GM Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine will be looking for tough, competitive players at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS – Here are my five Browns thoughts as the league's 32 teams and 300 college prospects converge here for this week's NFL Scouting Combine:
I suspect a significant shift in the Browns' philosophy for selecting players will take hold in earnest at the Combine. Once primarily driven by reams of statistical data generated by their football analytics staff, the team will focus more heavily on human qualities that are so vital in determining whether a player has what it takes to succeed in the NFL. The analytics-based thinking in player-personnel evaluation was something in which former chief executive officer Joe Banner believed strongly and invested heavily, and utilized as the foundation for selecting players in the draft and free agency. The resulting draft and free-agent acquisitions last year were underwhelming, to say the least. Although new general manager Ray Farmer was the Browns' assistant GM under Banner and former GM Michael Lombardi and recognizes that there is some value to what the numbers say, he is considerably more interested in identifying the characteristics that he and new coach Mike Pettine want to dominate the makeup of the roster. They are looking for players who are tough and competitive, who are tireless workers, who are loyal, and who are good teammates. Farmer and Pettine are progressive but grounded in football fundamentals and believe the key to turning around this franchise is in relying more on what their eyes, ears, and instincts tell them rather than what the numbers say.
The most striking revelation from the ranking of the Browns' 53-man roster that I did with "Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford" co-host Nathan Zegura was the team's woeful lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball. It is far more pronounced on the offensive side, where the most glaring hole is, of course, at quarterback. The Browns don't have one that belongs in the top five, the top 10, or even the top 15. Brian Hoyer put together a nice, interesting story in a brief snapshot last season. And he clearly displays the characteristics that Farmer and Pettine value in a player. However, on the assumption that he fully recovers from major knee surgery, is he truly the answer for the Browns? Our placement of Hoyer at 16 probably was generous for someone who only played two full games and a small portion of a third. It was clearly based on more of the hope/promise he provides, but he still has a long way to go to demonstrate he can consistently perform at a high level, especially now that he is working with a new scheme under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Farmer and Pettine are looking to get as much as they can out of their encounters with the top quarterback prospects here, because they are likely to draft one. The same goes for the many talented wide receivers in this draft. The Browns have zero difference-makers after Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, and they intend to change that between now and May.
The combine is going to be the next phase of a clearly orchestrated effort by Johnny Manziel and his handlers to remake his image and make him as attractive as possible to teams, such as the Browns, with top-five draft choices. Manziel is primarily targeting the Houston Texans, who own the top pick, and that was why he made himself available for a lengthy interview with John McClain, from the Houston Chronicle, last week. It is brilliant strategy, changing the narrative about a guy who was widely seen as being a self-absorbed partier who might very well be too dependent on his amazing improvisational skills on the field to devote the time and effort necessary to handle the broader scope of playing quarterback in the NFL. Manziel made certain to say nice things about the Browns because he recognizes there is a reasonable chance he could slip past them at No. 4 and fall out of the top five, if not the top 10. Since the end of the NFL season, and especially in recent weeks, coaches around the league have begun studying videotape of college prospects and are beginning to see the flaws in Manziel's game when it comes to frequently being on the run and making numerous risky throws. Manziel and his people figure to have a have a big job in front of them to win over skeptics, so he will get to show off the considerable coaching he has received in the art of presenting himself in the best light this week.
It's unfortunate for Michael Sam that he is going to spend a whole lot more time speaking to the media this week about his recent revelation that he is gay rather than the impressive work he did playing defensive end for Missouri. However, that is what he expected, and no doubt the thinking behind the timing of when he came out. The public discussion will take center stage here and in the weeks/days leading up to the draft because the NFL has never had an openly gay player. How team representatives handle it during the 15 minutes they get to privately interview each prospect, by invitation, is a different story. Player-personnel types, coaches, and even psychological evaluators are undoubtedly going to address Sam's revelation and how that might play into the dynamics of the locker room of their respective teams. But they mostly will evaluate him on the basis of his football skills, and according to multiple draft analysts, he is seen as third- or fourth-round pick on that basis.
Along with evaluating college talent, Farmer will be busy working on trying to button-up two Browns Pro Bowlers heading to free agency next month, center Alex Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward. By all indications, the Browns are making a strong effort to get center Mack signed to a long-term contract. That would make the loudest statement yet that the newest regime and team owner Jimmy Haslam are serious about making things better in the aftermath of so much upheaval and resulting criticism by media and fans. After that, the Browns need to figure out what to do with Ward. There has been plenty of speculation about placing a franchise tag on him by the NFL's March 3 deadline to do so. That's possible, but mainly in the interest of buying time until a long-term deal can be reached.
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