2016 NFL Draft: Should the Cleveland Browns Target Cornerback?

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For Cleveland Browns and NFL fans, the last 24 hours have been a whirlwind of sorts after the blockbuster trade that occurred Wednesday. If by chance you have been living under a rock and did not hear yet, allow me to break the news for you—the Browns no longer have the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

After a major trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Browns are now the proud owners of the No. 8 overall pick in the first round. The price for moving up for the Eagles was steep, as the Browns acquired the Eagles third-round pick (No. 77), fourth-round pick (No. 100), 2017 first-round pick and 2018 second-round pick to presumably come up and take their quarterback of the future.

On the other side of the deal is the Cleveland Browns, a team many (not all) expected to use the No. 2 pick on a QB themselves. Now that the deal is done, the target position for the Cleveland Browns has become pretty unclear—as there will be a plethora of players available at No. 8 that many were not considering to be an option for the team at No. 2.

A glance at some mock drafts over on CBS Sports will paint this picture a little better for you. The following players are being mocked to the Browns at No. 8: Jack Conklin (OT), Darron Lee (OLB) after a trade down again, Joey Bosa (DE), Myles Jack (OLB) and Josh Doctson (WR) after a trade down again. As you can see, the positions of choice are all over the board.

Not only are the mock drafters confused as to what the Browns are going to do, but it seems some local and national media members are as well. Joining the Ken Carman show Thursday morning, Pro Football Talk writer (Ohio native) Zac Jackson suggested another position and name to watch that had not even come up before—Florida Gators cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves.

If you are like me, you probably scoffed at the suggestion the team should take another cornerback just two years after using the No. 8 pick on Justin Gilbert—who has been an absolute non-factor since joining the team. Now that some time has passed since Jackson made the suggestion this morning, let’s take a look at the Browns roster to truly determine if the team should even consider taking a cornerback at No. 8, or at any point early in the draft.

As you look up and down that list, there are certainly some questions that need to be answered heading into the 2016 season.

Haden is coming off an injury-plagued 2015 season, and when he was on the field he struggled more than he has at any point of his career. Williams was brought in by the old regime to start across from Haden, and while he was a steady player last season his age (33) and 2017 roster bonus of $1.3 million coupled with a base salary of $5.7 million could make him a cap casualty candidate for next offseason.

We all know what we have in Haden and Williams at this point in time, which is why it is not necessary to spend a lot of time talking about them. Instead, let’s focus more on the 25 and under crowd.

For starters, let’s look at Desir—a 2014 fourth-round pick out of Lindenwood.

Desir has shown flashes of being ready to start, but will he ever really get the chance? Image Credit: Cleveland Browns
Desir has shown flashes of being ready to start, but will he ever really get the chance? Image Credit: Cleveland Browns

A player who some thought could go as high as the early second round that season, Desir was seemingly held back by the previous coaching staff. Though Desir will never admit it in public because he is not that type of player, any outsider could tell Jim O’Neil and the coaching staff were not giving him a real chance to earn reps in the Browns defensive back rotation. I mean, there is no other possible explanation for a special teams ace like Johnson Bademosi getting reps over him, considering Bademsoi struggled mightily in coverage.

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According to Football Outsiders, Desir saw 37 percent of the defensive snaps on the season (388) and 13.3 percent of the special teams snaps (58). With Haden hobbled and only playing 27.3 percent of the snaps last year, it was disappointing to say the least that Desir did not get more time—especially given the fact that he burst on the scene in what was rumored to be a “redshirt” season of 2014 with a shutdown performance again Kelvin Benjamin. After putting the league on notice for 73 catches, 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns on his rookie season as a whole—he recorded just five catches for 47 yards, with a long of 18 against Desir.

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In a league desperately searching for bigger corners, the Browns have a 6’1” and 200-pound one waiting for his opportunity to break out. He has shown the ability to start at the NFL level in reps given to him thus far, and should be given the opportunity once again under a new regime.

Next up on the list is Williams, a former undrafted free agent whose performance as a rookie in 2014 allowed the team to move on from Buster Skrine in the 2015 offseason. At 5’9” and 175 pounds, Williams came out of nowhere to make an impact on the Browns roster. He quickly proved himself to the former staff, earning a role in sub packages and expanding that role into one of the team’s best defenders of slot receivers in Nickel coverage.

