There are many who would argue that predicting how the NFL draft will shake out even on draft day is a crapshoot, and it's certainly that when you talk about predicting draft outcomes seven months in advance.
While we have a decent idea of which teams will be in the running for the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes that is the No. 1 pick already, we have pretty much no idea where the majority of teams will land in the draft order in 2012.
As Browns fans, in a way, it's just nice not to be among those teams who folks are already predicting will be vying for the No. 1 pick next year after just four weeks of play. But while it's nice not to be a contender in the race to the bottom this season, we are already all too aware that the Browns still have a lot of needs to be filled before they can contend, and many of those will have to come through next year's draft.
We can't predict where in the order the Browns will draft exactly, either with their own picks or with the picks they acquired from the Falcons during the 2011 draft, but we can certainly begin to form a list of the positions the Browns will need to focus on in the 2012 draft. We can take a look specifically at the best options at each of those positions who the Browns might want to target early on in the selection process next spring.
The Browns obviously have needs at a number of positions and could use depth at almost every spot on the field, but the biggest priorities look like they will be CB, WR, LB and RT.
Following is a look at the best candidates expected to enter the 2012 NFL draft at each of those positions. Here's hoping that a few of them will end up wearing orange and brown next year.
The right tackle position has been the bane of the Browns' existence for the last two years. Really, the whole right side of the line has. Issues at right guard have been sorted out to an extent, but there remains a glaring problem at RT, and there's no end in sight.
Tony Pashos, the veteran brought in two years ago to fill the role, just can't stay healthy enough to be effective or even to play all that often. Late-round pick in the 2010 draft Jason Pinkston hasn't been a factor.
And others brought in to attempt to plug the hole temporarily have also failed to get the job done. With the line in the condition it's currently in, it's only a matter of time before Colt McCoy gets injured, and even if he escapes that, his performance (and thus the whole offenses's) has suffered seriously by the amount of pressure the right side has allowed him to face.
That means a reliable, non-injury prone, NFL-ready tackle is a huge priority for the Browns in the 2012 draft, perhaps even their most pressing need of all.
As unglamorous as it is to spend a top pick on an offensive tackle, the Browns may have to do just that. If they don't, they'll either have to spend big to pick up a free agent, or they're going to have the same problem next season that they do now. That means the top OTs entering the draft should be on the Browns radar.
To date, the best options appear to be Stanford's Jonathan Martin, who projects as having the skills to be an All-Pro, and whose talents have gained credibility indirectly through teammate Andrew Luck's success, Alabama's D.J. Fluker, who has huge upside but may not enter the draft because he is only a sophomore and possibly Levy Adcock, who took over for Russell Okung at Oklahoma State.
Also on the radar are Ohio State's Mike Adams, who projects to move to RT in the NFL and should do well there but carries a suspension stigma, BYU's Matt Reynolds, whose biggest negative attribute is that he'll be 25 when he enters the NFL and Ole Miss' Bobby Massie, who is an attractive candidate but could wait until 2013 to enter the draft.
Another NFL draft, another year of Browns fans lobbying for the team to use its top pick on a wide receiver. Some things never change.
While the Browns do absolutely need help at receiver and should certainly consider using an early pick to acquire one, I don't see Mike Holmgren burning the team's top pick on a wideout, and I agree with that approach.
Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon is obviously the sexy pick in the first round for the Browns, just as many thought A.J Green would have been last year. With Green, it turned out to be irrelevant, as he was off the board before the Browns made their selection. Even if that's not what happens with Blackmon (and I suspect it will anyway), I don't see the Browns using their first overall pick this way.
But the Browns do have multiple picks in the first and second rounds, so we could see Cleveland select a receiver early in the draft, even if not with their very first pick. I expect South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery to be off the board before the Browns are ready to draft a receiver as well, and it's a long drop in talent between those two and the next few receivers who are draft-eligible, at least in terms of how things look at this point.
The Browns could look at Notre Dame's Michael Floyd in the late first/early second round, if they think his seemingly fantastic talent is worth the character concerns stemming from his DUI arrest. I personally like Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles for his impressive consistency over three starting seasons in the NCAA and his highly-regarded character and intangibles.
