The NFL Draft is always unpredictable to some degree, but many analysts expect more twists and turns than usual Thursday night.
And West Virginia University’s Geno Smith is at the center of it all.
Many draft gurus consider Smith the top-rated quarterback prospect this year, but few can agree where he’ll come off the board. This isn’t like 2012, when quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were locks to be picked first and second overall, respectively.
“I think there’s more uncertainty at the top end of this draft than I’ve ever been associated with, and I think it adds more drama,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said last Thursday during a conference call.
The Browns have the sixth pick, and of all the possibilities, it seems most likely they’ll target a cornerback or pass rusher in that slot if they don’t trade down. But some believe Smith is the wild card, and he certainly can’t be ruled out as a possibility for the Browns or any other team that has yet to find a definitive, long-term answer at quarterback.
“I’m trying to find a home for Geno Smith in my draft,” Mayock said. “If Cleveland doesn’t take him at six — you’ve got a new GM, you’ve got a new head coach — that’s a logical place for him. If they don’t take him at six, I’m not sure where he’s going to go.”
Yes, the Browns have a new regime led by CEO Joe Banner, coach Rob Chudzinski and General Manager Mike Lombardi. They inherited quarterback Brandon Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, and have him penciled in as their starter heading into the draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday.
In February at the NFL Scouting Combine, Banner said he didn’t expect the Browns to pick a quarterback in the first or second round (they currently don’t have a second-round selection but could add one via a trade). At the combine and at the NFL owners meeting in March, Banner said the Browns weren’t focusing on a quarterback at No. 6. And even after the Browns signed veteran quarterback Jason Campbell, 31, March 26 to push Weeden, 29, Banner said the organization viewed Weeden as the starter heading into offseason workouts and would give him every chance to succeed.
As the team wrapped up its three-day voluntary minicamp this past Thursday, Lombardi declined to offer his evaluation of Weeden during a pre-draft news conference, explaining he has been studying the draft and merely watching tape of practice. Chudzinski said he had seen improvement from Weeden during the minicamp and feels “good about the direction that we are going.” Weeden, the incumbent starter, took all the reps with the first-team offense.
But the Browns also have spent a significant amount of time studying this year’s crop of incoming rookie quarterbacks. They conducted private workouts with Smith, Florida State’s EJ Manuel and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib. They also brought Manuel, Southern California’s Matt Barkley and Arizona’s Matt Scott to their headquarters in Berea for pre-draft visits.
Whether the Browns were simply being thorough and preparing for any possibility — the picture Banner and Lombardi painted last week during the news conference — or plan to pick a quarterback remains to be seen. And if they do target one, will it be Smith?
There are different theories.
On April 3, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports led a column by writing Smith would become “a top-five draft pick. There isn’t any doubt about it.” On April 18, La Canfora wrote he doesn’t buy the idea that the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 2 overall pick), Oakland Raiders (No. 3), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 4) and Buffalo Bills (No. 8) would all pass on Smith. The Browns, for what it’s worth, were not mentioned.
But two weeks ago during a conference call, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. began pushing the idea of Smith not only being available to the Browns at No. 6 but also lasting long enough for Cleveland to trade down to No. 11, the pick owned by the San Diego Chargers, and still nab him. Kiper’s colleague Todd McShay laid out a similar scenario in his April 10 mock draft, but he listed the Miami Dolphins at No. 12 as a prime candidate to trade with the Browns. Peter King and Don Banks of Sports Illustrated followed suit by writing about the Browns possibly moving just outside the top-10 picks and targeting Smith, who led West Virginia to a 5-0 start last season before he and the team stumbled to a record of 7-6.
The lack of consensus reflects the varying views about Smith as a player.
Pro Football Weekly senior editor Nolan Nawrocki generated headlines by writing a scathing scouting report about Smith in the publication’s annual draft guide. The scouting report ripped Smith’s work ethic, leadership and football intelligence, among other things. PFW gave Smith a fourth-round grade, according to its conversion scale for this year’s draft, ranked him as the sixth-best quarterback and projected him as a top-50 pick.
In his summary of Smith, Nawrocki wrote, “Started the season red-hot with the help of two playmaking receivers and created a national stir generating a lot of overexcitement in the scouting community. Quickly came down to earth after Kansas State disguised coverages and brought pressure he could not handle and he finished dropping six of his final eight games. A cross between Akili Smith and Aaron Brooks, Smith is a gimmick, overhyped product of the system lacking the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job and could drain energy from a QB room. Will be overdrafted and struggle to produce against NFL complexities.”
In response to the scouting report, Smith told USA Today on April 2, “It’s untrue in all things.”
Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who guided Smith at West Virginia and Weeden at Oklahoma State, told USA Today that he and Smith laughed about the scouting report when they first learned about it.
“I’ve been around Geno for two years,” Spavital said. “I thought he was one of the hardest-working quarterbacks I’ve ever been around. … Geno can step in and start in the NFL from Day One, and I didn’t think that about Brandon Weeden. I thought he was a very good quarterback. But I thought it might take him two years before he started. But Geno can come in right now and start right away.”
On Tuesday, Smith wrote the following message on Twitter: “Just want to thank all those so called ‘experts’ who say I can’t be an NFL QB. Thursday will be a special day but the work has only begun.”
The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Smith started all 13 games last season and completed 369-of-518 passes (71.2 percent) for 4,205 yards and 42 touchdowns with six interceptions. Smith, who posted a time of 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash in February at the NFL Scouting Combine, also rushed 66 times for 301 yards and two touchdowns. He finished his collegiate career with a record of 26-13 as a starter.
“I like the fact that he can spin the ball,” Kiper said April 11 during a conference call. “He’s got the live arm. He can make any throw you want. He’s mobile, very good mobility. He can beat you with his legs. He can run and pick up significant yardage. He’s a kid who seems like he’s going to work hard at his craft. The concerns would be the pocket collapsed a lot for him. The offensive line didn’t do its job, and when he was harassed, the accuracy diminished and he made some bad decisions and he had some fumbles in the pocket.
“He’s got to be a little more precise with the football, but I thought he hit his guys in stride pretty well at West Virginia. He gave them a chance to do a lot after the catch, which impressed me. Some of the other quarterbacks did not. He reads the whole field, which I like. He is the kind of guy if handled properly can be a very, very good starting quarterback.”
Super Bowl-winning coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said Smith needs to improve his ball security, as evidenced by his 32 career fumbles at West Virginia. But Gruden believes Smith is an “excellent deep-ball passer” despite some critics claiming otherwise.
“I think he’s as complete from a versatility standpoint as there is anyone in this draft,” Gruden said April 15 during a conference call. “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.”
Gruden, however, added that he would take Nassib over any other quarterback in this year’s draft. And he also said the Browns should stick with Weeden.
The new regime will soon reveal whether it agrees.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.