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Reviewing the Cleveland Browns' 2015 NFL Draft

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The 2015 NFL Draft is officially over, and the Cleveland Browns walked away with 12 new players (not including undrafted free agents). This was the second draft that general manager Ray Farmer has been in charge of, and it took on a different tone than his first draft.

Here is a recap, along with my opinions, on how things went down this past weekend:

Bullet_mediumThe Browns' 2015 NFL Draft Class: Last year, the Cleveland Browns only drafted six players. They entered this year's draft with 10 picks, and I thought they were going to leverage some of those later-round picks to move up in the second or third round again, cutting their amount of picks down to about 8. Instead, by the end of the three-day period, GM Ray Farmer had added 12 new players via the draft. Here is how this year's draft class panned out:

  • 1st Round (#12): NT Danny Shelton
  • 1st Round (#19): OL Cameron Erving
  • 2nd Round (#51): OLB Nate Orchard
  • 3rd Round (#77): RB Duke Johnson
  • 3rd Round (#96): DT Xavier Cooper
  • 4th Round (#115): S Ibraheim Campbell
  • 4th Round (#123): WR Vince Mayle
  • 6th Round (#189): CB Charles Gaines
  • 6th Round (#195): FB Malcolm Johnson
  • 6th Round (#198): TE Randall Telfer
  • 7th Round (#219): ILB Hayes Pullard
  • 7th Round (#241): CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Only 53 players can make the regular season roster. If all 12 draft picks were to make the final roster, that means that at least 22% of the roster will consist of first-year players, and that doesn't factor in any undrafted free agent gems that the scouting department might have found. The Browns are going to have to make some tougher cuts this year, but that's a good thing because it means the depth should be considerably improved.

Bullet_mediumA Rather Uneventful First Round: Typically, the first round of the NFL Draft is filled with surprises. From Thursday morning right up until the start of the draft, all anyone in the media would talk about is whether the Tennessee Titans would trade the No. 2 pick (a.k.a the rights to QB Marcus Mariota) to one of four teams: the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, or Chicago Bears. As the hours drew closer, it really came down to whether Chip Kelly would find a way to make the deal happen for Philadelphia, which in turn could have involved the Browns as a third party to acquire QB Sam Bradford.

When the Titans were on the clock, though, the NFL Network flashed the words, "PICK IS IN." The team's logo next to those words remained Tennessee, who selected Mariota after putting on a charade over the past couple of months that they were content with QB Zach Mettenberger.

One-by-one, the picks continued coming in, with the only moderate surprise being that the St. Louis Rams drafted RB Todd Gurley. That allowed me to breathe a little sigh of relief -- sorry, as good as Gurley might be, RB Trent Richardson just left too much of a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to investing in a running back in the first round. When the Browns were on the clock at No. 12 overall, Cleveland had their pick of the two players I was hoping would be available to them (based on realistic projections): NT Danny Shelton and WR DeVante Parker. Shelton was the pick, and I was a happy camper.

Was I as happy as I was when this happened?

No. The excitement I, and I'm sure a lot of other Browns fans felt, at the moment QB Johnny Manziel was drafted will probably never be matched with another draft pick for the rest of our lives. But, given how things went down, we have the hindsight to see how elated reactions to something like this helped enable Manziel. We were intrigued by the flash, but what about the team chemistry and the player's commitment to putting in the work?

The good news is that one year later, Manziel appears to be taking steps toward redefining the type of person he's going to be and the commitment he's going to make to his NFL career. The antics of Manziel and other players from last year's draft class (CB Justin Gilbert and RB Terrance West) no doubt impacted the type of players the Browns were looking to draft in 2015: they wanted guys who were leaders and displayed toughness, traits of Mike Pettine's "Play Like a Brown" mentality.

Bullet_mediumZoning in on the Browns' First-Round Picks: Let's get back to the selection of NT Danny Shelton. The Browns' run defense was an atrocity last year. The defensive line was supposed to be the deepest unit on the team heading into 2014, but it was by far the most disappointing. Yes, injuries to the likes of Armonty Bryant, John Hughes, and Phil Taylor no doubt hurt matters, but there were clear signs of underachievement on the line from the get-go. With the team letting Ahtyba Rubin walk in free agency and Phil Taylor entering a contract year while coming off of surgery, the Browns needed somebody fresh at nose tackle who could anchor the line of scrimmage in the AFC North for years to come.

