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The NFL Draft. Quite possibly my favorite event on the sports calendar every year. Is it because that’s when Browns fans have the most hope? Probably – but I love it nonetheless.

In 2014 the Browns have 10 picks including five selections in the first three rounds so they are positioned to make a huge impact on the team. That is if Banner and Lombardi don’t screw things up! I’m here to make things easy for them so here’s the plan.

First, I’ve said it for months, the Browns need to find a way to get Johnny Manziel. Period. Will he be there at #4? That’s debatable. I honestly think he may go #1 but if the Texans take Teddy Bridgewater then there’s a chance. If they think they need to move up to #2 with the Rams I try to offer a third this year and a third next season and see what happens. Either way let’s say the front office does something right and gets my man Johnny Football.

Next, with the #26 pick they need to target a WR to pair with Josh Gordon. I really like Mike Evans from Texas A&M and Jordan Matthews from Vanderbilt. I’m also intrigued by Kelvin Benjamin from FSU but he doesn’t appear to play hard every play and we already have that with Gordon.

With the #35 overall pick, #3 in second round, I look at a MLB or my favorite RB in the draft – Tre Mason. It is clear when he plays he has a gear no one else has in college football. He also runs hard and can catch the ball too. Reminds me of LeSean McCoy and that’s the kind of RB the Browns have been missing. Pair him with Dion Lewis and we have a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield.

If Tre Mason is gone I love Shayne Skov the MLB from Stanford. He’s fast, hits hard and is a leader on defense. I might even look at Ryan Shazier from the Buckeyes who knows how to make plays.

In the third round I look at guard and corner with those two picks. The Browns guards are slow and undersized and can’t generate enough movement to establish a running game. At corner, Buster Skrine played much better in 2013 but he’s still better suited as a nickel corner long-term.

So after day two of the draft the Browns have a QB, WR, RB, CB, and MLB. Pair these guys with the pieces currently in place on offense (Gordon, Cameron, Benjamin) and defense (Haden, Mingo, Taylor, Ward) and that’s the making of a core of young players the team can finally build around.

In my last post I laid out a plan for the Browns front office brass to bring in a proven head coach to lead the team. The choices I put forward were Brian Billick, Marty Schottenheimer and David Shaw. After using my Jimmy Haslam checkbook to write one of them a large check, it’s on to a couple more large checks I need to write – pending free agents.

The Browns are actually in a pretty good position related to pending free agents with only a couple contributors eligible for free agency. Those players include center Alex Mack, strong safety T.J. Ward, guard Shawn Lauvao and kicker Billy Cundiff. Running back Willis McGahee and guard Oneil Cousins are free agents too, but they are as good as gone. In my opinion, Lauvao should be as good as gone too so let’s cross him off the list. Cundiff was solid this year, but I wouldn’t give him any more than another one-year deal and possibly look for a kicker late in the draft. That leaves Mack and Ward as the only guys the Browns need to worry about.

With Mack, it wouldn’t make sense to use the franchise tag on him as he’s lumped into the “Offensive Line” tag which is going to end up over $10 million next year. That being said, they should consider giving him a contract in the neighborhood of $5 to $6 million per year for five years which would put him in the top five or so for centers in the league. The team has the cap room, Mack is a two-time Pro-Bowler and he’s consistent and reliable.

Related to T.J. Ward, if the team can’t work out a deal they could end up slapping the Franchise Tag on Ward which would account for about $7 million. They should try to give him a long-term deal somewhere just under that of Kam Chancellor of Seattle who got a four-year deal for $28 million. I’m thinking four years at about $22 million and I’d be happy as a front office.

The next steps will be free agents from other teams and then on to the draft. I already have some strong opinions on this year’s draft, and will share those in the coming days. 

Anyone who knows anything about sports knows the Cleveland Browns have been a trainwreck since 1999. Numerous different regimes have tried to get things right and none have done so yet. The time has come to offer my solutions. If the so-called expert front office staff members who’ve worked for the Browns can’t get it right could a football junkie, self-proclaimed NFL Draft expert, life-long Clevelander and Browns fan like myself do any worse?

First things first, a Head Coach. I don’t think Chud was given a fair chance in Cleveland. Name any other NFL coach who could do much when they are rolling out three different below-average QBs during the year? However, the past is the past so I won’t dwell on what’s been done.

My first phone calls to find a new coach would be Marty Schottenheimer and Brian Billick. I know Schottenheimer has been out of the game for a few years but his last season coaching the Chargers he went 14-2! Also, while the league lasted only a couple years, he actually coached a UFL team as recently as 2011 (he actually won the league championship) so it hasn’t been that long. His one downfall is he can’t win in the playoffs, but if he could get the Browns even close to the playoffs he’d be a savior!

