Tramon Williams Joining Browns Boosts Secondary but Poses Troubling Questions

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 16, 2015

Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams (38) walks off the field after the NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

After a quiet first week of free agency, the Cleveland Browns are taking things up a notch. The Browns signed a pair of veteran defenders on Monday, including cornerback Tramon Williams.

The acquisition of Williams bolsters the back end of the Cleveland defense, and Williams should be a more-than-adequate, short-term replacement for the departed Buster Skrine.

But where fans desperate for a step, any step, in the right direction will point to this move as a good acquisition, paying $7 million a season for a 32-year-old Band-Aid also points to a much more troubling trend.

The Browns can sign all the free agents they want, but the team isn't about to take any sort of measurable step forward if the Browns continue wasting first-round draft picks in the most spectacular way imaginable.

ESPN's Adam Schefter broke the news that Williams had agreed to join the Browns:

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Former Packers CB Tramon Williams has reached a three-year agreement with the Cleveland Browns, per source.

On the surface, it's a solid signing. Williams was one of 19 cornerbacks in the NFL to log more than 1,000 snaps in 2014, racking up 70 tackles with three interceptions. Williams' 34th-place ranking among NFL cornerbacks in 2014 at Pro Football Focus is hardly a jaw-dropper, but it's a ranking that would have placed Williams second on the team at the position, behind only Pro Bowler Joe Haden.

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As Mary Kay Cabot of Northeast Ohio Media Group reports, head coach Mike Pettine lauded the effect Williams' veteran presence will have on the locker room in a statement:

Tramon is an experienced, versatile and productive corner that has played at a very high level throughout his entire career. He is a good fit for any defense because his impressive ball skills have made him an accomplished playmaker. He can play man, press or play off and be successful.

Those are attributes that are very important for our defensive backs. Tramon is a high-quality person who comes from a winning tradition and we look forward to seeing the positive impact he will have on our team.

And that's all well and good. Williams is a solid veteran cornerback, and in a vacuum Williams is an improvement on Skrine, at least in 2015. Even the money isn't necessarily an issue in and of itself. Overpaying free agents is part and parcel for bad teams, especially one that's endured the headlines the Browns have over the past several months.

However, the money also is sort of the problem. There's a reason why the Browns made the sort of investment in Williams they did, and it isn't just because the team needed to replace Skrine.

No, the Browns needed a cornerback who could potentially start outside, because 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert was a disaster as a rookie.

The No. 8 overall pick in the 2014 draft was among the worst players at his position in the NFL last year. As the 99th of 108 qualifiers at Pro Football Focus, it helps to have a number assigned to Gilbert's futility.

Of course, it's hardly unheard of for rookie cornerbacks to struggle in their first NFL season. It can be a rough adjustment.

It wasn't just his poor play on the field, though. Gilbert's maturity level and focus (or lack thereof) were running themes throughout the season. At February's NFL Scouting Combine, Browns general manager Ray Farmer chalked those problems (per Scott Petrak of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram) up to a "personal issue" the team wasn't aware of before drafting the Oklahoma State star:

I don’t want to get into it. It’s very personal and I’m not going to get into details about it.

You learn more information the longer you’re with someone. Initially when Justin came to Cleveland everything seemed standard. As times went on, the coaching staff became more aware.

You always have that second-guess moment of ‘could I have known, should I have known?’ You always look to improve your decision-making process. So, yeah, you’d like to think you can catch it or you can find it, but that requires resources or things that you’ve got to really, truly dig into.

You don’t find out every thing about every guy. If you had a scout or somebody that actually lived in that college town, you might actually find out more, but then now you’d have 365 scouts all over the country trying to figure out who’s at all these little schools, so it’s a part of the puzzle.

Funny, that sounds eerily similar to what Browns' owner Jimmy Haslam said about Johnny Manziel's affinity for partying while speaking with Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal last month:

Nate Ulrich @NateUlrichABJ

#Browns owner Haslam on drafting Manziel despite red flags: "I don't know how much of Johnny's personal life was known by everybody then."

Yes, Haslam said that—on purpose, out loud—and not in jest.

And that's indicative of another running theme by the shores of Lake Erie in recent years—completely, totally and utterly botching the first round of the NFL draft.

As a result of the trade that netted Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (and the Browns' Gilbert) a year ago, the Browns have a pair of first-round picks in the NFL draft for the third time in four years in 2015.

This is what they've done with all those picks.

Clevelend Browns Recent First-Round Picks
20123Trent RichardsonRBAlabama
201222Brandon WeedenQBOklahoma State
20136Barkevious MingoOLBLSU
20148Justin GilbertCBOklahoma State
201422Johnny ManzielQBTexas A&M
Browns have the 12th pick and 19th pick in 2015

Just look at it. Bask in the warming glow of that dumpster fire for a moment. Richardson was just let go by the Indianapolis Colts, who sent the Browns a first-round pick for the plodder back in 2013.

A pick the Browns then used on Manziel.

Brandon Weeden is backing up Tony Romo in Dallas now. Barkevious Mingo has seven sacks in two seasons but managed only a pair in almost 700 snaps in 2014. Gilbert and Manziel made all sorts of headlines as rookies—not one of which were good.

And, yes, last year was the only of those drafts run by Farmer and Pettine. But what exactly that's happened over the past several months inspires confidence that the 2015 draft will play out any differently than 2014 (or 2012)?

That's what I thought.

Williams is a good football player. His arrival in Cleveland can only help a defense that finished 2014 a moribund 23rd in the National Football League.

However, signing Williams also underscores the fact the Browns wouldn't have to dump major money on a cornerback well past 30 if Gilbert hadn't been such a colossal failure in 2014.

And until the Browns start using impact draft picks to add impact players, they're patching holes in the boat with Silly Putty.

It might hold for second, but it isn't going to stop the team from sinking.

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPManor.

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