There has been a lot of speculation as to what will happen to Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur when the season ends. The majority of the talk has been about Shurmur, but as we’ve stated before, the Browns continuity hinges mostly on Heckert staying in the position of procuring the personnel. Recently, rumors have swirled that former Browns executive and current NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi is a leading candidate to replace Heckert , if he is replaced.
There is no question Heckert has upgraded the talent on the roster significantly in is three years with the Browns. He has completely overhauled the roster with less than 10 players remaining on the current 53-man roster that were with the Browns prior to his arrival. The Browns started the season with 26 players that were either in their first or second NFL seasons.
There is strong evidence that Heckert has done the best job of drafting since the team returned in 1999. The Dwight Clark era produced Tim Couch, Kevin Johnson, Daylon McCutcheon, Courtney Brown and Dennis Northcutt as their top picks. None of those players had stalwart careers.
The Butch Davis regime’s best draft picks would include Gerard Warren, Quincy Morgan, Anthony Henry, William Green, Andre Davis, Andra Davis, Jeff Faine, Lee Suggs, Ryan Pontbriand, Kellen Winslow and Sean Jones. Winslow, Faine, Davis and Pontbriand had the most tenure and achieved some degree of success.
The Phil Savage era produced Braylon Edwards, Brodney Pool, Kamerion Wimbley, D’Qwell Jackson, Jerome Harrison, Lawrence Vickers, Joe Thomas, Brady Quinn, Eric Wright and Ahtyba Rubin. Edwards had a big year in 2007, but Jackson, Thomas and Rubin have had excellent years with the Browns and are considered core players on the current team.
The one year with Eric Mangini and George Kokinis in charge, the Browns have Alex Mack, Mohamed Massaquoi and Kaluka Maiava to show for their draft. Mack has been solid and been to the Pro Bowl.
Here is a breakdown of the players Heckert has drafted and acquired via trade and free agency with a brief commentary on each player.
1—Joe Haden: If not for a selfish move of using a banned substance that cost him the first four games of the season, who knows what the Browns season might have been. The Browns were 3-3 in games in which Haden has played to date, while they are 0-5 when he has not. Haden is clearly one of the best players on the team and would be a candidate for the Pro Bowl in 2012 if not being barred from it for his suspension.
2a—T.J. Ward: After a solid rookie year, Ward’s play fell off in his second year, primarily due to injury. Ward has returned and played very well and is looking more and more like the player the team hoped for when they traded up to get him.
2b – Montario Hardesty: Heckert traded up to get Hardesty who had an injury-riddled college career. Has shown flashes of being the player the Browns hoped for, but after tearing his ACL in his second year, he obviously wasn’t thought of as the franchise back when the team went out and got Trent Richardson in 2012, but he has been a good complement to Richardson.
3b – Colt McCoy: The drafting of McCoy was largely put on the shoulders of Mike Holmgren and McCoy played a little over a season. In 2011, his season as the undisputed starter, he had no off-season program and an abbreviated training camp and then played without a running game, healthy right tackle and a lack of receivers. Is considered a backup caliber player, which is high for a third-round pick.
3c. Shawn Lauvao: Has been the starter at right guard for the past two seasons and has had mixed results. Coaches say he is improving and the ceiling is higher for him.
5c. – Larry Asante: Did not make the team
6a – Carlton Mitchell: After two unproductive seasons, Mitchell was released in the final cuts of 2012. He did recently catch on with the Jaguars.
6b – Cliff Geathers: Did not make the team
Unrestricted free agents and trades: Ben Watson, Alex Smith, Scott Fujita, Sheldon Brown and Chris Gocong (Traded 4th, 5th draft choices and Alex Hall for Gocong and Brown)
Summary: In Heckert’s first year of drafting, he was doing so for Mangini’s system with mixed results. Heckert hit on the first two picks (Haden and Ward) and added three starters out of eight draft picks (Lauvao). Two other starters (Gocong and Brown) were brought into the defense using two middle round draft choices. Watson, Fujita and Smith were signed as free agents.
1a – Traded to Falcons for 1st, 2nd and 4th round and 2012 1st and 4th round picks: By far the biggest and boldest move Heckert has made since being with the Browns. He basically traded the rights to get WR Julio Jones and used the extra picks to get Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Jordan Marecic and Brandon Weeden.
1b – Phil Taylor: Had an outstanding rookie year, but missed the first half of the 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle. Taylor has made an impact in the run game and teaming up with Ahtyba Rubin gives the Browns a solid duo inside. In Taylor, Rubin and Haden’s first game together in 2012 they held the Steelers to just 49 yards rushing and held the Raiders to under 100 yards the following week.
2a – Jabaal Sheard: After a stellar rookie season as a pass rusher with 8.5 sacks, Sheard’s numbers are down in terms of sacks, but he is drawing double teams and has been a force.
2b – Greg Little: After catching 61 passes as a rookie, Little’s numbers have dropped off but he has caught the ball much better than he did as a rookie. He is looking like he will be a very good, physical second receiver and he also has become a very physical blocker downfield.
4a – Jordan Cameron: One of the bright spots in the passing game. The former basketball player has shown he can make plays, but he hasn’t been getting many targets. Cameron should continue to develop into a good receiving tight end.
4b – Owen Marecic: Being inactive for the past several weeks speaks for itself, but he was active for the Raiders game and played on special teams. Looks like a miss by Heckert.
5a – Buster Skrine: Skrine has taken his lumps all season, but has gained valuable experience on the outside and in the slot. He has shown that he can play effectively inside and should be a solid nickel and dime cornerback and a valuable special team player.
