Sources: Browns GM story not cut and dried

BEREA, Ohio — Tom Heckert’s future as general manager of the Cleveland Browns could rest on whether he will have final say regarding the roster.

That’s the word from several NFL insiders contacted in light of the recent reports that the Browns would bring in Michael Lombardi as GM, a move the insiders called not nearly as likely as it’s been portrayed.

It seems possible Heckert could stay — provided he retains control over the roster and the draft, which he has in his present contract.

Sources said that new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have been impressed with Heckert’s work, but the two also have said that Banner will be involved in personnel, and that football will report to Banner.

What that means specifically has not been spelled out. If Heckert has control of football with Banner evaluating him, Heckert could stay. If Banner insists on being involved in personnel and having final say over the roster and the draft, it could lead to Heckert’s departure.

In the NFL, Banner is viewed as very effective managing the salary cap and in business matters. But he’s not considered a personnel guy. Heckert is, and to stay he wants to retain what he has. If he doesn’t stay in Cleveland, he would be in demand — Carolina has a GM opening, and a team like San Diego might.

The decision could come down to two factors: Banner’s willingness to cede control of football decisions to Heckert, and Haslam’s willingness to step in to ensure Heckert stays. The owner ultimately decides the organizational chart, so if Haslam decides Heckert deserves final say, that’s the way things will work. It potentially sets up an interesting early test for the new owner: Does he back the guy he picked to be CEO, or does he back Heckert?

Or does he simply find a way to bring them into a room and work out an agreement that would make both happy, a scenario more in line with the way he has said he would run the team.

Heckert declined to comment, and Banner reiterated through the team’s media relations department what he has previously said — that he would not get into discussions about the future while there is a GM in place and the season continuing. Banner previously told the Plain Dealer the Lombardi reports are “wild speculation” and “unfounded” and said “somebody’s taking a shot in the dark.”

Lombardi appeared on Philadelphia Daily News Live on ComcastSportsNet in Philadelphia and was asked directly about Cleveland.

“There’s really not a lot of substance to the conversation,” he said. “There’s just a lot of rumors and innuendos. There’s really nothing to it.”

Lombardi said he hadn’t talked to anyone with the Browns and he’s content with the NFL Network.

“I’ve had none of that interest yet,” he said, “and I don’t think this is the time for it because people are still in jobs.”

Hub Arkush, the publisher and editor of Pro Football Weekly, started the Lombardi mill churning. Arkush is connected and respected, so he clearly is reporting what he’s been told by his sources.

Heckert tried to shrug off questions about his future when news broke on the first day of training camp that Randy Lerner was going to sell the team. But privately he, like everyone else with the Browns, knew he was facing uncertainty. He contacted friends around the league to discuss the future.

His actions weren’t unusual, nor should they have been a surprise. Ownership change often brings upheaval. As the season progressed, Heckert became a little more vocal about wanting to stay, and that feeling has grown stronger as the season has progressed.

Heckert’s three drafts have produced 12 starters (counting injured guard Jason Pinkston and receiver Josh Gordon from the supplemental draft), with several others contributing. He made an old team young, and added depth in positions (like defensive line) of need.

His first two rounds have brought RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, OT Mitchell Schwartz, DT Phil Taylor, DE Jabaal Sheard, WR Greg Little, CB Joe Haden, S T.J. Ward and Gordon.

Those players are the core of the Browns future, a future people in the league feel is bright.

The past three years, too, Heckert has been hamstrung by the Browns’ refusal to spend money in free agency. The team has always denied they were stopped from spending on free agents, but the Browns went from being free spenders to barely signing anyone. The sale of the team from Randy Lerner to Haslam combined with empty suites and seats might indicate the Browns had a cash-flow issue.

Haslam will infuse money, and a new attitude. Though he has yet to go through free agency, it would be a surprise if the reins weren’t loosened.

Will Heckert stay?

It depends on him keeping what is already in his contract: the ability to be the man in charge of football and roster decisions.