The Browns’ new regime of General Manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine is taking a significant step in the pre-draft process this week by cross-checking its findings at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Even before the combine officially kicked off Wednesday, decision-makers throughout the league had already evaluated most, if not all of, the 335 prospects invited to participate. College game film is the ultimate tool for executives and coaches while they prepare for the draft, but they use the combine to learn more and test the opinions they’ve formed about players.
The Browns are projected to enter free agency on March 11 with about $45 million in salary-cap space, so they certainly will address some of their needs by signing veterans. Still, they have 10 picks, including two in the first round (Nos. 4 and 26 overall) and seven in the first four rounds, so Farmer is expected to do some heavy lifting in the draft, which will be held May 8-10.
Below is a guide outlining the Browns’ top-five positions of need and prospects they should watch closely at the combine, which runs through Feb. 25. Projected rounds were compiled from NFLDraftScout.com’s rankings.
Under contract for 2014: Jason Campbell, 32; Brian Hoyer, 28; Alex Tanney, 26; and Brandon Weeden, 30.
Analysis: The Browns will continue to be an also-ran until they find a long-term solution at quarterback. Hoyer led them to back-to-back wins in September, but now he’s trying to bounce back after a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee abruptly ended his 2013 season. In what seems to be the most likely scenario by far, the Browns could use the fourth overall pick, or even trade up, to nab their quarterback of the future. If they pull off a surprise by not choosing a QB early, they probably would address this need later in the first round with the 26th selection or early in the second at No. 35 overall.
Prospects to watch: First round — Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. First or second round — Fresno State’s Derek Carr. Second round — Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo. Third round — Alabama’s AJ McCarron.
2. Wide receiver
Under contract for 2014: Travis Benjamin, 24; Davone Bess, 28; Josh Cooper, 25; Josh Gordon, 22; Tori Gurley, 26; Charles Johnson, 24; Greg Little, 24; Brian Tyms, 24; and Conner Vernon, 23.
Analysis: The Browns need a reliable No. 2 receiver to complement All-Pro Josh Gordon and Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron. Benjamin is coming off a torn ACL, it would be surprising if Bess played for the Browns this year (considering his off-field issues) and Little simply doesn’t cut it. If the Browns don’t pick a QB early, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, the top-rated receiver in the draft, could be in play. If not, the good news is this year’s class of receivers has superb depth.
Prospects to watch: First round — Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Southern California’s Marqise Lee and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin. First or second round — LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., Penn State’s Allen Robinson and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks. Second round — Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, LSU’s Jarvis Landry and Fresno State’s Davante Adams. Second or third round — Colorado’s Paul Richardson, Clemson’s Martavis Bryant and Wyoming’s Robert Herron. Third round — Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis. Third or fourth round — Mississippi’s Donte Moncrief, Oregon’s Josh Huff, South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington and Texas’ Mike Davis. Fourth round — Tulane’s Ryan Grant. Fourth or fifth round — Notre Dame’s TJ Jones, Pittsburgh’s Devin Street and Rutgers’ Brandon Coleman. Fifth round — Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders and Indiana’s Cody Latimer.
3. Running back
Under contract for 2014: Edwin Baker, 22; Jamaine Cook, 22; Dion Lewis, 23; Chris Ogbonnaya, 27; and Fozzy Whittaker, 25.
Analysis: Baker showed flashes after signing late in the season, Lewis had a phenomenal preseason until he suffered a broken leg and Ogbonnaya is a respectable player known for his versatility. But this group is still missing a bona fide feature back. Willis McGahee, 32, tried to fill that role last season after the Browns traded Trent Richardson in September, but McGahee averaged just 2.7 yards per carry. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent and isn’t expected to return.
Prospects to watch: Second round — Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, Auburn’s Tre Mason and Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde. Second or third round — Washington’s Bishop Sankey and LSU’s Jeremy Hill. Third round — Florida State’s Devonta Freeman and Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk. Third or fourth round — Towson’s Terrance West and West Virginia’s Charles Sims. Fourth round — Boston College’s Andre Williams. Fourth or fifth round — Wisconsin’s James White and Florida State’s James Wilder. Fifth round — Arizona State’s Marion Grice. Fifth or sixth round — Western Kentucky’s Antonio Andrews and Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney. Sixth round — Tennessee’s Rajion Neal.
4. Offensive line
Under contract for 2014: Tackles — Reid Fragel, 22; Chris Faulk, 24; Mitchell Schwartz, 24; Joe Thomas, 29; and Martin Wallace, 23. Guards — Garrett Gilkey, 23; John Greco, 28; Jason Pinkston, 26; and Jeremiah Warren, 26.
Analysis: For the first time a while, the O-line could undergo significant changes. If the Browns don’t work out a new deal with Pro Bowler and potential free agent Alex Mack, 28, center will become a pressing need. Like Mack, starting right guard Shawn Lauvao, 26, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month along with backup tackle/guard Oniel Cousins, 29. The Browns have Thomas, a seven-time Pro Bowler, locked in as their starting left tackle, Greco as their starting left guard and Schwartz as their starting right tackle. However, they might also look for a tackle if they want to create competition for Schwartz or just flat-out upgrade at right tackle.
Prospects to watch at center: Second round — Arkansas’ Travis Swanson. Second or third round — Colorado State’s Weston Richburg. Third round — Southern California’s Marcus Martin. Fourth round — Florida State’s Bryan Stork.
Prospects to watch at guard: First or second round — Stanford’s David Yankey and UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo. Second round — Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson. Second or third round — Baylor’s Cyril Richardson. Third round — Furman’s Dakota Dozier. Third or fourth round — Alabama’s Anthony Steen. Fourth or fifth round — Clemson’s Brandon Thomas and Notre Dame’s Chris Watt. Fifth round — Florida’s Jon Halapio.
Prospects to watch at tackle: First round — Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, Notre Dam’s Zack Martin and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio. First or second round — Virginia’s Morgan Moses. Second round — Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson and Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort. Second or third round — North Dakota State’s Billy Turner. Third or fourth round — Nevada’s Joel Bitonio and Tennessee’s Ja’Wuan James. Fourth round — North Carolina’s James Hurst.
Under contract for 2014: Cornerbacks — Royce Adams, 25; Joe Haden, 24; T.J. Heath, 26; Brandon Hughes, 27; Leon McFadden, 23; Julian Posey, 25; and Buster Skrine, 24. Safeties — Josh Aubrey, 22; Johnson Bademosi, 23; Tashaun Gipson, 23; Jordan Poyer, 22; and Jamoris Slaughter, 24.
Analysis: Skrine proved he could be a decent starter opposite Pro Bowler Joe Haden last season. But nickel corner Chris Owens is long gone, and McFadden, a third-round pick last year, struggled to earn consistent playing time until late in the season. In other words, the Browns need to add a corner who can push for a starting spot and, at the very least, serve as a reliable No. 3. Strong safety could become an urgent need, too, if Pro Bowler and potential free agent T.J. Ward, 27, is not re-signed or hit with a franchise tag.
Prospects to watch at cornerback: First round — Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert. First or second round — TCU’s Jason Verrett and Florida’s Marcus Roberson. Second round — Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller. Second or third round — Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy, South Carolina’s Victor Hampton and Clemson’s Bashaud Breeland. Third round — Nebraska’s Stan Jean-Baptiste, Utah’s Keith McGill and Oregon’s Terrance Mitchell. Third or fourth round — Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir, Florida’s Jaylen Watkins and Missouri’s E.J. Gaines. Fourth round — Duke’s Ross Cockrell and Oregon State’s Rashaad Reynolds.
Prospects to watch at strong safety: Second round — Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward. Second or third round — Washington State’s Deone Bucannon. Third or fourth round — LSU’s Craig Loston. Fourth round — Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon. Fifth round — Alabama’s Vinnie Sunseri.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.