NFL free agency was supposed to start in March. It didn’t.
It still hasn’t. And for the first time, the league held its draft before free agency.
An appeals court granted a stay Friday, overturning a judge’s decision Monday to side with the players and end the lockout. The appeals court will decide this week whether to extend the stay while it hears the appeal, or end the lockout in the interim.
If the stay is removed, the NFL is expected to begin its league year within days. That would mean the start of free agency.
Browns general manager Tom Heckert said Saturday he’s been ready since March. After eight draft picks over the weekend, he should take a few minutes to reconfigure his list of priorities.
Heckert did a solid – the word of the weekend – job filling needs without abandoning his philosophy of taking the best player available. But you can only fill so many holes with eight picks, especially when only three came in the first three rounds.
Defensive tackle Phil Taylor (pick No. 21) and defensive end Jabaal Sheard (37) immediately project into the lineup. Receiver Greg Little (No. 59) will compete with Brian Robiskie for the starting spot opposite Mohamed Massaquoi.
Fourth-round fullback Owen Marecic (No. 124) could play immediately in certain personnel packages, and fifth-round cornerback Buster Skrine (137) is a candidate to play nickelback. Offensive lineman Jason Pinkston (150) and safety Eric Hagg (248) add depth at pivotal positions, and tight end Jordan Cameron (102) could be a diamond in the rough.
While the roster came into better focus – the Browns can field a team, even with enough linemen for the new 4-3 defensive scheme – it’s got some fuzzy spots. Heckert must be aggressive in addressing these in free agency.
At the top of the list is safety. Hagg was Nebraska’s MVP while playing in the same secondary as first-round cornerback Prince Amukamara, but he’s a seventh-round pick, so it’d be foolish to expect him to win a starting job.
As the roster stands, T.J. Ward and Mike Adams would be the starting safeties. Adams is versatile and valuable, but an upgrade is necessary. Veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown could make the switch to free safety, but that would dilute the corner spot.
Despite devoting his first two draft picks to the defensive line, Heckert’s work isn’t done. He could use a starter at end opposite Sheard, even if his top priority is re-signing veteran Jayme Mitchell. Depth at tackle behind Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin would help, perhaps in the form of veteran free agent Robaire Smith.
Options at linebacker would also be nice. Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and D’Qwell Jackson bring experience to the position, but there isn’t much behind them on the depth chart.
The same is true for the offensive line.
Pinkston is a nice first step, bringing youth and versatility. Re-signing veteran Floyd Womack, a favorite of president Mike Holmgren, would add more position flexibility and help bridge the gap if Shawn Lauvao – a third-round pick in 2010 – and Pinkston need more seasoning, or if right tackle Tony Pashos gets hurt again.
A change-of-pace running back would add a dimension that’s been missing from the offense, and a veteran receiver could help the development of a young corps.
That’s a long to-do list for Heckert. He knows it might take another offseason to cross off everything.
He took that mentality into the draft and it served him well. He was willing to trade out of the No. 6 pick for a bushel of selections, including a first-rounder in 2012. He also saved money by not picking sixth.
Eric Mangini used the same reasoning when he traded out of the fifth pick in 2009, allowing the Jets to take quarterback Mark Sanchez, who’s already been to the AFC championship game twice. The problem for Mangini was he didn’t get enough draft picks – choosing a collection of former Jets instead – and the Derek Anderson-Brady Quinn quarterback situation deteriorated into a disaster.
Heckert didn’t have the option of asking for Falcons players – a casualty of the lockout – but he wouldn’t have anyway. He wants to use the draft to make the Browns younger.
The danger for Heckert lies in quarterback Colt McCoy. The Browns brain trust anointed McCoy the starter for 2011 before the draft process began.
If he flops and the Browns are once again looking for the solution at quarterback, the second-guessing will begin in earnest. It would skyrocket if Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker or Christian Ponder – all available at No. 6 – turns into Tom Brady.
That was a risk Heckert was willing to take. He also gambled by spending his first three picks on guys with character questions.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The organization did its research, he got a vibe for the players in question and he trusts his coaches to deal with a few imperfect people.
It’s impossible to judge a draft for at least a year, more appropriately three. But the early read on the Browns’ 2011 edition is a positive one. From the trades to the selections, Heckert deserves a solid B-plus.
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter and fan him on Facebook.