Whenever Earnest Byner had a free moment or two during his two-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he'd pop by the office of the team's general counsel to talk about life.
The conversations took on more of a big-picture and free-flowing nature as Byner and Sashi Brown grew closer from 2010 to 2011. They'd grab dinner at restaurants and meet at each other's houses whenever the time permitted. It was "natural," Byner said, and he learned more than he ever imagined about the Boston-born attorney who took on more and more responsibility as the years unfolded in his first NFL job.
Five years later, Byner quickly thought back to those interactions when Brown was named Cleveland's executive vice president of football operations. It was a surprise to many who, before Sunday, hadn't heard of the soft-spoken Brown until he was promoted to his new position, but it wasn't to the former Browns running back.
"He has a really good feel. He knows football, he knows talent. He knows what type of people to have," Byner said. "He has a really good feel for his direction, not just the direction he wants to go but the direction of the team."
In his new position with the Browns, Brown will be one of the guiding hands in the Browns' quest to move in the direction Cleveland fans crave. As the team's executive vice president - general counsel since January 2013, Brown's football duties included negotiating player contracts, managing the salary cap and working with the league's football operations department.
Now, he's in a new position that will require the same skill set that has helped him get to this point.
"I think it's a smart decision by whomever made it," former Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said. "He was recognized as a young guy that has all the ability to grow into a position. There's going to be some growing and learning curves, obviously, but he clearly has the wisdom. He has the wisdom to know what he doesn't know but ask the right questions and get to an answer he believes is the right one."
Brown landed his first football job in 2005 when Paul Vance, then the Jaguars' senior vice president of football operations, plucked his resume out of a thick stack and brought him in for a visit with the team. Brown was an attorney with Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr, a private law firm based in Washington, D.C. Vance was familiar with it because of Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass, the former head of the firm who hired Brown in 2002.
Though he was coming from the private sector, Brown already had some experience working with high-ranking figures in the NFL. Brown was involved in Steve Bisciotti's purchase of the Ravens as well as sponsorship contracts for the Dallas Cowboys.
Vance, who similarly made the leap from practicing lawyer to the head of football operations for an NFL franchise, was promptly impressed by the skill set Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and others have referenced when explaining their confidence behind Brown's recent promotion.
"When I met him, it was clear to me he was extremely intelligent," Vance said. "I had a sense he had a calmness about him that he wouldn't get overwhelmed with some of the controversies you get involved with and he'd be able to operate on his own. I found him a very likeable personality and I thought he was someone that would get along with all of the diverse people that you have in a football organization, the business people on one side, the accountants, the scouts, the coaches. I thought that he was going to be able to bridge all of those gaps in the various work he'd be doing."
From what Vance saw during his years alongside Brown, he doesn't hesitate in his belief about what the future holds for him in his new position.
"I know he has a tremendous amount of interest in football. He is and will be very dedicated to making the best decisions they can make," Vance said. "He also, I believe, is going to see it as his job to manage a process that pulls together all of the information they can possibly gather so that those decisions emerge not from somebody's gut as thunder claps from on high, but from the process of putting together the information and being prepared to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the team."
Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, recently hired by the Browns after a lengthy, successful career working with Major League Baseball teams, will work alongside Brown to ensure the team is executing the most optimal processes as it looks to rebuild and fine-tune its roster for the 2016 season and beyond.
So, too, will the top talent evaluator the Browns hire in the coming days or weeks. That search has included input from new coach Hue Jackson along with the assistance of Korn/Ferry consultant Jed Hughes.
Brown will be at the heart of the process that shapes the 2016 Browns, but it will be the strength of those who surround him that help shape the important decisions he'll be tasked to make.
"The truth is, in that level at that role, you've got to depend on people, talent evaluators and make sure when you put a room together and get a draft board together that people have to be heard," Weaver said. "People have to not be reluctant to speak up and challenge something that's being said in the room that they don't agree with. I think that's how you don't make so many mistakes.
"We've all made mistakes on drafts. Usually it's because the voice in the room is too loud from someone in a position of power and they stifle the other voices in the room. If you don't do that, typically you'll come out with a better choice."
James "Shack" Harris, who was the Jaguars' vice president of player personnel during Brown's tenure with the team, used a similar list of adjectives to describe his former colleague but stressed it was Brown's instincts that led to the best possible solutions.
"I knew that Sashi's future was ahead of him when he was with us. He was the type of guy that you would have no problem recommending in any area because of his makeup," Harris said. "He has an instinct for solutions on issues and when people are together. He listens well and then once he takes in all the information, he's very capable of coming up with a sound and solid decision."
Byner views Brown as a quietly confident football mind who has "paid his dues in the league."
His advice to Brown? Continuing being who you've been to reach this point.
"He's been around good football. He's been around when things have been difficult. He's a guy who has had his periscope continually searching and looking and gaining understanding about the team," Byner said. "He wasn't just being a lawyer. He was getting himself ready to be in football. He understood football. He understands football and he understands football players. He understands talent.
"From the conversations we had, he has a good understanding of what it would take."