To think the new year started out with so much promise for the Cleveland Browns. The analytics-driven front office of Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta, who accumulated a total record of 1-31, were pushed out at the conclusion of a dismal, winless 2017. Owner Jimmy Haslam went in the complete opposite direction, shifting from analytics to old-fashioned football minds. Former Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey joined the staff and former Redskins GM Scott McCloughan was brought on as an assistant. With Dorsey and McCloughan’s successful track records, the optimism of these Browns becoming a competitive football team seemed rooted in reality now more so than in recent years.
The free agency period for Cleveland wasn’t bleak either, trading their bushel of draft picks for Tyrod Taylor, a legitimate starting QB and probably the best one Cleveland has seen since the 1999 return, and Jarvis Landry. With Landry, a solid if unspectacular no. 1 target for Taylor and the heir apparent at QB, signed to a long-term deal shortly afterward, the Browns’ new front office set their sites on rebuilding the rest of the roster. Focusing on CB, Cleveland brought in Damarious Randall, E.J. Gaines, T.J. Carrie and Terrence Mitchell to fill out a secondary that proved to be among the Browns’ biggest weakness on defense last season.
Cleveland’s rebuilding moves in free agency seemed to be a perfect set-up for a draft where the Browns could finally hit it out of the park. Owning two of the top four picks and five of the top 100, the 2018 NFL Draft looked like a proverbial Home Run Derby for Cleveland to rebound into actual playoff contention. Sure there were still holes, like at Joe Thomas’ now-vacant LT spot, and depth to create at positions like WR and LB, but the QBs available for the Browns at first overall made it seem like a can’t miss scenario.
Even after acquiring Taylor, there was much discussion of the Browns selecting a QB in the first round, particularly at pick number one. The sentiment seemed fair enough, given Tyrod’s uneven performance as a starter in his career and no real QB to groom under him once DeShone Kizer was shipped to Green Bay. Cleveland picked the perfect draft to go get a signal caller for their QB-starved city.
All of the QBs had their own niche and draw to being picked first overall. Josh Rosen sat at the top of the board, a polished pocket passer who seemed to be the cleanest on-field QB prospect since Andrew Luck. Sam Darnold had Jameis Winston-like accuracy and anticipation and a propensity for making clutch plays even if he was still unpolished as a redshirt sophomore. Josh Allen had the rocket arm and promising athletic ability that made comparisons to Carson Wentz and Cam Newton not entirely unfair. And Lamar Jackson is the closest thing to Mike Vick that the NFL has seen since his debut with the Falcons in 2001. Jackson, however, was a much better pocket passer than Vick at this point in his career.
And then there was Baker Mayfield. Mayfield was a great college QB, a “winner” and a Heisman trophy recipient. While his height was not nearly as big an issue as many in the draft media said, just a quick and easy talking point when discussion his weaknesses, his execution of NFL-style passing schemes was. Mayfield’s Oklahoma spread system and the state of Big 12 defensive play made it easier for a talented QB with a championship-caliber group of offensive weapons and coaching to put up gaudy numbers. But the comparisons to Russell Wilson were unearned, Mayfield not nearly as athletic and simply not the passer that Wilson was coming out of Wisconsin. Whereas Wilson could throw a middle of the field strike between two defenders from the pocket, Mayfield didn’t seem to have the anticipatory ability to consistently throw his wide receivers open. For Mayfield, his greatest weakness is not his size, its his inability to throw with anticipation.
So what did the Browns do with first overall and their choice of the polished Rosen, promising Darnold or one-of-a-kind Jackson? They selected Baker Mayfield of course. Two picks later Darnold went to the Jets, seven picks after that Rosen went to the Cardinals and Jackson stayed in division with a selection by the Ravens. But picking the QB with the biggest flaws at no. 1 was not where the Browns’ draft woes ended. With the opportunity pair last year’s top pick, Myles Garrett, with another top pass rusher and give the Browns a devastating edge trio of Garrett, Bradley Chubb and Manny Ogbah, Cleveland went for the small-ish CB from Ohio State, Denzel Ward. While Ward is a solid prospect and likely a successful NFL CB, he’s not quite on the same level of teammate Marshon Lattimore from the 2017 class and his inability to turn his head and find the ball will mean that, at least in man coverage, he won’t be able to pull down many interceptions.
In the second round, Cleveland had the perfect chance to grab Joe Thomas’ replacement with arguably the top tackle still on the board in Connor Williams. Williams had the best LT potential of any of the top 2-3 tackles in this years class and was available at both Cleveland’s 33rd and 35th selections. Yet the Browns bypassed him twice, letting him go to the Cowboys and instead taking OG Austin Corbett and RB Nick Chubb. Corbett will likely play inside at guard or right tackle, leaving the hole at left tackle still unfilled by a proven or at least projection-worthy player. Chubb is a solid prospect but his injury history and likelihood that he will have to split time like he did at Georgia to remain somewhat healthy does make this a small reach. However, being able to share a backfield with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson could make Chubb the best pick in this class.
Filling out the rest of this draft class, Cleveland selected a boom or bust edge player in Miami’s Chad Thomas. Despite being a senior, Thomas is very raw and while his physical skills are exciting, his advanced age and lack of polish makes this pick questionable. Picking up WRs Antonio Callaway, who failed a drug test at the combine, and Damion Ratley also seemed dubious. Cleveland doubling down on the issues they’ve had with Josh Gordon by selecting Callaway was certainly not a good look and Ratley is another boom or bust selection although, in the sixth round this one is easier to stomach. Their best day three selection may turn out to be LB Genard Avery, from Memphis. An athletic run-stopper, Avery’s potential to be a great coverage backer makes him an exciting up and comer who should learn well under a player with a somewhat similar skillset in Jamie Collins.
It might be unfair to say that Cleveland had the worst draft class in 2018. Teams like the Raiders and Bills certainly will give them a run for their money. But with a chance to take a surefire, can’t-miss QB at first overall, Cleveland went for the player with a slightly higher floor than someone like Josh Allen but without the day one ability of Josh Rosen or long-term potential of Lamar Jackson. Combine that with failing to add Bradley Chubb at four and Connor Williams in the second and, in three years, it could look very ugly in retrospective. For Cleveland, where failure is as expected as the sun rising and setting, it is heartbreaking to see the Browns blow it – again.