As recent first-round St. Louis Rams draft picks Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn wreaked havoc on the Cleveland Browns Sunday, a troubling reality should have been setting in for team’s front office. That reality is that while other teams in the league are getting impact-level production out of their first-round picks, the players selected in recent drafts are standing idly by on the sidelines collecting a paycheck.
Dating back to 2011, the Rams have used the first round to build one of the best defensive lines in the league with Quinn (2011), Michael Brockers (2012) and Donald (2014). In that same time period, they found a pretty good linebacker in Alec Ogletree (2013) who was hurt for yesterday’s game, a versatile offensive lineman in Greg Robinson (2014) who started at left tackle and Gurley (2015) who is quickly emerging as one of the best backs in the NFL in short order this season. In fact when you look back their last seven picks, the only player an outsider like myself to the Rams organization could say isn’t “living up to expectations” is wide receiver Tavon Austin, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2013.
In that same time frame, the Cleveland Browns have made eight first-round selections—and only two of them (Danny Shelton and Barkevious Mingo) played meaningful snaps in Sunday’s game before the team’s final series. Justin Gilbert contributed on special teams, while Johnny Manziel and Cameron Erving came in following an injury to Josh McCown late in the fourth quarter after the game had been decided.
When you look at the team’s first-round draft record going back to 2011—though four of those selections did not come from the current front office—it has to be the worst in the NFL.
Phil Taylor (2011) looked promising early on, but injuries were ultimately his undoing before being cut this year. Trent Richardson (2012) looked like he had the potential to be a very good back at times during his rookie season, but indecision and poor vision bought him a one-way ticket to Indianapolis via trade. Brandon Weeden (2012) was doomed from the minute the Browns selected him thanks to an American flag incident—kidding, well, sort of. His quick decision making and high accuracy from college did not translate to the NFL, and for an organization continuously looking for a franchise answer, they did not deem the investment worthy of his age.
That brings us to Mingo (2013), the lone non-Ray Farmer selection on the roster from the last five first-round draft classes. Mingo, touted as having the potential to be an “elite level” pass rusher by some coming out of college, has battled injuries and two scheme changes in his three seasons with the team. Though he has shown the ability to be an average NFL player and decent in coverage, those were not the traits he was selected for with the No. 6 overall pick. He was brought here to make an impact as a pass rusher who could strike fear into the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators and quarterbacks.
When you look at the impact of the players taken in the first round over the past five seasons for the Browns and Rams, it is easy to see why Sunday’s game ended the way it did. While it is great to tout out wins in the middle rounds and undrafted free agents, there is no substitute for elite talent (first-round picks) producing at a high level in the NFL. That is not a knock on the players the Browns have found, like Isaiah Crowell, but there is a reason why Gurley was taken in the first and Crowell went undrafted—pure talent.
With this in mind, it is time to finally talk about Farmer and the four first-round selections he made in 2014 and 2015—kids, if you are under the age of 14 you might want to close your eyes at this point.
Gilbert (2014, No. 8), Manziel (2014, No. 22), Shelton (2015, No. 12) and Erving (2015, No. 19) have combined for 12 starts in a possible 60 games thus far in their careers. Shelton leads the way with a perfect 7-of-7, Manziel is second with three in a possible 23, Gilbert is third with two of a possible 23 games and Erving has racked up zero starts in his first seven games.
To put into context how bad this is for the Browns organization, let’s simply look at the No. 32 overall pick from the 2014 NFL Draft for comparison. That pick was Teddy Bridgewater, and he has started 18 of a possible 22 games to this point in his career at the most important position in the game.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking right now—Manziel could have started more than three games if the organization would have simply just handed him the keys, so to speak. While this is true, the former Heisman Trophy winner simply has not shown enough thus far in his career to earn that right in the eyes of the coaching staff and front office to warrant a first-round selection, let alone to be the starting quarterback for a team that has gone through a graveyard full of them since 1999.
Herein lies the biggest problem of all—the current Cleveland Browns front office has selected three players in the last two first rounds who were not/are not ready to be NFL starters!
