Flipping the Script
Even amid all of the insanity surrounding the coaching staff and front office, Cleveland never failed to find opportunities to talk about the draft.
Following the end of the regular season, the strangest head coaching search of all time captured most of the headlines for nearly two months. It almost allowed the stale nature of the Browns-related draft rumors to fly under the radar.
The Three Stooges were consistently connected to one name, a player whose reputation precedes him:
Johnny Manziel, QB, redshirt sophomore, Texas A&M.
It was a rumor that could actually be traced back to before the season was even over.
Enamored. Smitten. Love affair.
"...Willing to trade up to land Johnny Manziel in the draft if need be."
Either it was all one huge, elaborate smoke screen or the front office had telegraphed their first-round intentions to the entire league.
Pertaining to the draft, this was the state of the Browns as far as fans and media were aware. As low a bar as it may have been, it was the baseline we had to compare things to prior to the move that changed everything.
When Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi were deposed, the board was effectively reset. And although the GM promotion came from within, Ray Farmer flipped the table over.
Seemingly overnight, suddenly even the most connected NFL insiders had no idea what the Browns' draft plans were, which couldn't have been more of a stark contrast from the previous regime.
Farmer kept his cards extremely close to the vest and had his staff do the same. And while it may have been at times incredibly frustrating for fans and media throughout the long wait leading up to draft day, it's exactly how it should be.
Worth the Wait: Ray Farmer wins the Draft
Farmer had a plan.
Prior to draft weekend, no one outside of the war room in Berea knew what it was. But not only did that fact not deter anyone in the Browns camp, it worked to their benefit.
The roster had needs, a few more apparent than others. Trumping that, however, was a big board. The brass would illustrate over the course of the weekend, they'd largely be adhering to it.
They maximized value by drafting the prospects they deemed to be the best players available, but not without acknowledging the potential for other teams to value some much, much higher.
As such, a concept that shouldn't be new at all to Browns fans, there was a certain willingness to move around and change draft position when a lucrative trade opportunity presented itself or a prospect they valued risked going sooner.
Furthermore, heading into the draft with a whopping 10 selections, Farmer had all of the flexibility and ammo to be any sort of trade tactician he saw fit. It didn't take long.
Regardless of where Clemson WR Sammy Watkins fell on the Browns' board, the Buffalo Bills made an offer that simply couldn't be refused. They traded out of No. 4 overall, down just five spots to No. 9 and managed to get the Bills' 2015 first and fourth rounders in doing so.
For the second time in four years, under different GMs, the Browns opted not to take a highly-touted WR prospect in lieu of an extra first rounder the following year.
Hindsight is always 20-20, so how those additional assets are later spent after the fact doesn't impact whether the trade was worth it at the time. When offered a king's ransom, you take it.
The Julio Jones trade with the Falcons was a no-brainer at the time it was made. It's a shame the extra first-round pick would eventually be busted on Brandon Weeden, a fact that remains irrelevant to the trade equation. They didn't trade for Weeden. They traded for a future first-round draft pick.
The obvious hope is that Farmer and co. can make wiser use of the extra picks than their predecessors.
Within the Dawgs By Nature community, I have been one of the most outspoken about not using high first-round draft picks on the second cornerback position when a great shutdown CB is already on the roster.
Even with the ever-growing prominence of the passing game in the NFL and the recent emergence of the Legion of Boom helping lead the Seahawks to a Super Bowl, my position on how to address CB2 hasn't changed. When you have holes at more vital spots, picks in the top half of the draft should first be considered for those areas.
With that said, the philosophy isn't written in stone. By its very nature, the NFL draft is malleable, and strategies need to be similarly just as quick to adjust.
When the Browns drafted CB Justin Gilbert at No. 8 overall, using a fifth-round pick to swap one spot with the Vikings, the pick was initially met with a considerable amount of skepticism.
But, Farmer had a plan.
And the Browns had another first-round pick that night. At the very least, we could withhold our judgement of the rookie GM's first ever first round until Day 1 was concluded.
The draft continued while Cleveland held its breath. Pick after pick, no quarterbacks were being called since Blake Bortles went No. 3 to the Jaguars. Teams rumored to possibly be in the market for one: Oakland, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Tennessee, and even Dallas, all went in other directions.
The next team on that list: the Kasas City Chiefs, who would be picking at No. 23 overall. The Eagles, sitting at No. 22, knew this as well.
Whether it was a homeless guy or a text message, Farmer then did what he had to do to pull the trigger on the QB at the top of their board. The extent to which the Chiefs would have been willing to go to swap up one for Manziel remains uncertain, but he was clearly on their radar. However, the Browns had the resources to leapfrog them without mortgaging the future or hamstringing the rest of their draft.
So at the end of Day 1, Cleveland came full circle, landing "Johnny Football" after all. But not only did they manage to get value for him at No. 22, they left the first round with their top-rated CB and a likely high additional first-round draft pick in 2015.
The success of such a haul cannot be overstated.
If the picks had been the other way around, QB at No. 4 and CB at No. 26, without the other trades, most fans would have been more than content.
Reverse it, have it happen the way it did, and top it off with another future first rounder... You've just won the NFL draft.
