BEREA: The Browns’ 1999 draft was almost as big. But fans were so overjoyed to have an expansion team after three years without football that expectations weren’t nearly as high. No one realized the franchise was so hastily arranged that it’s a wonder quarterback Tim Couch, the first overall pick, managed to play in 62 games.
The Browns’ 2009 draft was almost as big. But following a regime change, no one realized the magnitude of new coach Eric Mangini’s whiff on three second-round picks right away, especially since one of the No. 2 picks was an Ohio State Buckeye.
The Browns’ 1989 draft was almost as big. The Bernie Kosar-led Browns were aging and needed a rapid infusion of talent, but 11 picks brought only running back Eric Metcalf and stress fracture-plagued receiver Lawyer Tillman.
The Browns opened their most important draft in decades Thursday night, with new General Manager Ray Farmer armed with 10 selections, including three of the first 35. Holding picks Nos. 4 and 26 in the first round, Farmer was poised to make the team’s biggest splash since 1978, when the Browns landed linebacker Clay Matthews and hall of fame tight end Ozzie Newsome with the 12th and 23rd selections.
The Newsome pick carried a big price, coming in a trade for quarterback Mike Phipps, a first-round choice in 1970. To obtain the latter selection, the Browns sent hall of fame receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins. But the 1978 draft didn’t carry as much urgency because the Browns had been .500 or better five times in the previous eight years.
But with the first choice of his tenure, Farmer shrugged off urgency and planned for the future as well as the present.
With the fourth selection, the Browns had their choice of the draft’s elite, thanks to the St. Louis Rams’ selection of Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson at No. 2 and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ surprising pick of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles at No. 3. That left Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack and Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews on the board for the Browns.
But Farmer stayed cool and pulled off a trade with the Buffalo Bills. To drop from No. 4 to 9, the Browns received the Bills’ first- and fourth-round picks in 2015, which seemed like a steal in a draft that had no consensus on the elite players.
Then they traded from ninth to eighth, giving the Minnesota Vikings a fifth-rounder (No. 145) so they could select cornerback Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State. Gilbert, 6 feet and 202 pounds, will pair opposite Joe Haden.
Farmer didn’t do the safe thing and pick Watkins. Farmer wasn’t swayed by the frenzy over Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. With the trade down and the pick of Gilbert, Farmer went with logic and disregarded history in a draft that can rewrite years of bad Browns decisions on draft day.
A draft that can halt the parade of 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999.
A draft that can put a franchise that has lost at least 11 games 11 times in 15 years back on the winning track. Its record of 77-163 since 1999 is tied with Detroit for the worst in the league in that span.
Gilbert looked like a player who could help move that needle, but didn’t excite anyone. But when Manziel slid in the first round, Farmer electrified Browns fans around the world. He traded up from No. 26 to 22, sending a third-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to get Johnny Football.
In one stunning moment, the Browns are irrelevant no longer.
Manziel’s supporters and detractors in Northeast Ohio have argued for months, a debate that made Couch vs. Holcomb pale in comparison.
But Farmer and new coach Mike Pettine had to realize what was at stake. Pettine was hired before owner Jimmy Haslam fired CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi. Haslam might have lured a bigger name had he realized sooner that Banner and Lombardi were diluting his talent pool.
Haslam took a chance on Farmer, the second-youngest GM in the league, despite just one year as an assistant under Lombardi. But if the losing continues, Haslam might not be committed long-term to Pettine and Farmer. Farmer was drafting not only for the Browns’ future, but for his and Pettine’s as well.
From 1989 to 1999 to 2009, draft missteps did not keep Browns fans from renewing their season tickets and packing FirstEnergy Stadium to see an inferior product. But Haslam could not count on that goodwill lasting forever.
The Browns needed excitement. They needed to be energized. They got all of that with the 22nd pick, the same pick that brought disappointment with quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden. That number seemed to back the feeling Manziel said he had that Cleveland was where he was meant to be.
Farmer shrewdly waited like a GM who’d been on the job for years. Then he struck boldly for a quarterback whom he believes will lead the Browns down a different — albeit foreign — path. Say what you want about Manziel, but he’s a winner.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.