With Brian Billick all he did in his nine seasons as head coach of the Ravens was go 24 games OVER .500 and win a Super Bowl! In addition, he won without a franchise QB and let’s just say that’s been a little problem in Cleveland lately.

Those guys may not be perfect solutions so if you don’t like those options my other phone call would be to Stanford Head Coach David Shaw. He’s turned down other options previously so I would begin the conversation with “How would you like to triple your salary?” Shaw wins creatively with a pro-style offense which he molds around his personnel and his players love him and play hard for him.

So, once I have my head coach on board I turn my attention to the roster…

Nobody Night…Awful Night… Mustache Appreciation…Used Car Giveaways…and even Salute to Indoor Plumbing. These are all promotional nights which have taken place at Minor League Baseball games in the past. Fans and outsiders hear about these events and even attend these events from time to time but does anyone really ever think about what goes into planning one of these nights or how they were developed in the first place? Keep reading and you’ll find out.

First, it’s a safe bet to assume that 95% of teams sit down at the conclusion of every season to discuss what went well during the season and to begin brainstorming ideas for the next season. In these brainstorming sessions many ideas are floated around…some of them great and some of them completely unrealistic. However, sometimes the ideas which may seem unrealistic at first become the well-known promotions we know and love thanks to the creativity of the folks in Minor League Baseball.

I classify Minor League “Theme Nights” into two different categories. First, some teams do these promotions just for fun and in hopes of not only local but national publicity. The Charleston RiverDogs once staged “Nobody Night” where they didn’t let fans into the ballpark until the 5th inning so they could announce an attendance of zero for the night. They very much accomplished their goal of garnering publicity from these event as it’s still talked about today, but this didn’t translate into any type of monetary benefit to the team. While Minor League teams are known for fun, wacky promotions they are also businesses with bills to pay and publicity doesn’t pay my salary as an employee of a Minor League team!

The other category for these promotional nights would be ones in which teams develop in order to try to increase sales – tickets, merchandise and food. I’ll use my own Cleveland Sports History Night with the Captains as an example of this type of promotion. Cleveland Sports History Night began as a theme night idea to re-live some of the infamous moments Cleveland sports teams are known for. Once the idea was dreamed up we brainstormed on what all should be involved in the night and came up with concessions specials, celebrity appearances, group ticket ideas, and merchandise sales opportunities. Our concession special we did was Nickel Beer (Dime Beer in year two) which was an idea to bring in the beer-drinking fans and generate media attention…it worked on both accounts.We did small, discounted beer for one hour and then sold full-price beer for the remainder of the game. We also thought bringing in former Cleveland athletes would help bring in true sports fans looking to meet and greet these athletes and this has worked for four straight seasons. Next, we targeted Browns Backers groups to do a group outing at the ballpark on this night which ended up turning into a large pre-game tailgate party in the parking lot prior to the game. Finally, we wanted to sell merchandise to these die-hard Cleveland sports fans so we bring in baseball cards of the celebrities, footballs, football helmets, photographs and anything else we think may sell and try to make money through incremental merchandise sales as well. The in-game promotions are icing on the cake for the fans who’ve come to the game and we hope that at the end of the night fans enjoyed their experience and will come back for another game in the future.

In a perfect world everything comes together and a team not only gets great publicity from a wacky promotional night but they also find a way to cash in financially. My current team, the Lake County Captains, and I were lucky enough that the stars aligned for us on Cleveland Sports History Night which has been going strong for four seasons and was named Promotion of the Year by ESPN Magazine in 2009. This year’s event came and went this past weekend and now I’m hoping the folks at Minor League Baseball will recognize our event as part of their Golden Bobblehead Awards for Minor League promotions.

What are the first thoughts that come to your mind when you hear the term “Sports Agent.” How about the names Drew Rosenhaus & Scott Boras? Greedy. Cut-throat. No-nonsense. Demanding. Money-hungry. Hard-ass. I’m guessing some of those adjectives popped into your head. I’ve never met either one of those guys but that has been my perception and likely the perception of fans and the media. When fans hear “agent” or “representative” they think those guys (or women) are looking to squeeze every penny out of everyone who comes in contact with the players they represent.

My experiences over the past several years, and more recently the past few weeks, with agents and player representatives have been the complete opposite of this misconception. One of the events I plan annually for the Lake County Captains is Cleveland Sports History Night (2009 Promotion of the Year according to ESPN Magazine). On this night we bring in current and former players from any Cleveland professional sports team ranging from the Browns, Cavaliers and Indians to the Cleveland Crunch (Indoor Soccer), Lumberjacks (hockey), and Cleveland State Vikings.

