CLEVELAND (AP) — Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s first draft will be unlike any in team history. There’s no guarantee it won’t be his only one.
The endless speculation over what Cleveland might do with the No. 6 overall pick, whether they’ll select another quarterback — maybe one to replace Brandon Weeden — in the first round or trade defensive linemen Jabaal Sheard or Ahtyba Rubin seems pretty trivial all of a sudden.
This year, “being on the clock” has new meaning for the Browns.
With Haslam embroiled in a deepening FBI investigation for fraud at his Pilot Flying J truck-stop chain empire, the team’s revamped front office, new coach Rob Chudzinski along with his staff and newly signed high-priced free agents, enter this year’s NFL draft facing more uncertainty.
Haslam, who bought the team last year from Randy Lerner, insists he has done nothing wrong. He has no plans to step aside as CEO of his family’s business or as head of the Browns while federal authorities ascertain how much he knew about a widespread scheme by sales executives in his Knoxville, Tenn.-based company to defraud customers.
The NFL said it will respect the legal process and does not intend to request Haslam to step down from the team. However, if Haslam’s legal troubles worsen, things could change.
In the meantime, the draft provides both a distraction and normalcy.
Haslam plans to help CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi prepare for their initial draft as they rebuild a team that went 5-11 last season. So it’s business as usual for the Browns, who are typically dealing with some kind of clutter or chaos in the background.
Banner, Haslam’s hand-picked CEO, offered few clues last week about the team’s intentions with their seven picks. There are plenty of options with the sixth selection and Banner said the team has been exploring trading down in the first round to possibly recoup another early-round pick.
The Browns forfeited their second-round pick when they took wide receiver Josh Gordon in last year’s supplemental draft.
“It’s normal this time to be talking to teams,” Banner said as he approached his first draft with the Browns. “Some are teams you exchange some opinions on and some are teams you get a feel for: ‘Are you open to moving up or down?’ As you get closer to the draft sometimes those conversations become more specific. We haven’t had any specific conversations about trades or what would be involved in a trade.
“We have had conversations with teams either initiated by them or us, kind of feeling out: ‘Are you interested in going up or back? Are you open to it depending on who is there?’ We have had those kinds of feel-each-other-out conversations.”
The Browns, who currently have seven picks to use in three days, could fill a pressing need with the No. 6 spot by taking a cornerback to play opposite Joe Haden.
That could be Alabama’s Dee Milliner, who along with Haden would give Cleveland one of the top cornerback duos in the AFC, one to offset the quality quarterbacks and speedy wide receivers in its division. Milliner may be gone by the time the Browns pick, but there are other quality defensive players such as Oregon pass rusher Dion Jordan, Brigham Young end Ziggy Ansah or LSU’s Barkevious Mingo for Cleveland to plug into new coordinator Ray Horton’s attacking 3-4 alignment.
Milliner seemed like the safest pick until reports surfaced this week saying he might not be ready for training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Milliner is considered the top defensive back in this year’s draft and he visited the Browns, who won’t be scared off by his injury unless they get a red-flagged medical report.
Banner was asked if he would draft a player with Milliner’s surgery.
“As long as the doctors tell us it’s going to be fine it won’t be a factor,” he said.
What’s always a factor for the Browns is quarterback talk.
With an uneven rookie season behind him, Weeden has a leg up over veteran Jason Campbell to start in 2013. But the front office’s lukewarm endorsement of Weeden has driven speculation the Browns may take a quarterback, perhaps West Virginia’s Geno Smith or Florida State’s EJ Manuel, in the first round.
The Browns had private workouts for Smith, Manuel, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, Southern California’s Matt Barkley and Arizona’s Matt Scott.
“You have to prepare yourself for any possibility,” Banner said. “You don’t want to under-evaluate probably what everybody would agree is the most important position on the field.”
For a team that has feigned any strong interest in a QB, the Browns certainly have spent a lot of time and money evaluating the 2013 class in recent weeks. They’ve done their homework. It’s worth noting that the new regime is not tied to Weeden, making it possible the Browns would consider a draft-day trade.
“There are quarterbacks in this draft that are intriguing,” Banner said. “We will have to make an evaluation between now and Thursday on just how intriguing. Other teams will be doing the same thing, so you will see what is available where. We are not going into it with a focus other than trying to build the team, especially at key positions that we think really, really good teams are strong at, and move forward that way.”
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