When news broke that the Cleveland Browns had traded away star running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for the Colts 2014 first-round pick, praise rained down on the Colts for making such a brilliant move. The Browns meanwhile were mocked for giving up on the player who was just the third overall selection a year ago and coming off an 11-touchdown season as a rookie. The trade was obviously a move for the future, with the Browns new front office already working towards their plan for the 2014 NFL Draft and beyond. General Manager Michael Lombardi and Chief Executive Officer Joe Banner didn’t like the old regime’s selection of Richardson, so they moved him for a first-round selection of their choice. Cleveland will now have two first-round picks next year, but what needs really stand out for them as their top priorities.
Let’s face it, when then Browns general manager Tom Heckert drafted Brandon Weeden with the 22nd Overall pick in the 2012 draft, many knew Weeden would only be a short-term solution at quarterback. Now just a year later the 29-year-old quarterback could soon be benched in favor of Brian Hoyer. Lombardi and head coach Rob Chudzinski obviously aren’t believers in Weeden and are ready to move on. So heading into the draft, the team’s biggest need is at quarterback.
Cleveland is one of the worst teams in football with Hoyer at quarterback and recently signed Willis McGahee replacing Richardson. But the Browns defense may be good enough to prevent them from finishing with the worst record in football. If they were to land the first pick, they would without a doubt have to be targeting Louisville Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. While Bridgewater is just a junior and could stay for another season, he is projected as a top-three selection and many view as an elite-level prospect.
Cleveland would love to have Bridgewater as its quarterback of the future. He brings all the physical gifts you would want in a franchise quarterback, while also possessing excellent leadership, toughness and maturity beyond that of his peers. But Cleveland is also taking a big risk here, as Bridgewater is the best-case scenario for them. A more realistic scenario is they finish with the third overall pick behind the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, both teams that need a quarterback and would take Bridgewater in a split-second.
There are some other outstanding quarterbacks eligible for the 2014 Draft, like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But both players are redshirt sophomores who need to develop and easily could make the decision to stay at school for another year. The only top quarterback prospect who is guaranteed to enter the draft is Clemson’s Tajh Boyd but they could be reaching for him with the third overall pick. Boyd has shown improvement this year and could emerge as a top-ten selection, but he doesn’t stack up to Bridgewater, Mariota or Hundley.
This is the risk the Browns took when they traded away Richardson and one of the many reasons why we can’t judge this trade right away. If they end up with Bridgewater and he becomes a star like many expect, they become the winner of this trade. No matter what happens though the Browns will be looking at a quarterback with their first selection and it is the most glaring need for this team.
After trading away Richardson, running back is clearly another big need for this team. McGahee is 31 and coming off a career filled with injuries he is likely to be gone after this season. The team liked what they saw from backup Dion Lewis in the preseason, but he fractured his fibula in the final preseason game and was lost for the season. Chris Ogbonnaya is the longest tenured back for this team and will get snaps, but he is most effective as a blocker and was spending time at fullback. The current starter now is Bobby Rainey but he is served better as a change-of-pace back and can’t be relied upon for a heavy workload.
There just aren’t many options on this roster or in free agency, making running back a big need heading into next year. But as this front office has already shown, they do not believe in investing early draft picks on a running back. The 2014 class is full of talent backs like Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. But all four running backs should be available after the first round and teams always seem to find late-round gems that wind up quality starters at running back. While this team will need to find Richardson’s replacement, it won’t come early in the draft.
After Cleveland finds its quarterback of the future, it will need to start finding some receivers for him to work with. While Josh Gordon has dazzled when he is on the field, he is just one screw up away from a yearlong suspension. Gordon has acknowledged this and hopefully he can turn it around but even with him playing, this team needs help.
While Gordon has started to shine early in his career, former second-round pick Greg Little has regressed since he was drafted in 2011. Even if you ignore his issues off the field, Little has struggled with drops and consistency for a while now. He was just recently demoted to being the team’s number three receiver behind Davone Bess and could lose even more targets if Travis Benjamin begins to develop. But while Bess and Benjamin begin to rise, neither should be considered reliable weapons in the passing game. If the Browns want their future quarterback to succeed, they need to find a receiver to complement Gordon.
The Colts will likely finish with a pick anywhere between 17th overall and 23rd overall. While they have some exciting weapons, their defense is awful and their offensive line is a work in progress. So the Browns should be looking at a pick between 17-23, which puts them right in range for one of the first-round receivers. While star prospects like Sammy Watkins and Marqise Lee may not fall to their second selection, they could get their hands on Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman or Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews. Both players bring excellent size to the field and would complement Gordon very well. Coleman stands at an incredible 6’6” but needs to develop more as a receiver, while Matthews is developed with his route running, but won’t impress scouts with his 40 time. Another name to keep an eye on is Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans who obliterated the Alabama secondary last week for 279 receiving yards and his size and physical style of play would pair well with Gordon.
While the Browns don’t look great now for trading away Richardson, this is the type of trade that could really help their franchise for the future. If they could walk away with Bridgewater and one of these wide receivers, they would be off to an excellent start for their new direction of the team.
While the Browns may need a lot of work offensively, you have to love what they have done with this defense. A front seven featuring Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, D’Qwell Jackson and Phil Taylor. This team knows how to bring pressure and really create problems, just ask the Baltimore Ravens. But outside of cornerback Joe Haden who has become one of the best shutdown corners, this secondary needs work.
While the safety class may lack for great depth outside of Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, there are several first-round caliber cornerbacks. TCU’s Jason Verrett struggled to begin the season but has turned it around and would give the Browns an excellent duo with Haden. Cleveland could also look at Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. While he is a bit of a work in progress, Olomu could have a lot of success for the Browns as a rookie. Paired with Haden, quarterbacks would target him and quickly find out how physically gifted he is and how easy it is for him to get the football. He could learn the technical aspect of the position and learn from Haden while making some big time plays and help make this defense into one of the best in the NFL. Giving a quarterback weapons to work with is great, but if you give him a defense which can shutdown the opposing team and give him the football, he will have more chances to succeed and win games.
What will the Browns do?
While we are still months away from the 2014 NFL Draft and several of the players I listed could choose to return for their senior season, the Browns have plenty of options looking forward to next year. Their biggest need is a quarterback and they are very likely to take one with their first pick. Their second pick could be used on a player or they could use it and their additional picks to move back up into the draft and really shake things up. They are taking a big risk hoping many of these players declare for the draft, but they could hit a goldmine if it all pays off. In the end I have them going quarterback and wide receiver with their first two selections. It will be a rough 2013 season for Browns fans, but they should be excited about their future.