Williams’ abilities are better suited for that role, so he should not really factor into the team’s plans when it comes to CB1 or CB2. On top of this, he will be an ERFA after this season—so the current front office will have to make a decision on his future with the organization and potentially plan to add to the depth of their cornerback unit if he leaves.

The next youngster on the list is Gaines, who was a sixth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Louisville. Gaines battled an injury for a good part of his rookie season, but still managed to play 25.1 percent of the defensive snaps (according to Football Outsiders) on the year. Pro Football Reference has his statistics on the season at 15 tackles, two passes defensed and one forced fumble in six games.

At 5’10” and 180 pounds, Gaines ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at the 2015 combine. Coming out of college, here was a positive scouting report on him, “…Outstanding mirror/match work in man coverage. Extremely patient and confident in coverage. Maintains balance and body control in routes. Refuses to overreact or be tilted by head fakes and jab steps within the route.”

Here were some negatives, “Frame could use more size to match up with NFL receivers. Wasn’t challenged often in 2014, with just 56 targets against. Too ready to run routes for receivers, opening himself to double moves. Play speed slows when turning head to look for ball against go routes. Ball tracking and body adjustments to deep ball need improvement. In deep zone, allows too much space to wide receivers running deep crosses and posts.”

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Overall, it is tough to truly know what the Browns have in Gaines at this point due to the time he missed last year with injury. Knowing Horton’s history from his time here in 2013 though, Gaines could certainly be a player to earn more reps this offseason if he shows off some of the positives listed on that scouting report above.

Justin Gilbert has been one of the biggest busts for the Browns...and that's saying a lot.
Justin Gilbert has been one of the biggest busts for the Browns…and that’s saying a lot.

The biggest question mark in this entire group is Gilbert, who according to sources was working with the No. 1 unit this week during camp.

When Ray Farmer took his first of two massive reaches in the 2014 NFL Draft, nobody knew what to truly expect out of Gilbert. On paper, a 6’0” and 202-pound cornerback who ran a 4.35 40-yard dash seems pretty attractive for any NFL team. But if you popped on any one of his games at Oklahoma State, you could tell Gilbert was not even close to being a first-round pick caliber player thanks to his raw technique at the position.

Watching Gilbert, you could see he was the type of player who was going to really need to be coached up. His size and speed made some think Patrick Peterson, but his on the field performance made you think he could be out of the league and labeled a bust in a few years. After seeing 4.9 percent of the snaps in 2015 on defense and 31.2 percent of the snaps in 2014, it seems he could be on that fast track out of the league.

With reports saying that he is working with the No. 1 unit this early, either someone in the new coaching staff believes in him or they are trying to get an extended look at him before the 2016 NFL Draft. Because sometime soon, they are going to have to decide not only if he is worth keeping around for 2016 and 2017, but also if they would like to extend the option they have on him for the 2018 season since he was drafted in the first round.

What Does All of This Mean for 2016?

With Haden coming back from surgery, the Browns are not sure if he is going to be ready to start the season as of yet. First in line in camp for his spot seems to be Gilbert based on reports of him working with the first unit, but the team should give Desir a long look too. Tramon Williams seems to be locked in across from Haden, while K’Waun Williams should have a lock on the slot.

When you look at the situation as a whole, the Browns may end up having to draft a cornerback at some point in this draft—but it certainly should not occur with an early-round selection. Those top cornerbacks will be tantalizing for some, but the team should use their early-round picks on other areas. Not to mention, this draft has a few players who could be drafted in the fourth-round area (Browns have three picks there) who could come in and be nice depth additions to the cornerback room who could contribute early in their careers.

So, while you will see players like Hargreaves, William Jackson, Eli Apple and even Mackensie Alexander discussed as day one starters around where the Browns are picking in round one or two, you should take that thought out of your head. The Browns will likely add a corner at some point in this draft, but it should not happen in the first few rounds.

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Bob is the Founder, Site Director and Senior Writer of Cleveland Sports Zone. He has been writing about sports for over nine years thanks to his passion for Cleveland sports and a Journalism degree. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, ESPN, USA Today and other major sports networks.

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