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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

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There is nothing perfect about Northeast Ohio’s beloved Cleveland Browns, but here is my “In a perfect world” scenario related to free agency for Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and the boys for this off-season. I’ll follow this up with a “Perfect World” article about the Browns’ draft plans later this week or early next week.

First, I think they’ve taken a step in the right direction by hiring an experienced offensive coordinator in Brad Childress. He didn’t handle being a head coach very well, but if he can focus on the offense and playcalling I think that’s one positive so far.

The first item of business for the Brownies is looking at their own crop of potential free agents. At first glance there are only a few names that stick out as “must sign” kind of players. First on that list is MLB D’Qwell Jackson who may be one of the more underrated LB’s in the game. The Browns signed him to a one-year deal this season after missing two straight years so let’s hope he remembers that and gives the team a bit of a hometown discount for their loyalty. Next up, Peyton Hillis. After dominating in 2010 he fell off the wagon and was injured for most of 2011. He’s not a perfect fit in a true West Coast offense (ex: Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, Ricky Watters, Roger Craig) but when he’s on I think he’s a top 10 RB in the league. I think they Browns will try to bring him back at a reasonable number. For some comparison, look at the deal the Giants gave Ahmad Bradshaw last year (click here to see) and if Hillis would take a similar deal I think the Browns are in good shape. Two down and a couple to go. Kicker Phil Dawson played on a one-year “Franchise Tag” deal last year but that’s not happening this year. He’s 37 years old, but is a solid and reliable kicker. If he’s willing to sign for around $2-$2.5 million per year for two years I think the team pulls the trigger. If not, unfortunately it’s time to let him go and maybe find a young kicker late in the draft or free agency. Finally, the other guys who may warrant consideration are CB Dmitri Patterson and S/CB Mike Adams. If it were me, I’d show Adams the door and see if we can bring back Patterson as he played the Nickel corner very well and is a solid backup on the outside.

Now on to bigger and more exciting topics…unrestricted free agency. The Browns aren’t known to make splashes in free agency, partially because the team didn’t want to waste money when they knew they weren’t going to win and partially because it’s hard to get players to come play in NE Ohio without overpaying them. With a projected $30 million or more in cap space there’s no excuse for not trying this year. For me, priority #1 has to be WR. This is a good year to be in the market for a WR as there are several really good ones who’ll potentially be on the market. They include, Wes Welker, Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, and Darrin Chiaverini. (The true Browns fans will get that joke). As a GM I’d go after DeSean Jackson or Wes Welker first as both are good short route runners and yards-after-the-catch guys who are necessary in the West Coast offense. Jackson can stretch the field too whereas Welker is somewhat limited there. Then, I’d look at either Vincent Jackson or Dwayne Bowe who both are big, tall receivers but also have some diva qualities about them too. I think both of these guys are going to get overpaid which leads to the next player on my wish list…Stevie Johnson. His arrow is pointing up but he may be looking for big money too. He’s young, has good hands, and would instantly be the #1 WR in Cleveland from day one. In the end I don’t know if we get any of these guys, but I’d be hoping for either DeSean Jackson and/or Stevie Johnson and I’d be happy.

The other three areas the Browns would love to address in free agency are Right Defensive End, Linebacker, and Right Tackle.  Unfortunately the tackle market is thin this off-season with Jared Gaither and Demetrius Bell headlining the list. Plus, how have our last few free agent RT’s worked out…Kevin Shaffer, John St. Clair and Tony Pashos. Yikes. Let’s leave this one to the draft which then leads us to finding a DE to play opposite of Jabaal Sheard. Sheard was a beast from about week four through the end of the season last year. With someone who has a pulse on the other side of the line from him he’ll be even better. Two big names would be Mario Williams ($$$) from the Texans and Robert Mathis from the Colts. The Browns have the money to sign Williams, but would he come to Cleveland? Probably not, but fans can dream. Mathis is intriguing but it really depends how much money he’ll be looking for. Another guy who’d be a great fit would be John Abraham from the Falcons but his downside is that he’s no spring chicken so he’d be a two-year player probably. In the end, the Browns probably strike out here and look to fill this hole in the draft too. Finally, the Browns starting LB’s last season weren’t terrible with Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and D’Qwell Jackson but they had no depth. Fujita started looking old last year and is probably a fourth LB at this point in his career. Possible upgrades include Leroy Hill from the Seahawks or even Ahmad Brooks from the 49ers. Hill averages around 90 tackles and three or four sacks per season and would be a great fit. Brooks is more of a third down specialist but would help improve the Browns’ pass rush.

