CLEVELAND -- The Browns were almost on the clock, and 12 massive members of the NFL's most maligned team, including a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, had their eyes fixed on a large television screen last Thursday as they enjoyed a post-workout lunch at a bustling Ohio City eatery. With so much intrigue over the No. 1 overall selection -- Would it be a menacing pass rusher or a potential franchise quarterback, and would a blockbuster trade be part of the plan? -- left tackle Joe Thomas and his fellow offensive linemen had every reason to pay attention.
Then again, as the drama played out on the brick wall near the front entrance of TownHall, most of the diners were familiar with the storyline: While fictional general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. and the object of his affection, quarterback terrorizer Vontae Mack, engaged in a cinematic, split-screen phone conversation, everyone at the long, wooden table knew where this was heading. Still, they couldn't look away. "Hey," Thomas said to the group, "isn't the scene coming up where Alex (Mack, the former Browns center now with the Atlanta Falcons) is lifting weights in the background? We need to watch that!"
There is "Draft Day" and there is the reality show that masqueraded as the 2017 NFL Draft, and Thomas and his teammates could be forgiven for feeling the lines were blurred. As with the 2014 film, an embattled decision maker had to process the fervent feedback from ownership, coaches, media members and fans and make a tough call that could alter the future of the franchise. And like Weaver, Sashi Brown -- the Browns' real-life executive vice president of football operations -- had gone back and forth on his plan while managing to keep virtually everyone in the dark.
Now, in the hours before the draft, Brown's strategy was settled; he might as well have been carrying a green piece of crumpled-up paper with the words "Myles Garrett No Matter What" scrawled upon it. Yet Cleveland's opening night -- and, for that matter, its entire draft -- would not be devoid of drama. And when the three-day spectacle had concluded, the reviews were resoundingly positive, both inside and outside the team's training facility.
And with good reason: Not only had the Browns become a better football team, but the power brokers charged with lifting the franchise out of a longstanding cesspool of dysfunction and futility -- chiefly Brown, vice president of player personnel Andrew Berry, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and head coach Hue Jackson -- were more aligned and mutually appreciative than they've ever been.
As Jackson would tell me while sitting in his office Friday afternoon, about seven hours before the start of the second round, "We're starting to understand each other better. Sashi and his people are getting a better idea of what we as coaches are seeking, and their process is starting to make more sense to me. And Jimmy and Dee are doing a great job of making sure everyone is heard, and creating an environment where we can execute a plan without rushing things. There was a lot of passionate discussion during the pre-draft process, and there were some tense times in the war room [Thursday] night. It wasn't easy, but I love the way we came out of it. And now we can kind of sit back and let things come to us."
The Browns emerged from Thursday night with a trio of first-round picks who they feel can make an immediate impact -- beginning with Garrett, the freakishly talented edge rusher from Texas A&M -- and an extra first-round selection for 2018. On Friday, they used a second-round pick on Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, once viewed as a potential No. 1 overall selection before a rough 2016 season for the Fighting Irish. And in Saturday's sixth round, they took a chance by drafting Florida's Caleb Brantley, a talented defensive tackle who slid in the draft after being arrested last month for allegedly punching a woman. (Charged with misdemeanor battery, Brantley was told the Browns may later renounce his rights, pending the results of the case.)
To be honest: We can hold off on planning that Super Bowl parade. However, when the weekend had ended, there was renewed hope that the Browns, coming off a 1-15 season that exposed an alarming lack of talent, might not only be on the road to recovery, but also on a potential path to eventual prosperity.
It is no secret in NFL circles that some teams -- and owners, in particular -- enjoy the attention that comes from holding the No. 1 overall pick. Yet in the case of the Browns, the prolonged glare of the national spotlight during the first three months of the 2017 offseason left its share of painful singe marks.
For one thing, there was a great deal of outside skepticism about the unconventional marriage between the Brown-led front office, which espouses an analytics-heavy approach evoking comparisons to the "Moneyball" maneuverings of the early-2000s Oakland A's, and the coaching staff directed by the emotional, instinctual and decidedly old-school Jackson. That there was internal debate about the No. 1 pick -- to a far greater degree than existed in virtually any other NFL facility, with Garrett on the top of just about every (if not every) draft board -- further fueled the skepticism and scrutiny.
Jackson, one of the league's most renowned offensive strategists, had nonetheless become hell-bent on drafting Garrett, an edge rusher he viewed as a supreme centerpiece for newly hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' aggressive scheme. Brown and some others on the personnel side were intrigued by the talents of North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who'd grown up in nearby Mentor, Ohio; they, along with Jimmy Haslam, wondered whether he might be the answer to their longstanding run of futility at the sport's most important position.
