Would Johnny Manziel still have been the choice had the Browns let someone else make their picks in 2014?
It’s hard to believe that the Cleveland Browns, a team coming off a 1-31 stretch, are generating palpable buzz not just in their own city, but throughout the NFL. Such is certainly the case in Cleveland, however, where expectations are shooting through the roof given the much rosier state of the franchise entering 2018. Hard Knocks is in town for training camp, fans are eyeing every pass from No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield and the roster turnover that the new front office has undertaken has led to one of the biggest transformations in the NFL.
No longer are the Browns lovable losers but a sudden threat to actually get some wins in 2018.
That would be welcome news to the organization that finds itself clearing the deck from some truly awful mistakes in the NFL draft the past few years. Case in point, eight of the team’s first-round picks since 2012 were either cut or traded within three years of their arrival and not a single one is even on the roster prior to the '17 class. This point in particular led The Dan Patrick Show to wonder this week if the Browns would have just been better off auto-drafting like some folks do in fantasy football. The idea was intriguing enough to explore so Athlon Sports did just that dating back to 2012 to see just how different the Browns' roster would look and who the team could have had in the lineup.
We’ll focus on the first three rounds of the draft and use NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s annual top 100 ranking heading into each draft as a baseline. Players selected by other teams in each draft will be removed from the draft pool available for the Browns when their pick rolls around and trades were kept in place (typically noting who was available if the team stayed put).
So how would the roster look in Cleveland if the Browns had simply treated the real draft night like an unattended fantasy draft? Here’s a look back at how it could have played out:
2012 NFL Draft
Who Cleveland drafted: RB Trent Richardson (1st round, 3rd overall), QB Brandon Weeden (1st round, 22nd overall), OT Mitchell Schwartz (2nd round, 37th overall), DT John Hughes (3rd round, 87th overall)
The Browns traded up one spot with Minnesota to select Richardson, who was shipped to Indianapolis two seasons later. Weeden was the byproduct of passing on Julio Jones the year before and accepting Atlanta’s haul to move up in 2011 to select the All-Pro receiver, while the quarterback started 20 times for Cleveland and compiled a 23:26 TD-to-INT ratio before being cut after two years. Schwartz was a multi-year starter who left in free agency for Kansas City and Hughes was released by the team in 2016 just a year after signing a contract extension.
Auto-draft results: RB Trent Richardson, LB Dont’a Hightower, OT Cordy Glenn, OT Bobby Massie
Cleveland still would have gotten stuck with Richardson (right) at No. 3 overall while the next tailback taken was Doug Martin, who turned into an All-Pro with Tampa Bay. Hightower has two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots and Glenn is now in the Browns’ division with Cincinnati after being Buffalo’s mainstay at left tackle for the past six years. Massie has started 76 games with the Cardinals and Bears. If the team wanted to stick with drafting a quarterback instead of Weeden, Brock Osweiler, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins were all available — as were players like T.Y. Hilton, Lamar Miller and Josh Norman.
2013 NFL Draft
Who Cleveland drafted: DE Barkevious Mingo (1st round, 6th overall), CB Leon McFadden (3rd round, 68th overall)
The team did not have a second-round pick after taking Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft the year prior and had only five total selections in 2013. Mingo started just 16 games before he was traded, recording five sacks as a rookie but otherwise never topping 30 tackles in a season. McFadden was released a year after being drafted.
Auto-draft results: DT Sharrif Floyd, DE Damontre Moore
Floyd spent four seasons in Minnesota, but has battled several major injuries and is currently an unsigned free agent whose playing future is very much in doubt. Moore slipped during the draft to the Giants but he never earned a start over five seasons in the league with four teams. RB Eddie Lacy would have been the selection if the team kept their second-round pick instead of taking Gordon, or they could have drafted either Keenan Allen or Robert Woods if they wanted a receiver no matter what. Allen also would have been available with their third-round pick instead of McFadden as well while Tyrann Mathieu was picked by the Cardinals with the very next selection in the third round.
2014 NFL Draft
Who Cleveland drafted: CB Justin Gilbert (1st round, 8th overall), QB Johnny Manziel (1st round, 22nd overall), OT Joel Bitonio (2nd round, 35th overall), LB Christian Kirksey (3rd round, 71st overall), RB Terrance West (3rd round, 94th overall)
The 2014 draft class was absolutely loaded and the Browns completely whiffed with their two first-round picks. Gilbert started only three games in two years by the lake, grabbing just one interception with the team that drafted him before being traded for a sixth-rounder to division foe Pittsburgh. Heisman-winner Manziel was released after two seasons and is now struggling in the CFL. Bitonio signed a contract extension with the team and is slated to be the Browns' new left tackle in 2018 following the retirement of franchise cornerstone Joe Thomas. Kirksey has developed into a regular starter and is a tackling machine for the Browns who inked a rich extension in 2017. West was Cleveland’s leading rusher in 2014 but traded before the following season.