Arizona's Juron Criner is worth considering for his size and athleticism. He's big for a receiver but still runs well, and in spite of what looks like he could be a potential deep threat, something the Browns need badly. And finally there is UNC's Dwight Jones, who played in place of the Browns' own Greg Little during his suspension from the Tar Heels and has shown impressive speed as well as strength.
Considering how fantastic Joe Haden has been for the Browns since the first day he set foot on the field, it's easy to forget that the Browns are actually in pretty lousy shape at cornerback. Haden may be a huge talent, but he's only one guy, and the rest of the team's CBs are serious underproducers.
I still have a lot of hope for Buster Skrine, who is still too raw to assess in terms of long-term value and true-starter potential, but after he and Haden, there's nothing there.
We all love Sheldon Brown as a veteran presence and as an educator for younger players in the secondary, but none of us love him on the field any more. Brown is simply showing too much age, wear and tear and general lack of productivity, yet the Browns, lacking any depth at CB at all, have been forced to use him as a starter. Dimitri Patterson and James Dockery could both be contributors eventually, but neither is a lock.
So the Browns are desperately searching next year's draft class for the next Joe Haden. Heck, with the current state of their cornerbacks, they wouldn't have to find anything close to Haden's level of talent for the player to be an upgrade over the incumbents (with the exception of Haden, of course).
Considering their other needs, I don't see the Browns going after a CB too early in the draft, but they'll still need to make it a priority to some degree if they're looking to fill the hole at CB through the draft rather than by spending on a free agent.
The good news is that there are a decent number of CBs who are draft-eligible in 2012 who look to be first or second-round talent. Alabama's Dre Kirpatrick and LSU's Morris Claiborne will both likely be off the board before the Browns are looking to grab a CB, so the top guys who could be on their radar would likely be South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore, Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley and Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard.
To me, Gilmore makes too many mistakes to be attractive in the first round (where he is projected to go), but I like what I've seen from Hosley, who is always around the ball (one of my top criteria when looking at CB prospects). He's on the small side, but it's likely nothing a winter in the weight room can't fix. I like Dennard for his run defense, an area where the Browns' need to seriously improve.
As was the case at wide receiver, linebacker has been another position where the Browns have been plagued by problems in recent years. Those of us who desperately lobbied for a legitimate pass-rushing LB in last year's draft were left disappointed.
To be fair, it did look possible, though not probable, that the Browns might be able to solve the problem in-house before the season started. And considering that 2011 is meant to be a transition year, I suppose they've solved the problem well enough for the time being by using Scott Fujita, D'Qwell Jackson and Chris Gocong as their starters.
Obviously, the Browns have to like what they've seen from Jackson, who has been terrific so far. His contract is up at the end of the year, and the Browns should do whatever they need to in order to keep him.
Gocong recently signed an extension, so the Browns appear committed to him as well, a move that is being second-guessed by many armchair quarterbacks around Cleveland. As for Fujita, while he's a great locker room guy, he's really not part of the Browns' long-term plan.
Whether you think that means the Browns need one starting LB or two depends on your opinion of whether Gocong will really be viable over the long haul or not, but they certainly need at least one (not to mention some serious depth at the position as well).
The depth problems at LB could be addressed later in the draft or through free agency, but the starter needs to be a priority for the Browns early on during draft day in 2012.
North Carolina's Zach Brown is an excellent LB who is a strong pass-rusher and a tremendous athlete for his size who can cover a lot of ground. Chase Thomas plays in a 3-4 at Stanford but projects well as a 4-3 OLB. He's a Clay Matthews-type—no doubt very appealing to a Browns fan base that still misses the days of Clay Matthews Jr.
Arizona State's Vontaze Burflict is another player to keep an eye on, provided the Browns are willing to use a very early pick on an LB. And for those who prefer intellect to superior athletic talent, there is Boston College's Luke Kuechly. He's easily the smartest player with the best instincts at the position in this year's draft and showing enough athleticism not to detract from his potential as a first rounder.