That nearly all of the NFL's prominent talent evaluators and coaches believed Garrett was far and away the top player in the draft set the stage for a potential onslaught of rebuke and ridicule on draft night and beyond, should Trubisky be the pick.
"I've heard there is quite the battle going on!" one AFC team's accomplished GM told me four days before the draft, in a text message typical of those I received from his counterparts across the league. "Only they could screw this up. The only exciting part will be how bad they will screw it up!"
Since January of 2016 -- when Brown, a Harvard Law graduate, was promoted to become the organization's chief decision maker on the football side -- the 40-year-old EVP has provoked cynicism within NFL circles, especially after assembling a team of analytics enthusiasts that includes former baseball front-office executive Paul DePodesta. Berry, now 30, was hired away from the Indianapolis Colts, where he was trained in more traditional scouting. However, he, too, has embraced Brown's philosophy, which heavily values draft choices and methodically building a roster without overextending.
Jackson, hired 10 days after Brown's promotion in the wake of an impressive stint as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator, arrived with an open mind. However, after Mack and three other starters were allowed to depart during free agency, he fielded a depleted roster that was overmatched from the outset, and a season of haplessness took an emotional toll.
There were reasons for optimism in the months that followed the 2016 campaign, beginning with the hiring of the impetuous Williams to replace the fired Ray Horton as the team's defensive coordinator, a move that Jackson soon told me was "exactly what I needed ... He's a perfect match for me." Then, in free agency, the Browns beefed up the interior of their offensive line, giving lucrative contracts to Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler and Packers center JC Tretter while signing holdover guard Joel Bitonio to a rich extension.
Garrett, in Jackson's eyes, was the difference maker the defense desperately needed. And while he saw positive attributes in each of the quarterbacks regarded as the top three draft prospects -- Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Trubisky -- Jackson didn't believe any of them would make nearly as big an impact.
Though that feeling wasn't necessarily unanimous, the Browns seemed to straddle the line between debate and division. When Brown, in a press conference eight days before the draft, was asked about the reports of internal conflict, his reply was devoid of defensiveness: "Even if we all agree on a particular player or a decision, we constantly are pushing each other to think about what we are not thinking about. Our job really isn't to agree; our job is to get decisions right."
As the draft approached, Jackson, having already stated his opinions to Brown and Jimmy Haslam, largely insulated himself from the process. With players in for organized training activities Monday through Thursday of draft week, he threw himself into a coaching cocoon and left the draft board to Brown and his scouts. By Wednesday afternoon, their work was done -- and Brown was loose and unguarded as we spoke for about 30 minutes at the team's headquarters in Berea.
"We've formulated our plan, prepared for a lot of different scenarios and we're very excited about the possibilities," Brown said. "I'm ready to get this thing rolling. I wish we could start this thing now."
Brown told me he knew which player he'd pick first -- presumably to kick off the draft, barring a trade down -- and that he'd made that decision two weeks earlier.
How many other people know? I asked.
"Probably three," he said. "Maybe four."
Does that include members of your family?
"I haven't told them," Brown insisted. "I try to keep work and family separate."
When it came to detailing the decision-making process, Brown, who has the final say over all personnel moves, struck an inclusive tone. He said he valued Jackson's expertise when it came to assessing players, especially at the quarterback position, an area in which the coach's mentoring skills are renowned. "It would be foolish not to tap into that resource," Brown said. "We are fortunate to have him to lean on."
And while Brown said he wasn't afraid to make choices that would be unpopular with some dissenters in the building -- "If you worry about that stuff all the time," he said, "you can become paralyzed in your process" -- he also portrayed himself as anything but an autocrat.
"If you have to be right and get your way every time," he said, "then you become one of those people we don't hear very flattering things about."
Naturally, Brown said he welcomed input from his bosses, which is the Haslams' prerogative. There was a sense in league circles that part of the push for Trubisky might have been spurred by Jimmy Haslam's enthusiasm, especially given the appealing (and marketing-friendly) storyline: local kid as franchise savior. True or not, Haslam had good reason to be sensitive about that perception. Three years earlier, after the team picked former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, the owner shared an anecdote with an ESPN reporter about a homeless man having urged him to take the polarizing Heisman winner, creating the impression that this had influenced the selection. Given Manziel's inglorious and immature two-year stint with the franchise, the story's notoriety had only grown.
Perhaps, for Brown, it had become a cautionary tale. When I asked if he felt the Browns were desperate for a quarterback, he shook his head no. "I don't agree with that," he said. "We obviously want to find a long-term answer at that position, but you can't force it. When you do that, you can make a bad decision, and that can set you back even further."
