Are the New-Look Browns a Real Contender in the AFC North?

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Are the New-Look Browns a Real Contender in the AFC North?
Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns have been sorely lacking in several areas in the past.

Just little things. Talent. Wins. Even hope.

Well, if the first day of the first draft of Ray Farmer is any indication, the times may finally, mercifully be changing by the shores of Lake Erie.

Because Farmer and the Browns were incredibly aggressive in the first round Thursday night, making the sorts of moves that could portend a big jump from the team in 2014.

The Browns arguably had the best first round of any team in the NFL this year.

I'm not even kidding. Sober, too.

The Browns got things going early, dealing their fourth overall pick to the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills used that pick on Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and while Watkins is a very talented young receiver, the Bills paid a hefty price to get him:

The Browns were just getting started. Farmer then sent a fifth-rounder and the ninth overall pick to Minnesota, moving up one spot to select Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert.

It was a surprising pick, but one that makes sense on a lot of levels.

Granted, most people wouldn't have thought of cornerback as a glaring need for the Browns, pointing to star corner Joe Haden as the biggest reason why.

However, the corner spot opposite Haden was a gaping hole with a brightly lit sign over it that said, "Throw it here!" in 2013.

The highest rated cornerback outside Haden in Cleveland last year, according to Pro Football Focus, was Chris Owens, who ranked 45th at the position. Buster Skrine, who spent much of the year as the starter opposite Haden, ranked 106th.

As Bleacher Report AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz pointed out before the draft, the belief is that Gilbert should be a slight improvement in that regard:

Gilbert has the rare combination of size and speed that is generating buzz about a future as a shutdown cornerback in the NFL. At 6'0", 202 pounds, with 33.125" arms, he has the long frame to lock horns one-on-one with the best receivers in the league. He also has the speed to match up with them stride-for-stride, as shown in running a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the combine, the fastest time for any cornerback this year.

Simply put, you can't overstate the impact having two solid corners can have on a defense. With two players capable of holding their own on an island, the blitz packages and coverages new Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine can play with just increased exponentially.

Farmer wasn't even close to being done.

When the Philadelphia Eagles went on the clock at No. 22, the Browns struck again, sending one of their third-round picks to the Eagles for the right to move up four spots.

And take some kid named Johnny Manziel.

Granted, there are plenty of people who doubt Manziel's ability to be an effective NFL quarterback. He's too small. His mechanics would be bad if he actually had any. His reckless scrambling has caused many an NFL quarterback to get their block knocked off.

There's also the matter of the hype that follows "Johnny Football" wherever he goes, and the fact that the 22nd pick hasn't been kind to the Browns in recent years:

Shudder.

Still, the Browns have been looking for a quarterback since they re-entered the NFL. Fifteen years ago. With all due respect to Brian Hoyer, who was a nice story last year, Hoyer is on his third NFL team, has four career starts and is coming off a torn ACL.

Manziel may not get it done the way coaches draw it up, but he spent the last two years getting it done in the toughest conference in college football.

Also, as Albert Breer of NFL.com pointed out, Manziel will play for the offensive coordinator who made a rookie star of Robert Griffin, and Manziel won't be inheriting an empty cupboard in the passing game:

Never mind the sight of Browns fans cheering and high-fiving the pick. For a franchise that has experienced sorrow and disappointment on every level imaginable (including losing the team altogether), just the positive mojo the Manziel pick could have on the franchise could wind up having a real effect on the field.

You hear that you suck enough times, you just might believe it.

And that's the thing. The Browns, on paper anyway, don't look like a team that sucks, especially after filling two big holes.

Thursday's moves were almost universally hailed by the media:

That was for good reason. If you drew up a list of Cleveland's biggest needs on both sides of the ball, quarterback and cornerback would be right at the top.

The Browns not only crossed those needs off the list, but also picked up an extra first-round pick next year in the process.

Does this one day make the Browns a playoff contender? That may be stretching optimism to the brink of delusion.

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Let's just everyone step away from the orange Kool-Aid and take a deep breath.

After all, the Cincinnati Bengals have been to the playoffs three years running. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl two years ago. The Pittsburgh Steelers' idea of a "down" year is going 8-8.

And there's still work to be done in Cleveland—at receiver, on the offensive line and perhaps in the backfield.

Still, the Browns have plenty of picks with which to address those holes Friday and Saturday. The team picks third Friday, and even after trading with Philly the Browns still have a third-round pick in the hole.

So, are the new-look Cleveland Browns a contender? Not yet.

But if Thursday's first round was any indication, Farmer isn't going to sit on his hands. By God, he's going to build them into one.

And that's enough to make this the most exciting day for fans of the Cleveland Browns in quite some time.

Woof! Woof! Woof!

 

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