In summary, if someone the football gods can be good to Cleveland one time and the Browns can come away from free agency with D’Qwell Jackson, Peyton Hillis, DeSean Jackson or Stevie Johnson and Leroy Hill they’d already be a drastically better team on paper heading into 2012. What does that get them? Not much, just ask the Redskins, but it would give fans something to look forward to come September.

Finally, in a bit of self-promotion, if you don’t know about my other website please feel free to check it out at www.neilstein.com. I focus 95% of that website to the NFL Draft and items pertaining to the Browns and their plans for the NFL Draft. It’s a work in progress, but right now you can check out my article on what the Browns should do with their two, first-round draft picks this year. My plan is to trade up…not with the #4 pick but with the #22 pick. Click here to read more

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This past weekend featured some of the biggest rivalry games in all of sports as Ohio State fell to Michigan in the 108th installment of “The Game”, Alabama defeated Auburn in the “Iron Bowl” in their 76th meeting and Oregon clobbered Oregon State in the 115th “Civil War”. In a couple weeks one of the longest running and well-known rivalries will take place when Army takes on Navy for the 112th time.

In football, most major rivalry games take place at the end of the regular season. In my opinion, ALL major rivalry games should take place at the end of a season! By having the game as the final game it gives both teams something to look forward to despite their results during all of their other regular season games. If a team has a terrible regular season, much of that can be wiped out and forgotten with a victory over their rival. On the other hand, a loss to a rival after a successful season hurts even more. For my fellow Ohio State fans out there, how did it feel when John Cooper was head coach and OSU had outstanding regular seasons but got beaten by Michigan in The Game 10 out of 12 years? AWFUL!

For anyone who’s ever been a part of a huge rivalry as a player, coach, or fan there is no more exciting time than the weeks and days leading up to a rivalry game. Every big rivalry from the high school to the professional level features traditions, pranks, trash-talking and hope. Here in Ohio, high school football is king and there are hundreds of huge, long-running rivalries including my alma mater the New Philadelphia Quakers and our rival the dover Tornadoes. That’s not a typo. Since I was involved in this rivalry I’ve been writing dover with a lower-case “D” that’s how much I hate them. I HATE DOVER. Ask anyone from New Philadelphia…they’ll tell you the same. Ask anyone from dover what they think, they’ll tell you they hate New Philly…and that’s how it should be. During dover-Phila week each school has different themes each day for their students centered around beating the other school. On Thursday night it’s the annual bonfire and pep-rally. Then on Friday night it’s game time! The winner on Friday night goes home with bragging rights and memories for a lifetime. The loser…disappointment, tears and a different kind of memories.

For me, I was 0-2 in my final two games against dover but I’ll never forget those two games. Freezing temperatures, a borderline-illegal play and a 0-14 defeat as a Junior. As a Senior, dover was 8-1 coming into the game and we were 2-7. We didn’t have a chance right? If it weren’t for an errant extra point we may have won that game, but instead fell 6-7. My final play was an interception which ended with me getting tackled and then illegally “speared” after the play with a 15-yard penalty for dover. For me, a hip pointer and I was done for the game. Watching dover score their only touchdown while I was standing on the sideline was more painful than the injury itself.

The point of me telling you this? If you’ve never been a part of something like this you wouldn’t understand. If you have, I hope you can take 5 minutes to think about when you were part of the rivalry and think about how it felt to be part of something bigger than yourself, your team and your school. Every year when rivalries are renewed, entire communities and fan bases relive their experiences through the current players on the field. It’s not quite the same as playing, but it sure feels good when your team wins!

