BEREA, Ohio — The best hope for the Cleveland Browns sat at a podium Thursday and talked about the team’s draft plans.
He didn’t explain everything, because he can’t. But he sure explained a lot. And he did it in a friendly, patient way that brought at least a little belief that it might … well … work. It has to happen, but at this point in their history the Browns need any sense of belief they can find.
Tom Heckert grew up with football. His father Tom was one of the more respected personnel guys in the league, and, when he worked for the Miami Dolphins, Don Shula trusted his decisions. Earning Shula’s trust was no simple matter.
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Tom the son worked for his father before growing on his own into a respected personnel guy with the Eagles. There, Andy Reid had final say on decisions, so some give credit (and blame) for the Eagles’ choice to Reid.
But Heckert had input.
Now Heckert runs the show in Cleveland.
He’s a football-oriented guy making sound football choices based on sound logic. At least that’s the hope. Just like it’s the hope that eventually those decisions will yield more wins to a team and fan base that needs every win it can find.
The perceived biggest news from Heckert’s briefing was that the Browns had narrowed their choice for their first pick to two players. This sounded big, but in reality it’s not. The Browns pick fourth and even mountain climbers on the top of Everest know the first two picks will be quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. So essentially the Browns are on the clock with the second pick.
If they don’t have it narrowed down at this point, they’ve not been working.
Heckert’s most interesting insights dribbled out as he answered questions. There he talked about his philosophy to ensure he gets a guy in the round he should be taken, his philosophy on trading up or down and his feelings about where the Browns are in relation to a possible trade.
A year ago, the Browns had jettisoned most of the guys Eric Mangini brought in his first year as coach — the Kenyon Colemans and Eric Bartons of the world. That made the Browns younger, but left the roster without numbers. Heckert felt one impact player would not have made that much difference, so he traded down out of the sixth spot and (with a trade up) drafted 21st.
“I wouldn’t do that trade this year,” he said, adding he has a limit to how far down he’d trade.
But he will be flexible. Heckert puts a “round grade” on each player, then tries to ensure said player is taken in the proper round. Which of course requires the cooperation of the other 31 teams.
“We all know there is a big part of luck in this draft and that’s just the way it is,” he said.
But luck, as they say, is also the residue of design. Heckert admitted making mistakes (a refreshing notion), saying he’s traded up to fill a need when he shouldn’t have. It’s why he does his best to stick to the evaluations.
“In a perfect world, we’d draft a good player at a need position,” he said. “If it came down to it, it has to be the player over the need.”
This year Heckert said the Browns have first-round grades on 18 players, and he’s confident he’ll be able to get one of the 18 when they pick 22nd (with Atlanta’s pick acquired a year ago). If the 18 are gone? Heckert waved his hand behind his head, thumb raised, and said, “Get out.”
As in get out of the 22nd pick, either by moving up to get one of the 18, or moving down to get an extra pick.
Heckert’s overall goal: Get fast, physical players on defense, and fast guys on offense who can score touchdowns.
“I think we are on our way with the defense,” he said. “Do we need more help there? Yes. Offensively, everyone knows it — it’s not a secret — we need guys that can score points.”
In two years, the drafts run by Heckert have produced nine starters, four on defense, five on offense (including Colt McCoy). He has traded for or signed three more starters on defense (Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita and Sheldon Brown) and extended the contract of one starter on offense (Joe Thomas) and two on defense (D’Qwell Jackson, Ahtyba Rubin).
He expects the first three selections in this draft to start. Add another one or two from the mid-to-late rounds and the Browns lineup would have Heckert’s stamp.
Browns fans are all too familiar with this transition. Every team goes through it when it changes regimes, and change has been the one constant with the Browns. Mangini, Phil Savage, Butch Davis, Dwight Clark all had their methods. None worked, in part because lack of success led to dismissal and starting over — again and again
Thirteen years of frustration have boiled down to this reality: The Browns’ best hope lies in their GM.
“Some people say (the draft picks) are starting because we aren’t very good, but that remains to be seen,” Heckert said. “We disagree with that, we think they are starting because they are good enough to start. If we can keep that up, and that’s what our plans are … but if you don’t, my philosophy about building through the draft doesn’t work.