The Browns have added three young players for the future, but the focus is clearly on now
The Cleveland Browns finally got involved in the NFL Draft on Friday night.
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It was always going to be a different kind of draft after the Browns traded their next three first-round picks for quarterback Deshaun Watson in March, and it would still be a largely future-focused draft since the current roster is quite Position well. Jadeveon Clowney remains a free agent and the receiving corps remains shaky, but the Browns are bringing back plenty of talented players and most of their top contributors from both sides.
With a night of draft work for the Browns and a full day to go, let’s be honest about the current situation. The story here is less that the Browns added three players to the bottom of the depth chart in the third round and more that they’re still stuck with Baker Mayfield on the roster.
It’s not a terrible thing because it’s not surprising, and for a team that has understandably high expectations, it doesn’t have much to do with how things ultimately play out in 2022. But the Browns seemed to have a trade destination for Mayfield — Caroline — and that appeared to have been blown Friday night because the Panthers selected Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral in the third round.
The Browns left Mayfield six weeks ago, but his $18.86 million salary in 2022 is fully guaranteed as the team picked up their fifth-year option last spring. While the Browns clearly want to maximize a potential return on Mayfield, they’ve long known that would be tough. The other teams are also fully aware of the situation, so the Browns are stuck. Mayfield will never play for them again, but an official split may have to wait until the summer. The Browns entered Friday with just over $27 million in cap space available, so more free agent business may still go on.
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More rough stuff lies directly ahead. Browns general manager Andrew Berry made a trade Friday, sending the No. 44 pick to the Houston Texans for picks Nos. 68, 108 and 124. That gave the Browns three third-round picks, and the team used them against Mississippi State cornerback Martin Emerson, UAB edge rusher Alex Wright, and Purdue wide receiver David Bell. Emerson’s pick was surprising since few showings had him in the second day of the draft and the Browns are on the verge of returning their top five cornerbacks from last season. Wright and Bell’s choices were more predictable.
Clowney or no Clowney, Wright is a young rusher who can help at least a little right away. Bell isn’t the kind of “athletic traits and positive development” that Emerson and Wright are, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Bell became one of the Browns’ three most productive receivers in 2022.
All of this – Watson, Mayfield, Amari Cooper and the trades – happened because last year’s passing offense collapsed. The Browns expect much better next season and beyond, and Bell will be lucky to be a part of that. Berry said Bell “has some of the best hands” in an impressive wide receiver draft class and thinks the 21-year-old can help the Browns right away because he’s “very savvy, nuanced (and) polished” in as a road runner.
When the draft resumes on Saturday, the Browns should have three of the top 22 picks in the fourth round. This means that Berry has options when it comes to more potential trades and with different positions. Neither the defensive line room nor the pass receiving group is complete. The Browns need a kicker and maybe a punter too, and Emerson’s pick reinforces the team’s belief that there isn’t too much help in the secondary, especially at the cornerback position.
The Browns plan to make the playoffs in 2022. Expectations for the foreseeable future have changed significantly. Maybe the draft plan has changed significantly and maybe not, but the Browns are working on now. They’re putting young players in the bullpen for a playoff run, and more additions will come Saturday. Some sort of resolution with Clowney’s numbers coming before too long, and maybe the Browns can eventually get something for Mayfield and save some money.
Either way, this is a team making decisions for now while adding players for the future. The Browns appear to be in good hands and appear to be good enough to eventually be in the game in a loaded AFC. The Watson trade changed everything, including how we look at the draft and the rest of the team’s personnel moves.
There’s not a lot of sizzle this weekend, and that’s fine. The Browns are quietly confident they’ve positioned themselves for a lot in the months and years to come.
(Photo of Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)