Over the past month I have worked with three different agencies representing three different players to see if they could attend our event on Saturday, June 2nd. One is a very well-known, nationwide agency, the second is a mid-sized agency representing several players I’m sure most readers have heard of and the third is a smaller agency with a small portfolio of folks many people wouldn’t recognize. My experience with each one has been pretty much exactly the same – professional, courteous, honest, fair and genuine. From the large agency to the smaller agency, each person made me, simply an employee at a Minor League Baseball team, feel like I was equally as important to them and their client as the NFL teams the players are currently playing for. Additionally, at every step along the way I felt like the agency had their player’s best interest in mind. Whether it was understanding the importance of putting a player’s family first or finding additional ways to help their player earn a few extra bucks the agencies knew their player inside and out.

I’m not naive enough to think every single agent or player representative is exactly like the ones I’ve been working with, but I can confidently say the stereotype for these folks, and my personal opinions about player representatives, have been dead wrong all along.

This is one instance where I’ll happily admit I was wrong and I’m glad I was.

The NFL Draft has come and gone and this week is kind of like the week following Christmas. Fans take time to research all the players their teams drafted and analyze the draft a little deeper than first glance. At Christmas, you get all your presents and are all excited about all of them but can’t play with them all at once so you take the entire next week to play with each one.

Plus, the following week is when you realize you got all these cool things, but you need batteries or something else to make them work. This is akin to NFL teams signing undrafted Free Agents following the draft…the picks they got in the draft aren’t quite enough to fill out the roster so they need to add a few more players to the roster to make it complete.

This brings us to my final grade for the Cleveland Browns 2012 NFL Draft. Consider this as you read through my grading and rationale behind this. If you look at teams’ drafts from year to year if a team ends up with two or three solid starters from a draft that would be deemed a good draft. Sound low??? Go to nfl.com and look back at draft classes from 2009-2011 and see how many teams got more than two or three starters in those drafts. However, the Browns need to be held to a slightly higher standard this year as they had two first-round picks and two fourth-round picks thanks to the Julio Jones trade last season.

Overall, I’m going to give the Browns a “B-” grade on this draft strictly because I think they drafted a couple guys a little earlier than they needed to and I would have love to see them trade a pick or two in this year’s draft for a higher pick in next year’s draft to keep stockpiling draft picks.

Moving up one spot to take Trent Richardson was fine by me as we hardly gave up anything of huge value to move up and with 13 total picks we had plenty of ammunition to swing this deal. Plus, the Browns ended up getting one additional pick back by trading down in the third round. Richardson is a safe pick and will be a starter from day one. I think their only other option at #3 or #4 would have been Justin Blackmon and he seems like a risky pick to me and the Browns aren’t in a position to be rolling the dice on draft picks.

I would have been much happier with the Brandon Weeden pick at #22 had we turned around and taken WR Stephen Hill or Ruben Randall in the second round at pick #37. Instead we used that pick on a RT, Mitchell Schwartz. I said it before, I like Weeden and there’s no question in my mind he’s an immediate upgrade over Colt McCoy. The draft is about getting better and if he makes our team better at the most important position in the NFL then I’m ok with the pick.

With Mitchell Schwartz he seems like another safe pick who should come in and be a starter immediately. He’s big, strong and has lots of experience at the college level. If he can’t beat out Oniel Cousins at RT in training camp then the grade for this draft immediately drops. I’m ok with safe picks in the second round as the Browns have rolled the dice on some classic picks like Chaun Thompson and David Veikune in the past and how did those work out for the team?

The biggest question mark for me in the entire draft was the third round for the Browns. First, they trade down 20 spots when some quality players were still on the board. At this point they still hadn’t taken a receiver and guys like Mohamad Sanu from Rutgers and Chris Givens from Wake Forest were still on the board. Then, to top it off, they take a DT from Cincinnati, John Hughes, who isn’t well known by anyone and is going to be a rotational player at best. The only reason I’m not killing them on this pick is they have no depth at DT behind Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor so if this guy can play at all then it’s another upgrade over what is currently on the roster.

The fourth round is where it began to get interesting for the Browns and others in this draft. Before the round began I told numerous people the Browns needed to come out of the round with a receiver and a linebacker. Well, the Brownies delivered and they got a LB I really liked going into the draft, James-Michael Johnson and a WR who not many people knew much about, Travis Benjamin, from Miami, FL. Johnson can play any of the four LB positions and I think he may take over for Scott Fujita as a starter before the season is over. Plus, this is another area where the team had zero depth. In Benjamin the Browns got a fast, deep-threat kind of receiver but he’s not a tall guy so hopefully he can do the job of stretching the field to keep teams honest. Something no team did last year with McCoy at the helm and the rag-tag bunch of receivers we rolled out there from week to week.

