Desperation should not drive the Browns in the 2014 NFL Draft.
When the first round opens Thursday night at 8, they must forget about the franchise’s 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999.
They must not gamble just to become relevant, especially if they’re considering Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, an undersized, scrambling playmaker who would bring them headlines but perhaps not victories.
The organization is not equipped to handle the national media frenzy selecting Manziel would bring, although that’s an issue best discussed if he does put on a Browns cap this week.
The Browns need elite players. Arguably they have only three — wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas — and only one scares defensive coordinators. Presuming their 4-12 record from 2013 will improve next season under rookie coach Mike Pettine and first-year General Manager Ray Farmer, they must add another game-changer with the fourth overall pick.
In my opinion, that should be Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, if he’s still on the board. They should not reach for a quarterback who doesn’t belong in the top 10.
The Browns can pick a player at No. 4 who will be a major factor in turning the franchise around, then select a quarterback. That might require trading up from No. 26, perhaps jumping the Arizona Cardinals at No. 20. (Using the draft value chart, moving from 26 to 19 would cost the Browns the second of their third-round picks, No. 83, although the chart is sometimes used only as a guideline.)
Farmer might be more inclined to move down from No. 4 than to move up. That could happen if Watkins isn’t available, which might leave them faced with a decision on Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. Some would argue they have plenty of pass-rushers, but Mack is much more than that, as Ohio State learned last season. They shouldn’t trade down if it means settling for a lower-echelon talent.
But with 10 picks, the Browns have the ammunition to get a front-line player and a quarterback in the first round. Anything less will be a disappointment. (As would be an offensive tackle and a quarterback, at least for me.)
Perhaps the quarterback is Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois or Derek Carr of Fresno State. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater could land in their laps at No. 26. I’d be shocked if it happened, but maybe Manziel falls that far.
If they come away with Watkins and Garoppolo/Carr/Bridgewater, I believe the Browns will be on the way back to playoff contention, even if the rookie quarterback needs to sit for a year.
They don’t need a quick fix whom they’d be pressured to play right away, which would come with Manziel at 4, because they have Brian Hoyer. Although he tore his ACL on Oct. 3 and will never be among the league’s best at his position, Hoyer can win games with the right talent around him.
But Hoyer needs another weapon like Watkins to line up opposite Gordon. Farmer’s remark that such a pairing would be “ginormous” might not have been a smokescreen, although he could like Texas A&M’s 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Evans just as well. Personally, I want Watkins’ 4.43 speed over Evans’ 4.53, although I’ve seen what a red-zone leaper can do for a team when I covered the 1996-98 Bengals with Carl Pickens. Gordon, Watkins and tight end Jordan Cameron would give the Browns one of the best receiving trios in the conference.
Critics might say that the best quarterbacks of late have come high in the draft, with the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (No. 24 in 2005) the exception. They might add that only seven receivers have been drafted fourth or higher since 1999. That group includes Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions), Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals), Andre Johnson (Houston Texans), A.J. Green (Bengals), Braylon Edwards (Browns), Peter Warrick (Bengals) and Charles Rogers (Lions). Only the first four proved worthy of such a high pick.
The argument can also be made that the draft is deep at receiver. But Watkins is a special talent who does everything well. He scored the first time he touched the ball in high school and college. At No. 4, I believe he’s the smartest and safest pick who can make the biggest impact.
Ultimately, this Browns draft is all about the quarterback. But they don’t have to rush to get him in Thursday night’s first hour. Before the round ends, they can patiently and rationally change their fortunes. With wide-ranging projections and no consensus, perhaps even a surprise awaits.
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.