At No. 19 overall, the Browns had more flexibility. Even though I knew it wasn't going to happen, I tossed my hat in the corner of TE Maxx Williams to give the Browns' offense some more punch at the tight end position. Realistically, I expected the pick to be one of three positions: an edge rusher, a wide receiver, or an offensive lineman. Because there wasn't anybody at those positions who I was absolutely in love with, I went in with the attitude that I was going to be content with whoever the Browns selected. The selection was OL Cameron Erving.

I don't think the selection of Erving was received as a terrible pick, but I don't agree with those who criticized the pick for being an insurance policy to C Alex Mack next year. I think it's actually a solid and calculating move by the Browns to select a talent who has that versatility -- not only will he start on the right side of the line this year, but if Mack opts out in 2016, the Browns won't have to worry about filling that void (and we all know how imperative a good center was to this team's success last year). Mack was the glue that held the offense together last year, so regardless of what happens at quarterback this year, if the Browns have a legitimate center available, they can control the line of scrimmage on offense.

The tough part about the Erving pick is that it means either John Greco or Mitchell Schwartz will be relegated to the bench. It also means that for the first time in years, the Browns will have legitimate depth on the offensive line in case of an injury. Last year, Mack's injury led us to trying three other players at center. At guard, remember who our substitutes have been over the years. Oniel Cousins made us cringe, and Paul McQuistan was so bad in his one start last year that the Browns removed him from the lineup after one game and couldn't wait to cut him after the season ended. Then, Jason Pinkston, who could have been depth at guard, had medical problems last camp that basically forced him into taking a leave from football. Thank god that neither of our tackles missed a snap. If you bump Greco or Schwartz to the bench, one of those guys, coupled with Michael Bowie, means you've got some capable fill-ins ready-to-go.

Bullet_mediumThe Rest of the Draft: The Browns were criticized for not being active in free agency, but having 12 draft picks will allow you to fill out your roster with a nice mix of starting talent and depth. Here is a quick rundown of the rest of the team's draft picks and how they addressed specific needs:

  • 2nd Round: The Patriots could see a breakout year from OLB Jabaal Sheard in 2015, but the truth was that he just wasn't the best fit for Mike Pettine's defense. OLB Nate Orchard takes his spot, coming off of an 18.5-sack season in college and a year in which OLB Paul Kruger has been mentoring him. It's nice to have that type of relationship present right off the bat, and it'll be interesting to see how the playing time is distributed between Orchard and OLB Barkevious Mingo. If you recall, Mingo basically played with one arm all of last season but was commended for his ability to stop the run.

  • 3rd Round: The most surprising pick of the draft was RB Duke Johnson. My first instinct was to groan, but that has nothing to do with Johnson's talent or potential. I groaned because I was very frustrated by the inconsistent usage of the rookie running backs last year. One week, RB Terrance West was benched for behavior issues and RB Isaiah Crowell would have a breakout performance. The next week, West would see all the carries because he "had a good week of practice." It went back-and-forth all year, and I hated it. I believe it disrupted the rhythm and preparation for each of the two running backs. Now, you're adding a third guy to the mix again? We'll see how this works out.

  • 3rd Round: I was pulling for the Browns to draft another defensive lineman in the third or fourth round. I was originally thinking DT Grady Jarrett, but DT Xavier Cooper was just as good of a selection and one who the Browns traded up for. DBN's Tim Miller pointed out that Cooper was the best pass-rushing defensive tackle of this draft class, which will work out perfectly in sub-packages when the team wants to get heat on the opposing quarterback.

    As Josh Finney pointed out, with the addition of two defensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft, we could see some tough cuts or players with significantly reduced roles at the position at the end of training camp. Desmond Bryant, John Hughes, and Phil Taylor should all be safe due to the amount of money they are making. Shelton and Cooper should both be in the top five of the defensive line rotation. That leaves Billy Winn, Randy Starks, Ish'maaily Kitchen, and Armonty Bryant. To balance the numbers out more, we might see Bryant labeled as an edge rusher and Starks inactive on gamedays and on the bubble of being cut.

  • 4th Round: Probably the most underrated contributor to the Browns' defense last year was S Jim Leonhard. He was the unsung hero, seeing regular playing time all season and then playing at a pretty high level as a starter once S Tashaun Gipson suffered a season-ending injury. Leonhard retired this offseason, though, so S Ibraheim Campbell becomes the instant favorite to replace him. Campbell will learn both safety positions and also contribute on special teams. As for the team's other fourth-round pick, WR Vince Mayle, I see him as a bit of a project in his first year, but I'll talk more about the receiver position later.

