The annual trips to the scouting combine take time to unpack. And not just because I’m a laundry procrastinator.
From the countless interviews with the top draft prospects to the hour on the record talking with the latest general manager and coach of the Browns to the late nights spent bumping into coaches and front office personnel, the handful of days in Indianapolis take awhile to fully process.
Plenty happened again this year, but the lasting impression for me was the stunning contrast in hype surrounding the Browns compared to 12 months earlier.
The NFL was buzzing about the Browns following the strong finish to the 2018 season. They were headed for a slew of prime time games. Baker Mayfield had seemingly proved a quarterback without prototypical height was worth taking with the No. 1 pick.
General manager John Dorsey and new coach Freddie Kitchens didn’t shy away from the spotlight, or try to deflect the attention. Dorsey even encouraged Giants GM Dave Gettleman to call his cell phone when asked about the possibility of trading for superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The vibe was completely different this time around.
The Browns are never off the national radar, but they were on the periphery and no longer an obsession of the national media. They’re not the “It” team after stumbling to 6-10 and going through another regime change. Mayfield has become more reclamation project than rising star.
The contrast was just as obvious in the tone taken by new general manager Andrew Berry and new coach Kevin Stefanski. Quiet and disciplined replaced loud and proud.
Some of that is just difference in personalities. Some is having nothing to brag about after the organization’s 12th straight losing season. Some is a calm confidence that comes with intelligence.
Berry and Stefanski were excellent at avoiding detail. They were asked numerous specific questions yet offered general answers.
The discipline to stick to the plan is refreshing. But they can afford to be more open.
Perhaps Berry and Stefanski will feel more comfortable in the future after growing into their roles. But for their first combine as the tandem on top of the Browns organization, they seemed content not making headlines and blending into the background.
THE TIME FOR TACKLES
The majority of my time spent with draft prospects came with the offensive tackles. My top takeaway: The Browns have lots of good options, and they’re all good talkers.
This may not sit well with many fans, but the plethora of first-rounders at the position — six seems likely — makes trading down from No. 10 an option worth considering. If the Browns’ top choice at left tackle is gone and they rank the next few candidates similarly, the right decision is to move back a few spots and pick up another draft pick or two.
I know fans have been scarred by trading down, but unless you’re passing up an elite talent at a premier position, acquiring extra picks is a sound strategy. I’m thinking about Louisville’s Mekhi Becton in this scenario.
At 6-foot-7 3/8, 364 pounds and with great movement skills, he could be a game-changer at left tackle. But if he’s not there at No. 10 and the Browns get a solid offer from a team desperate for a quarterback, dropping back into the teens and still getting a quality left tackle (Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Houston’s Josh Jones) shouldn’t send fans into a rage.
One more thing on draft-day trades. Berry made a point to say he’s willing to move up or down. Given the appreciation for analytics of the new regime, I’d be stunned if Berry traded up from No. 10.
Speculation follows Beckham. There’s something about his orbit that attracts trade rumors.
While the discussion won’t die, I fully expect Beckham to be with the Browns for the 2020 season. Owner Jimmy Haslam wants him to stay, and that matters. He said last month he expects Beckham to be “a big, big producer” this year.
Berry and Stefanski have talked about Beckham being a part of the future and seem sincere. But Berry left open the door when asked specifically if he’d listen to calls for Beckham.
“You always pick up the phone and you listen to anything across the table,” he said.
I don’t blame Berry for not being absolute. He should explore every option to improve the team. But he’s unlikely to get an offer for Beckham that would be worth giving up on him after only one season with the team.
What’s more interesting to me is how aggressive Berry will be executing trades in general. He said he learned from ultra-aggressive Eagles GM Howie Roseman, his boss in 2019, but I want to see if Berry has the personality to follow suit.
No matter the year, the Browns’ tradition of dysfunction is a popular topic when talking to people around the league. Especially those who used to be employed by the organization.
** The top of the draft lacks depth at pass rusher, which could be a problem if the Browns cut defensive end Olivier Vernon to avoid paying his $15.25 million salary for 2020. Without Vernon the Browns don’t have a bookend for Myles Garrett, and pass rusher becomes the team’s No. 2 need behind offensive tackle.
** Oklahoma middle linebacker Kenneth Murray is a tremendous story — his family adopted special needs kids and he saved a woman’s life — and could be a fit for the Browns in the second round if the Ravens don’t grab him at the bottom of the first. He could slide into the hole created by letting Joe Schobert leave in free agency.
** If Murray’s not the pick, Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. makes plenty of sense in the second round.