Guessing the Browns’ draft path

One week from the NFL Draft, and I don’t have a damn clue what the Browns are going to do with the sixth overall pick.

How’s that for a lead — and for full disclosure?

I’m trying, though. I’ve read every mock draft in America and called just about every scout and front-office type I know, trying to pick their brains and dig for info. Some have them must have lost my number. Some are sworn to secrecy. And from what I’ve gathered, most of them think their guess is as good as yours in the toughest-to-predict NFL Draft in quite some time. Even walking and talking through the first four, six or eight picks didn’t bring us to much of a consensus.

So, let’s try again here and take a (digital) stroll through the first five picks, using what we know, what we think we know and what these folks from around the league who do this stuff for a living — the four or five who return my calls, anyway — think they know about what the Browns might be thinking and who might be available when the Browns go on the clock with the No. 6 pick one week from tonight.

1. To figure out who’s going to be in the pool of players from which the Browns will pick, first figuring out which players won’t be there seems the way to go. Cam Newton is far from the perfect prospect, but he’s intriguing enough that somebody’s going to take him. Even if Carolina gets conservative at No. 1 and takes Marcell Dareus, Newton wouldn’t get past the Bengals at No. 4. Scouts might be able to poke a hole or two in Dareus, but the consensus is that he’s a good kid and a good player, versatile enough to play multiple positions and in multiple schemes. Especially this year, that’s enough to ensure he’s going to be the first of many defensive linemen taken in the first round. Von Miller might be the cleanest prospect among the top group, and there’s some thought he might be the best player, too. He’s not getting past Buffalo at No. 3, or, even if really strange things start happening, Arizona at No. 5. A.J. Green seems to be the choice of Browns fans; he’s the top receiver in a draft that finds lots of teams needing a top target. He’ll be considered by all the teams on top of the draft and, if Newton’s gone, he’ll go to the Bengals at No. 4. If and when Green comes off the board, you might hear the groan coming from the Browns’ draft room. They’ll be disappointed because they covet Green, but they expect him to be gone. There’s a chance things will fall differently and that some team will take Blaine Gabbert, but the consensus I’ve gathered is that just about everybody ranks Green as one of the best three players in this draft and very few expect him to make it past the fourth pick.

2. So, our stroll has come to a crossroad. The Browns haven’t given up on taking the wide receiver road; mocks by several prominent and well-connected media folks link the Browns to Julio Jones, and Green isn’t totally out of play. Patrick Peterson is a guy that could land anywhere from 2-8, and the higher he goes the more likely it is that Green drops. The prevailing thought is that Arizona is going defense with the fifth pick, and the Bengals could go with Dareus, Nick Fairley, Gabbert or Peterson at No. 4. The Browns have a huge need for a big-play receiver whether or not Green is still available, and Jones fits the bill. He’s a big, dynamic guy who brings no baggage and produced in a run-heavy offense for three years at  Alabama. I understand the appeal, but I just can’t see it happening at six. When I got to sit in the draft room a few years back when I worked for the Browns, Phil Savage would swing discussions between other people in the room by saying, “If we take Player X, I have to go downstairs and explain why we took Player X when we clearly needed guys at (insert two other positions here).” I can’t see Tom Heckert going down those same stairs and saying “Well, even though we play in the AFC North and are switching to a 4-3 and wouldn’t have enough defensive linemen to field a team if we played tomorrow, I took the second-best receiver in the draft. And, by the way, he just had a pin put in his foot a few weeks ago.” Most league folks I asked told me they’d be surprised if the Browns took Jones, but not shocked. Only one said he wouldn’t be surprised at all.  

3. Working off the premise that Newton, Dareus, Miller and Green are gone in the first four, the Browns then find themselves sitting and waiting on Arizona at five. Jones doesn’t fit there. If the Cardinals take Gabbert, Larry Fitzgerald might demand a trade to Saskatchewan. The Cardinals would then, presumably, be looking at basically the same pool of players the Browns would be: Peterson, Fairley, Robert Quinn and Da’Quan Bowers. If you saw Fairley in the national championship game, you know he looked like the slam-dunk pick at No. 1. Now, it seems teams are hesitant to take him four or five picks later — and that means concerns about his work ethic and/or character arent’ exactly tiny. Peterson, again, is the wildcard of sorts. Considering the Cardinals ranked in the bottom 10 vs. both the run and the pass last season and were led in sacks by Calais Campbell with 6, Quinn and Bowers are both in play. Quinn didn’t play last year after getting caught up in the turmoil at North Carolina; what I’ve heard there is you can divide the UNC guys into bad guys and bad-luck guys, and that Quinn isn’t a bad guy. But he did have a non-cancerous brain tumor in high school and is now going to get slapped in the head for a living. And Bowers has a knee issue that reportedly has some teams taking him off their boards altogether. These are franchise-altering decisions, but they’re not easy.

4. Does anyone else feel like this road keeps leading to Peterson? Peterson is the one guy Heckert has been publicly willing to boost. He did it at the NFL Combine and did it again in his press conference Thursday morning, even when he spent most of the time carefully choosing his words and not tipping any sort of hand. Thursday, Heckert said Peterson “is a rare guy just because of his size alone, size and speed. I don’t know when the last guy that came out (like that). I know Nnamdi (Asomugah, generally regarded as the best corner in football) was a big guy but I don’t think he ran like Patrick did. He is a rare guy, a rare athlete and he is a very good football player.” Now, there are two reasons Heckert would do this. One is to try to make a team that knows the Browns’ bigger needs are somewhere besides corner to trade up and get Peterson, giving the Browns much-needed extra picks. The other would be — and I truly believe that Heckert is a Peterson fan — that if the Browns do take Peterson, they spin it as getting the guy they really wanted all along. The Browns need players, impact players, and penciling Peterson and Joe Haden into the cornerback spots seems like a good building block. Now watch Denver take him and screw this whole thing up.

5. Every path in the NFL is paved not only in gold — money is the primary reason for the lockout, correct? — but in the really shiny and nice kind of gold. The risk involved with picking high in the draft is that you’re paying the same for Matt Ryan and Terrell Suggs as you are for Brady Quinn and Robert Gallery. And in this year’s draft, it seems unlikely teams will want to pay the cost to trade up into the top six, then have to pay top dollar to a player who’s far from a sure thing. “I’m not sure you’d sleep well if you traded up for Gabbert,” one scout told me, “but you might sleep better than you would if you gave top-six money to Fairley.” This year’s path, if you’ve been following, may or may not lead the Browns out of the woods. Maybe somebody wants to trade up for Gabbert, sleep be damned. Maybe Houston will give its 2012 first-rounder to come up and get Peterson. The good news is there’s no doomsday scenario — it’s highly unlikely that Dareus, Peterson, Green and Jones would all go in the top five — for the Browns but there is a lot of guessing involved. A blue-chip defensive lineman is clearly the Browns’ biggest need, but will one be available? Could the Browns trade down and still get Quinn or Jones? The draft brings hope. And mystery. And long walks down the stairs in Berea, ones that someone will else be eventually making if Colt McCoy and this next first-rounder, whomever he ends up being, don’t pan out.

I have no idea how the Browns rank the top four; I tried to find out, trust me. The draft room door is closed and locked. Even if we busted in, we’d find a curtain over the board. All that’s left to do is guess. And wait. And keep arguing our way down different paths. Until next week, there’s no harm in trying them all.