Previewing What the Cleveland Browns Will Be Looking for at the Scouting Combine
It’s that time of year again. Time for prospects to throw on some Under Armor and see how fast they can run in a straight line for NFL teams. This year, however, the Cleveland Browns have tons of ammo and a chance to make some heavy improvements.
Teams use the scouting combine to find out how players perform under the pressure of competition of their peers as well as the pressure of questions from executives. As silly as it sounds, a .5-second difference in a 40-yard dash time can cost a prospect millions of dollars. A puzzling answer in an interview can cost millions just the same.
The Browns, like every team, will be looking for the very best players they can add to their organization. They will grade the players based on overall talent and slant that analysis with a view toward their own personal needs.
Fortunately for the Browns, they need a lot. The abundance of needs means they should be open to drafting just about every position on the field. Let’s take a look at some of the types of players they will covet.
Ah, yes, the ever elusive franchise quarterback. Every draft, a handful of general managers roll the dice on a young crop of signal-callers only to have most of them come up snake eyes. There are only about a dozen true franchise quarterbacks in the NFL.
That means that once again the Browns will be deep-sea fishing with the sharks. The difference this year, however, is that they will be fishing in the deep end of the ocean.
The Browns have not drafted a quarterback higher than 22nd since 1999 when they first returned to the NFL. The common thought is that the Browns do this every year. In reality, if they use the fourth pick or possibly trade up for a quarterback, it would actually be trying something new.
The best talent at the quarterback position is almost always found at the top of the draft. Whether it is Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, UCF’s Blake Bortles or Fresno State’s Derek Carr, the Browns have to identify who can revive their franchise.
The latest trend is for quarterbacks to do very little at the scouting combine and opt for a controlled environment of their liking. Perhaps bucking that trend, Bortles is preparing to do everything at the combine according to Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel.
No matter where the prospects work out, the Browns need to find the guy to lead them out of the doldrums of the league. Because if they draft the wrong guy again, it will be another four or five years of miserable football before they reset the position.
The above video shows Manziel and how he projects to Robert Griffin III in the NFL. If the Browns select Manziel, they don’t just get a talented player, however. They will also get a media circus.
Workhorse Running Back
The Browns have plenty of money to chase after big-name free agents like running back Ben Tate, and they may even choose to do so. No matter what, they will be looking to add someone who is capable of carrying the ball more than 20 times a game.
The shelf life of running backs in the NFL is extremely short in this day and age. It used to be that backs were washed up when they hit the age of 30. Now it happens even sooner.
Another free agent, Maurice Jones-Drew, was one of the best backs in the league just two short years ago. Now, at age 28, he is coming off back-to-back bad seasons. After averaging 1,440 yards per year over a three-year span, Jones has just 1,217 yards combined in the past two.
The old philosophy about taking an impact running back early in the draft is long gone as well. Of the top five rushers in the NFL in 2013, one was a first-round pick, two were second-round selections, one was a third and one was a sixth-round pick.
The Browns have five picks between the second and fourth round, and I expect them to use one of them on a running back. They can strike gold in this part of the draft on a ball-carrier. In fact, it is the best value-to-risk ratio of any position on the field.
The video above is of Arizona State running back Marion Grice. He is an outstanding runner inside and out and has the speed to change a game from his position.
Second and Third Receivers
Poor Josh Gordon. He led the NFL in receiving in 2013 and will obviously be the victim of double-team coverage the entire season. If the Browns do not find him some help, then he could find it difficult to operate on Sundays.
The Browns will probably address these needs through both the draft and free agency, but either way, they need a completely new stable of receivers around Gordon.
Greg Little was an absolute disaster of a second-round draft pick. Since Davone Bess went off the deep end, it looks like the trade for him was unproductive. Josh Cooper is a decent fourth or fifth receiver, but nothing more.
The only glimmer of hope is Travis Benjamin, but he is tiny and coming off of a season-ending knee injury. The Browns need another deep threat and a possession receiver. They should probably add some more depth at the position as well.
This draft is loaded with talent at wide receiver, and the Browns could even see a first-round guy fall to them at the top of the second round. Those same five picks between the second and fourth rounds that I referenced earlier should come in handy when picking receivers.
The video above is of Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin. He has size, strength and great hands. He would be an interesting complement to Gordon on the field.
Bull-Dozing Offensive Linemen
The Browns have not had a dominant offensive line since they returned to the NFL, but in 2013, that was supposed to be different. Unfortunately, injuries and performance dips made them a below-average line once again.