PS – I still hate dover!

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Whether you’re a sports fan or not, you’ve heard about some of the head-scratching contracts handed out to professional athletes over the years. Whether it’s A-Rod’s $250 million contract or Albert Pujols asking for $30 million PER YEAR there are plenty of big contracts in all of the major sports. The first huge contract I remember was Kirby Puckett getting $3 million per year in 1989. I couldn’t believe a team would pay that much money to a player who plays a game for fun. Good gig if you can get it!

The contracts that drive fans nuts however are the guys who are drastically overpaid such as Rashard Lewis for the Orlando Magic ($19.5 million), Mark Sanchez for the NY Jets ($14.5 million) and there are dozens in Major League Baseball including Barry Zito’s contract with the San Francisco Giants for $126 million over seven years!!! Since being signed by the Giants he’s 43-61 with an ERA near 4.50.

The one thing many fans don’t talk about are the handful players who are actually worth what they are being paid. On the surface, paying an athlete $20, $10 or even $5 million a year sounds ludicrous. But when you look at the financial impact that player has on his team’s bottom line there are actually some players who earn every penny they get. Here are just a couple who come to mind immediately:

1. LeBron James – you hate him, I hate him, all of NE Ohio hates him, and even some Heat fans hate him right now but the guy earns his $16 million per year. In ticket sales figures alone, the Miami Heat’s attendance increased by 84,000.  Take that times $50 per ticket and that’s $4.2 million alone. Those people weren’t paying to see Chris Bosh – it was all LeBron. Tack on another $15 per person in food and drink for those people and that’s another $1.3 million. On the other side of the ledger, after LeBron signed with the Heat, they sold out of season tickets and then let go of 30 full-time sales staff. At an average of $35K per year per person in savings that’s $1 million in savings. Next, how many Miami Heat #6 jerseys do you think were sold last year? This number isn’t easy to find but I’d guess very conservatively 100,000 or more at about $75 each – $7.5 million. Another tough number to estimate is sponsorships, but I’d guess on the low end they made an additional $2.5 million from advertising sales. Finally, the Heat played 11 home playoff games in 2011. With an average revenue of about $2 million per game that’s another $22 million. Total financial impact: $38.5 million. This doesn’t even take into consideration the increased value of the Miami Heat franchise or ancillary revenue generated by surrounding businesses such as parking, restaurants, bars, and street vendors. If you didn’t hate him already…maybe this will help convince you to come to the dark side.

2. Albert Pujols – another superstar, another $16 million salary. By MLB standards, Pujols is underpaid compared to his peers such as A-Rod ($32 million) or Ryan Howard ($20 million). With Pujols reportedly asking for $30 million annually as a Free Agent this year it begs the question, “Is he worth it?” There are rumors that the Miami Marlins (who have sweet new uniforms if you haven’t seen them – they are very “Miami”) who are opening a new stadium in 2012 have been talking to Pujols. If I’m the Marlins I’m looking at it this way…attendance has been terrible so as soon as they sign Pujols I’d estimate they’d see an additional 5,000 fans per game. The average ticket price in MLB is $30 per ticket so that’s an additional $12 million in ticket revenue. On top of that, I’d guess it’d be a little easier trying to sell luxury suites with Pujols on the roster, so add five extra sold suites at about $1 million per year for another $5 million. All those extra people have to eat and using $15 per person there’s another $6 million. Do you think many Marlins fans would buy a Pujols jersey??? Of course…let’s call merchandise sales another $5 million. Additional sponsorship revenue would come in around another $2.5 million.  So far that’s $30.5 million. Did I mention he also might be the best hitter of all-time and might help you win a few games? Make the playoffs and that’s another $3 million or more for EACH home playoff game.

My final thought, some fans are irritated with players because they make so much money but they tend to forget that behind every contract is a general manager and owner who approved that deal. How can you be mad at A-Rod for making $32 million per year? Jealous maybe, but someone had to offer him that contract so more power to the players for taking as much as they can get.

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