As the Browns head into their first minicamp with the new regime, quarterback Brandon Weeden has a Super Bowl-winning coach in his corner.
Jon Gruden, who won the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 and now serves as ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst, praised Weeden this afternoon during a conference call. The Browns have the sixth overall pick in the draft, which runs April 25-27, and have thoroughly studied this year’s class of quarterbacks.
They have conducted private workouts with West Virginia's Geno Smith and Syracuse's Ryan Nassib. They're hosting Florida State's EJ Manuel today for a pre-draft visit and have also met with Southern California's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Matt Scott at their headquarters in Berea.
Gruden, though, believes the organization should stick with Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, and give him a chance to improve from his rookie season. The Browns’ first minicamp under coach Rob Chudzinski starts Tuesday and ends Thursday.
“Are we saying that the Browns are going to change quarterbacks again?” Gruden said. “There’ve been a lot of quarterbacks go through Cleveland since they’ve been back. I know it would be great if Weeden can solidify himself and really, really be outstanding.
“I really like Brandon Weeden. I’ll be honest with you, I liked him last year when he was here. I think he fits [offensive coordinator] Norv Turner’s scheme tremendously, great down-the-field passer. Hopefully they get some wideouts that they think can go down the field and get it for him. I like Weeden. I really do.”
Weeden, 29, is penciled in as the Browns’ starter, even though veteran Jason Campbell was recently signed to push him this offseason. Browns CEO Joe Banner has repeatedly said Weeden will be given every chance to succeed and that he doesn’t expect the Browns to draft a quarterback in the first round. Still, Banner hasn't completely ruled anything out, either.
If Gruden had his pick of any of the incoming rookie quarterbacks, Smith, who’s often labeled the head of the class, would not be his first choice. Instead, it would be Nassib, who played for new Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone in college.
“I think he can run just about any play that you can think of, whether it be an option, a full-field progression,” Gruden said of Nassib. “You want to move the pocket, you want to throw the quick gain underneath the center or in the shotgun, you want to go no-huddle, you want to come up with 10 or 12 new plays this week, I think he can handle it. I think he's proven he can handle it. That's why I like Nassib as much as I do. I do think there are some other quarterbacks that will develop, but I don't think they're as ready as Ryan Nassib is because of the pedigree he has at Syracuse.”
But if the Browns don’t address the quarterback position early, Gruden believes they’ll be able to significantly bolster their defense by drafting either Louisiana State outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo or Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. Gruden said it’s tough to decide whether a pass rusher or a cornerback is more valuable, so he would go with whichever player the team deems better.
“I think Cleveland fortunately is going to be sitting in a position to get an outstanding outside linebacker,” Gruden said. “I love Barkevious Mingo at LSU. He’s one, one of favorite players in this draft. I think he could convert to the outside linebacker position and be an every-down force rushing the passer. I’ve seen him drop in coverage. He has an electrifying inside move. I really think he’s got a huge upside.
“And to have Dee Milliner on the other side of [Joe] Haden would be outstanding as well. So Cleveland’s going to get a good player. I’m not saying they’re going with the outside ‘backer or with the corner, but they’re going to get a really good player should they go that route.”
Here are some other highlights from the conference call:
What did you learn about Smith?: “Hopefully the thing that can across is West Virginia runs a lot of plays in every game, 85, 95, 105 plays, up tempo, no huddle, a lot of pressure on the quarterback. They get every play communicated at warp speed and he has a number of options, even on basic running plays. That was what we tried to show fans on 96 Wanda. He can hand it. He can also tap it to Austin coming underneath. He has a bubble screen on one side, quick screen on the other. He has three or four options on every single day. I just think he’s exhausted at the end of every Saturday afternoon. They put a lot on the quarterback’s plate and I think it’s very underestimated what this kid can do from a football standpoint. He does a lot above the neck as well as making plays with his arm and with his mobility.”
Where do you see Smith fitting in at pro level?: “I like that about him the most – I think he’s as complete from a versatility standpoint as there is anyone in this draft. He can run 4.55. I’ve seen him drive the ball accurately down the field. I’ve seen him throw the ball with touch and accuracy, make quick decisions and I’ve seen him be dominant at times. Obviously down the stretch, I think the young had to win a couple football games. They didn’t play very well on defense. They got in a situation where they had to score basically every time they had the ball. That’s a hard way to play quarterback. People have to remember also that West Virginia switched conferences. That’s a real challenge on a quarterback when you show up your senior year and you’re playing a lot of opponents you’ve never seen before in stadiums where you’ve never been. So I credit Geno Smith with not only being productive, but I think his skill set is very versatile. I think he’s going to adapt nicely to any system that you want to run.”
There are two main criticisms of Smith. His pocket awareness -- he has 32 career fumbles -- and his deep-ball accuracy: “I don’t know who are the critics. I haven’t heard all the critics. I know he’s got a number of them as most of these quarterbacks do. Ball security is an issue. There’s no question about that. But they don’t use a tight end. They don’t use a lot of maximum protections. They really don’t. This is to a large degree a high-risk offense. They go up and at ya snap after snap. It’s a pass-first offense really. The quarterback is vulnerable back there. But I’m not making excuses for him. I think he’s got to do a better job taking care of the football, managing the game on a snap-by-snap basis, that’s something we talked a long time about. It’s not about the yards and the number of snaps. It’s about the execution of every individual play. I think sometimes that gets away from you in this up-tempo style of college football. But ball security is an issue. I had him on the field. I really was impressed with his deep ball. I wouldn’t buy into that criticism personally. I think he’s an excellent deep-ball passer.”
