Marla Ridenour: GM Andrew Berry’s first Browns draft allays fears of Sashi Brown rerun

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If Alabama’s Jedrick Wills can’t make the switch from right to left tackle, Andrew Berry’s first NFL Draft will lose much of its luster.

If LSU’s Grant Delpit doesn’t prove to be a playmaking safety at least on par with the University of Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr., the afterglow of what Berry oversaw will dim.

The afterglow is real, but Northeast Ohioans have experienced that before. All must remind themselves it might take years to assess what the seven rounds Thursday through Saturday brought the Browns.

But after the draft wrapped up, the youngest general manager in league history showed through his actions and words — at least those heard via Zoom — that he was poised and in control. Berry, 33, allayed some of the fears that fans and observers had when he returned to the team in late January.

At that point, some wondered if Sashi Brown 2.0 was in store. Berry was the vice president of player personnel under Brown, who rose from his role as a salary cap and contract manager to become executive vice president of football operations as the Browns went 1-31 over two seasons. Only three players — Myles Garrett, David Njoku and Larry Ogunjobi — remain from Brown’s two drafts.

With Berry back after spending 2019 with the Philadelphia Eagles and a more high-profile role for Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta came the worry that analytics would once again reign in Berea.

When GM John Dorsey, assistant GM Eliot Wolf and vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith walked out the door in the front office reshuffling, there was a sense that the football men had left the building.

But Berry and new coach Kevin Stefanski sounded like a leadership team in sync, with Berry praising Stefanski’s insight, calmness and intelligence and calling him “a great thought partner in terms of strategy,” and not just in terms of X’s nd O’s. Considering some of the bad coach-GM marriages of the past (Mike Pettine-Ray Farmer, anyone?) that in itself sounds like progress for a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2002.

The Browns did not make the predictable analytics-driven move and trade down in the first round. They stayed at No. 10 and selected Wills, the highest-rated offensive tackle on their board, sparing fans the horrific free fall to No. 30 orchestrated by former coach Bill Belichick and Mike Lombardi in 1995.

They saved their maneuvering for day two, when moving down from 41st to 44th in a deal with the Indianapolis Colts netted them a fifth-round pick used on University of Washington center Nick Harris. The Browns also traded Nos. 74 and 244 to the Saints, sliding to 88th to select Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. They picked up a 2021 third-rounder in that deal.

That set the Browns up with 10 picks in the 2021 draft, their own in the first six rounds and four more (a third, fourth, fifth and seventh) via trades, three of those coming on Dorsey’s watch.

Day two is also where the Browns’ moves deserve second-guessing. They chose Delpit over Winfield, the son of the former Garfield High School and Ohio State star lauded for his professional habits and nose for the ball. They passed on Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun to boost a position of need at No. 74 and selected LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips at 97. The ninth linebacker taken, Phillips was ranked 17th at the position by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. Adding to the teeth-gnashing was the fact that the Baltimore Ravens pounced on Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison (Brugler’s No. 8) with the next pick.

Phillips, the Tigers’ leading tackler in 2019 and No. 2 in that category in 2018, was the most head-scratching selection over the three days.

But it didn’t feel like Harvard graduates Berry and DePodesta and Stefanski, a Penn product, were trying to prove they were smarter than everyone else by reaching for players or taking several from smaller schools. Their first four picks came from the Southeastern Conference, two from national champion LSU. Three-time All-Ivy League cornerback Berry and Stefanski, a defensive back in college, seemed to find athletes to fit the “smart, tough, accountable mantra” that West Coast scout Adam Al-Khayyal said they have continued to preach.

Of course, it may be four or five years before we know for sure.

The Browns’ mystifying avoidance of Ohio State players continued, but that’s an indictment of every regime. Since 1977, they have chosen only five Buckeyes. At least Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, a sixth-round pick hampered by poor quarterback play during his days with the Wolverines, was heavily recruited by former OSU coach Urban Meyer. If Peoples-Jones sheds the underachiever label, he could be the steal of the draft.

Analytics was obviously in play for the Browns, but it did not overshadow their selections. Pro Football Focus loved their draft, as Cleveland was the only team to choose three of PFF’s top 25 — Wills (11, taken 10th), Delpit (15, 44th) and Elliott (23, 88th). PFF had Phillips ranked 184th (taken 97th), Bryant 147th (115th), Harris 93rd (160th) and Peoples-Jones 159th (187th).

The throwback nature of the virtual draft during the coronavirus pandemic eliminated pro days and the 30 pre-draft visits allowed in Berea. Face-to-face interviews were conducted at postseason all-star games, the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine, but relegated to Skype, Zoom and other remote platforms after that.

Small-school prospects were most affected, according to Glenn Cook, the Browns’ assistant director of scouting, but the Browns chose only one, Bryant.

“It was (a challenge), but I’ll say this was probably one of the funner times for the pure scout, right?” Cook said Saturday. “It’s one of those moments where you have to rely on the tape and leverage that as much as you can.

“I wouldn’t say we watched any more tape. To a degree it could become a little bit of an issue if you just second-guessed yourself too much. You had time here and there to say, ‘Let me take just one extra look at this particular player.’ “

COVID-19 may have forced the Browns to turn back the clock in how they evaluated players, but Berry, Stefanski and their staffs seemed to have a handle on it. Perhaps the football men have not left the building after all.


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