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April 24, 2012

Bold trade last year has Browns primed for draft

CLEVELAND — Browns general manager Tom Heckert passed up on one of the top playmakers in last year’s NFL draft.

He can’t afford to be so choosy this year.

Cleveland needs offensive help.

Desperate to improve a unit that scored just 218 points — one more than the 1999 expansion Browns — last season, Heckert has five of the top 100 picks (Nos. 4, 22, 37, 67 and 100) this year and it’s likely he’ll use at least three of them on offensive players — and maybe even a quarterback like Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden.

“Everyone knows it, it’s not a secret,” Heckert said. “We need guys that can score points. Hopefully, we can add to that.”

Heckert gambled last year, trading out of the No. 6 overall pick in the first round by making a deal with Atlanta. He acquired the Falcons’ top two picks in 2011 and a first- (No. 22) and fourth-round round pick (No. 118) in this year’s draft, which begins Thursday night.

Heckert could have taken Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones, but chose to drop before making another trade with Kansas City and selecting defensive tackle Phil Taylor with the No. 21 pick. The Browns wound up using the Falcons’ picks on wide receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic.

Looking back, Heckert has no regrets about the bold move, one that received its share of criticism but has a chance to provide a handsome payoff.

“I do think it was the right thing for our football team,” said Heckert, who will be armed with a league-high 13 selections, four of them compensatory picks he can’t trade. “The guys we drafted last year turned out to be pretty good players, which helps that. If they weren’t and everybody assumes we would have taken Julio Jones and that would have been the guy if we stayed, and I am not going to say ‘yes or no’ on that.

“This year, we hope to get some more good players.”

The Browns need offensive difference makers to support shaky incumbent quarterback Colt McCoy.

Alabama’s Trent Richardson could be one.

Although running backs have been devalued in recent years, Richardson is the class of the 2012 class.

A punishing, physical inside runner who can also pop outside for a long gain, Richardson rushed for 1,679 yards and scored 21 touchdowns while helping the Crimson Tide roll to a national title last season. He would make an immediate impact on Cleveland’s offense and improve a rushing attack that sputtered last season when Peyton Hillis couldn’t stay healthy or drama-free.

Richardson appears to be a safe pick for the Browns, who can’t afford to overreach on a player or take any unnecessary risks.

Richardson’s pass-catching ability — he had 29 receptions for 338 yards last season — is another plus for Cleveland as the Browns will be in their second season in a West Coast offensive system that utilizes short swing passes to the backs. With the ball in his hands and in space, Richardson can be a handful for any linebacker or defensive back to bring down.

Heckert won’t hesitate to take a back as high as No. 4. He’s shown a willingness to take chances at the position in the past, trading two second rounders and a third rounder in 2010 to move up in round two and select Montario Hardesty, whose NFL career has been slowed by knee injuries. Cleveland’s other viable back is Brandon Jackson, a free agent who missed all of 2011 with a foot injury.

Running back may not be a top priority for the Browns, but passing on a player as talented as Richardson could haunt them.

“This draft is not about the fourth pick, it’s about the draft,” Heckert said. “Montario, we do think he is going to be a lot better this year. We think Brandon Jackson is going to be good. All that stuff plays in to it, but needless to say, you are talking about a really good player.”

Same goes for Justin Blackmon, regarded as the top wide receiver. The Browns’ lack of a No. 1 receiver — Little led the club with 61 catches but 12 drops as a rookie — combined with McCoy’s questionable arm strength allowed defenses to  stack the line of scrimmage and stuff Cleveland’s ground game.

Blackmon isn’t a burner, but the Browns could find one at No. 22 in either Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill or Baylor Kendall Wright, who caught 108 of Robert Griffin III’s passes last year.

Another intriguing possibility is for Heckert, a renowned draft-day wheeler and dealer, to bundle picks and move up to select Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd, who some experts believe is better than Blackmon and is expected to go in the Top 10.

A Richardson-Floyd tandem would be ideal, but whose going to get them the ball?

McCoy’s stock was already plummeting before the Browns tried and failed to trade for a shot at Griffin. Heckert tried to offset the club’s apparent dissatisfaction in McCoy during a news conference last week, saying “We like Colt” three times while answering one question.

There’s no doubt the Browns will take a QB. What’s not yet clear is if it will be one to compete with McCoy for the starter’s job this year or down the road.

Weeden, the 28-year-old former minor league baseball player, will likely be available at No. 22, and it’s possible he’ll still be around at No. 37, assuming the Browns stay put.

But based on last year, Heckert may not sit still. If there’s a player he covets, he has the means to put the Browns in a more favorable position.

“We do have ammunition, which is nice,” he said. “If there is somebody we don’t think is going to get there we can move up and get them. That’s always a plus when you have extra picks.”

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