Less than two weeks into free agency, like ravenous vultures on a carcass, NFL teams have picked the pool of unrestricted veterans all the way down to the bone.
Which means it is time for league personnel departments to focus their collective attentions on the NFL draft.
Still the lifeblood of any team, despite the breathlessly hyperbolic rhetoric that seems to accompany every free-agent addition, the draft remains one of the NFL's most critical underpinnings. Good teams, those that sustain success over a period of years, are usually good because they draft well. Bad teams seem to draft forever poorly.
And that brings us to the Cleveland Browns, who are embarking on another makeover, the team's third since the club was reincarnated as an expansion franchise in 1999. This time, though, the restart won't include defensive end Courtney Brown, and it was his Monday release that helped prompt this column. Brown, after all, is reflective of why the Cleveland franchise has averaged only five victories.
This will be the seventh season for a club that bears a proud and historic name, and it already is working on its third head coach.
Chris Palmer lasted just two seasons. Butch Davis made it nearly through four campaigns before departing via a golden parachute. The good news for Romeo Crennel is that, by taking the tenures of his successors in the job and extrapolating, he ought to be around for eight seasons. He might be, of course, if the Browns draft well. And, indeed, with proven talent scout Phil Savage around as the new general manager, the Cleveland draft classes figure to get a whole lot better.
Then again, looking back at previous efforts, it would be hard to get any worse.
Consider this litany of woe:
• Tim Couch. Gone.
• Courtney Brown. Gone.
• Gerard Warren. Gone.
• William Green. Going.
The quartet represents the Browns' initial four first-round draft choices since their '99 return to the league after Art Modell relocated the original franchise to Baltimore. Couch and Brown, who as quarterback and defensive end, respectively, were supposed to have been the club's stars on both sides of the ball, were the top players chosen in their draft years. Defensive tackle Warren, traded to the Denver Broncos last week for a fourth-round pick, was the third overall prospect selected in 2001. Green, the 16th pick in 2002, has been granted permission to seek a trade, a telltale sign that he does not fit snugly into the plans of the new Cleveland football regime.
Couch, Brown and Warren should have been, given their lofty draft statuses, the cornerstones for the Browns franchise. Instead, their legacy will be that of millstones. By rough calculation, Cleveland invested more than $70 million into the trio -- and has little to enjoy in the way of dividend. At least Savage and Crennel were able to take the fourth-round pick they received for Warren, turn it around and send it to Seattle in a trade that brought Trent Dilfer, the team's new starting quarterback. For Couch and Brown, well, Cleveland has nada to show.
It is, to be sure, one of the most disastrous stretches of draft blunders in recent history. Throwing darts at the names on the Cleveland draft board, in truth, might have elicited better results. Savage, who presided over a Baltimore Ravens scouting department that has suffered precious few gaffes the last seven or eight years, will make things better. But here are the Browns, set to commence the seventh season of their rebirth, and in not much better shape than they were in 1999.
It's as if the history of the team from 1999 to 2004 should be purged, kind of like they did in the old USSR, where they sanitized the textbooks. The public relations department in Cleveland might want to just excise page 366 of the media guide, the one that documents the club's draft choices since '99. Any mention of Couch and Brown, in particular, ought to be summarily deleted.
That's especially the case for Brown because this regime does not want to compound the sins of the past by paying him a $2.5 million roster bonus due Tuesday and wants no part of his scheduled $5.5 million base salary. In five seasons, the former Penn State star banked approximately $27 million. He played in 47 games and missed 33 outings because of the kind of injury dossier that affects all our insurance rates. For their $27 million, the Browns got 17 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six recoveries.
How many tackles, you say? And we say, who cares? When you pay a defensive end $5 million-plus per season, you aren't paying for tackles. You are investing in sacks, game-altering plays, moments that make a difference. Former Cleveland defensive line coach Andre Patterson recently lauded Brown as one of the best ends he has ever mentored, even compared him to Michael Strahan of the New York Giants, and spoke glowingly of his skills in anchoring against the run.
Hey, you want a guy just to play the run tough on the first two downs, you pay him $2 million or $3 million a year, not $27 million over five frustrating, unproductive seasons.
I can still recall this revealing vignette from 2002, during a visit to lovely St. John Fisher College, the training camp home of the Buffalo Bills, just outside Rochester, N.Y. The Bills and Browns had just finished a combined practice during which the temperatures had soared into the low 90s. And here came Warren and Brown off the field together. Typical of his Fat Albert persona, Warren's shirt was untucked, and he was generally unkempt and sweating profusely.
"Hey, just another day at the office, man," said Warren with whom we have developed a solid rapport.
About 10 feet away, Brown looked like a guy who literally had spent the past two hours sitting in an air-conditioned office. Not a hint of perspiration on the guy. OK, so maybe it's unfair to judge a player by his salty bodily secretions during practice, for sure. But the perception, at least to these eyes, was either that Brown was the coolest customer to ever play the game or that he just didn't exert himself very much. Three years later, we're pretty sure we know which it was.
Another perspiration observation: Given the history of futile drafts, the Browns scouts could not have sweated the details, the way premier personnel departments always do, in the early years of their second existence. To have achieved such an abysmal record, a scouting department almost has to be trying to fail, it seems. If that's the case, then the Browns must have tried hard, because the results were miserable.
In the 1999 and 2000 drafts, lotteries in which Cleveland was awarded "double picks" because of its expansion status, the Browns made 24 selections. They peddled off some other choices in trades, mostly with San Francisco for veteran players the 49ers needed to dump for salary cap purposes, but still claimed 24 college prospects. And of those two dozen players from 1999 and 2000, just three -- cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, wide receiver Dennis Northcutt and tight end Aaron Shea -- remain on the roster. Good, solid players, all three, but none would be mistaken for superstars.
Extend the Cleveland draft history through 2001, and the team exercised 32 choices in its first three seasons, and just six players remain. The three prospects from the 2001 draft who are still on the roster have combined for only 22 starts.
The man who presided over the Cleveland personnel department for those first three drafts, Dwight Clark, is now building homes in the Charlotte, N.C., area. Hopefully, he is doing a better job with residential construction than he did in trying to build a winning roster with the Browns.
Peruse the roster of virtually any successful team and you will find that the core group characteristically is composed of homegrown veterans with four to six seasons of experience. Now think about the Browns. The players chosen in the 1999-2001 drafts should be the ones who form the nucleus of the Cleveland roster. Problem is, they're gone, and the club has almost nothing to show for three lotteries that should have laid a foundation.
It has been, in Cleveland, a draft Brown-out of epic proportions. The Monday jettisoning of Courtney Brown is the latest, but hardly the lone, reminder of how wretched a draft history Crennel and Savage will have to overcome.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.