Can Hue Jackson finally get the Browns turned around?
With four picks in top 35, Cleveland’s 2018 draft could be coach’s springboard to stability
ARLINGTON, Texas — If Hue Jackson winds up having a long run as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, we’ll look back at the 2018 NFL draft as his springboard to stability. There’s really no other way to look at it.
When you’re 1-31 in two years on the job, including leading a squad that had only the second 0-16 season in league history, and your team has the Nos. 1 and 4 overall picks and four in the top 35, there are gaping roster holes that could be filled quickly. That’s why for more than anyone in Cleveland’s organization, Jackson, one of only seven African-American head coaches in the NFL, needed a grand slam draft.
Cleveland controlled the direction of the opening round. It’s not every draft in which a team holds two first-round picks, let alone both in the top five. In what is believed to be potentially the most quarterback-rich draft in decades, the Browns had their pick of players at the position, so their selection of former Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield first overall was an eyebrow-raiser.
There’s no question that Mayfield is talented. He does many things that resonate with scouts — reads the whole field, makes quick decisions, has a quick release, keeps his eyes downfield, keeps two hands on the ball, excels on off-schedule throws — but was measured at only 6 feet, 5/8 inch at the NFL scouting combine. Because of the size of the league’s massive linemen, Mayfield doesn’t have ideal size to play quarterback in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks superstar Russell Wilson and New Orleans Saints future Hall of Famer Drew Brees are also in the 6-foot range. Their careers have pretty much been as good as it gets. For every Wilson and Brees, however, there are many other undersized quarterbacks who don’t make it in the league.
The bigger issue with taking Mayfield at the top of the draft is how little he played under center in college. Only seven of the 1,497 passes he threw came on snaps from under center, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In the NFL, Mayfield at times will continue to operate in the pistol and shotgun formations. Other quarterbacks do. Also, the Browns’ plan for Mayfield is to start the season behind veteran Tyrod Taylor. With the way the pro game is, though, Mayfield eventually must learn to begin his drop from under center, and that could take a while, ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said.
“To be honest, if I was the coach, I’d like the number [seven of 1,497] to be a lot higher,” Bowen, who played safety for seven seasons in the NFL, said by phone. “There’s going to be a learning curve in terms of the adjustment. People say it’s taking the snap. It’s not taking the snap, it’s what you do after the snap. It’s the footwork getting back. It’s the mental reps of doing that time and time again. It’s the muscle memory.
“It’s about fundamentals. It would be no different if we were talking about a defensive back who played press coverage throughout his career in college, and you’re gonna have to play some off-coverage in the NFL. It’s gonna take some time to get his footwork down, to get his stance right. And that’s what you’re gonna have to do with Baker, break it down from the start.”
New Cleveland general manager John Dorsey is a proven player-personnel man who learned under Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, roundly considered among the best talent evaluators in the game’s history. If Dorsey is correct about Mayfield, the Browns could finally be set for a decade or so at football’s most important position. It’s just that next season’s starting quarterback will be the Browns’ 29th since the 1999 season, and Mayfield has had off-field issues too.
He was arrested last year in Arkansas on charges of public intoxication, disorderly conduct, fleeing and resisting arrest. He reached a plea deal last June and paid fines for several of the charges. His non-criminal antics included making an inappropriate gesture toward Kansas’ sideline and planting Oklahoma’s flag on Ohio State’s logo at the 50-yard line after the Sooners’ victory over the Buckeyes.
“I have no qualms about this guy whatsoever as a man and as a football player. I think he is a really good person,” Dorsey told reporters in Cleveland after selecting Mayfield. “This is a guy who has earned everything he has, from high school to college to here. For the Cleveland Browns organization, this was the best available player. The guy knows how to play the game and knows how to win. He really is a neat kid. He’s humble. He really is humble.”
Whether Mayfield succeeds or fails, the decision to pick him is on Dorsey. Still, for a head coach on a fire-engine-red hot seat, the Mayfield pick is risky.
“It would be much different if I were drafting Baker with the expectation that he’s gonna start Week 1 for me this season,” Bowen said. “They have Tyrod in place. I think Tyrod is going to be Hue Jackson’s choice to start the season. What that allows me as a coach is time.”
With the fourth overall pick, Cleveland chose former Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward. The Browns allowed the third-highest Total QBR last season (57) and had only seven interceptions, the second-fewest in the game.
It always makes sense to draft a corner with great coverage skills. Ward checks all the boxes. Of course, the Browns could have had former North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, the consensus No. 1 edge rusher in the draft.
With the first and third picks of the second round, the Browns stayed busy. They moved to address offense with both picks, selecting former Nevada guard Austin Corbett 33rd overall and former Georgia running back Nick Chubb with the 35th pick.
The Browns’ next pick occurred at 67th overall. In that slot, they chose Miami defensive end/music producer Chad Thomas, who has produced tracks for artist Rick Ross and others.
In the lower rounds, Cleveland took Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway (No. 105), Memphis linebacker Genard Avery (No. 150), Texas A&M wide receiver Damion Ratley (No. 175) and Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Simeon Thomas (No. 188).
With the Browns having added the quarterback they wanted, the consensus top cover cornerback and a potential starting guard and workhorse running back, it appears Jackson will enter the season with more talent on a team that hasn’t had nearly enough for, well, as long as we can remember.
Time always reveals the draft winners and losers. This draft will be no different. And Jackson needs to be the biggest winner.