Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
The best Browns drafts of all time need to be categorized by eras.
In the Paul Brown era, it had to be the 1957 draft, which produced three Hall of Famers – running back Jim Brown, offensive guard Gene Hickerson and defensive tackle Henry Jordan, whom Paul Brown traded to the Green Bay Packers in 1959.
Immediately after the PB era, it had to be the 1964 draft, which featured two Hall of Famers – defensive back-turned-receiver Paul Warfield and running back Leroy Kelly.
In more modern times, it’s tough to top the 1978 draft, whose two first-round selections netted linebacker Clay Matthews, a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame, and tight end Ozzie Newsome, who already is in as a player or would be qualified as a contributor for his GM work with the Baltimore Ravens.
A long drought followed through the 1980s and 1990s, which explains the lack of championships.
And the expansion era has been one dumpster fire after another. Until now.
When owner Jimmy Haslam hired John Dorsey as general manager on Dec. 8, he said, “We needed an experienced football person to get us through a very crucial time.”
Haslam was not only referring to over $100 million in salary cap room for veteran free agent acquisitions but also the Browns’ excessive draft capital in the 2018 draft – five picks in the first two rounds.
He also said, “The Cleveland Browns are not going to be successful until we get a quarterback. That will be John’s No. 1 priority.”
We’re dealing with a very small sample size, admittedly, but the early returns are that Dorsey’s first draft with the Browns eventually may be placed on the same shelf as the ones cited above.
“I think this is what you can start to expect,” said coach Hue Jackson. “How we see players, we see them a lot through the same lens. We go about our process. It has been a good one. We need to continue to tighten up all those things as we go, but this has been John’s track record. He goes and finds talent, and then he turns it over to the coaches and we have to coach it and put these guys in position to make plays. I think that is what is starting to happen.”
Here's a scorecard of Dorsey’s first rookie draft class, which includes an undrafted gem.
1a. Quarterback Baker Mayfield: In just 2 ½ games of action all he has done is convince everybody inside and outside the building that he is the man behind center who will transform the franchise. There really is no need for statistics to state anything else. Yes, opponents will assemble a book over time on how to defend and confound him. But you just feel he will figure it out.
1b. Cornerback Denzel Ward: I can’t recall a Browns defensive player making such a sudden impact in his rookie year. And to think that he is doing it at the most difficult defensive position in today’s NFL. I didn’t think they made shutdown cornerbacks anymore – until he came around. And then he goes and wins a game by blocking a field goal tried by, arguably, the best kicker of all time.
2a. Offensive lineman Austin Corbett: So he didn’t win the left tackle job and he’s not going to unseat Joel Bitonio at left guard or Kevin Zeitler at right guard, and he has been inactive for games off and on. Patience. He may be the future center and hold down that job for 10 years. The way the Browns’ O-line was constructed, they could afford to groom talent over time. The good teams don’t rush everyone in at once.
2b. Running back Nick Chubb: This is another case of not needing to force a rookie into a starting role. Advertised as a “violent runner,” he showed home-run potential in ripping off touchdown runs of 63 and 41 yards against the Oakland Raiders. But in one week, he went from 3 carries for 105 yards to 3 carries for 2 yards. Relax. Running back-by-committee means never having to rely on one back. “Guys have to be patient,” Jackson said. “There is only one football. We are doing some good things.”
3. Defensive lineman Chad Thomas: There is no need for over-analysis here other than to say this a developmental player with athletic ability who plays on the defensive line. You want to collect players like that and let the coaches develop them.
4. Receiver Antonio Callaway: He overcame an off-field mishap in training camp and has posted big plays of 47 and 59 yards in five games. There have been two drops, and it’s been a big disappointment not seeing him returning punts. But he’s only 16 years old, er, looks like 16 but is actually 21. He looks like a natural receiver and has an air about him that borders on aloofness and fearlessness. A very intriguing player.
5. Linebacker Genard Avery: This is a physical freak/relentless pass rusher with 1.5 sacks through five games. Even if he spends his first contract as a situational player, he will impact games. His well-advertised impact on special teams, however, has not materialized as yet.
6a. Receiver Damion Ratley: A late-bloomer at Texas A&M, he had a fine training camp but has yet to get his opportunity in games. He has the right size (6-2 and 200 pounds), but it will come down to his hands.
6b. Cornerback Simeon Thomas: Waived on the Labor Day roster cut, you had the feeling this towering cornerback would wind up in Seattle, a team that collects corners 6-1 and up. He was claimed by the Seahawks and now is on their practice squad.
Undrafted. Left tackle Desmond Harrison: Joel Bitonio said he’s the team’s most athletic lineman. His feet alone won him the starting job. If he can add upper body strength in years to come, he could be the starting left tackle for over a decade. After he battled Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs for four quarters and an overtime, Joe Thomas rushed into the locker room to heartily congratulate him. Only Thomas would know what that was like. Thomas was genuinely happy for Harrison and the Browns, in the belief that Harrison is well on his way to being a stalwart left tackle.