I like Tom Heckert. The second-year Browns GM is attempting to essentially build a team from scratch, thanks to years of botched drafts from the Phil Savage/Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini: head decision maker eras.
Flush with money to spend after this summer’s lockout ended, Heckert decided to stand pat, only spending a little of the cap space to plug a few holes on the likes of nickel corner Dimitri Patterson, spotty Safety Usama Young, and the since-injured third-down back Brandon Jackson. The Browns have a plan – play the young kids, develop from within, and don’t waste money on past their prime “name” free agents.
The plan will only work if Heckert hits on his early round draft picks and finds late-round steals. I know this sounds obvious, but its imperative that the Browns stay the course with this. It’s even more imperative that Heckert’s eye for talent comes through. Savage was brought in because of his supposed scouting genius. As it turned out, neither his talent evaluations nor his GM abilities translated to wins on the field.
Who could forget Savage getting rooked by his old boss Ozzie Newsome and his Baltimore Ravens when he traded down a couple of slots so the Ravens could come up and get their man. (Who does that in the division?) That player turned out to be perennial All-Pro DT Haloti Ngata, who is generally viewed as the best in the league at his position. The Browns took OLB Kamerion Wimbley at #13 and tried to convert him into a 3-4 outside linebacker. Other than one good year, Wimbley flopped in Cleveland, but has found a home in Oakland. The Browns dumped him for a third round draft pick two years ago. His “steal” of that same draft, WR Travis Wilson (3rd round, #78) played a whole four games in his NFL career, catching two passes for 32 yards.
It was one of many swing and misses that have put the Browns in a perpetual rebuilding mode year in and year out.
Braylon Edwards was taken third overall by Savage in 2005. A future first round pick was traded for the rights to Brady Quinn in 2007. True, Joe Thomas was a home run at #3 overall in that 2007 draft, but the Quinn trade the Browns short-handed for 2008. Ah, 2008. Who can forget the Browns not having a pick until the fourth round where they proceeded to take LB Beau Bell and then traded a future third rounder to take TE Martin “stone hands” Rucker.
In the one year of Eric Mangini: master of all he surveyed, the Browns traded down twice and allowed two teams (Tampa Bay and the New York Jets) to use those trades to draft their QB’s of the future (the solid Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez who has led his team to back to back AFC title games). Mangini went the Belichickean way – picking up extra picks. He positioned himself with three second round picks. Two of them were the great reach of all reaches David Veikune (#52) and Brian Robiske (#36), who was recently demoted, a move that was long overdue. It would shock nobody if Robiske was cut at some point this season.
I know, nobody wants to recount the history. But there is a method to my madness.
The current flavor of the month team in the NFL is the Detroit Lions. The best thing that happened to this organization was the end of the Matt Millen era. He drafted one first round bust (Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers) after another (Mike Williams, Ernie Sims). But on his way out, he took WR Calvin Johnson, aka “Megatron,” #2 overall in 2007. Johnson has emerged to become the best receiver in the league, an absolute beast that cannot be guarded. (SIDE NOTE – this has me thinking, if A.J. Green would have been there for the Browns this past April, would they have still made that deal with Atlanta? Green looks as advertised thus far for the Bengals teaming with fellow rookie QB Andy Dalton). QB Matthew Stafford (2009) and DT N’damakong Suh (2010) were taken overall #1 back to back for the Lions and have been great. This is Stafford’s third year and when he has stayed healthy, he has looked like the real deal.
Along with Johnson, Stafford has another draftee that has become his security blanket over the middle, fellow first rounder TE Brandon Pettigrew (2009, #20). Did you enjoy that 88 yard speed blast TD in the Lions Monday night win over the Bears? That was none other than Jahvid Best, Detroit’s other 201o first round pick (#30). The heart and soul of the D, their leader in the secondary Louis Delmas? Another second round pick from 2009 (#33).
As bad as the Lions were, the one reward was the high draft picks. They managed to hit on just about all of them, something that is almost unprecedented in the NFL these days.
The Heckert/Mike Holmgren drafting stretch has been just two years and has paid some nice dividends on the field. The 2010 draft delivered future Pro Bowl CB Joe Haden, solid starting safety T.J. Ward, RB Montario Hardesty, starting QB Colt McCoy, and right guard Shawn Lauvao. This year’s version produced DT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard, who have both had their moments through the first four games. WR Greg Little has the look of the big play receiver the Browns have lacked and has moved into the starting lineup alongside Mohammad Massaquoi. Fifth rounder Jason Pinkston has been an unexpected surprise at left guard, taking over for the injured Eric Steinbach. CB Buster Skreen has shown he can be used in the dime package and in the return game.
The real big chip may come into play next year when Heckert will have two first round picks, acquiring the Falcons pick, who traded up to take WR Julio Jones.
I never thought I’d be writing the following sentence, but the Browns must go the way of the Detroit Lions. If they do and they continue to hit on draft picks, they will finally be able to compete with the Pittsburgh’s and Baltimore’s of the world in the very tough AFC North. Failure to do so will only set them back even further and make an angry fan base the worse thing it can be; apathetic.