Auto-draft results: OT Taylor Lewan, QB Johnny Manziel, QB Derek Carr, DT Louis Nix, CB Bashaud Breeland
Had Cleveland not traded back with the Bills (who selected Sammy Watkins), the team could have picked Khalil Mack at No. 4 overall (Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald also were available). The Browns also missed out by moving up a spot to grab Gilbert as Minnesota wound up with Anthony Barr. Mayock had both Kyle Fuller and Darqueze Dennard ranked ahead of Gilbert at cornerbacks as well. Lewan has made two Pro Bowls with the Titans and Carr could have been Cleveland’s QB of the future after making three Pro Bowls in a row. Nix’s career was hampered by knee injuries while Breeland is a current free agent after a solid debut in Washington.
2015 NFL Draft
Who Cleveland drafted: DT Danny Shelton (1st round, 12th overall), OL Cam Erving (1st round, 19th overall), DE Nate Orchard (2nd round, 51st round), RB Duke Johnson (3rd round, 77th overall), DT Xavier Cooper (3rd round, 96th overall)
Shelton is now in New England after a trade and didn’t quite live up to high expectations despite starting 13 games in 2017. Erving was also traded for a fifth-round pick to Kansas City after just two seasons in Cleveland. Orchard is still with the team but has started only twice the past two years and has five sacks in his career. Johnson has been a rushing and receiving threat out of the backfield for the Browns while Cooper was eventually waived in 2017 and is now on his third team.
Auto-draft results: WR DeVante Parker, LB Bud Dupree, OL La’el Collins, OT T.J. Clemmings, LB Paul Dawson
Parker did have his fifth-year option picked up by Miami but has put up only modest numbers with the Dolphins, including just eight touchdowns over three seasons. Dupree has turned into a starter with the Steelers but hasn’t quite lived up to expectations given his athleticism. In the second round, the Browns originally traded back with Houston (who selected LB Benardrick McKinney) but this time around land Collins, who dropped to the Cowboys much later due to a controversial draft-week story. Clemmings started early in his career with the Vikings but is now with Washington. Dawson was once a steal for Cincinnati given his production in college but has bounced back and forth between the practice squad and active roster with several teams.
2016 NFL Draft
Who Cleveland drafted: WR Corey Coleman (1st round, 15th overall), DE Emmanuel Ogbah (2nd round, 32nd overall), DE Carl Nassib (3rd round, 65th overall), OT Shon Coleman (3rd round, 76th overall), QB Cody Kessler (3rd round, 93rd overall),
The Browns traded back twice in the first round — from No. 2 overall where the Eagles netted budding superstar Carson Wentz and from No. 8 where the Titans drafted Jack Conklin. Coleman was shipped this week to Buffalo for a seventh-round pick in 2020 after posting just five touchdown catches in limited action with his original team. Ogbah (right) has been a quality starter for the team the past two seasons and managed 9.5 sacks while Nassib has done the same (and turned into a Hard Knocks star) as part of the rotation. Coleman started every game at right tackle in 2017 but appears to be a reserve in 2018. Kessler probably over-performed with the Browns given the talent around him but is now the backup QB for the Jaguars.
Auto-draft results: LB Myles Jack, DT A’Shawn Robinson, DT Andrew Billings, TE Jerell Adams, RB Devontae Booker
Jack slipped in the draft due to concerns over his knee but played a big role in turning things around in Jacksonville last season while Robinson is set to anchor the middle of Detroit’s defensive line. Billings has been up and down for the division rival Bengals but is set to start for the team alongside Geno Atkins. Adams has been buried on the Giants’ depth chart but Booker could be the starting tailback in Denver and probably would be in Cleveland this year too.
2017 NFL Draft
Who Cleveland drafted: DE Myles Garrett (1st round, 1st overall), S Jabrill Peppers (1st round, 25th overall), TE David Njoku (1st round, 29th overall), QB DeShone Kizer (2nd round, 52nd overall), DT Larry Ogunjobi (3rd round, 65th overall)
All three first-round picks are set to be starters in 2018 and each flashed several times as rookies last season. Kizer was expendable and traded to Green Bay after starting 15 games for the Browns (60.5 QB rating) and Ogunjobi will likely be pushing for even more playing time after a solid debut last year. The team passed on selecting Deshaun Watson at No. 12 overall by trading back with the Houston Texans to get Peppers. The Browns traded back up to get Njoku at the bottom of the first round while the Packers selected CB Kevin King with their original second-round pick.
Auto-draft results: DE Myles Garrett, LB Reuben Foster, OL Cam Robinson, RB Alvin Kamara, DE Jordan Willis
Garrett was widely viewed as a no-brainer at No. 1 overall out of Texas A&M and did well as a rookie for the team despite several injuries in 2017. Foster slipped due to off-the-field concerns but was one of the better rookie linebackers when on the field for San Francisco and Robinson was the Jaguars’ starting left tackle in his first season. Kamara was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Saints with 1,901 all-purpose yards (third in the NFL) and 14 total touchdowns. Willis was overshadowed on his own team by fellow rookie Carl Lawson but could still see significant playing time in 2018 for Cincinnati.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)