Jackson agreed, telling me moments before the start of the draft Thursday night, "We're not gonna force it ... We're prepared for any and everything, and we do recognize the need to get a quarterback, but again, we're not gonna just chase it. We're gonna kind of let it come to us."
To Brown's credit, he and his fellow war-room dwellers were prepared for a plethora of scenarios, largely because of the groundwork he had laid. For one thing, they had extra picks in the first and second rounds, including the 12th overall selection, the byproduct of last year's pre-draft deal that allowed the Eagles to land quarterback Carson Wentz second overall.
In the hours before this year's draft, I'd reported on NFL Network that the Browns had contacted at least five teams with picks in the top eight to gauge the possibility of executing a dream scenario in which Cleveland could select Garrett first overall and then trade up from 12th to get Trubisky, too. This was something that likely would have had to happen in real time, when the teams in question were on the clock, with the Tennessee Titans (fifth overall) and New York Jets (sixth) the most realistic trade partners.
That became moot when the Chicago Bears, in a move that shocked the rest of the league, traded up from third to second while the San Francisco 49ers were on the clock and took Trubisky -- even though, it turned out, the Niners were not planning to take him, nor were any potential trade partners believed to have been interested in him at that spot. With the dream scenario off the table, the Browns waited to see what their options were at 12, and Brown already had created an enticing one.
After the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to 10th and selected Mahomes, the quarterback who Jackson felt had the biggest upside, that left Watson as the highest-ranked QB on Cleveland's board. Watson, in Jackson's eyes, was the passer best suited to play right away, but he was not the man he hoped the Browns would select with the 12th pick. Instead, he was looking to provide Williams with another potential star: Ohio State safety Malik Hooker. "To me, he has a chance to be another Ed Reed," Jackson would tell me later. "When I coached in Baltimore, I saw firsthand what kind of impact a great safety can have."
Yet Brown knew the Houston Texans, who had the 25th overall pick, were intent on finding a quarterback, and were willing to give up their 2018 first-round selection to move into position to snag Watson.
"We do a lot of due diligence," Brown told me early Friday morning. "I talked to every GM in the league this week."
So Brown and Texans GM Rick Smith made a deal for the second time in two months, having previously completed the unorthodox trade that allowed Houston to move on from 2016 free-agent signee Brock Osweiler (who'd flopped miserably) and shed his $16 million salary for this season while giving Cleveland an additional 2018 second-round pick.
After Brown, with his team on the clock, pulled the trigger on Thursday's trade, he admitted that he became uneasy. "It was a long, long wait from 12 to 25," he said. Jackson, too, was unnerved. The previous year, Brown had traded down repeatedly (including moving from second to eighth to 15th overall) and ended up with 14 rookies, all of whom he kept on the final, 53-man roster. However, there were precious few standouts from that draft class in Year 1, and this time, Jackson was eager to bolster the roster with difference makers.
The hope in the war room was that Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, another safety with a multi-faceted skill set (he's a dangerous kick returner who might moonlight as a running back or slot receiver), would still be on the board at 25. Sure enough, Peppers, who'd tested positive at the NFL Scouting Combine for a dilute sample, was there for the taking. And when Brown called in the pick, there were hand-slaps and broad smiles.
What happened next was somewhat surprising: The Browns held the first pick of the second round (33rd overall), which often serves as prime trade bait, given the many hours between the end of Thursday's first round and the start of the second round the following night. However, Brown -- the Titan of the Trade-Down -- went against type. With the Green Bay Packers on the clock with the 29th selection, Brown swung a deal in which the Browns gave up a fourth-round pick to move up four spots and select Miami's David Njoku, an athletic tight end who should bolster the team's downfield passing attack.
And yet, even though the Browns closed out the night with a trio of first-round selections and an additional first-round pick for 2018, many fans and media members remained focused on who would be throwing those downfield passes -- with good reason. As Brown told me shortly after midnight on the draft's opening night: "It's something that we think about a lot. Until we get to the point where we can solidify that position, we're always gonna be thinking about quarterback -- frankly, it's the most important position on our team."
Part of Jackson's plan in 2017 involves forging an atmosphere in which the Browns are not so quarterback-dependent, at least in the short term. The investments in the offensive line should help bolster the Cleveland rushing attack, and the arrival of Williams has given the head coach a peace of mind he lacked both last year and during a previous coaching stint with the Oakland Raiders. For one thing, the two have similar personalities; they are blunt, aggressive, self-assured and disarmingly charming. "I think he's the closest thing to being my twin that I've experienced in this league," Williams said of Jackson. "And that's a little scary."
