As Rumors Swirl, the Browns' Pick at No. 1 Has NFL and Other Teams Concerned

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterApril 14, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 02: Head coach Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns answers questions from the media on Day 2 of the NFL Combine at the Indiana Convention Center on March 2, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"I feel sorry for them." 

That's how the conversation started with a longtime NFL team executive this week. Sympathy in the NFL is not a common currency. Sympathy is seen as a weakness. Sympathy is for suckers. Sympathy is a currency for losers.

He was talking about the Cleveland Browns.

They have been so awful, so frustratingly putrid, that we have reached a point where this No. 1 pick for the Browns isn't just one of the most important in franchise history. It's one of the most important in the history of the NFL.

There's a feeling among owners and league office personnel that they can't have a team stink so badly and be the butt of so many jokes, and not have an effect on the entire NFL.

I've heard half-joking references from front office executives that the league should take over the Browns temporarily and have the team run by a committee of Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and union head DeMaurice Smith. Though it was said mostly in jest, I think some of these execs are serious.

The No. 1 pick is always important, no matter which team owns it. It can spark a turnaround or leave a team stuck in the mud.

But when it comes to the Browns, there are some in the league who feel Cleveland has to get this right; the NFL can't have one of its teams be a decadeslong laughingstock.

An NFL official posed this question to me: Can a league be truly the gold standard, as the NFL thinks of itself, when one of its teams is a dead, diseased appendage? Read that last part again—a dead, diseased appendage.

The historical importance of this draft is not lost on the Browns. That may be why, according to various team sources, the divide between the coaches and front office is fairly extensive. It's not unusual for coaches and front offices to disagree, but the gap in Cleveland this year is fairly significant.

One scout told me that coach Hue Jackson wants a quarterback at No. 1 and the front office wants Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. But ESPN's Adam Schefter has tweeted that it appears Jackson is leaning toward Garrett. He also reported that the team hasn't made up its mind on whom to pick.

Myles Garrett appears to be caught in an internal debate over whom the Browns should select at No. 1 in the draft.
Myles Garrett appears to be caught in an internal debate over whom the Browns should select at No. 1 in the draft.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

On Wednesday night, I was told the Browns are strongly considering trading out of the first spot and taking quarterback Mitchell Trubisky later in the round.

Smoke screens abound, sure, and what's happening depends on the day and to whom you speak. But there is more smoke than a forest fire when it comes to the Browns.

The Cleveland front office, I can say with certainty, feels a great deal of pressure to get this one right. And not just the normal amount of pressure a team feels with having the top pick, either. The weight of Browns flubbed drafts in the past weigh on this regime. Consider the last two times Cleveland had the No. 1 pick: It selected quarterback Tim Couch in 1999 and defensive end Courtney Brown in 2000. Neither had sustained success in Cleveland.

Many franchises, across the NFL, and all of sports, have had stretches of horrid play and drafts. The Raiders went through horrible stretches. The Buccaneers were once so awful they were called the Yuccaneers. The Bears haven't been great. Neither have the Jets.

But the Browns enjoy a special place in the chronicles of football ineptitude. The Jets won a Super Bowl, even if it was in 1969. The Buccaneers also have a Lombardi Trophy. The Raiders have a history matched by few and recently have transformed their franchise. The Bears have a Super Bowl and had arguably the best defense of all time in 1985.

The Browns have...they have...hold on a minute...thinking...something will come to me.

The Browns have history—pre-Super Bowl history. They had the greatest player of all time in Jim Brown, but no team, maybe in all of sports, has had their kind of bad luck, particularly in the draft. This is a team that selected Johnny Manziel, one of the great draft busts ever.

The year before the Manziel selection may have been worse. ESPN ranked the team's 2013 draft—led by LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo at No. 6—as the 19th-worst of all time. I'd rank it higher.

One of the most stunning draft statistics comes via ProFootballTalk.com, which tracks players and the teams offering fifth-year options (meant to keep valued rookies). Of all the first round selections from the 2014 draft, only two are no longer in football: Browns picks Manziel and Justin Gilbert.

The selection of Johnny Manziel in 2014 was just one of the more recent of the many mistakes the Browns have made in the draft.
The selection of Johnny Manziel in 2014 was just one of the more recent of the many mistakes the Browns have made in the draft.Elsa/Getty Images

The point is clear: There are plenty of ways to illustrate the Browns' ineptitude in the draft. But this year, their sorry history in April has drawn the attention of other teams and the league office.

There's a sense throughout the league that this is a turning point in the franchise's history.

This draft goes well, the thinking goes, and it can all turn around quickly. If it goes poorly, the Browns will continue to be an anchor on the league.

"I feel sorry for them."

If they blow this, we all will.

                

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.