Finally, in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds teams are usually looking for bottom of the roster guys or special-teamers. The Browns took a ginormous OL in Ryan Miller (6’7″ and 321) who played guard at Colorado but can also play tackle in the fifth round. He can compete with Schwartz at RT and hopefully be a swing tackle in case something would happen to either starter. We saw what happened last season with Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins at RT so this guy can’t be any worse than those two. In the sixth the Browns took two guys I actually really like - Emmanuel Acho, a LB from Texas, and Billy Wynn, a DT from Boise State. A draft expert I trust more than any other, Gil Brandt, the GM of the Cowboys in the 70′s and 80′s, had Wynn ranked #63 on his top 100 players. Again, these guys can be special teams guys and add depth to two areas we desperately needed it. Acho put up big numbers in college but was considered a little undersized for the NFL. Wynn put up good numbers but was knocked because of his effort in college. Hopefully one of the two pans out and we can get some help and depth from them moving forward. Lastly, the seventh round is usually a throw-away round where no-name guys from no-name schools get drafted and rarely make an impact. In 2011 the Browns took Eric Hagg, a safety from Nebraska, who was hurt most of the season but came in and played some quality football for the Browns at the end of the season. This year they take CB Trevin Wade from Arizona and FB/H-Back Brad Smelley from Alabama. Wade was projected to go much higher in the draft but had consistency issues in college. He has the speed and skills to be successful, so hopefully a little NFL coaching can get the best out of him. Smelley was Richardson’s blocker at Alabama and may be able to compete with Owen Marecic for the FB spot or possibly even Alex Smith or Jordan Cameron for the final TE spot on the roster.

This seems to be the third solid draft for Tom Heckert and the Browns so hopefully it’ll translate to success on the field. Ultimately it’s going to come down to Brandon Weeden more than anything else, so if he’s a success then everything else the Browns did or didn’t do this off-season will be water under the bridge. I’ll leave you with one last thing. In looking at the picks the Browns had and who was on the board at the time, here’s what I would have done if I were turning in the index cards at Radio City Music Hall in NYC…

Round 1, Pick 3 – Trent Richardson – RB – Alabama
Round 1, Pick 22 – Stephen Hill – WR – Georgia Tech
Round 2, Pick 37 – Brandon Weeden – QB – Oklahoma State
Round 3, Pick 87 -Bobbie Massie – T – Mississippi
Round 4, Pick 100 – Ronnell Lewis – OLB – Oklahoma
Round 4, Pick 120 – Brandon Boykin – CB – Georgia
Round 5, Pick 160 – George Iloka – S – Boise State
Round 6, Pick 204 – Billy Wynn – DT – Boise State
Round 6, Pick 205 – Chase Minnifield – CB – Virginia
Round 7, Pick 245 – Eric Page – WR – Toledo
Round 7, Pick 247 – James Brown – G – Troy

The Browns second and third round draft picks didn’t do anything to excite the fan base here in Cleveland. In the second round they took Mitchell Schwartz a Tackle from California. I was on a radio show here in NE Ohio on Friday, The Sports Report on ESPN 970, and actually mentioned Schwartz as a guy to keep your eye on in the third round for the Browns. This fills a giant hole the Browns had during the 2011 season at RT, but there’s a good chance they could have gotten him or another serviceable T in the third or fourth round. For example, Tackle Bobbie Massie from Mississippi State who is still on the board at the start of round 4.

Then, the big head-scratcher came when they traded down 20 picks in the 4th round with the Broncos. The Browns had a chance to take a solid receiver who was still on the board, Mohamad Sanu from Rutgers, or a Safety like Brandon Taylor from LSU who could play next to TJ Ward. Instead they draft a guy I had never heard of and several NFL Network announcers had never heard of either – John Hughes a DT from Cincinnati. He had decent state at UC, 5.5 sacks as a senior, but was never dominant. The one thing I’ve read about him that I like is he is a high-motor guy and I think that’s one of the most important qualities for a defensive lineman.

Here is a list of guys the Browns may take a look at today in the 4th-7th rounds of the draft:

Terrell Manning – LB – NC State
Michael James-Johnson – LB – Nevada
Tank Carder – LB – TCU
Cam Johnson – DE – Virginia
Ladarius Green – TE – Louisiana Lafayette
Chase Minnifield – CB – Virginia
George Iloka – S – Boise State
Keshawn Martin – WR – Michigan State
Juron Criner – WR – Arizona
Nick Toon – WR – Wisconsin
Eric Page – WR – Toledo
Brian Stahovich – P – San Diego State

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