- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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The Cleveland Browns know the value of first-round draft choices better than most teams.
They struggled after drafting Tim Couch (1999), Courtney Brown (2000) and Gerard Warren (2001) among the top five overall choices. Another unfortunate first-round pick, taking running back William Green at No. 16 in 2002, complicated the team's efforts to rebuild.
When the Browns finally broke through with a 10-win season in 2007, they could point to a dramatic reversal in first-round fortunes. Kellen Winslow (2004), Braylon Edwards (2005) and Joe Thomas (2007) played leading roles in the Browns' climb to respectability. Cleveland drafted each among the top six overall choices.
Kamerion Wimbley, chosen 13th overall in 2006, also did his part.
Even as NFL teams grouse about the massive contracts awarded to players at the top of the draft, the Browns' recent investments proved to be money well spent.
"We were fortunate really in both cases by being able to get a Braylon and a Joe Thomas," Browns general manager Phil Savage said at the NFL scouting combine. "If you look at some of the players being drafted before and after those guys, it's risky business, no two ways about it."
The Browns' selection of Edwards in 2005 stands out.
San Francisco selected quarterback Alex Smith first overall that year. Running back Ronnie Brown went second to Miami. Chicago took running back Cedric Benson fourth. Tampa Bay selected running back Cadillac Williams fifth, with Tennessee drafting cornerback Pacman Jones sixth. Minnesota followed with receiver Troy Williamson at No. 7.
Teams generally can withstand the occasional first-round miscalculation involving players other than quarterbacks. Repeated failures generally drag down a franchise.
Perennial playoff contenders Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis and San Diego have maximized first-round choices this decade. Their first-round choices since 2000 have exceeded expectations at least half the time, setting them apart from the rest of the league, according to analysis by Scouts Inc.
The Steelers and Patriots led the way with 62.5 percent of first-round choices since 2000 exceeding expectations. Indianapolis (.571) and San Diego (.500) were next.
Five teams' first-round choices met or exceeded expectations more than 80 percent of the time: Indianapolis (1.000), the New York Jets (.909), Pittsburgh (.875), New England (.875) and Carolina (.875).
The Jets were a bit of an anomaly. Nine of their 11 first-round choices since 2000 met expectations. No other team had more than five choices in the "met expectations" category.
Only one of the Jets' top choices, center Nick Mangold, exceeded expectations set by Scouts Inc. The Steelers (five), Patriots (five), Colts (four) and Panthers (three) combined to draft 17 such players since 2000.
Also since 2000, five teams' first-round selections have failed to meet expectations at least half the time: Miami (.600), Denver (.571), San Francisco (.545), Oakland (.500) and Jacksonville (.500). Of the five, only the Broncos and Jaguars have enjoyed regular-season successes in recent seasons.
The Colts, who drafted a league-low 26th overall on average in first rounds since 2000, are the only team this decade without a first-round choice in the "fell below expectations" category. New England, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Carolina and the Jets each drafted one such player.
The New York Giants won the Super Bowl last season even though none of their seven first-round choices this decade exceeded expectations. How did they do it?
Their quarterback played his best late in the season and in the playoffs. The team also made few first-round mistakes while hitting on several impact players later in the draft.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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