  • 6th & 7th Rounds: The Browns drafted a pair of cornerbacks: Charles Gaines and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. I'm not keen on the expectations that the Browns have for Ekpre-Olomu in 2015, but my early guess is that the team will try to place him on injured reserve and get him in the mix for 2016. It was a great use for the team's final draft pick, and I still have no idea why other NFL teams would not take a flier on a guy like him sooner to stash him for a year and see how he delivers in 2016. Gaines gives the Browns more options in camp if things fall through again with CB Justin Gilbert. If Gilbert delivers, Gaines will be a sixth cornerback or practice squad candidate behind Joe Haden, Tramon Williams, K'Waun Williams, Gilbert, and Pierre Desir.

  • 6th & 7th Rounds: The other three players who I have not discussed yet fulfill niches on the depth chart. We heard all offseason that John DeFelippo wanted a versatile fullback/h-back type of player in this offense. We thought the Browns might sign a guy like TE James Casey, but they didn't. Instead, they waited until the draft and got FB/TE Malcolm Johnson. He is by no means guaranteed the job, but he's the early favorite.

    TE Randall Telfer projects as more of a blocking tight end. Teams typically keep either three or four tight ends on the roster. If the Browns keep three guys, Telfer could take the place of either TE Gary Barnidge or TE Jim Dray. While Barnidge, Dray, and TE Rob Housler all seem like nice players, their skill sets might all be too similar to warrant having that redundancy.

    Lastly, we have ILB Hayes Pullard. Last year, the Browns had three inside linebackers who they relied on for depth: Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson, and Chris Kirksey. Ideally, you have a fourth guy you could rotate in for emergencies, and Pullard will compete for that role.

Bullet_mediumWide Receiver = Addressed or Not Addressed? Last year, I projected the Browns to draft WR Sammy Watkins. This year, I said I'd be happy if they took WR DeVante Parker. While I still think the Browns should have made an investment at wide receiver during last year's draft, I wasn't bothered by them not doing so in 2015.

First, whether you like the talent they have or not, the Browns have already made a significant investment at the wide receiver position in 2015 (8th highest cap figure in the NFL at the position, as of the end of free agency). If the Browns drafted a guy like Parker, is our team, with a quarterback like Josh McCown, prepared to give him enough targets to let him mature as a rookie? Also, the Browns added WR Dwayne Bowe and WR Brian Hartline this offseason. Were either of them going to sit in favor of a rookie? I don't think so. What about WR Andrew Hawkins? Not a chance. I'd argue that with how impressive WR Taylor Gabriel was last year, he deserves a good amount of playing time too.

Now, were the Browns willing to take a wide receiver high in the draft this year? Yes -- it's just that they did not want to sacrifice the rest of their roster-building strategy (filling out the depth of this team with 12 picks) in acquiring a receiver. One report says that the Browns strongly considered taking WR Nelson Agholor at No. 19, and there is speculation that the team wanted either WR Chris Conley (Chiefs traded right in front of the Browns in the third round) or WR Jamison Crowder (Browns tried to trade up at the beginning of Day 3).

At some point, the Browns need to invest in the wide receiver position. Bowe and Hartline are working on two-year deals, so with how the roster was already set up, it makes more sense to invest in a wide receiver next year. Also, keep in mind that there is still a glimmer of hope that WR Josh Gordon resurrects his career in 2016.

Bullet_mediumBy the Numbers: I want to thank everyone who tuned in to Dawgs By Nature over the past few days, and I hope you continue to check-in for our continued post-draft coverage this week! For the three days of the draft, we had 29 posts with a total of about 9,053 comments! We set a new record for number of posts in a three-day span.

Also, we continued to break DBN draft records in terms of traffic. Breaking a record this year was especially difficult because last year, there were two huge storylines during the Browns' draft: the selection of QB Johnny Manziel on Day 1, and then the suspension of WR Josh Gordon on Day 2. This year, actually having some picks on Day 3 helped bump the traffic ahead of last year's numbers. One of these year's we're going to plateau or see a dropoff, right?

  • 2011: 88,545 pageviews, 37,381 visits
  • 2012: 142,533 pageviews, 55,975 visits
  • 2013: 188,009 pageviews, 75,985 visits
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  • 2015: 295,170 pageviews, 154,091 visits

In addition to all of our readers, I'd like to give a big thanks to Zach Miller, Jon Stinchcomb, rufio, Joe Ginley, Matt Wood, and Josh Finney for all of the assistance they provided, both behind-the-scenes and in terms of coverage.