That phenomenal Day 1 wouldn't be an easy act to follow, especially when clouded by the simultaneous leak of Josh Gordon's potential suspension, but the rest of the Browns draft remained sound:
‣ (No. 35) OT Joel Bitonio – an o-lineman with a legitimate chance to start right away
‣ (No. 71) LB Christian Kirksey – a linebacker that will add much needed depth inside
‣ (No. 94) RB Terrance West – fresh legs for the running back-by-committee
‣ (No. 127) CB Pierre Desir – a high-character sleeper from a small school
And in case you doubted Farmer's uncanny foresight for where other teams were targeting specific players, the brief story behind nabbing West is an insightful one. They got him in the third at No. 94, having to trade a fourth and fifth rounder to move up, jumping ahead of the Ravens at No. 99.
Farmer knew he had to make the move for West, but didn't specify the other team. West himself cleared it up when he told Cleveland reporters about Baltimore targeting him near the end of the third. Ozzie Newsome removed any further doubt when asked about the situation. He was very open about how they valued West.
Look who's talking: Sourcing the Josh Gordon Leak
How do you rain on a parade as positive as the one following the new front office's awesome first-round haul? You tell Browns fans that one of the team's best players, one of the best players in the entire league last season, could be facing a year-long suspension.
Moments before the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft was set to open, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" broke a story regarding Josh Gordon having failed another drug test for marijuana several months prior and that he's facing a one-year ban as a result.
The news hit like a punch to the gut. Not only did it immediately take the wind out of the sails from the celebration of the previous day's success, it was the most shockingly negative Browns news since Rob Chudzinski firing.
There was another substantial impact from the story, which made the timing no accident. It created instant pressure on the Cleveland front office to address the WR position. We know now, it was to no avail. Farmer stuck to his board.
But it begged the question, with such strict policy on the confidentiality of any player's status in the league's substance abuse program, who would leak this information and why?
The number of likely parties is actually quite narrow when you consider who would know this information in the first place, definitively enough for ESPN to go to print with such a big story. According to the policy of the program on substances of abuse, per the collective bargaining agreement, the only informed parties can be split into three areas:
(1) NFL League Office (including: medical director, administrator, physician, etc.)
(2) Gordon's camp (Josh Gordon, his agent Drew Rosenhaus, etc.)
(3) High-ranking Browns officials (General manager, owner, president, etc.)
Also consider, the same day as OTL's story by T.J. Quinn, ESPN's NFL insider Chris Mortensen reported that he confirmed "high-ranking" Browns' brass knew about the core of this news, that being: Gordon was in fact recently informed of his positive test, at least two weeks prior to the draft.
The date of the test reportedly went back to December, but the league didn't disseminate this news to Gordon until "early winter" and then informed him of his right to appeal via letter in April.
The OTL report claimed there are two sources corroborating the story. We know now the information was solid. So it's two sources with information solid enough to stake the credibility of OTL on and break a story that would be one of the biggest in the league's offseason.
Information this sensitive also isn't leaked without something to gain. Violating the confidentiality provisions of the substance abuse policy carries a hefty fine and a potentially huge headache with the NFLPA.
It doesn't take much to rule out the first two parties, as this leak not only tarnished Gordon's public image but the league's as well, and took significant attention away from the ongoing draft. They also became abundantly aware of how vital a market Cleveland is. The area tops the charts for TV ratings, both in and out of season. The League Office wasn't trying to tear down Cleveland, they're just following their own rules.
We're left with high-ranking Browns officials.
‣ Someone who had high-ranking access within the Browns since, at the latest, December.
‣ Someone who potentially benefited from the leak, something to gain, a motive. It's not a case of being compelled by conscience.
Obviously, as an organization, the Browns had nothing to gain. Prior to the news, ticket and merchandise sales were through the roof.
So it's two people with very exclusive, high-ranking access to this information, solid enough to publish. But they're not likely with the League Office nor currently with the Browns. ...That kind of narrows it down.
Recent high-ranking departures?
One last time: Consider the report itself and what Quinn has said about it. Consider who would know to a certainty. Consider who would be a solid enough source to break such a huge story. Apply some simple deductive reasoning and it all points in only one direction.
The departed stooges found a way to strike again, even from the outside looking in.
On the horizon...
At the end of the day, Farmer turned yet another folly of his predecessors' into something worthy of acknowledgement. He didn't let the sudden public outcry for a WR impact the draft board he and his staff had spent the last several months constructing.
The Browns entered the weekend with 10 picks and came away with six solid selections, some with immediate impact, others with immense long-term potential, oh, and an extra first rounder in the top half next year.
The moves didn't stop with the draft.
Farmer made lockdown corner Joe Haden one of the highest paid players at his position, deserving of every penny. Sheard just recently appeared to be next in line for an extension.
While everyone awaits a ruling on Gordon's appeal, which is set for Aug. 1, the team seems to be continuing to support him at least verbally, showing no intent to cut him regardless of the outcome, even with a series of additional off-the-field troubles, like traffic citations and a DWI. Gordon may also finally be ready to help himself, having spent time in rehab after that arrest.
In news on an entirely different legal front, Jimmy Haslam's Pilot Flying J business was able to avoid federal prosecution by agreeing to pay a $90 million fine, continuing to cooperate in the investigation of culpable employees, and fully refunding every victim with interest.
Now training camp is fully underway, Manziel's hanging up the money phone, and actual football is just days away. Well, preseason.
No matter what happens this season, or over the course of the next few years, Browns fans won't soon forget what a long, strange trip it's been...
• Part 1 - Like a House of Cards
• Part 2 - The Light at the End of the Tunnel
• Part 3 - A New Hope begins with Free Agency
‣ Part 4 - Worth the Wait: Ray Farmer wins the Draft