With Gilbert, the organization reached in a big way on a player with the size and speed you covet at the cornerback position. However, his raw tools and technique had him graded in the second round for a lot of draft pundits (including this writer) around the league. Despite having major needs with starting-caliber players sitting there for the taking at No. 4 in the 2014 NFL Draft—Sammy Watkins (WR), Khalil Mack (LB), Jake Matthews (RT), Mike Evans (WR), Anthony Barr (LB), Odell Beckham Jr. (WR) and Aaron Donald—Farmer and company felt confident enough to trade down from No. 4 to No. 9, and then back up to No. 8 to secure the very raw Gilbert.
Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but every single one of those players has made a major impact in their young careers thus far. Meanwhile, Gilbert cannot even crack the team’s top four cornerbacks at this time—and has to turn to return duty to even see the field. To put it simply, this was an utter embarrassment of a pick at the time and continues to look worse every single day in hindsight.
The next player who was clearly not ready for the NFL was Manziel, sorry to disappoint, Manziel Maniacs.
Sure, Manziel was one of the most electrifying collegiate quarterbacks during his two seasons at Texas A&M. He was elusive, he could run circles around defenders and chuck the ball to the back of the endzone for touchdown after touchdown. He rained money signs down all over college football on his way to earning celebrity status despite being under the age of 21.
Unfortunately for a lot of the fans out there, “Johnny Football” made it rain so much that many of their expectations were clouded in a big way. For anyone who took the time to watch the film, you saw a third-round prospect who needed a few years of development before he should have ever taken a starting snap. So naturally, the Browns took him in the first round to give their fans yet another glimmer of hope that he could be “the guy” to lead them out of the AFC North cellar.
Manziel had never read a playbook, did not know how to go through progressions, displayed an unwillingness to stay in the pocket and was better improvising on the run than actually diagnosing a play. Those are all exciting traits for a college quarterback, but those are major negatives for an NFL quarterback—so, why did Farmer and company trade up to go and get him without an established guy in place for him to sit and learn from? The move has never made any sense at all.
Finally, we come to the 2015 NFL Draft—aka the “go safe because we screwed up last year” draft.
With two picks thanks to the trade down from No. 4 in 2014, the Browns first selection was at No. 12—which ended up being Shelton. Though the two biggest needs in this writer’s eyes were wide receiver and pass rusher, you could not really argue the Shelton pick at the time—and even now.
Shelton was projected as a 3-4 DT who can take on two blockers and was supposed to help improve the league’s worst defense against the run. The Browns still own the NFL’s worst defense against the run and Shelton has had an up and down first seven games, but he has shown flashes of dominance as well.
While you may be indifferent about Shelton at this time, you will be hard-pressed to find one person that understands the Erving selection right about now. 2015 performance aside, Nelson Agholor (WR), Bud Dupree (LB), Shane Ray (LB), Shaq Thompson (LB), Breshad Perriman (WR) and many, many more players at positions of need were available—and Farmer took a backup offensive lineman.
The “Huh” award of the 2015 NFL Draft went to Farmer when the Browns were on the clock at No. 19—the move just did not make sense. If the team was worried about Alex Mack coming back from injury or wanted to bring in competition for Mitchell Schwartz and John Greco on the right side of the line, there were plenty of good players later in the draft to try and do that with. No, you just do not draft a backup offensive lineman with a first round pick—ever.
So here we are, sitting at 2-5 and searching for answers why after a dismantling at the hands of a team who actually had their first-round picks playing for them. Really? Is it that difficult to understand what has gone wrong here?
You cannot miss on first-round picks in the NFL and expect to right a ship that has been sinking since it returned from voyage back in 1999. Furthermore, you cannot miss on picks and go 2-10 after starting 7-4 in 2014 and expect to not be on the proverbial NFL hot seat either. So that is where Farmer will find himself for the rest of the season.
Can the front office be blamed for injuries, turnovers and penalties on the field? For the most part, no.
What they can be blamed for is the inability to target and acquire the best impact players in what is considered the “elite” player potential round of the NFL Draft, and Farmer and his staff have failed miserably at doing that. While I am always an advocate for continuity and growth of an organization all day instead of turnover and starting over, it has simply gotten to the point where it is hard to defend why these players were selected at this point.
Some say the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results applies in this situation to change in the front office. But at this time, allowing Farmer to make another first-round selection based on his first two years could be the definition of insanity for Jimmy Haslam, and wasting three years of prospects can set your organization back in a major way—but I don’t have to tell you that.