Evaluating the draft’s top quarterbacks is the No. 1 priority of the Browns this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, but the duel between North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz and California’s Jared Goff certainly isn’t their only focus.
The Browns have needs at virtually every position, a predictable problem for a 3-13 team.
The list of holes will grow when some, if not all, of their impending free agents hit the open market March 9 and sign elsewhere. The organization will fill some voids with free-agent acquisitions of its own, but the heavy lifting will be done in the draft April 28-30.
The Browns expect to have 11 picks after compensatory choices are awarded next month. They own the second and 32nd overall selections.
With that in mind, here are NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s thoughts about the Browns’ greatest needs as the combine kicks off.
Selecting a quarterback at No. 2 is the likeliest scenario for the Browns. The more intense debate is centered on whether Wentz or Goff should become the pick.
Mayock believes Goff is more polished after starting at Cal for three seasons but Wentz has more upside after going 20-3 at lower-level North Dakota State.
“When I look at [the 6-foot-5¼, 233-pound Wentz], I see a kid that’s as athletic or more athletic than [Stanford product, 2012 No. 1 overall pick and Indianapolis Colts quarterback] Andrew Luck,” Mayock said Tuesday during a conference call. “He’s bigger than Andrew Luck. He’s got arm strength comparable to Andrew Luck. He just doesn’t have the experience that Andrew Luck had at a high level coming out of college.
“I see a ceiling for this kid similar to Andrew Luck. That’s why I believe in this kid so much. But it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Goff is not considered as big a project.
“[He’s] polished, great in the pocket, finds lanes to throw, really good arm, not elite, but a really good arm, very accurate with a quick release, the most ready to play quarterback in the draft today,” Mayock said. “ ... I’ve been told he’s very lean. He could put some weight on, nowhere near as big as Carson Wentz, but 6-3, 6-4, 210 pounds.”
Associate head coach-offense Pep Hamilton spoke last week as if the Browns would re-sign potential free agent Travis Benjamin when he labeled “the Rabbit” one of the team’s top playmakers, but now Benjamin is expected to test the open market.
On Tuesday, agent Ron Butler told NFL Network that lengthy contract talks between Benjamin and the Browns have broken down, and his client will become a free agent March 9. Agents of players with expiring contracts may enter negotiations with other teams beginning March 7.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu will be names to watch in free agency because they played for Browns coach Hue Jackson, the former Bengals’ offensive coordinator.
The need for a big, dominant target, though, would remain. Suspended former All-Pro Josh Gordon would fit the description if he’s reinstated by the NFL and manages to stay clean.
Mayock labeled Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and TCU’s Josh Doctson as logical targets for the Browns at No. 32. He added this receiver class isn’t great, but solid in the middle rounds.
Three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack is expected to opt out of his contract — he must do so by March 4 — and become an unrestricted free agent along with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Although the Browns could re-sign one or both of them, they’re in serious danger of losing 40 percent of their starting offensive line, and 2015 first-round pick Cameron Erving, a center and tackle at Florida State, couldn’t hold his own as a rookie.
Mayock called Alabama’s Ryan Kelly and Notre Dame’s Nick Martin “outstanding second-round centers.” He said Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair and LSU’s Vadal Alexander are candidates, too.
“Any of those guys would make sense inside because you don’t know what’s going to happen with Mack,” Mayock said. “... The group of centers is one of the best groups I’ve seen in a while. A lot of those guys can play all three interior offensive line positions.”
Mayock listed Texas Tech’s La’Raven Clark, Auburn’s Shon Coleman, Indiana’s Jason Spriggs, Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi and LSU’s Jerald Hawkins as right tackles to watch. He said Western Michigan’s Willie Beavers is under the radar, and Baylor’s Spencer Drango and Stanford’s Kyle Murphy could go in the fourth round.
“Your right tackle, in the old days, [needed to] be a solid run blocker,” Mayock said. “But today, if he can’t block any of the premier edge rushers in the NFL, you’ve got a problem.”
Former Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson is poised to test the waters of free agency next month, and his departure would create another vacancy in the starting lineup.
Mayock didn’t discuss free safeties, but SBNation.com’s Dan Kadar deems Ohio State’s Vonn Bell, Boise State’s Darian Thompson and Florida’s Keanu Neal as second-round options. He views Maryland’s Sean Davis and Clemson’s T.J. Green as fourth-round picks.
Cornerback is another concern with two-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden coming back from two concussions, fellow starter Tramon Williams turning 33 next month and 2014 eighth overall pick Justin Gilbert failing to pan out.
Ohio State’s Eli Apple, Miami’s Artie Burns and Houston’s William Jackson are second-round options, and Alabama’s Cyrus Jones is a projected third- or fourth-round pick, Mayock said.
“There’s some real depth in the corner draft,” he said.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said last week he’s always seeking pass rushers. He should because the Browns ranked 28th in the NFL with 29 sacks last season.
Mayock said he likes Boise State’s Kamalei Correa as a second-round pick, and he considers Maryland’s Yannick Ngakoue a third- or fourth-round choice who’s a prototypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.