Mike McLain: Browns trusted the numbers


There’s no way anyone had the Cleveland Browns selecting quarterback Baker Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward with picks one and four in the NFL draft.

If you say you did, you’d probably also say you were there when Ali stood over Liston in 1965.

Reality TV was never better than it was as the first round of the draft unfolded Thursday night in Dallas. There was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell being the target of boos as he stood next to Cowboys legends Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach and Jason Witten, a strange prelude to the introduction of the main event of the evening, namely the Browns.

The once-proud but now woebegone franchise held all the drama of the night in its grasp, giving it a chance to breathe new life into the fan base. Owning two top-five picks, the Browns couldn’t ruin this night. With two announcements by Goodell, the memories of Ray Farmer, Tom Heckert, Mike Lombardi, Joe Banner and Sashi Brown would vanish forever.

When the big moment came, the Browns did exactly what each of the aforementioned so-called draft experts did — the unexpected. With visions of quarterback Sam Darnold and defensive end Bradley Chubb being the selections, the planned mass celebrations of draft parties everywhere were suddenly muted when Goodell called the names of the polarizing Mayfield and the well-liked Buckeye, Ward.

Immediately after the Mayfield pick was announced, a camera caught two Browns fans in opposite states of amazement. One was joyful at the thought of having the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma as the next quarterback of the future while his buddy dropped his head in an obvious show of disappointment.

Wearing emotions on their sleeves has become an art form for beaten-down Browns fans. These are drama kings and queens who have cultivated nearly two decades of abuse to the stage that they thought the idea of marching around FirstEnergy Stadium in single-digit temperatures to “celebrate” last year’s 0-16 season was a good idea.

Many of those fans were incensed by what transpired in Dallas. They bemoaned Mayfield’s lack of ideal height (a little less than 6-foot-1) and his cocky attitude on and off the field. As a Buckeye and a genuine talent at a position of need, Ward avoided the wrath of fans, but there was still plenty of “if we only could have paired Chubb with Myles Garrett.”

Overreacting on draft night, while understandable from the perspective of Browns faithful, is wasted energy. There was once a time when drafts could percolate for a few years before judgment day. Now it’s either instant gratification or spontaneous combustion.

From what we saw Thursday, the latter was blasted all over in glorious brown and orange colors. Much of the anger was undoubtedly unleashed by the same fans who cheered when Johnny Manziel and Trent Richardson were drafted.

After taking collective deep breaths, there are reasons to see logic in the actions of Browns general manager John Dorsey. If you look at sheer production, Mayfield was the best of the top-rated quarterbacks last season by a wide margin. Ward, while a bit smaller than former Buckeye cornerback Marshon Lattimore, was every bit the defensive playmaker in college as Lattimore, who was the NFL Rookie of the Year last season for the Saints.

The concerns about height and off-the-field behavior with Mayfield have drawn comparisons to Manziel, which is absurd. It would take a team of psychiatrists to unravel Manziel’s mindset when he was drafted in 2014. As for his height, Mayfield is taller than Manziel and some of the smaller quarterbacks who have succeeded in the NFL — namely Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Michael Vick.

The only top prospect with a stronger arm than Mayfield is Josh Allen, who was picked by the Bills at seven. Check out the 60-yard rope Mayfield threw for a touchdown against Texas last year. If you dare take a peek, watch Mayfield pick apart the Buckeyes last year in Columbus.

In the sea of statistics surrounding these players, a couple stand out. According to Pro Football Focus, Mayfield’s NFL-based passer rating from a clean pocket last season was 143.8, more than 20 points higher than any of the other prospects. More impressive, his rating when under pressure was 111.6 (none of the other prospects was above 100). Mayfield’s under-pressure ratings in the two years prior were 117.4 in 2015 and 119.2 in 2016.

Dorsey and his lieutenants were clearly influenced by Mayfield’s numbers, along with his competitive streak and football IQ. In addition, they liked Ward’s incredible athleticism (he was a combine star) and the fact he allowed just 35 receptions on 100 targeted passes with two interceptions and 19 passes defensed during his OSU career.

If you know anyone who still on the ledge after Thursday night, show them the numbers. While Darnold and Chubb might ultimately be better pros, for now there’s reason for optimism.

Come down from the ledge and let the process play out.

Mike McLain is a correspondent for The Vindicator. He has covered the Browns since 1980. Write him at sports@vindy.com

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