The jury’s still out on Johnny Manziel’s future, of course. Same rule applies to the Cleveland Browns’ short- and long-term future as a franchise. But take a look at the Browns’ pre-draft roster and then add 2014 first-round picks Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel.
Then add the extra first- and fourth-round pick Cleveland now has next year after robbing the Buffalo Bills in a Thursday night trade.
Consider that Manziel’s ceiling is exceptionally high. Sure, he could be a bust. But with the right guys surrounding him, he could also be a top-10 quarterback in this league very quickly.
And the right guys are surrounding him.
Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz make up one of the best offensive tackle duos in the game, and Alex Mack is a stud at center. Wide receiver Josh Gordon is one of the brightest young offensive stars in the game, and Jordan Cameron is one hell of a young safety valve.
And on defense, they’re young and talented. A unit that quietly ranked in the top 10 in football last season now has an exceptional cornerback duo with Gilbert — who was easily the draft’s best corner — teaming up with former first-round pick and reigning Pro Bowler Joe Haden. And the front seven is solid, especially with reliable veteran Karlos Dansby signing on as a free agent.
Find me a weak spot on this roster. Quarterback, maybe running back. But if Manziel can perform well as a rookie — something that is no longer out of the ordinary in this league, especially when defenses won’t yet know exactly what to expect — they could get past not having an “elite” running back.
Not that running backs matter much nowadays anyway. Cleveland could pick one up at any point in this draft. Good backs are easy to find and the position is no longer a priority.
It’s a miracle the Browns are in such good shape considering the shaky nature of the front office the last half-decade. They’ve been through two owners (and their current one, Jimmy Haslem, has already found controversy), five general managers and five coaches in six years.
And yet right now they’re a solid quarterback away from being a legitimate contender. Maybe Manziel is that guy. And when you toss in those two first-round picks in 2015, it’s easy to see how — with a little more stability — the Browns could become the AFC North’s team to beat in the blink of an eye.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always contenders but have obvious holes and are sort of rebuilding, while the Bengals still have question marks regarding their quarterback as well as their defensive secondary.
It’s sort of funny, because the Browns and Bills are mired in the NFL’s two longest playoff droughts right now. And those two teams — both, again, picking in the top 10 — made a trade with one another Thursday night that showed which franchise is closer to redemption than the other. The desperate Bills gave away a valuable first-round pick merely to move up a handful of spots in order to get the best receiver in a draft loaded with good ones, while Cleveland happily accepted before taking a player they coveted anyway. Gilbert is the best corner in a shallow group, and now they’ve got more ammunition for the future.
Cleveland football fans haven’t experienced a playoff victory in two decades, but you get the feeling that’s about to change. Patience — both broadly and acutely, long-term and short-term — is about to be rewarded.