If there’s one word that has long defined the National Football League, it’s parity. This is one of the keys to pro football’s enduring popularity. The bad teams rise by drafting ahead of the winners.
In general the system works well. Teams that several years ago were horrible – Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Carolina – are now quite respectable, thanks largely to opportunistic drafting and upgrades in coaching.
But the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets have defied the odds with their persistent mediocrity. Could their tenure in purgatory – or worse – be about to end?
Perhaps. These two underdogs – no, just plain dogs – appeared to take big steps upward in last week’s draft that took place in Chicago.
The Browns, 7-9 last season, disappointed their fans by not using high draft picks on quarterbacks or receivers, which many felt were the greatest needs. The Browns intend to go with vagabond Josh McCown at quarterback. They called McCown, who will be 36 before the season starts, “a bridge.”
Some call him the Bridge to Nowhere. Others entertain hope he will be the bridge to a rehabbed Johnny Manziel, one of their two first-round picks – the other being cornerback Justin Gilbert – who bombed out last year.
With Josh Gordon under constant suspension for substance abuses, the Browns have no No. 1 receiver. They may not even have a No. 2. The 5-7 Andrew Hawkins, who led the team with 824 receiving yards, is quick from the slot, but for starters they’ll try to get by with Dwayne Bowe, who had zero touchdowns for Kansas City last year, and Brian Hartline, who did next to nothing for Miami.
“We want to be great in both lines,” said Browns general manager Ray Farmer.
So he used his first of two first-round picks on Danny Shelton, 6-2, 339-pound nose tackle from the Washington Huskies who hoisted Commissioner Roger Goodell like he was a bag of rice.
Cleveland last season ranked 31st in the league in run defense. Shelton, the No. 12 pick overall, projects as another Vince Wilfork clogging the middle.
With his second first-rounder Farmer bolstered the offensive line, which was already a strength. Cameron Erving, 6-5, 313-pound mass from Florida State, will start at guard on what should be the best O-line in the NFL, with Pro Bowl center Alex Mack returning from injured reserve and perennial All-Pro Joe Thomas still holding forth at left tackle.
In Shelton and Erving, plus others, Farmer can change the culture of the team. The Browns will run and stop the run. They will have a solid three-man rotation at running back, now that third-rounder Duke Johnson, from the Miami Hurricanes, joins talented second-year players Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Johnson also provides a receiving threat out of the backfield, which was lacking last year.
With 12 draft picks, Farmer was able to rebuild several areas. On the second round he claimed an edge rusher, Nate Orchard, who had 18.5 sacks last season for Utah. He will play outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment.
So even with a mediocre passing game, the Browns are strong enough elsewhere to have a shot at the playoffs.
Same with the Jets, who last year crashed to 4-12 but now seem transformed, despite quarterbacking as shaky as Cleveland’s. The new coach, Todd Bowles, will give Geno Smith one more chance, and for once he will have capable receivers in his sights.
Eric Decker and recently acquired veteran Brandon Marshall are accomplished possession receivers. And rookie general manager Mike Maccagnan used the 37th overall pick on Devin Smith, who caught 12 touchdowns for national champion Ohio State. He averaged 28.2 yards per catch.
If there’s one thing Geno can do it’s heave the long ball, and now he has someone who can get downfield to fetch it.
Maccagnan’s first pick, No. 6 overall, was USC’s Leonard Williams, who will play end in the 3-4 defense but can shift to tackle in the 4-3 nickel. The D-line, with Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison, was already the team’s strongest sector. But Williams was ranked by many scouts as the best player in the draft. You can never have too many pass rushers. With that in mind, on the third round Maccagnan snared a promising rush linebacker, Lorenzo Mauldin from Louisville.
Mauldin is a rags-to-riches story, growing up in 16 foster homes. He was so overwhelmed with emotion at being drafted by the Jets that he broke into tears.
Maccagnan did not entirely neglect the quarterback position, using a fourth-round pick on a strong, 6-3, 230-pound thrower in Bryce Petty out of Baylor. Petty will have to adjust from the spread offense he ran in college, but he’s bright, and he will have a much better supporting cast than Smith has had the past two years.
How these rookies will perform is entirely speculation. You’ve probably noticed the actual draft bore little resemblance to all the mock drafts you’ve seen, once you got past the top two picks, QBs Jameis Winston to Tampa Bay and Marcus Mariota to Tennessee.
For all the obsession over splashy quarterbacks, even the most talented – Peyton Manning comes to mind – rarely make much impact as rookies. Farmer and Maccagnan are trying to show that a bad team can make huge strides – even make the playoffs – by filling in the less glamorous positions. The franchise quarterback can come later.