What is an ideal scheme fit for Manuel?: “I like EJ a lot because I think you can call just about any scheme you want to call. I’ve seen him run the direct quarterback runs. He’s a presence inside the 10-yard line much like Cam Newton in Carolina is. I’ve seen him run various option plays and we know that’s certainly a major point of emphasis in the NFL right now. I know he can bring a lot to the table from an athletic standpoint. He’s a really fun kid to be around. The players like him. He helped the Seminoles win 12 games and an Orange Bowl. I think he can improve as a passer. I think he can improve his protection awareness and understanding. I don’t think he’s anywhere near to a finished product, but I do think he has a big upside, and I think he has a tremendous skill set that allows him to do a lot of different things. If you’re with a creative offensive coach, look out. He could be a good player.”
How do you project Barkley in the NFL?: “I think Barkley’s going to be a starter in the league at some point. Obviously he’s coming off an injury [shoulder]. I think he’s done an excellent job rehabbing that. I saw him make all the throws personally with my own two eyes. I think Matt is going to have to function as a pocket passer. I don’t think he’s going to be a scrambling, option-style quarterback. Obviously, I think he’s going to be a guy that relies on his system, complete execution around him. I think his supporting cast is going to be important to him. But I’ve seen Matt Barkley throw the ball extremely well and in tight windows, and he’s done it for four years. What I love about Barkley is his experience, not only at USC, but he also started for four years in high school at a pretty good doggone high school program at Mater Dei. So you’re getting a kid that can function in the pocket, that has great anticipation and accuracy and I think he has enough arm strength to be very, very good throwing the ball down the field.”
On the top-rated cornerbacks: “[Florida State’s] Xavier Rhodes has the size you’re looking for, 6-1 ½, 210 pounds. He can run. You have to have a certain degree of physical traits to play bump-and-run corner. Forget the size for a minute. You have to be able to have those long arms and certainly have to be able to turn and wheel and contort your body and react to quickness. Some corners have a knack for it. It certainly helps when you study the tape and you see them doing it. I think Dee Milliner at Alabama because of his background with Nick Saban, you see the high hands, you see a corner that can play man-to-man and find the ball in the blind spot. Those two bump-and-run corners in this draft appeal to me more than most of them.”
Who are your favorite quarterbacks this year?: “It depends on what kind of system you run. Obviously with the game changing the way it is, the option coming into the NFL, we saw what [Colin] Kaepernick did, Russell Wilson, RGIII, you see that going around the league, Chip Kelly coming to the Eagles. If you're in the NFC, the read option, the option itself is a prevalent part of the game. Guys like EJ Manuel [of Florida State], Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, I think those are the two players in this draft that are equipped to run that style of offense. I like Nassib a lot as a sleeper in this draft because he can run the option. He did it at Syracuse. He managed a no-huddle offense. He has size, athleticism, and he has an NFL pedigree from having played for Doug Marrone. I like EJ Manuel obviously because of his size, and his running ability. But outside of that, there are some very good pocket passers if that's your cup of tea. Guys like Matt Barkley, Landry Jones have hung in the pocket and made a lot of completions during their career. A Geno Smith, those three guys in particular throw the ball very well. But I would say it depends on the kind of offense that you run and what you're looking for. There's a lot I think interesting prospects that can help a team in this draft.
Is there another Russell Wilson in this draft?: “I don't know if there's another Russell Wilson. I think what he did as a rookie is unprecedented really for a third-round draft choice. But as I said earlier, I really like this kid out of Syracuse. I like Ryan Nassib because he's an athletic kids, he's functioned in a couple of different offenses, what they did at Syracuse this year, changing their offense two weeks before the regular season, says a lot about this kid's ability to adapt. [He’s a] former 400-pound bench presser. They were 2-4, trailing Stony Brook College at halftime, and I thought he was really good at the end of games and helped Syracuse go to a bowl game. I just like his body of work at Syracuse.”
Nassib has a laid-back demeanor. Can he command an NFL huddle?: “Yeah, I think so. I don't think a lot of these quarterbacks are type-A personalities. I like a calm, cool customer, a man that can handle a lot of situations with a lot on his plate from a football standpoint. They gave him a lot of freedom at Syracuse, reading progressions, changing plays. Most players that I've been around, they like playing for a quarterback that knows what he's doing, that's in control of the game. That one thing that impressed me the most about Ryan Nassib. He's already got his degree. He's all business all the time, and I think he's going to know what to do when the game starts.”
What is surprising about Nassib on film?: “He threw some tight-window completions and that's hard to find sometimes in college football. You don't see a lot of really contested tight windows under duress. I thought Nassib proved that he could make the difficult plays when it wasn't a clean pocket. He didn't have a great supporting cast, no disrespect to Syracuse. But there were times Nassib had to make something happen for Syracuse to win, and I thought he did that enough to prove that he can do it at the next level.”
Of all the quarterbacks in this year’s draft, which one would you take?: “I selfishly really like this kid [Nassib] at Syracuse. I've said it a couple of times. He's a nuisance runner. I think he can scramble for first downs. If you want to run the read-option, I think he could execute those plays. I really think he's sharp mentally. He's a guy that's been trained by Doug Marrone, formerly of the New Orleans Saints. He's been in a really ambitious offensive scheme, taking care of the ball. He's tough, durable. I like his upside.”