Following the Browns 2014 NFL draft, there has been a buzz surrounding the city of Cleveland and much of it has to do with the rookie draft class. The Browns were able to land the infamous Johnny Manziel in the later stages of round one, but also collected remarkable talent prior to and after the Manziel selection.
Below I have listed the Browns’ 2014 rookie class and how they’ll assimilate to life in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State – (Round One, Pick No. 8)
For the bulk of head coach Mike Pettine’s years with the Jets, he coached one of the most formidable tandems at the cornerback position in recent memory in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. With the selection of Gilbert, the Browns will have a dynamic duo of their own at the cornerback position, as he will be lining up opposite of Joe Haden this fall.
In Mike Pettine’s scheme, the cornerbacks typically do not receive help from safeties and are routinely left on an island (man coverage). Over his three years at Oklahoma State, Gilbert has proven to be very comfortable in man coverage as he displays ball skills akin to a wide receiver.
In order for Gilbert to make an immediate impact, he’s going to need to work on getting in and out of his breaks and driving on the football. He’s also susceptible to being beaten on quick in-breaking routes, as he tends to take false steps when opening his hips. While his “ineffectiveness” as a tackler is overblown, he does have a tendency to lunge at the ball carrier, which can result in missed tackles.
Expect for Gilbert to be tested early and often on the opposite side of Haden this year. He might very well struggle at the beginning of the year, but as the season goes along, he will do exactly what made him a top-ten pick; continue to make plays in man coverage and shut down the receiver lined up across from him.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M – (Round One, Pick No. 22)
Though Brian Hoyer is listed as the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, don’t expect that to last long Browns’ fans. Hoyer did in fact show some flashes last season but head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer have both stated in the past that they thought Manziel was the only quarterback in the draft capable of starting in his rookie season. It would be difficult to derive from such a statement, that Manziel will begin the season on the bench.
Expect the Browns to give Manziel every opportunity in the world to fail or succeed this year, which is why it’s highly likely he’ll get the starting nod on opening day. The Browns’ trade down with the Bills resulted in two first-round picks next year. Being that 2015 has the potential to be loaded with talent at the quarterback position, the Browns are going to want to know rather quickly if Manziel is their quarterback of the future, or if they will need to package picks to select Jamies Winston or Marcus Mariota.
Manziel is a terrific fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and will generate his fair share of big plays, utilizing read option and play action off of read option. When receivers don’t get open, Manziel certainly has the ability to keep plays alive with his legs. However, the Browns are desperately missing a playmaker at the wide receiver position. If the receivers are unable to separate against single coverage, that could spell trouble and a lot of time on the turf for Manziel.
Joel Bitonio, OL, Nevada – (Round Two, Pick No. 35)
Bitonio started at left tackle while at Nevada, and is expected to make the transition to guard for the Browns this season. Though it’s entirely possible that he will develop into a prototypical right tackle, it appears he’s going to come in and start right away for the Browns at left guard. Pairing Bitonio with Joe Thomas on the left side will likely result in huge rushing lanes. Thomas is one of the better offensive linemen in the NFL, and Bitonio is a tremendous run blocker.
Bitonio takes great pride in making the defender across from him work extremely hard to make a play on the football. On occasion he has completely taken his man out of games, e.g. his stellar performance against UCLA and standout linebacker Anthony Barr. Bitonio plays with a mean streak in the run game and excels in finishing blocks. He has greater lateral agility than many think, and does a very good job in pass protection as well.
His ability to get into his sets quickly and mirror defenders will go a long way toward keeping Manziel’s jersey clean. Bitonio instantly makes the Browns’ offensive line better in the run game, as well as in the passing game.
Christian Kirksey, ILB, Iowa – (Round Three, Pick No. 71)
Kirksey (one of my favorite players in the 2014 NFL draft) was utilized as a force player and overhang defender during his career with the Hawkeyes. A force player is a defender whose specific assignment is to squeeze or compress a rushing lane, funneling the ball carrier back inside to his teammates.
An overhang defender routinely splits the difference between the end of the line, receivers and running backs. Kirksey caught my attention because of his ability to cover backs and receivers, and his physical nature at the point of attack. He also has an impressive closing burst to the ball carrier.
Oftentimes, I talk about a player on offense making his offense multiple as a result of his versatility; the same holds true on the defensive side of the ball with Kirksey. The function Kirksey will serve in Pettine’s scheme is the same role former Browns’ defensive coordinator Ray Horton envisioned for Craig Robertson in 2013 as an overhang defender. Robertson showed promise early in the season, but was taken advantage of in the passing game as the season went along.
Kirksey will need to work on maintaining eye discipline on fakes and misdirection. With that said he has more range than Robertson. Kirksey will effectively make Pettine’s defense multiple, as he is a three-down linebacker who is stout against the run, and capable of covering running backs and receivers. Be on the lookout for Kirksey to become a household name in 2014, as I believe there isn’t much he can’t do at the linebacker position.
Terrance West, RB, Townson – (Round Three, Pick No. 94)
While my preference would’ve been Lache Seastrunk, running back out of Baylor, I completely understand why the Browns selected Terrance West. West is a combination of power and quickness that is certainly a fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. West does a very good job of identifying cutback lanes and keeping his feet moving upon contact. As Ben Tate’s backup, expect West to be utilized on inside-zone runs and average roughly 8-10 carries a game. He’ll likely see his fair share of swing passes out of the backfield as well. West is a natural hands catcher of the football and should have at least 10-15 balls thrown his way.
West is the quintessential do-it-all big back that the Shanahans love, and I believe he can have at least 500-yards rushing this season. Pairing West with Manziel means the rushing lanes will be larger. If the receivers can put up respectable numbers, West might have an impact season for the Browns.
Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood – (Round Four, Pick No. 127)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if Desir was the only cornerback the Browns drafted, that would’ve been just fine with me. Like Gilbert, Desir is another cornerback with exceptional ball skills. He understands routes that receivers are running and has the athleticism necessary to consistently be in position to get his hands on the football.
In four collegiate seasons, Desir amassed 25 career interceptions. Many who felt Desir’s level of competition played a role in his “inflated stats” were proven wrong during Senior Bowl week. Desir successfully blanketed the best receivers in the country during practices, and recorded two tackles and an interception in the game.
If Desir continues to improve upon on his footwork, he can certainly become a starter in the NFL within the next year. Desir will likely see the majority of his time this year at nickel cornerback and special teams. The Browns may very well experiment with Desir at free safety in an effort to get him on the football field more quickly. A player with his range and ball skills doesn’t stay on the sideline very long.
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