Commentary

Browns focused on winning, not building for future

Believing they're on the brink of something big, the Browns have sacrificed precious draft picks to acquire proven veterans. The approach likely will determine the fate of Cleveland's current regime, writes Pat Yasinskas.

Originally Published: March 7, 2008
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

It's early March, and Romeo Crennel is ticking off his haul from April's NFL draft.

"Brady Quinn is my first-round pick,'' the coach of the Cleveland Browns said Thursday. "Brady's going to be a good quarterback for the Browns for a long time to come. My second-round pick is Corey Williams. He played four years up in Green Bay, and he played very well. My third-round pick is Shaun Rogers. He's a tremendous talent, and he's very excited about being in Cleveland.''

The Real Deal?

With Cleveland taking an aggressive approach to the offseason, experts and fans are calling the Browns a team on the rise, maybe even a Super Bowl contender. But that doesn't always mean much in March. A look back at two teams that were trendy Super Bowl contenders the previous two offseasons shows that the best-laid plans don't always work out:

2007 San Francisco 49ers: Signing defensive backs Nate Clements and Michael Lewis to big contracts and drafting linebacker Patrick Willis were supposed to put the 49ers over the top. They didn't. Other holes appeared on defense. Quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore battled injuries, and the 49ers finished 5-11.

2006 Carolina Panthers: Coming off an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, it looked like all the Panthers needed was a complement to receiver Steve Smith. Their fans and the national media bought into the Super Bowl hype when the Panthers signed aging receiver Keyshawn Johnson. He produced decent numbers, but it didn't matter because the running game disappeared and the defense was vastly overrated.

-- Pat Yasinskas

Use your imagination just a bit, and you can see Crennel's logic. The draft still is seven weeks away, but Crennel and general manager Phil Savage already have about as much as they're going to get. The Browns won't have a draft pick until the fourth round because they already used them to draft Quinn last year and trade for veterans Williams and Rogers this year. It might be an unconventional plan in a league in which teams are hesitant to part with draft picks, but it might turn out to be exactly what the Browns (10-6 last season) need to take the next step.

With free agency only a week old, the Browns already are emerging as one of those trendy Super Bowl picks that, powered by a promising previous season and some offseason moves, seem to pop up every year. Talk of the Super Bowl is not what Crennel and Savage want to hear in March (think Carolina in 2006 and San Francisco in 2007).

But they're not going to give the standard answer about how you don't win championships on paper because, ultimately, the Browns are shooting for the Super Bowl.

"If there really are people mentioning it, the simple fact on the plus side of that ledger is that it shows how far we've come from where we were,'' Savage said. "In terms of expectations, it adds an element that's new for our team. It's a different pressure to play under. But I feel like our team is ready to take another step and won't shrivel up when it comes time to produce and perform, because guys can look to their left and look to their right and say, 'These guys are pretty good players.'"

That's precisely what Savage and Crennel were looking to do when they decided to scrap their draft picks and take what can only be described as a win-now approach. That attitude might have developed because Savage and Crennel are entering their fourth season together, and the Browns were 6-10 and 4-12 in the first two seasons and haven't been to the playoffs in this era.

"Would we have done something like this two or three years ago? Probably not,'' Savage said. "But now we can because we're in a different spot and it makes sense.''

It makes sense because the Browns might have been only a player away from the playoffs last season and the team might be only a few players away from giving Cleveland its first serious contender in years.

So why not speed up the process?

This year's Cleveland draft actually started last year. With the No. 3 overall pick, the Browns passed over Quinn and selected offensive tackle Joe Thomas. When Quinn unexpectedly slid past the 20th pick, the Browns jumped back up, trading last year's second-round pick and this year's first to Dallas to take the former Notre Dame quarterback at No. 22.

With no first-round pick this year, you might think the Browns would have held tightly to all their other picks. They haven't. They traded their second-round pick to Green Bay for Williams, a defensive end.

"Corey's been a productive guy,'' Crennel said. "Let's face it, there's nobody we could take in the second round of this year's draft that's going to come in and give us the production he can right away.''

Soon after landing Williams, the Browns completed the overhaul of their maligned defensive line by trading their third-round pick and starting cornerback Leigh Bodden to Detroit for Rogers, a defensive tackle who can play inside or outside. The plan is to use Williams and Rogers in a rotation with Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith on the front of the 3-4 defense.

"We knew coming into free agency that our biggest priority was to improve the defensive line,'' Savage said. "But the market for defensive linemen had dried up because so many teams used the franchise tags. We basically had two options: We could wait for the draft, where you don't know if guys are going to work out. Or we could trade for current players, and that's what we did. We decided to go for it.''

But the Browns' busy offseason didn't stop there. Even with Quinn waiting in the wings, they made it a point to sign quarterback Derek Anderson, who came out of nowhere to establish himself as the starter last year, to a contract that runs through 2010. That prevented Anderson from leaving as a restricted free agent, even though the Browns could have picked up first- and third-round picks if he had.

[+] EnlargeShaun Rogers
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe Browns are counting on Shaun Rogers to fulfill his potential as a dominant pass-rusher.
"We wanted Derek under contract because we didn't know when an offer sheet would be waiting right around the corner,'' Savage said. "We really wanted to make sure we had both Derek and Brady under our roof to give ourselves a fallback where, if there was an injury, we just move right on. I don't want to see our season derailed because of an injury at quarterback. Derek's been told he gets first dibs as the starter to build on last season and to really solidify himself as a quality starter. And Brady knows he's as big a part of this franchise as he was the day he was drafted and that he's only one play away.''

Even with wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow already in place, the Browns also have been aggressive on offense, signing free-agent receiver Donte' Stallworth from New England.

"In New England, Randy Moss and Wes Welker got a lot of balls thrown their way, and Donte' handled that situation very well and contributed,'' Crennel said. "Braylon and Kellen are going to get a lot of balls here, but Donte' is a speed receiver who can make things happen after the catch and there's room for that in our offense.''

With the reworked defensive line and Stallworth joining an offense that became very good last season, the Browns -- at least on paper -- don't have a lot of holes. That's a good thing, because they plan to use the rest of free agency to add only a handful of role players. Obviously, they can't rely on the draft for players who will make a fast impact.

If they were playing poker, there would be no room to bluff. Crennel and Savage have gone all in. They already have had their draft, and that will either take them to another level or put their jobs on the line.

"We now have seven weeks to get ready for the fourth round of the draft,'' Savage said. "Our scouts are kind of energized by that, because they know they're going to have to work hard to find good players late in the draft. But they're going to have time to find them. Basically, we had our first three rounds of the draft in March, instead of April.''

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter