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2018 NFL Draft: Building a Winner in Cleveland

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On Jan. 31, the day disgruntled Cleveland fans were celebrating “Hue Jackson Day” in commemoration of the Browns coach’s 1–31 record (get it?), new GM John Dorsey was not participating in the festivities. It’s impossible for him to ignore the franchise’s recent — and not so recent — futility, but Dorsey isn’t about to look backward. With 12 draft picks, including four among the first 35, and more than $100 million in cap space for the upcoming season, Dorsey had no time to worry about the past. He has too much work to do. And he wanted to let the whole league know one important fact:

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“Brother, we are open for business 24/7,” he said.


It should be no surprise to anyone that Dorsey is relishing this time of year. There will be plenty of player movement during free agency, and more than 200 players will be selected in late April. But nobody has more going on than do the Browns. Former GM Sashi Brown may not have been too good at picking out talent — and his decisions to avoid selecting quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson were borderline criminal — but the man could accumulate draft picks. And he could cut money from the payroll. Dorsey, late of the Chiefs and a key cog in the Green Bay personnel machine before that, now gets a chance to parlay those assets into pieces of a winning team.


“This is awesome,” he says. “I’ve been in the National Football League my entire [adult] life, and this is a chance to rebuild an iconic franchise.”


In the 19 years since their return from an Art Modell-induced hiatus, the Browns have won zero playoff games (they have played in only one), finished last 14 times (including the last seven seasons), run out a collection of quarterbacks who can only be described as inept and generally tested every last bit of patience remaining in their loyal fans. After Cleveland finished the 2017 season 0–16 to become only the second team (Detroit, ’08) to achieve that level of supreme incompetence, frustrated supporters threw a parade in zero-degree conditions to memorialize the catastrophe. Amidst the collection of coffins and derogatory signs that included participation trophies and various other expressions of fury was a representative of the Cleveland Food Bank, collecting canned goods. So, at least something good came of the mess. 

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Dorsey strides into the ruins of another failed season with confidence, a strong track record and ammunition to affect a turnaround. The one thing the NFL loves is parity, so an 0–16 franchise is anathema to the league’s mission of universal franchise health. That’s why it eschews a draft lottery and reserves the top pick every year for the neediest team, why it has a hard salary cap and why it softens the coming schedules of those teams that struggled each season. Like McDonald’s, which wants a Big Mac it serves in Pocatello to taste the same as the one it serves in Mobile, the NFL desires each of its franchises to thrive, on and off the field. Therefore, it isn’t out of the question that Cleveland might actually be pretty good in a couple seasons. 


“I think every situation is different,” Dorsey says. “If we do this in a prudent manner and base our decisions on facts and are logical in our building, it can happen. But people have to exercise a degree of patience.”


This isn’t the first time someone has approached the job of rebuilding the Browns with confidence and enthusiasm. Dorsey is the fifth GM under owner Jimmy Haslam, and Haslam only purchased the team six years ago. Brown lasted two years, brought a Moneyball-style analytics bent to his job and left town with the distinction of the lowest winning percentage for a GM in NFL history. He took a rigid stance against long-term deals with free agents and built a roster that was extremely thin on talent capable of competing every week. Pairing that philosophy with a coach like Jackson, who is decidedly anti-new wave, was a disaster that was on full display in front of the frothing Dawg Pound masses every Sunday. Enter Dorsey, who has the scouting chops necessary to mesh well with Jackson and the enthusiasm to tackle the biggest job the NFL has seen in a while.


“It’s pretty obvious why I would want this,” Dorsey says. “It’s an iconic franchise with an incredible fan base. I really like the ownership. Jimmy and Dee Haslam are passionate, prideful and want to win. And then you look at the assets with the draft picks and cap space.”


• • •


Not long after Dorsey took over the Browns’ top spot, he appeared on a local radio station and talked about the current season, which was on an iron lung en route to ultimate futility. 


