The Browns set the bar high with their outstanding draft selections in 2010. First-round pick Joe Haden, second-round pick TJ Ward and third-round pick Colt McCoy were all major contributors to the team last season.
In the 2011 draft, the Browns must find a way to at least match the success of last year's draft. With free agency hanging in the balance of the lockout, the draft is even more critical than usual, as teams don't know how much time or money they'll have to work with whenever the free agency market does open up.
The Browns most pressing needs are at DT, DE, WR, LB and OT. Holmgren and Heckert will certainly attempt to fill as many of those as possible through the draft.
While the way the draft will shake out is never clear until, well, after the picks have been made, we've now reached the point in the offseason where it's possible to at least hazard a guess as to how the chips will fall.
Now might be a good time to tell you that I kind of hate mock drafts. The draft is nearly impossible to predict, especially after the second or third round, as new information about possible draftees continually emerges all the time and changes the position where they're likely to be taken. There are no absolute right answers for who the best pick is for a team like the Browns that has pressing needs at a number of positions.
But it's April, and I'm a sportswriter, so when in Rome...
Ideally, I'd like to see the Browns trade down with this pick to a later position in the first round, but despite all the talk of that possibility, I just don't see it realistically happening.
With so many pressing needs for 2011, the best direction for the Browns to go in with their first pick is difficult to say.
Many casual fans want to see the Browns take WR AJ Green if he's still on the board when the No. 6 pick rolls around. The fan vote, so to speak, is one good reason that it would be tough to pass on Green if he's available. The fact that the Browns desperately need help at receiver and Green has the talent to make an impact there is another.
Personally, I don't like drafting receivers in the first round. Too many of them are huge busts, it's often possible to find perfectly good talent at the position in later rounds and given the Browns' current circumstances and the severity of each of their needs, the pick is probably better spent on a defensive end.
Enter Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers, likely the best DE who will be left on the board when the Browns make their pick. Concerns about Bowers' knee have to be acknowledged, but at this point, the degree of his injury isn't serious enough to warrant passing on him. For the record though, I'd certainly throw him over for DE Marcell Dareus if by chance he's still on the board when the Browns make their selection.
If additional evidence surfaces to suggest that Bowers' knee or other factors make him a poor choice at the sixth overall slot, then (assuming Green has already been taken) the Browns should look at North Carolina DE Robert Quinn (probably the next-best DE on the board), CB Patrick Peterson (likely the best player on the board at this point) or CB Prince Amukamara (likely a trade-down pick).
Part of the problem with mock drafts is that later rounds are so hard to predict, as a team's choices are informed by what they're able to get in preceding rounds.
Drafting Miami DE/DT Allen Bailey might seem like a mistake here if the Browns are able to get a top-of-the-line DE in the first round, whereas if they go with Green or a CB, they HAVE to take a DE here with the 37th pick.
While I understand the counterargument to overloading in the first two rounds at the same position, I still think Bailey is an option here even if the Browns take Bowers in Round 1. They need more than one DE (though one could come from free agency rather than the draft).
I like Bailey here for two reasons: The first is that I see him as a late first-rounder who fell to the second round because he had a very bad showing at the Senior Bowl. If his Senior Bowl performance was an anomaly, as I suspect it was, then Bailey is a bit of a steal as a second-rounder.
The second reason Bailey is appealing here is that he might work at DT in a 4-3 defense, which gives the Browns the option to use him at either spot on the D-line if necessary.
If the Browns don't like Bailey here and they don't take a receiver in Round 1, then they will likely take a receiver here. A safety or a cornerback is also a possibility in the second round, but I see the Browns more likely addressing that later in the draft.
Assuming the Browns don't take Green or another receiver before this point, they absolutely have to take one now.
I know, I know—like the rest of North Carolina's team, Greg Little has character issues. Still, I don't see the incident at UNC he was involved in as a reason not to draft him.
The big draw of Little is that he possesses two important qualities for a wide receiver that the Browns current receiving corps seriously lacks. The first is that he has great hands. The second is his ability to maximize yardage after a catch.
In 2010, the Browns receivers were absolutely horrible when it came to yards after reception. Stuckey (because he appeared to be afraid of getting hit) and Massaquoi (because he didn't have the agility and seemed to hesitate after making the grab before hitting the gas pedal) both didn't do enough in this category. Little, on the other hand, is notably good at picking up extra yards after getting a hold of the ball.
Obviously, if there was a comparable receiver available at this point with no black marks on his record in terms of character, he'd probably be the better choice. However, I don't imagine we'll see a receiver with comparable skills and potential to Little still on the board here, and I think the character concerns for Little are minor enough that I wouldn't consider taking a less-talented receiver in this slot because of them.
