Editor’s note: Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich analyzes the team’s needs heading into the draft, which runs tonight-Saturday.
On the roster: Cornerback — Johnson Bademosi, 22; Kevin Barnes, 26; Joe Haden, 24; Prince Miller, 25; Chris Owens, 26; Buster Skrine, 23; and Trevin Wade, 23. Free safeties — Tashaun Gipson, 22; and Eric Hagg, 23.
Outlook: The most glaring hole on the roster heading into the draft is at cornerback because the Browns don’t have a starting-caliber player to line up opposite Haden. Sheldon Brown, 34, filled that role the vast majority of the past three seasons, but he’s a free agent now and won’t be retained. The Browns signed Barnes in March and view him as an outside corner. But he entered the NFL in 2009, has only three starts on his resume and sat out most of this past season after being cut by the Detroit Lions in September. They also signed Owens in March, but he’s better suited as a nickel corner who excels while covering the slot in three-receiver sets. Skrine started six games for the Browns last season, but his struggles indicate he’s another corner best suited for the nickel package. Skrine worked with the first-team defense on the other side of Haden last week during the team’s three-day voluntary minicamp. The situation at free safety is also a concern. The previous coaching staff gave Hagg the starting job alongside strong safety T.J. Ward to begin the 2012 season and then benched him after two games. Usama Young replaced Hagg in the starting lineup, though Young suffered a thumb injury in Week 16 that required surgery, and the Browns cut him on April 2. Gipson showed flashes of promise last season as an undrafted rookie, but he’s far from a proven starter. Gipson worked with the first-team defense last week.
Prospects to watch: If Alabama’s Dee Milliner, who has been labeled the top cornerback in the draft by most analysts, is available when the Browns are on the clock with the sixth overall pick, selecting him would certainly make sense. Milliner, who had a pre-draft visit with the Browns, possesses the ability to step into the starting lineup right away and combine with Haden to form one of the best young cornerback tandems in the NFL. The problem is the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions have the fourth and fifth overall picks, respectively, and both teams could use a cornerback, too. If Milliner is nabbed before No. 6, it could urge the Browns — who don’t have a second-round pick this year — to trade down. Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes, Washington’s Desmond Trufant and Houston’s D.J. Hayden, who headline the second tier of corners, could become targets of the Browns if such a scenario unfolds. If the Browns wait until the middle rounds to address the position, several prospects could be in the mix, including Louisiana State’s Tyrann Mathieu, who visited the Browns, and Rutgers’ Logan Ryan, who worked out for the Browns. As for the free safeties, NFLDraftScout.com lists Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro as the top-rated player at the position, followed by Louisiana State’s Eric Reid. Most analysts project Vaccaro to be picked in the second half of the first round. Reid is a possible first-round pick along with Florida International’s Johnathan Cyprien, who visited the Browns. None of them would likely be in play for the Browns unless they traded down. South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger, Florida’s Josh Evans and Arkansas State’s Don Jones are among several potential middle- and late-round targets to watch. Swearinger and Evans, both of whom could become third- or fourth-round picks, visited the Browns. Jones, a projected seventh-round selection, also worked out for the team.