“I think, as Bill Parcells would always say, you are your record,” Dorsey said. “And you know what, there it is. That’s the truth-teller in this whole thing.”


Nothing to see there. Move along, folks. The Browns were rotten and had been rotten. Dorsey was just acknowledging it from the top of the org chart. But then Dorsey said something that surprised a lot of people. 


“You know what? I’ll come straight out with it, the guys who were here before and that system, they didn’t get real players.”
Whoa. That wasn’t just a shot at Brown — though true. It was also a harsh assessment of the roster. A lot of people around the league wondered whether Brown and his numbers crew could identify players capable of winning in the NFL, and the last two seasons provided evidence for those who said they couldn’t. 


But Dorsey’s comments were surprising. Six weeks later, he demurred when asked about the remarks, but he didn’t issue a retraction. For many Browns fans, it was refreshing to hear someone say what they had believed for years. In a climate that has grown increasingly polite and often disingenuous, Dorsey was speaking the truth. Cleveland had gone 1–31 because there weren’t enough good players on the roster. That was hardly revelatory.


“You are who your record is,” Dorsey says. “We have to change the stigma and move on. We have to keep acquiring players.”


Dorsey is an old-fashioned football talent evaluator who grew up in Maryland and used to hang around Navy practices when George Welsh was coaching the Mids in the ’70s. Dorsey was friends with Welsh’s son and got to see the byproduct of the hyper-detailed scouting reports that Steve Belichick — Bill’s father — prepared every week. Dorsey still marvels at how meticulous the elder Belichick was and asserts that no one today could provide the level of information he delivered. 


A two-time all-Yankee Conference linebacker at UConn, Dorsey was drafted in the fourth round by Green Bay and became a special teams standout for the Packers. His 35 special teams tackles in 1984 remains a franchise record. A knee injury derailed his career after five years and led him to scouting and player evaluation. That remains his first love. After the Chiefs let him go last summer, Dorsey still watched NFL tape and attended college games throughout the ’17 season.

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He comes to the Browns with a strong reputation for identifying talent honed during two stints in the Packers’ front office, a brief interlude in Seattle and four seasons (2013-16) as GM of the Chiefs. While there, he made 38 draft picks in five drafts (he didn’t part ways with the team until June 2017). Nine of those were KC starters in 2017. Nine others were backups, and five were on injured reserve. Among his notable choices were third-round tight end Travis Kelce, fifth-round wideout Tyreek Hill and third-round running back Kareem Hunt. 


All five of Dorsey’s first-round picks were on the Chiefs in 2017, while four of the Browns’ nine-first rounders during that time were no longer on the team. Sure, Dorsey had some misses, like picking Stanford QB Kevin Hogan in the fifth round of the ’16 Draft. Hogan didn’t make the team. But the Chiefs are quite excited about their 2017 first-round pick, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who showed enough last season to prompt the team to trade Alex Smith (whom Dorsey acquired and who is the only passer to throw for 3,000 yards and have 10 or fewer interceptions in five straight years) to Washington. With 12 selections this year, expect the Browns to add several players who will contribute in 2018 and beyond.


“Everyone builds differently,” Dorsey says. “What is your strategic long-term plan for the organization? What do we want to accomplish in 2018, ’19 and ’20?”


The man has a strong track record of gathering talent, but perhaps the most important part of the equation moving forward could be the people with whom he has surrounded himself. Dorsey’s staff includes VP of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith, who had been Green Bay’s senior personnel exec; assistant GM Eliot Wolf, the Packers’ former director of football operations; and Cleveland holdovers Andrew Berry and Paul DePodesta, who will be chief strategy officer. In addition, Dorsey has added three former Chiefs scouts, Jimmy Noel, Matt Donahoe and Dan Zegers. All have been part of successful organizations.


“You can’t have enough people around you who know the system and how to make it work,” Dorsey says. “You rarely get to acquire five people like that.”


• • •


It can be argued — quite convincingly, as a matter of fact — that the Browns haven’t had a quarterback worth very much since Bernie Kosar left town halfway through the 1993 season. Sure, Vinny Testaverde was on hand for parts of three campaigns (’93-95), but when your TD:interception ratio during that stretch is 47-to-37, you can’t make too much of a case for yourself. One point in Testaverde’s favor is that the Browns’ last playoff win, 20–13 over New England in ’94, came during his tenure. 


If you want to debate semantics, go right ahead. The rest of us will focus on the fact that a large portion of Cleveland’s misery can be directly traced to the upheaval under center. Since reemerging as an NFL team in 1999, the Browns have started 28 different quarterbacks, none of whom has been particularly good. Included have been a pair of McCowns, five largely sad seasons of Tim Couch and a slew of successful college QBs who couldn’t figure it out in the NFL and should have spent their careers wearing ball caps and listening in on coaches’ instructions to the starters.


That’s why when people talk about Dorsey’s task in Cleveland, they invariably begin under center. It’s not a good idea to continue chasing NFL prosperity without a big-time quarterback. That’s the biggest challenge facing Dorsey and his staff, and it’s more than likely the Browns will end up picking someone to throw the football with the first overall pick. 


“I think heading into the 2018 season, among unrestricted free agents and in the draft, there are some appealing people for every organization,” Dorsey says. “What we have to do — and we are in the final stages of putting together our plan — is to find out what is best for the Cleveland Browns.”


No, Dorsey wasn’t about to let anybody learn what he was thinking in February, and he probably won’t be revealing too much in April, either. 


One of the popular pastimes during Senior Bowl week was figuring out to whom Dorsey was paying the most attention. Was it Wyoming’s Josh Allen? Perhaps he was particularly interested in Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma. And since neither Sam Darnold of USC nor UCLA’s Josh Rosen was there, some speculated that he didn’t care about either Mayfield or Allen. He was looking at Hollywood. 


No matter whom Dorsey and his staff like, none of the four QBs most mentioned as top-pick prospects can be considered a guarantee. Mayfield is thought to be too short (he’s listed at 6'1" but thought to be smaller) and a bit immature. Allen played in the Mountain West and wasn’t so effective in 2017. Darnold was inconsistent last season, and Rosen is considered something of a mercurial sort. That’s not exactly a lock-cinch group. 


Then there are the free agents. The big fish is Kirk Cousins, who became expendable when Washington traded for Alex Smith. “He’s a great leader and a consummate pro,” Dorsey says of Smith, who some thought might be a Browns target. Cousins wants gigantic money, which Cleveland can provide, but with teams such as Denver and Arizona looking for quarterbacks, it’s unlikely he’ll choose the banks of Lake Erie for his home. Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor will probably be available, since cutting him will save the Bills 10 figures in cap space, but he has already shown himself to be a middling NFL starter, at best. 


Whomever Dorsey chooses will get to work with a couple of proven offensive minds. In January, Cleveland signed deposed Pittsburgh coordinator Todd Haley to run its attack. He attracted some fire from critics during 2017 for some of his calls, but he brings significant experience and, many hope, stability. 


Then there is Jackson. Dorsey is happy that the coach “kept things together” as the 2017 season drifted toward its winless conclusion. The two men have spent two months learning about each other, and though Dorsey seems pleased by the early phase of their relationship, Jackson should hardly be considered secure in his position. 


“We both love the game of football, and we both need to understand the objectives for player acquisition,” Dorsey says. “I hope he sees things the way I do. We’ll tell that over time.”


The Browns have picks. They have money to spend. They have needs — do they ever. It’s up to Dorsey and his staff to concoct a formula that produces answers that will initiate the turnaround. His track record of scouting suggests that he can do it. Of course, we have heard that before. 


“I want guys who are passionate about the game of football,” he says. “I want smart players who are really good in the locker room and good in the community. They have to know how to respond when adversity strikes. 


“I want to get as many football players like that as possible.”


So that the next parade in Cleveland isn’t an angry one.

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2018 NFL Draft magazine.