Earlier in April, Jackson and Williams were part of a small Browns contingent that traveled to College Station, Texas, for a private dinner with Garrett. The next day at Texas A&M, they put him through a workout that, in Williams' eyes, was as much of a psychological test as a physical one. "My goal was to make him uncomfortable, and winded as f---, and to see how he'd react," Williams explained. "We simulated a 15-play drive, and after some plays, I'd make him do up-downs before the next one, just to tire him out even more. We got all the way down near the goal line, and I kicked it up to 10 up-downs, thinking he might collapse or quit or say 'To hell with this.' He just did them and lined up, and on the next play, he came off the edge like I've maybe seen two people in my life -- Bruce Smith and Jevon Kearse -- and sacked the quarterback. It was amazing."
The thought of Williams mentoring Garrett and Peppers brought a smile to Jackson's face, but the players themselves might not find the experience to be so joyous. The point was driven home Friday when, shortly after arriving via private jet and entering the training facility, they were surrounded by camera crews and other team officials. Williams, who'd been left off the players' official itinerary until the following day and wasn't happy about it, had learned of their arrival and walked from his office to the top of the staircase leading to the lobby. Jackson was there, too, and the head coach called for a Browns player engagement manager to bring the players upstairs.
After they'd ascended the staircase, with the camera crews still rolling, Williams put his back to the crowd and placed one hand on each rookie's shoulder. What he then told Garrettand Peppers -- and we'll leave out the swear words, especially the three- and four-syllable ones -- was, "I wanted two players out of this draft, and you are my guys. It may not look like it, but I'm happy to see you. Now, if you would like to avoid getting off to a very bad start with me, we need to make some things clear. First, do not go down there and, when you talk to the media, write checks your ass can't cash. You are here to work and help your teammates, and you will talk with your play. Secondly, you will show respect to our owners, and to this franchise, and to its history, and to the city of Cleveland ... When you come back here (for rookie minicamp), you will get to work. I look forward to being your father, now and for the rest of your life."
Williams started to walk away, but then he turned and called Garrett over again. "Myles, I saw that, at your draft party, Bruce Smith presented you with your [Browns] jersey," Williams said, referring to the Hall of Fame defensive end. "Well, I've known Bruce for 25 years, and I want to show you something."
Garrett's eyes got big as Williams, after pulling out his iPhone, called up a text message: "Gregg, it's Bruce Smith. Hope u are doing well. Congrats on Myles. The young man is full of raw talent just needs to learn how to be a pro. If u or HJ needs some help I'd luv to mentor him. Talk soon."
Williams took back the phone. "I am going to invite him to come to one of our minicamps," he told Garrett, "and just know that he will always be here for me -- and he may even be there for you ... unless you do something stupid, like going down there today and writing a check your butt can't cash."
If the people who write the Browns' checks were disappointed that Trubisky wasn't in the building last Friday, the Haslams weren't sharing that information. If anything, they're trying hard to project an aura of patience and stability, challenging the organizational stigma of constant turnover and turmoil. Both Brown and Jackson insist the owners are aware that turning around the team is a process and are committed to building it the right way, even if it takes several seasons.
Obviously, finding a franchise quarterback is a pivotal part of that process.
» Would the Browns draft somebody? After Cleveland missed out on the Big 3 in Thursday's first round, the remaining QBs were all regarded as projects by Jackson, who thought Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs -- an intelligent but raw prospect he and his staff had coached at the Senior Bowl -- might be an appealing target were he still available in the fourth round.
» Would Brown spend some of the extra draft capital he'd acquired, for this and/or next year, to swing a trade for a young backup on another team's roster? Early on in the offseason, there had been talk about going after the Patriots' Jimmy Garoppolo; later, the Bengals' AJ McCarron (whom Jackson had developed as the team's offensive coordinator in 2014 and '15) had become a potential target. In each case, however, the draft-pick compensation was deemed overly steep by the Browns, and there has been no indication of either team softening its asking price.
» Would Cleveland look to sign a current free agent, after staying out of the market thus far?Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick, all veterans with multiple years of starting experience, remain on the market, as do some less-accomplished passers. "We may revisit some of [the free agents] and see if it makes sense to add someone to the mix," Jackson conceded Friday afternoon. And after drafting Kizer on Friday night, both Brown and Jackson said another quarterback could still be added.
