Nearly all mock drafts across the country project the Browns to take a defensive player with pick No. 26 in the 2021 draft.
That's where the similarities in recent mock drafts, however, have mostly ended. Cleveland could realistically spend its first-round pick at every defensive position, but it's tough to predict which players still will be available.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. gave his insights with a Browns' lens Monday on a conference call with reporters. He believes Cleveland could prioritize its front seven in the first round.
In his Mock Draft 2.0, Kiper tabbed Zaven Collins to the Browns at pick No. 26. Collins, at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, is a linebacker from Tulsa who also offers versatility as a potential defensive end and was the winner of the 2020 Nagurski Award, which is voted by members of the Football Writers Association of America and given to the best defensive player in the nation.
"If he falls, it will be tough to pass him up," Kiper said. "He can play inside or outside. He wasn't a sack artist, but he's a range-y guy. Taller linebackers with length are very difficult to deal with for a quarterback, and you don't find many of them. I think the fact that he brings a skill set you don't necessarily see and that he can play inside or outside makes Zaven Collins an attractive guy at 26."
Kiper hasn't been alone in mocking Collins to Cleveland, and for good reason — he could stick at linebacker and provide a big talent boost to a position full of youth, or he could step in at defensive end, work across from Myles Garrett and give the Browns two young studs to anchor the defensive line.
But if Collins isn't available, or if the Browns look to improve their defensive line with a player with more consistent experience in the trenches, they might target someone who solely played edge rusher in college. That decision likely will come down to whether there's a run on defensive ends before the 26th pick, which Kiper's and several other recent mock drafts have predicted.
Gregory Rousseau (Miami), Jaelan Phillips (Miami) and Kwity Paye (Michigan) — the 21st, 22nd and 23rd picks in Kiper's mock, respectively — headline the best of the edge rusher class and all could be on the Browns' radar. Each player has appeared in mock drafts to Cleveland, and if any of them slip to 26, Kiper believes the Browns could pounce.
"All of those guys will be pushed into the latter portion of Round 1," he said. "I'm not as high on Rousseau as some people are. I actually like Phillips better, but Rousseau might go ahead of him. That'll be intriguing there to see how that goes. I think any of the pass rushers you look at come with some concern that gives you some boom-or-bust there."
The likeliness of those selections will first hinge on how the Browns tackle the first month of free agency, which is set to open March 17. Cleveland could opt to boost its defensive needs by signing players from a talented free agent pool, although it's worth noting veteran defensive end J.J. Watt, arguably the biggest defensive name of the free-agent group, agreed to a deal Monday with the Arizona Cardinals.
As the roster stands now, Kiper believes the Browns' first-round goal will be to improve their front seven rather than the secondary or another area of offensive need. He projects there to be plenty of talent at edge rusher — whether it comes from players who excelled on the edge throughout college, or from a player like Collins, who has the tools to shine at linebacker and defensive end.
He's just one of many draft analysts attempting to predict how late first-round picks will shake out, but his projections, particularly on how the edge rushers of the first round could fall and how that could affect the Browns' plans, will be worth remembering as the team's first pick creeps to the top of the board on draft day.
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