Despite having control of half of the top four picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, many fans and analysts felt like the Cleveland Browns dropped the ball with their selections. With a transcendent running back prospect that comes around once in a generation and another hyped USC quarterback superstar-in-the-making available towards the top of the draft, Cleveland had other plans. Instead of picking a draft darling like Saquon Barkley or Sam Darnold, the John Dorsey made the decision to take another quarterback, Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. In the day and age of social media, first overall picks are usually reported hours before the clock is ticking, many were still caught off guard by the selection of the Oklahoma quarterback.
The initial shock of the draft died down, as the Giants unsurprisingly took Barkley at number two and the Jets made an even less shocking pick of Sam Darnold. Barkley was linked to the Giants constantly through the pre-draft process, while the other New York team was destined to take a quarterback. All of the sudden, Cleveland was back on the clock. The questions started to ramp up again. Would they trade this pick away, gaining resources after missing out on the draft’s best player Saquon Barkley? Do they take Bradley Chubb, the closest thing to a sure superstar on the defensive side? Many were sure those were the two best options for the Browns.
However, Roger Goodell walked up to the podium with no trade announcement, only the Browns pick. Bradley Chubb’s phone wasn’t ringing, so who was the pick about to be? “Denzel Ward. Cornerback, The Ohio State University.”
Analysts were shocked. I was too. A talented, but undersized corner was chosen over the possibility of pairing Chubb with Myles Garrett? It felt like the Browns reached for a position of need instead of moving back and gaining more resources. Denzel Ward was considered the top defensive back in the draft class, but his projected ceiling was considered at number eight to the Bears.
With Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward to show for using their first and fourth picks, the initial feeling from the football world could best be described as underwhelmed. Scouts complained due to the fact Cleveland didn’t grab the consensus top offensive player, defensive player, or quarterback. Just the same old Browns making the same old moves. Or are they?
Let’s start with the first selection for Cleveland, Baker Mayfield. The Heisman winner was considered a part of the upper echelon of quarterback prospects in the 2018 draft. His winning pedigree, accuracy, and mobility made him coveted as a top 10 pick. The passionate quarterback soon found himself linked to the New York Jets within the final week of draft speculation. With the third pick, many scouts believed this was Mayfield’s ceiling for the draft. With Sam Darnold available - the believed superior prospect - available, as well as Saquon Barkley being branded as a transcendent talent, there wasn’t much room at the top for Mayfield. The belief was that Cleveland would go for one of the two top prospects. If the pick was Barkley, go for a quarterback with the fourth pick. If Darnold was their choice, they would go best player available at four.
Here’s the problem, if the Jets were linked to Mayfield at three, the Browns had to take him with the first pick instead of going for Barkley. The Browns saw something in Mayfield that they didn’t see in Darnold. I believe what they saw was this year’s version of DeShaun Watson. Last year, Watson was very a polarizing prospect in the scouting community. Despite his mobility, arm talent, and ability to lead a team as a proven winner, many analysts believe he wasn’t deserving of a first round pick in the 2017 draft due to his decision-making on the field. On the other hand, Mayfield has the same capabilities as Watson, but concerned the scouting community due to his off-field decision making, size, and Big 12 background.
After seeing how Watson fared as the Texans starting quarterback last year, it makes sense to me that we saw Mayfield get picked over Sam Darnold. Sometimes, analysts overthink the transition for college players into the NFL. With impressive size and an ability to improvise plays, Darnold benefitted from the league’s vision for a stereotypical franchise quarterback. However, Mayfield was the better overall college player, as well as the more successful one. His measurements didn’t measure up well with the other top prospects, unfortunately. Despite Russell Wilson and Drew Brees slinging the pigskin all over the field for years, the idea of a smaller quarterback succeeding in the league is harder to fathom for most. Due to a mix of weak defensive play in his conference, size concerns, and attitude, Mayfield was not considered to have the same ceiling in the pros as the USC quarterback.
With all of the previous information in mind, Cleveland went against the status quo and took a swing at Mayfield. While I’m sure they would have preferred to take him with the fourth pick, New York’s interest in him forced their hand a little early. However, first overall is not too early if Mayfield proves to be similar to DeShaun Watson and breaks out once taking the field. While that’s not a given, the Oklahoma product will be given time to learn the pro game on the bench behind another mobile quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.
The next big question of the draft was at number two, where the Giants all of the sudden have the opportunity to choose their favorite quarterback prospect over the widely-expected pick of Saquon Barkley. But by the time the speculation started swirling, Dave Gettleman rushed the pick into Roger Goodell and took the Penn State running back. Darnold slipped to the Jets, who were elated to have such a talented consolation prize after missing out on their first choice. The Browns were up to bat again.
With Barkley out, many felt a trade down would be the best move. In a quarterback heavy draft, Cleveland could find a team not willing to wait and miss on their guy. Unfortunately, no one bit on their bait. Once the pick was submitted, many fans believed they were going to see Bradley Chubb get picked to pair with Myles Garrett for years. However, Emmanuel Ogbah has shown promise as an edge rusher across from Garrett, and the Browns might not have been willing to dish out major contracts to two transcendent pass rushers in the future. The pick was revealed to be Denzel Ward. The technically and athletically sound corner was considered the best cornerback in the draft, but not a top five pick. Many felt the Browns reached for an undersized corner who may not be able to match up with more physical receivers.
The Browns must have had the 2017 draft class in mind, though, and didn’t want to regret missing out on another talent coming out of Greg Schiano’s vaunted Ohio State Buckeye secondary. Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker both looked like sound picks for the Saints and Colts after both slipped in the draft last year. Ward impressed as a complete corner throughout the whole season, despite the size concerns. If Ward proves that he can blanket speed receivers and slot threats in the league, the Browns will be grateful they reached a little bit for a relatively proven prospect.
One of my favorite parts of the Ward pick, however, is how it affects another defensive back on this team. Jabrill Peppers, a first round pick in the 2017 draft, suffered through a dismal rookie season as a safety, partially due to a lack of solid help in the secondary outside of Jason McCourty. Adding Ward as an immediate starter makes Peppers’ job easier, and gives him more confidence to develop his own game. Not yet a bust by any means, the second year pro might still need to prove that he can be an effective starter in the NFL.
Overall, while the Browns could have went the conventional route or traded down to gain more draft capital, GM Chris Ballard stuck to his gut. He picked a quarterback who has proven he can lead a team to success and ball out while doing it, as well as a potential shut down corner who can be special if he continues showing a strong work ethic (unlike the Browns last top 10 pick at corner, Justin Gilbert). This Browns team suddenly is full of versatile threats and talented prospects that could be able to get this time over the hump sooner rather than later. The Browns feel like they’re a year of development away from being special, and could use one more productive offseason to make it happen. It’s not often a team receives two top 4 picks, and only time will tell if they were right or wrong for going the unconventional route.