BEREA, Ohio -- The NFL draft, set to take place in Cleveland for the first time ever, is now just two months away. For the Browns, this draft will be unique in other ways, too.
Unlike the majority of recent drafts, the Browns won’t have a high pick. Instead, after winning its first playoff game since 1994, Cleveland’s first selection is slated for No. 26 overall.
Off the breakout season, the Browns clearly are headed in the right direction. Still, to become a genuine Super Bowl contender, they have work to do, especially on defense.
The Browns last year ranked seventh in offensive efficiency. But even with one of the game’s preeminent pass-rushers in Myles Garrett, Cleveland finished all the way down at 19th in efficiency on defense.
“In this AFC now, with these quarterbacks, they’re the ones you’ve got to beat in order to get to a Super Bowl,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a one-on-one phone conversation about the Browns' draft prospects. “You’ve got to get pass-rushers who can track these guys down and finish. You’ve got to have linebackers that can tackle in space and can cover. And you’ve got to have guys at the back end.”
The Browns definitely could use help in all three areas. Free agency will play a major role in how Cleveland utilizes its first selection. What players are taken above the Browns in the draft will obviously be a factor as well. But as Kiper outlines, here are the three directions the Browns could go with their first-round pick:
1. Draft a DB to solidify that back end
Safety was a problem spot for much of the season, though Ronnie Harrison, whom Cleveland landed in a preseason trade from Jacksonville, proved to be a viable starter despite starting just seven games.
After that, safety gets murky for the Browns long-term.
The wild card here is Grant Delpit, last year’s second-round pick out of LSU, who turned heads in training camp and was on his way to locking up a starting job before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury.
Even though Delpit is scheduled to return in time for training camp, Kiper advocated for Cleveland to consider taking another defensive back, notably either TCU safety Trevon Moehrig or versatile UCF product Aaron Robinson with its first-round pick.
“Delpit's almost a bonus pick to me, you know? I mean, he'd be like having an extra draft choice,” Kiper said. “All of a sudden, you've really upgraded. You're getting an automatic upgrade at that spot. So yeah, I would think your defense is going to be a lot better with a healthy bump if you add a Moehrig.”
Kiper said he almost slotted Moehrig to Cleveland in his first mock draft before going with Robinson instead (in Kiper’s updated mock draft, he’s since changed Cleveland’s pick to Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins -- more on that later).
“Moering has got tremendous talent and plays hard, a consistent football player,” Kiper said. “His range, too, is so good. He can cover ground in a hurry. He makes up a lot of ground quickly. He's got good ball skills. He locates the ball well. He really has a high football IQ. He doesn't wait; he's always moving in the direction of the play. So run play, he's up there. He'll stick his nose in there. To me, he’s a good all-around safety. … if he tests as well, he's got the length, got the long arms, he's got all that going for him, I think he would be a guy who would certainly upgrade your defense in the middle of the field."
Drafting Moehrig would give the Browns the last two Jim Thorpe Award winners, handed to college football’s top defensive back; Delpit won the award in 2019. Pairing two players with that elite ability at safety would certainly be enticing.
Yet drafting a more versatile defensive back, who could step into the Kevin Johnson role at slot corner in Joe Woods’ defense, line up outside opposite Denzel Ward, or fill in at safety as well, would be valuable. The Browns could’ve used such a player last season while dealing with a rash of injuries to their secondary.
“If you want the pure entity at safety, you take Moehrig. If you want a guy who can be a slot corner, outside corner, safety, it would be Aaron Robinson,” Kiper said. “You can move him outside, he can play safety, he can play a center-field role, he'll tackle. He doesn't have the length -- people might knock him a little bit for that.
“But tackling is very underrated in this league with defensive backs. It's a problem. You’ve got to be able to be a tackler in the open field, and he can do that. So I think there's value with him because of that and the versatility in his all-around game.”
2. Draft a DE to complement Garrett
Cleveland has plans of addressing this need in free agency. The Browns did miss out on J.J. Watt, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals on Monday. Cleveland, however, still has other free-agent pass-rushers on its radar. But if the Browns determine they need to add another defensive end to their young core, Kiper sees intriguing options, notably the Miami Hurricanes pair of Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau.
Phillips temporarily retired at UCLA due to concussion issues before transferring to and starring at Miami. He had 5.5 sacks in his final three games for the Hurricanes this past season. Rousseau, who had a big year in 2019, opted out of last season.
“You have two guys from the same school, both wore the same number , that both have great ability to get after the quarterback,” said Kiper, who currently has Rousseau (Colts) and Phillips (Titans) going No. 21 and 22 in his latest mock draft. “I think if one of those two guys were there [where the Browns pick at No. 26], it would be really interesting.”
3. Draft a playmaking LB who can cover and rush
“Collins could be used as a versatile player to exploit mismatches,” Kiper writes. “At 260 pounds, he could put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer, or he could play outside linebacker, fill run fits and even cover running backs out of the flat. He stuffed the statsheet.”
Collins, who had two pick-sixes last season and earned the Nagurski and Bednarik awards as college football’s defensive player of the year, is the type of playmaker the Browns desperately needed in the AFC divisional playoff loss to Kansas City, which exploited Cleveland at linebacker and over the middle.
Of course, that game also showed how far the Browns have come and how close they are to really contending. Nailing this first pick and bolstering the defense will get them even closer.
“They're right where they need to be, they don't have to force anything,” Kiper said. “Just go get the best defensive player on the board.”