At this point in the draft, the Browns will need to focus on solidifying their offensive line and drafting a right tackle.
The Browns have the foundation for a great O-line in Eric Steinbach, Alex Mack and Joe Thomas, but they need serious help on the right side.
Hairston was a left tackle for most of his time with the Clemson Tigers, but he did play some right tackle as a redshirt sophomore, and his size and run-blocking ability seem to suggest that he could do the same for the Browns.
Also important is the fact that Hairston is so durable that his injury risk is practically nil, which would be a welcome thing for the Browns after all the trouble they had keeping RT Tony Pashos healthy and on the field in 2010.
Few players are more beloved in Cleveland football lore than Clay Matthews, Jr., so drafting his son Casey qualifies as a highly appealing "fan pick."
The problem for Casey is that while he has tremendous work ethic and football intelligence, scouts see him as seriously undersized for the position. Most folks agree that while Casey inherited his father's football mind, leadership ability and hard-working attitude, he didn't inherit quite enough of his father's talent to balance out size concerns.
Regardless, as a coachable and hardworking player, he might be able to play above how his ability appears on paper, which would make him a steal in the fifth round. He is also well-suited to the role of a linebacker in a 4-3 defense and could probably slide over to MLB if needed.
Another thing to keep in mind: His brother, Clay Matthews III, was also labeled as having serious shortcomings before he was drafted in 2009, but has gone on to become an elite LB for the Green Bay Packers.
The Browns have two picks in the sixth round, the first of which is a compensatory pick (the third pick in the round) from Denver for QB Brady Quinn.
With more pressing needs (hopefully) already filled at this point in the draft, the sixth round is a good time for the Browns to go after a safety to play opposite TJ Ward, particularly if they decide to part ways with Abe Elam.
Boise State SS Jeron Johnson may be a good choice for the job.
Johnson projects as a possible late fifth-rounder, so he may be off the board by now. If not, the Browns would be wise to grab him here. Johnson excels against the run, has great ball instincts and is a tough player and leader. The concerning issue for Johnson is mostly size.
While he does have a lot of positives to balance out the size concerns—as was the case with Matthews—we have to acknowledge the fact that it may be enough of an issue that the Browns should think very carefully before drafting him.
Some scouts see Johnson as being so small for the job that they fear he'll miss tackles entirely because of it, though others have made a point of noting that he wraps up opposing ball carriers very well despite often being physically overmatched.
If Johnson is off the board at this point or the size concerns loom too large to ignore, then the Browns may want to look at CB Marcus Gilchrist, S Eric Hagg or S Da'Norris Searcy here.
Marshall ILB Mario Harvey shows up on far more draft boards in Cleveland than he does across the whole mock draft universe due to his status as a standout on an Ohio team that doesn't garner much notice outside the state.
Fans always like the idea of drafting the local players, especially the long-shot types who don't get much attention from the rest of the country on draft day.
In the interest of being totally objective, it has to be said that Harvey isn't this far down the board just because no one outside of Ohio had the chance to discover him. While Harvey has good strength and blitzes well, his size (6'0", 250 pounds) slows him down to the point where he can't react quickly enough to opponents and may struggle with producing as a pass rusher.
Still, Harvey is a hard worker, intensely enthusiastic and about as coachable a player as you can get. With some good instruction and practice, he might be able to develop into at least a passable inside linebacker for the Browns, making him well worth gambling a late-round pick on.
The Browns lost their seventh-round pick to Seattle as compensation for Seneca Wallace, but have another compensatory pick later on in the round.
Even if the Browns have taken a top-notch receiver earlier in the draft, I'd like to see them take another here with their final pick as extra insurance.
Seventh-round picks are always low-risk high-reward, and while most don't pan out all that well in the NFL, sometimes the last round does contain some buried treasure.
Looking at WRs who might be left on the board late in the game, I like Denarius Moore from Tennessee. Moore probably projects as a late-sixth or early seventh-round choice, but as anyone who has ever tried to project late rounds in a mock draft knows, things get so squirrely by the end of the fifth round that pretty much anything is possible.
I like Moore for his ability to track the ball and time his routes, his intelligence, his good hands and his explosive burst of speed off the line. On the downside, scouts have noted that he doesn't get good separation and doesn't break tackles well. Still, I think he's a steal if he lasts until late in Round 7.
If Moore is off the board at this point, other receivers who might be a good pick at the end of the draft are Michigan State's Mark Dell, DeAndre Brown from Southern Mississippi or Stanford's Ryan Whalen.