doubtful comment about him over the past four seasons.
Former fifth-round pick Jason Pinkston has started just eight games in two seasons due to health problems after a promising rookie season in 2011. In his absence, and an injury to Lauvao early in the 2013 campaign, veteran Oniel Cousins was moved from tackle to guard with disastrous results.
It’s clear Yankey would be a perfect scheme fit, and the team badly needs help at the position. If they could grab him after Teddy Bridgewater and Allen Robinson, the Browns offense would be remarkably improved and they would still have seven picks to work with.
Every year Cleveland Browns fans want the team to draft an Ohio State Buckeyes player. Almost every year, the team ignores their hopes to watch their favorite player transition from Scarlet and Grey to Brown and Orange.
The last time they tried it they selected receiver Brian Robiskie in the second round. If anyone can name where he’s currently playing football these days—without Googling it—you win an undisclosed prize.
Not really, but you can keep reading and get awarded with some words on why running back Carlos Hyde is the perfect Buckeye for the Browns to go after.
Drafting the big punishing back would add a dimension the Browns thought they were getting when they selected Trent Richardson No. 3-overall in 2012. This time, though, they can likely grab their feature back in the mid rounds.
Hyde is an immediate upgrade over the current practice squad talent currently on the Browns depth chart. Edwin Baker, Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker all spent time on practice squads before finding a home in the rag-tag Browns backfield.
Not just a bruising downhill rusher, Hyde has surprising quickness and suddenness for a guy his size. He is decisive and runs with an ideal pad level to leverage his power effectively and dish out as much punishment as he’s taking every carry.
With him the Browns running attack would be legitimized and their offensive instantly more balanced.
If Carlos Hyde is off the board by the time the Cleveland Browns decide to draft a running back, the FCS single season rushing champion Terrance West would be their next-best option.
Although he did it against lesser competition, West rushed for an outrageous 2,509 yards and accounted for 42 total touchdowns in 2013.
Similar to Hyde in some ways, West is a powerful athlete at 5’11” and 223 pounds. The difference between them may be speed, believe it or not. Both have good burst and the ability to stop and start on the fly, but West isn’t going to blow anyone away in a foot race.
He also doesn’t get a lot of his yards by moving the pile, like a lot of other backs his size.
In those regards, Hyde appears to be the superior back. But West is a deceptively smart one-cut rusher who lowers his pads and finds creases in defenses to guarantee positive gains each play.
For the Browns, any back who can penetrate the first level of a defense with directness and quick speed can be an instant starter. Add in his size and everything else he brings to the table and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him lining up back there for them on opening day.
Tashaun Gipson was surprisingly competent initially for an undrafted rookie out of The University of Wyoming. As a rotational player in his rookie season he logged over 300 snaps and missed just two tackles. While starting in 2013 and playing over 1,000 snaps he was credited with 17 missed tackles—tied for third-worst in the NFL.
Gipson will still see the field considering the lack of depth the Browns have there, and he wasn’t all bad. There’s a lot to like about him. However, almost all of his five interceptions were a result of being in the right place at right time. He’s not a true standout at his position, and his tackling woes are concerning.
That’s why the Browns could add a guy like Vanderbilt’s Kenny Ladler in the mid rounds. Ladler flashed an all-around skill set in 2013 en route to first-team All-SEC honors.
To get there, he led the tough conference with five forced fumbles, finished fifth with five interceptions and ended up 10th in total tackles with 87. He was the only player in the entire FBS to finish with five forced fumbles and five picks.
Ladler appear to have the coveted “ball-hawk” skills that teams are looking for out of their free safeties. His instincts appear sound as well, but that impression could be attributed to the things he does off the field, like his knowledge in the classroom.
If T.J. Ward doesn’t re-sign, you can go ahead and write Ladler into the top of the depth chart. But even with Ward returning, Ladler has the natural ability and pedigree to be a special player, something that's still uncertain Gipson can be.
He might be on the little side at 5’11”, but inside linebacker Chris Borland packs a mighty big punch.
During his trip to the Senior Bowl, Borland did himself a huge favor by standing out throughout the week of practices leading up to the yearly all-star game. Once the microscope was on, the battle really kick-started.
Thought as a concern by some, Borland’s short height and small arms shouldn’t be a hindrance, NFL level NFL Network’s Mike Mayock agrees, per Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal:
“People are going to say, ‘He’s only 5-11, he’s got 28-inch arms, when he gets to the NFL, he’s going to get stuck on blocks.' And I’m going to say, ‘He’s quick enough, he’s instinctive enough and he’s tough enough to continue to make plays at the next level.’"
With D’Qwell Jackson aging quickly and the team not having many other options at inside linebacker, Cleveland should solve this mystery sooner rather than later.
Borland’s speed and power are one thing, but his motor and ability to cover in man-to-man schemes is quite another.
“I think he showed he’s got the hips, he’s got the athleticism to get deep in coverage,” draft analyst Russ Lande said. “When they play zone, he can trail the tight end, cover a running back."
Browns middle linebackers graded out poorly by Pro Football Focus’ standards, with Craig Robertson ending up ranked 52nd and Jackson 42nd out of 55 qualified players.
If they draft him and give him a legitimate chance to play, the competition for the starting spot would likely be a formality in his favor.