Knowing what they know now, it's fair to wonder whether Jackson and Brown would like to take back some of their previous decisions. For example, shortly after getting hired nearly 16 months ago, Jackson set his sights on Cal's Jared Goff, believing (as he still does, despite a choppy rookie season for the Los Angeles Rams) that he had star potential. As the owners of the second overall pick in 2016, the Browns could have traded up with Tennessee for the top selection, thus ensuring they'd land Goff. However, Jackson was blown away by former Washington starter Robert Griffin III in a private workout. After the Browns signed RGIII, Jackson became less desperate to draft Goff, and the Rams swooped in with a trade to secure the top pick.
The Browns still could have used the second pick to select North Dakota State's Wentz, regarded as the other top quarterback prospect in the 2016 draft. However, neither Jackson nor Brown were as convinced about Wentz, nor was Brown's analytics team (chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta said publicly the Brownsdidn't believe he was a "top 20" quarterback). Instead, Cleveland shopped the pick, swinging a blockbuster deal with the Eagles. Four months later, they watched Wentz begin his career in impressive fashion, including a season-opening victory over the Browns.
Griffin, meanwhile, fractured his left shoulder in that game and missed most of what was a miserable season, especially for the star-crossed men under center. Cleveland ended up using six quarterbacks in its first seven games, including rookies Kessler (a third-round draft pick) and Hogan (drafted in the fifth round by the Chiefs), and all of them struggled. Not surprisingly, the Browns chose not to re-sign veterans Griffin and Josh McCown at season's end.
When I asked Brown the day before the draft if he felt like he was "chasing ghosts" -- in other words, trying to make up for having missed out on Goff and Wentz -- he shook his head and insisted otherwise. In fairness to him, the Wentz trade is the gift that keeps on giving: thus far, the Browns have parlayed the haul they got from the Eaglesinto nine drafted players, with two more picks remaining in 2018.
One of those nine turned out to be Kizer, a player with some obvious attributes (size, athletic ability) whose stock plummeted as the Irish wheezed to a 4-8 record in 2016. Though it's hard to envision him being regarded as a viable answer in 2017, he does have potential. That said, Kizer's selection was somewhat of a surprise.
When the second round began on Friday, there was hope that Florida State running back Dalvin Cook might fall to the Browns (he didn't, as the Vikings traded up to take him with the 41st overall pick). Williams, meanwhile, had defensive back Obi Melifonwu atop his wish list should the former UConn safety still be on the board (he was, ultimately going 56th overall to the Raiders). However, as Jackson had suggested, the Browns let the draft come to them, stayed true to their board and ended up with a quarterback they didn't expect to be available at No. 52.
Certainly, Brown and Jackson have shown that their opinions can evolve based on circumstance. The trade for Osweiler, for example, was initially regarded as a savvy way of securing an additional second-round pick for 2018, with the player almost as an afterthought. Osweiler, who showed promise in starting seven games for the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos in 2015, was actually someone the Browns considered signing as a free agent last year, before the price got too high. And even though he performed poorly after signing a four-year, $72 million deal with the Texans, Brown and Jackson have reshaped their perspectives and regard Osweiler as someone who might be salvageable. He'll likely begin the on-field portion of the offseason program second on the depth chart, behind Kessler.
As the draft droned on through Friday and Saturday's less-celebrated rounds, the mood in the war room was restrained, methodical and businesslike, and there were no moments that resembled anything cinematic. The biggest surprise came at the start of Saturday's sixth round. Having already landed one potential impact defensive tackle -- UNC-Charlotte's Larry Ogunjobi, in the third round -- the Browns took a chance on another by picking Florida's Brantley. If Brantley, once regarded by some as a possible first-round selection before the alleged assault, can overcome his legal troubles and remain with the organization, Williams might have another disruptive defensive tackle at his disposal in 2017.
By draft's end, it also was apparent that the Browns have made some organizational strides, with ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the scouting department appearing more aligned. There had been collaboration and compromise, and the roster was undeniably better -- and that extra first-round selection in 2018 could turn out to be a pretty significant chip. Given the collection of highly regarded quarterback prospects expected to be draft-eligible next year, the Browns know they'll have some leverage toward positioning themselves to acquire one.
"Having that extra pick, that might turn out to be huge for us," Jackson said. "I'm starting to appreciate how nice it is to be in that position, because it gives you options."
Now that this draft is over, it's up to Jackson and his assistants to spur the Browns toward respectability -- and rest assured, those efforts won't be subtle. On Sunday, Williams and Jackson showed up for work in an otherwise deserted building and excitedly mapped out practice scripts and competing game plans.
"We're two of the only MFers in the facility right now," Williams said. "We start Phase 2 of the offseason program tomorrow -- first day we can go on the field with Browns players. We will hit the ground running!"
And as with the television screen at TownHall last Thursday, Thomas and his teammates will have every reason to pay attention.