[UPDATE: This was written in September, but now it is official: The Browns have the following picks in the first four rounds: 4, 26, 35, 71, 83, 102, 123.]
Fresh off their first win of the season, the gutted – or soon-to-be-gutted – Cleveland Browns only have 13 more games until fans can start earnestly discussing the 2014 NFL draft. The Browns, with seven picks among the Top 120 (or so) selections, will be the most compelling team in next May’s draft, something that hasn’t been said about this woebegone franchise since 1999 or 2000, when the Browns had the first pick both years. Cleveland took Tim Couch in 1999 and Courtney Brown in 2000, and both ended up being busts and out of the NFL before they were 28.
While it isn’t clear just how bad the Browns will be in 2013 – they’ll certainly have a top 10 pick, but will it be in the Top 5? Top 3? – I can say with some confidence that having seven picks among the first 120 (or so) is a quick way to turn around a moribund franchise. How very Belichickian of Bill’s pal, Cleveland GM Mike Lombardi.
First, a quick look at each position:
QB: Top priority. Don’t care if Brian Hoyer looks like the second coming of Tom Brady at times, there’s no way you start 2014 with Hoyer under center. Top backup? Sure.
RB: They don’t have a No. 1 back. You could argue Dion Lewis is their No. 2 back next year.
WR: Josh Gordon, assuming they don’t trade him and he can stay out of trouble, would make a great No. 2 pass-catcher.
OL: Mostly set, except at guard, where Shawn Lauvao is a FA in 2014. Center Alex Mack is a FA in 2014. Will they let him go?
DB: Shaky at No. 2 CB (Christopher Owens is a FA in 2014), and will need a safety if TJ Ward leaves via FA.
Here’s how the Browns could draft next May:
1st round – Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson. I’m going to assume Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville) is off the board to sorry-ass Jacksonville. This leaves the decision between Boyd and Hundley. Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski was in Carolina with Cam Newton, so I have no doubt it’ll be a read option QB. I think Manziel (whom readers of this site know I’m bullish on) is too risky for Lombardi. Sleeper? Marcus Mariota, who may or may not enter the draft. I like Boyd a lot, and you’ll be hearing Russell Wilson comparisons for the next eight months.
1st round – (via Indianapolis). Louchiez Purifoy, CB, Florida. Popular opinion is a play-making WR, but as with running backs, there’s a lot more value in other positions in the first round. [Will this pick be 13 or 21? Las Vegas thinks the Colts fall off a cliff; I think they're a playoff team.] There’s no AJ Green or Julio Jones in this draft, even though I really like Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Marquise Lee (USC) and Mike Evans (Texas A&M). I like taking a bookend corner – another from Florida, just like Joe Haden – to strength the secondary, which is the only weak link on a very good defense.
2nd round – Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt. Very good last year, terrific season-opener against Ole Miss, and frankly, I’m not 100% sure he won’t end up in the same class as Watkins, Lee or Evans after a couple years in the NFL. Matthews is 6-3, catches everything, and has run a 4.45 40. Doesn’t have the size of Evans, or the speed of Watkins (4.3 40).
3rd round – Zack Martin, G, Notre Dame. If you assume Mack will return, four of five spots are set on the OL, but Lauvao is a free agent in 2014. Martin (6-4, 305, plays tackle for the Irish) should be able to make the move to guard at the next level, scouts say. Not sure he falls this far, though.
3rd round – (via Pittsburgh) – Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State. Weak senior RB class with no first round talent. When talking to people about this story, longtime Browns fan @ClevTA reminded me of how much the Browns love Dion Lewis, the former Pitt Star. He’s on IR, with a fractured leg, but figures to factor into the 2014 plans. Grice is a versatile back I wrote about last week. Knack for the end zone. Struggled a bit against Stanford, but if he adds 10 pounds, can he be Stevan Ridley?
4th round – CJ Barnett, S, Ohio State. The Browns shore up the secondary again by plugging the hole that will likely be lost when TJ Ward leaves via free agency. The 2014 draft is very weak at safety. Ha Ha Dix from Alabama is the best, but after that, there is a massive drop-off. The second safety selected – depending who comes out – could be Barnett. The Browns may need to find a safety in free agency.
4th round (via Indianapolis) – James Wilder Jr, RB, Florida State. When you have as many early picks as the Browns do, you can afford a high-risk, high-reward guy. I like Wilder. Extremely explosive. Does he leave early, or stick around with Winston and make a run at a National title? Wilder has had some off-the-field issues that may scare away some teams, but let’s see if he can stay out of trouble leading up to the draft.