Monday, April 30, 2012

Drafting Headscratchers

Whether or not it makes sense for the Cleveland Browns to have taken a 28-year old quarterback in the first round of the draft, a quarterback who, like another failed NFL quarterback, Drew Henson, played baseball first, the question remains: should the Browns trade Colt McCoy?

On the surface the question seems ridiculous. Brandon Weeden may very well be projected as a starter, but so was Henson and that didn't work out too well for the Texans. In fairness though, the comparison isn't quite apt because there was a long stretch of lonesome between baseball and a return to football for Henson. Weeden is fresh off his college football career. But even eschewing the baseball back to football angle, it's nonetheless true that projecting a “kid” that will be 29 come October as a NFL starter at the game's toughest position before he's ever taken a snap is a little premature, to say the least.

But even eschewing that large qualifier, trading away at worst a very useful backup is a dangerous proposition for any team, let alone a team like the Browns where depth at any position is a foreign commodity.

Yet a trade could happen. And if it does, you can blame Derek Anderson.

Maybe Brady Quinn never really did have what it takes to be a NFL starter but part of the reason his career never got started in Cleveland had everything to do with the fact that a project like Anderson suddenly had a career year at the wrong time for Quinn and it pushed back his development precipitously. It didn't help that Quinn listened to his agent and foolishly sat out of most of training camp his rookie season, essentially eliminating any chance he had to win the job out of training camp. But the fact remains that as Anderson emerged as the Browns drafted Quinn and it became uncomfortable in Cleveland for both players and the fans.

It is true that a team with two starting quarterbacks really has none, as the New York Jets will soon discover. So as long as McCoy is viewed as a starter, by himself or the other players in the locker room and not, say, as a capable backup, it will remain uncomfortable in Cleveland for the two players and the fans. The league is filled with backup quarterbacks and is short on starters. If Weeden is the guy, McCoy sadly has to move on and team president Mike Holmgren is well aware of that fact.

But the better question really is what in the name of Brady Quinn were the Browns doing picking Weeden in the first place? I understand the meaning of love. But why did the Browns fall in love? Is it his age? Is it his arm strength? It can't be his dominance in the Big 12 because that was McCoy's calling card.

I do know this. Holmgren must really love Weeden to have picked him this high. Usually Holmgren trolls in the middle rounds for a quarterback hoping to get lucky and thereby further cementing his reputation as a genius when it comes to that position. A first round pick carries with it a risk to that reputation.

Heck, it's only Cleveland. Holmgren hasn't ever seemed completely vested in his role here anyway and probably retires, forcibly or otherwise, soon enough anyway. So what if Weeden gets tossed on the 10 years and growing scrap heap of disposable Cleveland quarterbacks? It's not like Holmgren has to live with the aftermath. Leave that to a fan base that has been supporting this franchise beyond all reasonable sense for years.

But when Weeden takes the field, the Browns can now check off the box that asks whether they have a first rounder at that position like most of the rest of the league. It will be interesting to see how long that box stays checked for we do know this. Rarely does a team make it through the season with its quarterback unscathed, particularly in Cleveland.

The pick of Trent Richardson is a whole other matter. The debate is not Richardson's talent so much as the position he plays. He had an amazing college career, but so too did plenty of other running back studs who ultimately proved to be less capable then guys who were considered afterthoughts when drafted. The real issue with Richardson is not his talent, it's philosophy. Does the nature of the NFL game as it's played these days require a dominant running back?

The verdict right now is that it does not. It does, however, require a dominant quarterback, which Weeden might be, but it also requires guys that can catch the ball. That leads to perhaps the most compelling question of the Browns' draft after three rounds: what the hell, why no credible receivers?

I'm beginning to think, actually, the general manager Tom Heckert simply doesn't like receivers, or he doesn't like taking receivers early. He did draft Greg Little last year, but Little was a project mostly because he hadn't even played the past college season. Instead, Heckert mostly stood pat with Brian Robiskie and Mohammad Massaquoi and he never adequately explained why. He's not exactly completely forthcoming now why he made four picks in the first three rounds and doesn't have a receiver yet to show for it.

The Browns head into next season in much the same shape they ended last season in. No one who can consistently catch the ball and no one who can scare an opposing defensive quarterback.

No offense to Josh Cribbs, but he's not now and never will be a significant NFL receiver. He's improved, certainly, but that's on sheer athletic ability. Cribbs though doesn't get open consistently because he doesn't run patterns consistently and probably never will. And Cribbs is the highlight.

Little seemed to improve as the season went along but that means he's on his way to establishing himself as a number two receiver, at best. He doesn't have the kind of top end speed that keeps corners up at night. He has decent size but as a project with no one on the roster to teach him, Little will continue to play in fits and starts as he learns the position. Massaquoi is on his way to becoming an afterthought. He drops too many passes (so does Little) and simply lacks the speed and size to endure a full year of hits. And those, folks, are your starters. Behind them are the Jordan Norwoods of the world, any of whom can develop but none of whom are projected to be a number one receiver.

It was almost laughable to hear Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur defend the decision not to pursue receivers in a meaningful way in this draft. Shurmur, in almost a carbon copy of his speech last year, talked about how he already liked the receivers on this roster as if all the Browns have been waiting for is a quarterback who can throw the ball down field.

Holmgren took a slightly different tack. He said the real problem last season was all the dropped passes and that will be better this season, just like that. I'm not sure why he thinks guys that couldn't catch last season will ultimately develop that skill, because he didn't say. The eternal optimist in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Holmgren must believe all those dropped passes were bad luck that has to even out eventually.

If either Holmgren or Shurmur believe what they're saying saying, and I doubt it, then they're delusional. When Shurmur made his amazingly similar speech last season, he was looking squarely at a corps of players that featured Cribbs, Robiskie and Massaquoi and the potential of Little. When the season ended it was one of the worst groups of receivers in the NFL last season and it there's no reason to think it will suddenly improve with the passage of time. There wasn't a number one receiver in the lot then, there isn't one now. Shurmur better hope Richardson can stay healthy because the only shot the Browns offense has to get better is if teams really are forced to crowd the box and play the run.

If fans are upset about anything related to this draft it should be the counterculture way in which this front office views its talent. Existing in a league that places a premium on passing while getting by with running backs from the generic shelves, the Browns deliberately went the opposite way. They get themselves a premium running back and seem quite satisfied with interchangeable pieces of mediocrity at receiver. Honestly, it doesn't make any sense.

There's no end game outside of immediate gratification to fans that should know better for anyone to put a grade on this draft based solely on the players selected or the moves they made to get them. Truthfully, it matters little that the Browns may have theoretically given up too much to move from 4th to 3rd in the first round if Richardson becomes a Pro Bowl caliber running back. No one will debate where in the draft Weeden was selected if he turns into a credible starter.

Instead of focusing on the players, examine the philosophy. You can see all the holes the Browns had to fill and understand that only so much reclamation work can be undertaken at any one time. But the focus on running back and quarterbackat the expense of receiver will remain the ultimate head scratcher unless and until the Browns finally bite the bullet and upgrade the receiving corps. Let's just hope it's well before the shine of having Richardson and Weeden on this team wears off.

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