The roster is in an interesting state as the Browns are set to enter the NFL Draft tonight.
They return the entire starting offense from last year and added receiver Elijah Moore and No. 2 tight end Jordan Akins. They invested heavily in the defense in free agency, with tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and safety Juan Thornhill the marquee signings.
With the possible exceptions of linebacker, where the top four guys are returning from season-ending injuries, and maybe defensive tackle, the Browns don’t have an opening in the starting lineup.
That’s an enviable position to be in, especially given some of the high-end talent — quarterback Deshaun Watson, defensive end Myles Garrett, running back Nick Chubb, cornerback Denzel Ward, receiver Amari Cooper and perhaps the best guard tandem in the league.
Entering the draft without a screaming need in the starting 22 is necessary for the Browns, who traded their first two picks and aren’t scheduled to select until No. 74 in the third round. But the depth is a concern and raises several questions.
The Browns expect to be in the playoffs. General manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski are in their fourth years and have underachieved in missing the playoffs the last two seasons. They went all-in with Watson.
With the pressure on — and jobs likely on the line — can the Browns really use all eight of their draft picks and keep them on the roster in September?
My initial thought is no, but Berry added picks last year during the draft and took nine players. The only one who didn’t make the team was seventh-round center Dawson Deaton, who suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in August.
The Browns certainly have eight openings on the second and third strings. They could use, in no particular order: a running back to compete with Jerome Ford behind Chubb, a tight end to challenge Harrison Bryant, a swing tackle in case James Hudson III isn’t the answer, a receiver to add to the mix, a defensive end and defensive tackle to join the rotation, a linebacker, a safety and you can never have enough cornerbacks.
Berry just might not want so many of the backups to be rookies, especially with six of the picks scheduled for the fourth round and lower. His best option is a balance of draft picks and experienced but affordable veterans.
Affordable is important. All of Berry’s moves for the foreseeable future will be made with great attention paid to the salary cap.
The Browns have a big-money roster. It was heading there with extensions for Garrett, Ward, Chubb, guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller and completely crossed over with Watson’s contract.
When so much of the salary cap is committed to a small number of players, the roster tends to get top-heavy. Rookies are the cheapest complement, so Berry needs to get the right ones.
He hasn’t been great in his three drafts.
He’s made 24 picks, and none has been to a Pro Bowl. His best pick was receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. Taken in the sixth round in 2020, he contributed as a rookie, improved in Year 2 and developed into a reliable starter last year.
Cornerback Martin Emerson Jr., the team’s first pick last year at No. 68, was a key piece of the defense as a rookie. Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., cornerback Greg Newsome II, safety Grant Delpit and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah were first- and second-round picks and are established starters, but it remains to be seen if any will fulfill his potential and draft status.
The jury is still out on a dozen other picks, with more questions than answers.
The third round should be the key to this draft. Berry has two picks, and the focus is heightened without a choice in the first two rounds.
He better be better than he’s been in the third round.
Receiver Anthony Schwartz in 2021 was the worst of the six selections. He has 14 catches in two seasons and is a long shot to make the roster, especially after the additions of Moore and Marquise Goodwin, who bring the speed Schwartz was supposed to provide.
Defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and linebacker Jacob Phillips were the third-round picks in 2020. Elliott struggled last year in his first season as a starter, while Phillips has been hurt every year and hasn’t been effective when he’s played.
Emerson, defensive end Alex Wright and receiver David Bell made for a full third round a year ago. While Emerson was a bright spot, including a team-high-tying 15 passes defensed, Wright didn’t have a quarterback hit in 17 games and Bell had 24 catches and no touchdowns in 16 games. Wright and Bell must take a leap this season to help the team and make Berry’s draft record look better.
Berry insists he won’t sacrifice better talent in the quest to fill needs, but it would be a surprise if he doesn’t add a defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and tight end over the next two days. A defensive lineman-linebacker combo in the third round would make a lot of sense.