By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
The Browns had 11 picks in the 2012 draft, but the essence of what they accomplished over the past three days comes down to four choices: Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Mitchell Schwartz, and Travis Benjamin.
This is in no way is to suggest that any or all of the remaining seven picks won’t become good or even great players in the NFL.
But for all practical purposes, it is fair to say that Richardson, Weeden, Schwartz, and Benjamin are being counted on the most to have the sort of immediate impact that will allow the Browns to make the “big jump” that team president Mike Holmgren called a “reasonable” expectation when addressing reporters near the draft’s end on Saturday.
Based on what they’ve done at the collegiate level and how they’ve been evaluated by general manager Tom Heckert and the rest of the Browns’ player-personnel staff, the four look to be direct answers to the following pressing questions that have lingered since last season’s 4-12 finish:
Who is going to carry the load at running back now that Peyton Hillis has moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs?
The Browns were so confident in Richardson’s ability to do so that they made a trade with the Minnesota Vikings to move from the No. 4 to the No. 3 overall pick to guarantee that they would land the former Alabama star. Richardson not only is the most talented running back in the draft, he is arguably the most dynamic player, period. He provides greater versatility than Hillis did even when Hillis was in the midst of the one standout season he has had so far, in 2010. The Browns’ anemic offense instantly improves with the addition of a highly explosive runner who can be as effective working between the tackles as he is going outside, who catches the ball exceptionally well, and who is an excellent blocker in the passing game.
Who is going to be the franchise quarterback?
Neither Holmgren nor anyone else within the Browns’ hierarchy is anointing Weeden as the team’s starter. None of them is saying the job still belongs to Colt McCoy, either. The fact is, however, the Browns invested a first-round pick in Weeden with the idea of upgrading themselves at quarterback. And, as Holmgren and coach Pat Shurmur mentioned on Saturday, the former Oklahoma State standout enters the NFL with an elevated level of maturity because he is 28 and has already been exposed to professional sports as a former baseball player in the New York Yankees’ organization. The Browns’ brass clearly is excited about Weeden’s powerful arm, strong pocket presence, and superb decision-making skills on the field.
Who will replace Tony Pashos at right tackle?
The Browns parted ways with the oft-injured Pashos earlier in the offseason, but questions would have lingered about the right tackle spot even if he were still on the roster. Oneil Cousins and John Greco could conceivably have helped patch the hole, as they tried to do last season, but there was a need to have a more definitive answer. Granted, nothing can be considered definitive with any rookie at any position, let alone one as challenging as offensive tackle, but the Browns feel very good about Schwartz’s chances of sufficiently handling the chore as their starting right tackle. Schwartz gives them a combination of good size, strength, and athleticism that should allow him to be a force in helping to make room for Richardson in the running game and providing solid pass protection. The Browns’ big-picture view of their offensive line is that they will eventually have three highly dependable pieces in Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack, and Schwartz.
How will the receiving corps improve?
This, by far, was the hottest of the burning questions among the majority of Browns followers. And the general consensus is that, by selecting only one wide receiver in the draft, the team essentially ignored it. Not true. Let’s start with the addition of Benjamin. At 5-foot-10 and 172 pounds, he isn’t nearly as tall or thick as receivers typically found in the West Coast-style offense the Browns run. However, what the Browns coveted was Benjamin’s remarkable speed (he runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash), something they feel will provide a game-breaking dimension to their passing game and their kick returns. Additionally, if Richardson is the same player in the NFL that he was in college, the Browns’ passing game should easily improve because opposing defenses will be forced to honor his presence in ways they did not have to do against Cleveland’s virtually non-existent running game last season. And if Weeden is the highly accurate and smart passer in the NFL that he was in college, the Browns’ incumbent receivers should thrive more … provided, as Holmgren was quick to point out, they catch the ball better than they did a year ago. And the team president is expecting they will.
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