INDIANAPOLIS — The scouting combine is the unofficial start of the NFL offseason.
For the Browns, that means the latest chance to resurrect the franchise kicks into high gear as the NFL descends on the Midwest.
In the next two months The Browns will have an estimated $110 million in salary cap space to use in free agency on proven talent and an intoxicating haul of draft picks. They own 12 picks, including six in the first 65, starting with Nos. 1 and 4.
The Browns have had similar resources in the past — this is the fifth time in seven years with two first-round picks — but repeatedly failed to capitalize.
If they’re going to finally take advantage and begin the road back to respectability after 1-15 and 0-16 seasons — the worst stretch in NFL history — the combine will be where they start.
Here are five key areas for the Browns over the next week in Indy.
General manager John Dorsey, coach Hue Jackson, assistant general manager Eliot Wolf, vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith and consultant Scot McCloughan have spent time together inside team headquarters, but this will be the first time the group is in a pressure situation.
Dorsey has worked with Wolf, Highsmith and McCloughan in the past, but Jackson and retained vice president of player personnel Andrew Berry are new to the group and must quickly fit in. Talent evaluation will be vital in the next two months, and the organization’s key members must be on the same page, including Jackson, in how they view the draft’s top prospects.
Dorsey and Jackson should sit next to each other during the player interviews and workouts and constantly compare notes. If they don’t agree on the key philosophical points, the relationship is doomed to fail like Jackson’s with former head of football operations Sashi Brown.
Until the Browns find a franchise quarterback, the focus will be on the continued search for one. The spotlight will only intensify this week as they begin to try to settle on one of the top guys — USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
Rosen is the best passer of the group and should impress during the throwing session Saturday. The key will be the 15-minute interview with the Browns.
He got off on the right foot when NFL Network’s Michael Silver tweeted Tuesday that Rosen told him last week: “I’ve never said anything about not wanting to play in Cleveland. I don’t know where that came from. There’s absolutely no foundation in reality in that (report).”
On Dec. 24, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Rosen would prefer to play for the New York Giants and could be hesitant to leave school if he knew the Browns were going to take him, citing league sources familiar with the situation. Rosen declared for the draft and after two months of silence said he’s open to the Browns.
Rosen is outspoken and his personality can rub some the wrong way. The Browns have to decide if they’d be comfortable with him as the face of the franchise, and the interview will help determine that.
Darnold won’t throw Saturday, according to reports, waiting until his pro day to put his right arm on display for NFL teams. It’s a bit of a surprise after most of the top quarterbacks in recent years have thrown at the combine, and the decision could allow Rosen, Allen or Mayfield to pass him in the Browns’ eyes.
SET THE TABLE
The focus of the combine is the draft, because all the top prospects attend. But free agency is first on the calendar — negotiations are allowed March 12 and signings March 14 — and plenty of work gets done behind the scenes here.
Front office personnel, coaching staffs and agents converge downtown, and that means conversations about potential free agents over shrimp cocktail, beers and milkshakes in downtown restaurants, bars and hotels. Talking contract terms before March 12 is considered illegal tampering, but it happens.
The Browns promise to be active in free agency, as they try to bolster the young and ineffective roster with an influx of experienced talent. Their league-high salary cap space gives them the chance to overpay, compensating for their history of losing.
Possible targets are Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron, Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner, Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, Jaguars receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, Washington receiver Terrelle Pryor, Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert and Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
DON’T FORGET FOUR
If the Browns didn’t have the No. 1 pick for the second straight year, everyone would be talking about the No. 4 pick. Despite the lack of attention, it remains vital.
In an ideal scenario, the Browns would have their choice between Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both would fill positions of need and both are considered top-five talents in the draft.
Teams must be careful not to place too much importance on combine workouts — and ignore the game film they’ve been watching for months — but running back and defensive back are positions where athleticism is paramount, so the 40 time, broad jump and vertical jump matter.
Barkley and Fitzpatrick are expected to test well, but if one of them disappoints, it could be a factor on draft night.
STAYING OR GOING?
Running back Isaiah Crowell is the only starter scheduled to hit the free agent market and if the Browns wanted to keep him, the combine would be the time to get a deal done. All indications point to Crowell leaving.
He wasn’t happy with his usage last season and seems ready for a change of scenery. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, wouldn’t comment about any discussions with the Browns when reached Tuesday by The Chronicle. And the Browns hosted free agent running back Chris Ivory on a visit Tuesday, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported he previously met with Buffalo and was scheduled to meet with another team.
Ivory, who will turn 30 on March 22, was cut last week by the Jaguars. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015 with the Jets after rushing for 1,070 yards, seven touchdowns and a 4.3 average. He then signed a five-year, $32 million deal with the Jaguars but didn’t live up to the contract.
In two years, he carried 229 times for 821 yards, four touchdowns and a 3.6 average. Ivory wouldn’t replace Crowell as the starter but could team with holdover Duke Johnson and a rookie — not Barkley at No. 4 — to share the workload.
** The big unknown is whether left tackle Joe Thomas will return or retire. He said he’ll let the Browns know by free agency, so it will be interesting to hear Dorsey and Jackson talk about the uncertainty that lingers.