Mel Kiper, Jr., the NFL draft guru at ESPN for more than three decades, doesn't mince words when it comes to the state of the Cleveland Browns.
"It's the worst skill-position talent of any team in the NFL," Kiper said.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated echoed the same sentiments about the Cleveland offense.
"It's his opinion," Browns general manager Tom Heckert said last week. "I don't think so. Can we use help there? No question. But I don't agree with that. It's opinion."
Maybe, but just about everybody except Heckert shares it.
The Browns averaged 13.6 points per game last season. They were 29th in total offense out of 32 teams. Quarterback Colt McCoy ranked 22nd in passing yards -- better than you thought, eh? -- but threw just 14 touchdown passes. One running back, Peyton Hillis, ranked among the top 50 in rushing yards (587), but it was a checkered season, and the Browns let him walk in free agency. No receiver ranked among the league's top 50, with rookie Greg Little topping the list with 61 catches for 709 yards.
"Little is your best weapon?" asked Kiper, before adding with some disdain, "Come on."
Indeed, it's that time of year when the Browns, and every other team, hope to come on. The 2012 NFL draft begins Thursday night and continues into the weekend. There will be seven rounds, and the Browns go in with a robust 13 picks, including two in the first round, three of the first 37 selections, and five of the first 100. Cleveland is slotted with the fourth and 22nd picks in the first round.
Quarterbacks Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III from Baylor will go 1-2 in that round to Indianapolis and Washington, respectively. Minnesota will pick third, and the general consensus is that the Vikings will take the draft's best offensive lineman, tackle Matt Kalil of Southern Cal.
That puts the Browns on the clock. Heckert doesn't discount trading out of the fourth pick, although it would make little sense, and he said the Browns know who they will take if they stay there. He won't say who that is, though, so the rest of us get to play a guessing game.
The game revolves around three players at three positions -- Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, and Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. For purposes of the No. 4 pick, we'll eliminate the latter because it's a slight stretch and there will be options later if the Browns opt to go that route. Tannehill could even be one of those options if the Browns want to wheel and deal with their myriad of picks.
Regardless of who proves to be the Cleveland quarterback, McCoy or someone else, he needs weapons. Should the building begin at running back or by stretching the field?
"The quarterback didn't have a chance, not a fighting chance," Kiper said. "It's hard for me to say to take the running back high because I've been saying for 34 years that there's little value in taking a running back in the top five when there are so many good ones. But how do you pass on Richardson?
"There are what I call fear factor players. Look at [Darren] McFadden and what he means to the Raiders. When he's not healthy, they lose; when he's healthy, they're considered almost playoff caliber. Or a multi-dimensional guy like Stephen Jackson of the Rams, a Reggie Bush ... you talk to defensive coordinators and these guys scare them. Richardson could be that kind of guy, somebody who never has to leave the field."
Plus, Mike Mayock, the draft expert for the NFL Network, points out that a team's competition often dictates roster strategy. The Browns play in the AFC North where the other three teams -- Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh -- all made the playoffs in 2011 and where games are always played outdoors and often in inclement weather.
"That's a big boy division," Mayock said. "It's physical, tough. You win games 17-14, not 42-39. Richardson is the kind of guy who can shorten games. In bad weather, you might not even get the ball to Blackmon. Picking fourth, Richardson and [LSU cornerback Morris] Claiborne are the next best two players. And with the 22nd pick, Cleveland can afford to wait and still get a receiver like [Baylor's Kendall] Wright or [Georgia Tech's Stephen] Hill.
"Of course, the other perspective on the Browns is the quarterback. Do they stand pat? If the goal is to win the Super Bowl, you have to upgrade that position. If you think a franchise quarterback is there at some point, you have to get one."
It's speculation whether there are more than two franchise quarterbacks out there, and those two are already as good as gone. The Browns' best bet might be to take Richardson at No. 4, the best available receiver at 22, and either Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden or Michigan State's Kirk Cousins at 37. Weeden, a one-time pro baseball player, is risky at 28 years old, but that might not be a bad haul.
■ Richardson at No. 4, then trade up for Tannehill, who could be a franchise type but had only 19 starts at QB in college. It would be expensive, though. The Browns would have to sacrifice a package of several fairly high picks to bounce above Miami at No. 8, and a couple other teams might have the same thing in mind.
■ Blackmon at No. 4, the best available running back (maybe Boise State's Doug Martin) at 22, and then a trade up to get Weeden or sweat it out to see if he's still available at 37.
"The Blackmon-Weeden combo for the Browns is interesting," Kiper said. "The dynamic between the two is real. But will they do it? They could, but again Richardson is hard to overlook."
"You look at young quarterbacks who have taken teams to the playoffs, guys like [Baltimore's Joe] Flacco or [Atlanta's Matt] Ryan. They did it behind a strong run game and defense. Cleveland has a pretty good defense. The Browns need the run game."
The Browns need a lot of things.
But Trent Richardson would seem to be the wise start at No. 4.
Monday: Detroit Lions
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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