Since 2002, the Browns have had a rushing offense ranked better than 20th just twice. This past season, they were ranked 27th in rushing offense and gave up the third-most sacks in the NFL. They have to find some answers.
This draft has an abundance of talent in the trenches, and the Browns need to scoop some of it up.
In the past, they have opted for finesse players who have great technique. I think it's time to get some mean earthmovers to block for whoever is playing quarterback.
They can draft two guards and try to fix right tackle Mitchell Schwartz’s issues from 2013. They could also draft a right tackle and move Schwartz inside the guard if they feel it will help.
Either way, they need a ton of help because if center Alex Mack walks in free agency, then that leaves just one solid piece on the line: left tackle Joe Thomas.
The above video is a prospect the Browns could look to for some answers. Zack Martin from Notre Dame can play either guard or tackle in the NFL and should bring some nasty to the next level.
Last offseason, the Browns bolstered their pass rush by drafting outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and signing Paul Kruger to play opposite him. While that looked like it worked for the first month or so, injuries derailed the plan.
The Browns were exposed as a very thin pass-rushing unit once outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves went down with injuries. Mingo had just two sacks over his final 12 games, and Kruger finished the year with just 4.5 sacks.
Even the defensive line struggled late in the year with the pass rush.
Despite having the most sacks in the NFL about halfway through the season, the Browns finished with 40 on the year. That was only good enough for 16th in the league. This was due in large part to a stretch of play spanning nearly three games where the Browns failed to register a sack.
The Browns need more depth and speed at those positions. They will likely need two more outside linebackers, another defensive lineman and two more inside linebackers. If there is a defensive player who can rush the passer, the Browns should be interested.
The above video shows Christian Jones from Florida State. He is an athletic freak who has played both inside and out at linebacker. He could help fill multiple holes on the defense and bring an intense pass rush.
A Second Cornerback
The Browns saw cornerback Joe Haden blossom into the Pro Bowler they always knew he could be in 2013. They also found out they have another very solid corner in Buster Skrine. And while Skrine played well, it was still obvious he needs to be inside at nickelback.
The Browns desperately need to find a second corner to play alongside of Haden. Skrine is feisty and can contest passes but struggles when jamming at the line of scrimmage as second corners are often asked to do.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Browns were ranked fourth in the NFL against their opponent’s primary receiving option. Against the second receiver, they ranked 23rd in the NFL, and against the third target, they ranked 17th.
If the Browns had a solid second corner, it would allow Skrine to move inside and help their defense against both second and third receivers.
The Browns need to find a corner who is physical at the line of scrimmage. They need a bigger body to play bully and balance out Haden’s finesse game.
Above is a video of Marcus Roberson from Florida. While he will need to add muscle once he gets to the NFL, he already has above-average press skills. He has the perfect makeup to run alongside Haden and should be available in the middle rounds.
If the Browns sign Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward to a contract extension or designate him with the franchise tag, then they should just be looking for depth in the draft. If they do not bring him back, it could be a starter they need.
Even if Ward returns, however, his future is not certain. If the Browns give him the franchise tag and he proves that 2013 was a fluke year, or he cannot stay healthy, they will need someone who can seamlessly step into that role.
Originally, the 2013 draft was thought to be very weak at safety. But once the college season concluded, the experts felt a little better. While there are not as many elite-level safeties as teams would like, the Browns are not in the market for a safety high in the draft.
They need depth and someone who can grow into a solid starter at the position.
Deone Bucannon from Washington State is an interesting prospect at strong safety. He is among the heaviest hitters in the draft. If he slips into the third round, the Browns could be a team that would snatch him up. Above is a video of him and his pro player comparison.
Dynamic Kickoff Return Man
Travis Benjamin established himself as one of the best punt returners in the NFL last season, but the Browns never found an answer on kickoffs.
Despite the decreased emphasis on kickoff returns, you still have to have a weapon who is a threat for a return but also knows when to take a knee. The Browns will be looking for this in the 2013 draft.
They may not draft a player specifically for this role but will be looking at return ability in players they draft at other positions. The Browns cannot afford to have a rotating stable like in 2013.
The video above is of De’Anthony Thomas from Oregon who could be scooped up in the late rounds as running back depth and a kick returner. At 5’9”, 170 pounds, he is not very big but has crazy speed and playmaking ability.