In the middle of the first quarter of Sunday afternoon’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, a stat flashed across the screen that illuminated the kind of season the Ravens’ Ray Rice has been having: he’s the only running back in the NFL with 700-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards. A third-round pick out of Rutgers, the Ravens’ star tailback represents everything that has eluded the Browns over the past ten years: depth that stems from good drafting.
Successful teams aren’t built through free agency, a fact that any Washington Redskins fan can tell you. The league’s perennial contenders – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England and Green Bay – find sustained success through the draft. For every high-profile acquisition that they make, there are numerous other behind-the-scenes personnel moves that ultimately contribute to winning.
Rice is a prime example. Selected towards the end of the second round of 2008’s NFL Draft, Ray Rice should retire as the best running back to don the Baltimore purple. The Ravens picked him up for about 2.8 million dollars, and he’s been a staple in their backfield ever since, earning second team All-Pro honors in 2009.
His success represents what Baltimore’s front office does best: find value in the draft past the first round. Names like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata represent the kind of talent that is more or less expected to perform; they wouldn’t be in the positions that they currently find themselves in without the acquisition of value players like Rice, linebacker Jameel McClain and cornerback Lardarius Webb.
The culture in Baltimore is a two-way street, though, one that sees superstar veterans shoulder the heaviest lifting while younger players ease their way into the fold. Their draft picks get set up for success, while teams like Cleveland – teams with too many holes to plug to NOT play anybody on their roster – are forced to throw their young talent into the ring as soon as they acquire it.
It all comes down to talent evaluation. Thankfully – as frustrating as this season has been – Cleveland has shown glimpses of hitting their target multiple times in recent drafts. If the Browns are ever going to become the team that Cleveland deserves, their drafts have to yield multiple successes, from first-round stars to fifth-round starters. Having two first-round picks in 2012’s draft will help the cause.
It’s always a bummer to be looking forward to April’s draft in the middle of a season, but that’s the reality that we face as Browns fans. Looking up and down their roster, its the only logical thing to do. The Browns aren’t built to win now, and sustained success can only be found in the spring.
Jimmy Smith, Baltimore’s first-round draft pick out of Colorado, picked off Colt McCoy to cap off the second quarter of Sunday’s game. He probably won’t be tasked with much more than nickleback duties as Baltimore continues to storm towards the postseason, being eased into a role that he would be thrust into were he drafted a Brown. When the Browns can afford that kind of luxury, we will know that their decade-long strive towards success has been met.