5b – Jason Pinkston: Started all 16 games as a rookie at left guard and appeared to be settling in on the line, but after a blood clot was discovered in his lung he was shut down for the season. He is expected to recover and come back in 2013 to regain his starting role.
7b – Eric Hagg: The coaching staff really liked Hagg as a rookie, enough to keep him on the roster despite being injured for the first several games. By the end of the season, he was playing extensively. In 2012, Hagg lined up with the starters all of the off-season and started the season as the free safety. However, after a couple of unproductive games was relegated to a backup role. He has potential and has worked his way back into the lineup.
Free agents: Dimitri Patterson, Brandon Jackson, Usama Young, Christian Yount, Oniel Cousins and Chris Ogbonnaya. John Greco was acquired in a trade.
Summary: The 2011 draft class appears to be stronger than the 2010 group with Taylor, Sheard, Little and Pinkston entrenched as starters. Cameron, Skrine and Hagg have all played key roles, as well. Patterson is the best free agent, but he has had trouble staying healthy. Yount stabilized the long snapping duties after Pontbriand melted down in 2011.
1a – Trent Richardson: Is on his way to a 1,000 yard season and has overcome a knee injury and a rib injury. Richardson is leading the team in receptions and is clearly a franchise running back as he knows how to find the end zone. He has been the focal point of the Browns offense and has not disappointed.
1b – Brandon Weeden: The jury is out on Weeden whether he is the franchise quarterback moving forward. He has had good games, but has also had bad games. Heckert put a big part of his reputation on the line by drafting Weeden in the first round.
2 – Mitchell Schwartz: He looks like a player that was immediately inserted at right tackle and could be there for a long time. Similar to Alex Mack and Joe Thomas, he is a solid performer. He has consistently improved as the season progresses.
3b – John Hughes: Hughes was characterized as a reach when he was selected in the third round, but he has been a solid player on the defensive line. He has started and has provided solid depth in the rotation.
4a – Travis Benjamin: There are times when Benjamin has flashed his big play making ability, but he has been dinged up throughout the season. Could be the team’s kick returner moving forward and can make the big plays down the field in the offense with his blazing speed.
4c – James-Michael Johnson: Slowed down with an oblique/rib injury at the end of the preseason, Johnson returned and has assumed the starting role when Scott Fujita was lost for the season. Has speed and could become one of the starters on the outside going forward.
5b – Ryan Miller: Drafted as a player that could provide depth on the offensive line and there has been nothing to disprove he will be able to be a versatile backup and might eventually be able to take a starting position at guard.
6b – Emmanuel Acho: Didn’t show much in preseason and after getting injured was able to get a year on injured reserve. He was outplayed in training camp by undrafted players Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort and will have to step it up to make the team in 2013.
6c – Billy Winn: Clearly the best find in the lower rounds of the draft. Winn won the starting job at defensive tackle over third-round pick John Hughes and has made plays throughout the season. Has the size and athleticism to possibly play defensive end, if needed.
7b – Trevin Wade: Wade had a good preseason to make the team and has gotten experience in the secondary as the injuries mounted. Coaches like him and he could provide depth and eventually push Skrine for time in the sub packages.
7c – Brad Smelley: Looked pretty good in the preseason but as unable to take starting job from Owen Marecic. Shows pass receiving potential, but needs to improve on his blocking skills to play fullback in this offense.
2012 Supplemental Draft
2 – Josh Gordon: Heckert took a big risk in taking Gordon in the second-round as the Browns will forfeit their second pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. As the Browns record is now, the pick would be among the top 40. However, Gordon has steadily progressed after not playing football in 2011 and has emerged as the Browns big play receiver this season. He is one of the leaders in the league in receptions for over 20 yards. He had his breakout game against the Raiders when he caught six passes for 105 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown.
Unrestricted free agents: Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker
Undrafted free agents and waivers: Heckert appears to have found some pretty good undrafted free agent rookies in Josh Cooper, Tank Carder, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Ronnie Cameron, L.J. Fort, Johnson Bademosi, Craig Robertson, Jarrod Shaw and Tashaun Gipson.
Summary: The early returns on the 2012 draft appear fruitful with four rookies starting on offense in Richardson, Weeden, Schwartz and Gordon. Johnson starts on defense. Winn and Hughes are playing key roles and both started when Taylor and Rubin were injured.
The weakest year appears to be 2010 which was Heckert’s first year when he was bringing in players for Mangini’s system. He seems to be much better at bringing in players that fit the system he was accustomed to with the Eagles. Heckert said when he joined the Browns that he would build through the draft and he has. Heckert has drafted 12 of the 22 starters.
Shurmur, who’s future might be linked to Heckert, believes that Heckert has done a good job in bringing in talent.
“Tom knows personnel,” Shurmur said. “I think it’s fair to say that. I can only compare my time here. Last year, our team looked a lot different than it does this year and we’re finding a way to improve. We’ve got some impact players on this football team now that we didn’t have two years ago. That’s a good thing.”
Heckert doesn’t make game day decisions or call the plays. His mandate is to bring in players that fit the system the coaches are running.
By and large Heckert has upgraded the roster and should continue to do so as long as the offensive and defensive philosophies remain the same. The bottom line is Heckert’s tenure has been far from perfect, but he has done the best job in that position since the Browns returned in 1999 and there is no reason to replace him as doing so would only interrupt any continuity and momentum the Browns might have to build on going forward.