You’ve heard this before: Anything can happen in the NFL Draft.
The event’s unpredictability is exactly why the national spotlight will be on downtown Cleveland while the city hosts its first draft Thursday through Saturday.
More:As Cleveland readies for the 2021 NFL Draft, you should too. Start planning now
And for the Browns, the draft has never felt more wide open at any other point in the expansion era.
The team’s best record (11-5) since its rebirth in 1999 has resulted in it being positioned unusually low in the first round (26th overall). Of the 27 players selected by the Browns in the first round, just one has been chosen in a lower slot — tight end David Njoku (No. 29 overall) — and that happened because of a trade up from the second round in 2017.
Barring a move, General Manager Andrew Berry will be at the mercy of the 25 picks other teams make before the Browns go on the clock late Thursday night, so the possibilities are virtually endless.
More:Here’s how to watch the 2021 NFL Draft and find out who the Cleveland Browns pick at No. 26
With that in mind, here are some scenarios to keep in mind during the first round and beyond:
The Cleveland Browns don’t have any needs? Don’t buy it
Based on the makeup of their roster, there are five positions the Browns could conceivably target in in the first round: cornerback, linebacker, defensive end, wide receiver and defensive tackle.
The order of some of the priorities can be debated, but for purposes of this discussion, let’s just get this out of the way now — cornerback is by far the most glaring need.
The Browns have an ultra-talented roster with few holes, but there should be a sense of urgency to find a corner who can start on the outside opposite Denzel Ward.
Terrance Mitchell held the job last season, but Berry let Mitchell leave last month in free agency, and he signed with the Houston Texans.
Mitchell became the No. 2 corner by default after Greedy Williams suffered nerve damage in a shoulder during an Aug. 24 training camp practice. The injury cost Williams the entire season, and even though the Browns are optimistic about his comeback attempt, they can’t be sure it’ll come to fruition.
More:Browns cornerback Greedy Williams tweets his return ‘is official’
Berry signed cornerback Troy Hill last month, but the plan is to start him at nickelback, a role held last season primarily by Kevin Johnson, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
The only other corners on the roster — M.J. Stewart, Robert Jackson, A.J. Green and Brian Allen — are either unproven or proven backups.
So the concept that the Browns have zero needs is misleading.
Andrew Berry has ammunition to trade up from No. 26
Enter the 2021 draft class. Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley form what is widely considered by analysts the top tier of cornerbacks.
More:Potential Browns target Jaycee Horn eager for return after family tragedy
One of them could be akin to Jedrick Wills for the Browns. Berry picked Wills at No. 10 overall last year, and the former Alabama standout immediately filled a pressing need by becoming the club’s starting left offensive tackle.
However, there is obviously a big difference between picking 10th and 26th, and all four of the top corners could be gone before No. 26.
If Berry believes that will be the case and he wants one of them, he has the ammunition needed to trade up.
Armed with nine picks, including two in the third (Nos. 89 and 91 overall) and fourth (No. 110 and 132) rounds, Berry could move up the board about five or six spots by surrendering one of the third-round choices. Keep an eye on the Chicago Bears (No. 20), Indianapolis Colts (No. 21), Tennessee Titans (No. 22) and New York Jets (No. 23) as potential trade partners.
More:Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II has Browns listening to sales pitch
The Browns believe they have the talent to contend for a Super Bowl, but their defense had better be able to cover well or they won’t be getting past Patrick Mahomes and the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s hard to envision Berry trading up in the first round for a position other than cornerback, but let’s say it together: “Anything can happen in the NFL Draft.”
Stick-and-pick options for the Cleveland Browns
Of those four corners, Newsome and Farley each seem to have a chance to make it to No. 26. If Newsome makes it, Berry would probably consider him a no-brainer there. If Farley makes it, the decision would hinge largely on what the Browns’ medical staff thinks about the two back surgeries he’s had.
More:Caleb Farley’s injury history may give Browns shot at elite corner prospect
But what would happen if the Browns stay put at No. 26 and the top four corners are gone?
They could dip into the so-called second tier of corners if they liked one of those players enough to pick him in the first round. Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr., Georgia’s Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell, Washington’s Elijah Molden and Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu are believed to form that group. Then again, some of them might be available when the Browns pick late in the second (No. 59 overall) or could be trade-up targets from there.
More:2021 NFL Draft: Asante Samuel Jr. has skills Browns may want, desire to face best, like OBJ
Instead of potentially reaching for a second-tier corner at No. 26, Berry could go with another position if he stands pat.
More:Zaven Collins admires Browns’ turnaround: ‘I love the organization’
The Browns are more confident about their linebacking corps than many outsiders are, though it’s hard to argue against the notion that they could benefit from an upgrade. Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Kentucky’s Jamin Davis are the presumed candidates to compel Berry to make his first major investment at linebacker since he became GM last year.
More:Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could fit the bill for Browns defense
Defensive end and wide receiver are options at No. 26, too, but addressing either of those positions would be more about succession planning than an immediate upgrade.
Berry set the stage for this kind of thinking last week when he met with Browns beat writers via Zoom and said, “In general, how I view the draft is we really go into the mindset of really trying to maximize the long-term impact on our roster. It’s less about filling a need or some level of instant gratification on the roster and more about a longer-term focus on the team.”
More:Browns sign Jadeveon Clowney in NFL free agency, bolstering pass rush opposite Myles Garrett
At defensive end, free-agent acquisitions Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley signed one-year deals, so the long-term running mate of All-Pro Myles Garrett has yet to be established.
Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh, Washington’s Joe Tryon and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. could go in the first round. Paye and Ojulari would be the only surprises among the bunch if they lasted until No. 26.
More:Ex-UA assistant envisions Miami DEs wreaking havoc opposite Myles Garrett
At receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are under contract for three and two more seasons, respectively, but they would account for a combined salary cap hit of more than $31 million next year. The Browns can afford the duo now, but it would be more difficult after some pricey contract extensions (think quarterback Baker Mayfield, Ward and running back Nick Chubb) are added to the budget.
Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Mississippi’s Elijah Moore, Florida’s Kadarius Toney and LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. are the receivers projected to be picked in the neighborhood of No. 26. There is a need for speed in the Browns’ receiving corps and coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense.
More:Elijah Moore broke out under Lane Kiffin, brother of Browns assistant
With the Browns releasing Sheldon Richardson on April 16, defensive tackle should be included as a feasible first-round route, though it’s an unlikely path, especially because Berry has left the door open for Richardson to return.
Most analysts think Alabama’s Christian Barmore is the only defensive tackle worthy of a first-round pick. But NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah is as respected as they come, and he views Barmore as a second-round selection and this year’s defensive tackle class as the worst he has seen since he began working in the league in 2003. Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike, not Barmore, is actually Jeremiah’s top-rated D-tackle.
More:Daniel Jeremiah pumps brakes on Browns taking Christian Barmore in Round 1
Andrew Berry could trade down from No. 26
Berry emphasized last week he’s open to all possibilities — trading up, staying at No. 26 or trading down. He wouldn’t even rule out trading down and out of the first round altogether.
More:2021 NFL Draft: Takeaways from Browns GM Andrew Berry on trade scenarios, needs, philosophy
The last option might sound like a stretch, but this is why Berry might find it appealing:
The NFL Scouting Combine didn’t occur this year because of the pandemic, so the medical and testing information teams have gathered about players isn’t exactly the same as it usually is. Prospects were not allowed to visit team facilities for the second year in a row, limiting pre-draft meetings to virtual platforms. And to further complicate the evaluation process, many prospects opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns instead of playing.
So there you have it. If you’re Berry and none of the players you covet is left standing at No. 26, trading down would probably be more tempting this year than ever before.
A strike against moving out of the first round is losing the fifth-year option franchises get with players selected in the first round. The option is still attractive, but it’s not quite as team-friendly as it has been in the past because changes to the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association have made it guaranteed money as soon as it’s exercised. Berry downplayed the evolution of the fifth-year option as a factor in his decision-making process, but it’s still worth considering.
Creative strategies in the NFL Draft
The Browns will probably make fewer than the nine picks they have right now because it’s difficult to envision sufficient space for nine incoming rookies on their loaded roster.
That’s why trading up would make more sense for them in this draft than trading down.
On the other hand, trading down is a hallmark of analytics, and Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta have a history of doing it.
Either way, they could get creative to avoid stockpiling too many rookies.
Trading picks this year for slightly better ones next year is one strategy they could use (former Browns CEO Joe Banner did it in 2013).
They could also draft an injured player who won’t be ready for the 2021 season but can be stashed on injured reserve and developed for 2022. They did something similar with defensive end Curtis Weaver last year, even though they didn’t draft him. They claimed Weaver, a 2020 fifth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, off waivers after he had suffered a season-ending toe injury in training camp and kept him on IR all season.
More:Curtis Weaver opens up about comeback attempt with Browns after injury ruined rookie year
Expectations for the Cleveland Browns this week
It would be surprising if …
• The Browns don’t draft at least one cornerback, linebacker, defensive end, receiver and defensive tackle
• Berry were to pick at No. 26 and No. 59 — a trade in the first two rounds seems more likely than not
• The Browns don’t draft a cornerback in the first two rounds
• Berry doesn’t draft a guard in the middle rounds as part of a succession plan for right guard Wyatt Teller, who, like Chubb, is scheduled to enter the final season of his rookie contract in the fall. So why not draft a safety valve for Chubb, too? Browns fans already know Kareem Hunt is the answer
• My mock draft is even somewhat accurate, but for the record, it will include Berry being aggressive to secure a starting cornerback opposite Ward
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.