Cleveland Browns big board: Defensive line help among biggest priorities


I have one really strong draft prediction: With the Cleveland Browns down to five picks — and only two in the first two days — they’ll start their draft not by making a selection at No. 54, but by making some sort of trade-down to acquire more picks.

In the two previous years since making the Deshaun Watson trade, Browns general manager Andrew Berry has moved out of Round 2 and started in the third round. So I’m not exactly making a wild prediction. The Browns thought their best option at wide receiver in March was to trade fifth- and sixth-round selections for Jerry Jeudy, and that left them with just five picks in April’s draft. The first- and fourth-rounders that Houston owns this year mark the end of the Watson deal.

The Browns’ picks for the 2024 draft, as of now, are No. 54 in the second round, No. 85 in the third, No. 156 in the fifth, No. 206 in the sixth and No. 243 in the seventh. It’s not like seven or eight rookies would be in line to make a team that’s in win-now mode, but it’s still fair to assume the Browns would like to add depth, athleticism and upside to their roster. In the last two drafts, they’ve made nine picks between No. 68 in the third round and No. 126 in the fourth.

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Berry always prefers to both have options and be able to draft for the future. With the current state of the roster, he’s accomplished the latter and certainly has the aforementioned options. Still, it would be surprising if the Browns’ first few picks weren’t intended to boost the passing game or the pass rush, which last year was one of the NFL’s best.

Cleveland probably will draft an offensive tackle at some point, too, with Jedrick Wills Jr. only under contract through 2024 and Jack Conklin recovering from a second ACL tear. Linebacker will likely be addressed on the third day, and we’ll get deeper into the board later.

What’s below is in no way a definitive list of options or a prediction on how the Browns might view and prioritize these players. It’s simply a game of dot-connecting based on the team’s perceived needs, past draft habits and players of note from the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. The Browns have options. They also have a bunch of older defensive linemen, so they’ll be looking to get younger there.

For now, we’re in the handshake and virtual greeting stage of getting to know some of the team’s potential draft targets.

Smith was a freshman All-American in 2021, but he injured his knee in the 2022 opener and missed the entire season. He played in 12 games last season, and some team is going to bank on continued improvement for this former five-star recruit. Smith has rare size at 6-foot-5, 306 pounds, and he performed well in the athletic testing portion of the combine. He also went through coaching staff changes during his time at LSU. As long his medical reports are OK, he’ll be viewed as a high-ceiling prospect.

He doesn’t turn 22 until October. The Browns’ top defensive tackle, Dalvin Tomlinson, is 30. Earlier this month, the team signed Quinton Jefferson (31 next week) and re-signed Shelby Harris (33 in August) and Maurice Hurst, who turns 29 in May and is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. Even if 2023 rookie Siaki Ika can earn a role, there’s still room for the Browns to develop another young defensive lineman.

Hall grew up a Browns fan, and he’s scheduled to make a pre-draft visit to the team’s facility in early April. At an ideal playing weight of around 290 pounds, Hall is not small by any means. But he’s a smaller, upfield-type defensive lineman who seems to fit the scheme defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz employs. Hall is just 20 and is entering the draft after three years at Ohio State, so he’s another prospect who wouldn’t be expected to start early in his rookie season. Hall didn’t work out at the NFL combine due to a hamstring issue, but he impressed at the Senior Bowl and was able to run at Ohio State’s pro day last week.

Given the eyebrow-raising Jeudy contract extension and the expected development of Cedric Tillman in his second season, the Browns aren’t necessarily looking for immediate help at wide receiver — and certainly aren’t forced to take one on the draft’s second day. But they still might, even if there’s a run on wide receivers early in the second round. Corley is built similar to a running back at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, and in college he chewed up big yards by making would-be tacklers miss. Corley could end up playing a variety of roles in the NFL, even potentially as a third-down back. For an offense that’s still trying to find exact roles for its pass catchers, he could carve one out.

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He’s massive at 366 pounds. He’s clearly different, but he won’t be for everybody. The NFL.com scouting report on Sweat says “it it takes a village to try to uproot him and move him out of the way.” A team that already likes its rush-first players might view Sweat as a keeper. A year after they drafted the biggest player at the Senior Bowl (Dawand Jones), could the Browns do it again?

Hall grew up 10 minutes from Cleveland Browns Stadium in Garfield Heights; Stover was a little more than an hour away in Lexington. He brings physicality to the position and proved to be a reliable pass catcher over his final two college seasons. He’s not the biggest (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) or fastest (4.65 in the 40-yard dash) prospect, but if the Browns want to add a reliable second tight end who isn’t afraid to do the dirty work the position requires, they can make what feels like a safe pick here. With the signings of Nyheim Hines and D’Onta Foreman, the Browns have veteran options at running back. It seems like they could add both a wide receiver and tight end in the draft after letting Harrison Bryant leave in free agency.

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Most (but not all) projections have Robinson going late in the first round or early in the second before the Browns would be able to get him. But they’ve seen him — at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, he’s hard to miss. Robinson is a little like Za’Darius Smith physically, which means he’s pretty rare, and Cleveland should know him well. It drafted his Missouri rushmate, Isaiah McGuire, in the fourth round last year.

Like Robinson, Franklin is generally projected as a player who will be picked in the top 50. But he was only 176 pounds at the NFL combine, so there’s at least some chance he makes it to the back-middle of the second round. Franklin is a big target at 6-foot-2, he just turned 21 in February and was ultra-productive over three seasons at Oregon. He had 14 receiving touchdowns in 2023.

A two-year starter at Alabama, Braswell had eight sacks and three forced fumbles in his final college season. At 250 pounds, he’s not going to be an every-down defensive end, but he’s physical and athletic enough to immediately crack some team’s rotation.

Booker is a developmental prospect who might eventually be a 3-4 outside linebacker — or might be a designated pass rusher for a rush-first team like the Browns. He really only played one full season of college football, and played just 505 total snaps over his three years. But Booker had a breakout season in 2023 at Kansas, and the eyes of the NFL took notice. He could end up going in the third round, depending on how teams view (and draft) the more seasoned pass rushers in this year’s class.

(Photo of Michael Hall Jr.: Adam Cairns / Columbus Dispatch / USA Today)





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