Much of this year, various local pundits, experts and members of the media have had some confusing stances in the moment and in hindsight when it comes to what the Cleveland Browns should have done during the season and in the NFL Draft. Many were critical of the Browns for not selecting Tyrann Mathieu in the draft in what largely felt like a situation where it was the one name they knew, so it became an odd rallying cry. Those same people were then critical of the seventh round pick of the Browns, Armonty Bryant, when he was arrested for a DUI within weeks of being picked in the NFL Draft. Today, an article came out from Jim Kanicki criticizing the Browns not only for passing on Mathieu but for not taking Alec Ogletree with the sixth pick in the draft that basically epitomized this thought process.
Most people know the story with Mathieu. At LSU, the school lost track of the number of drug tests he failed in regards to marijuana. After being a top 5 vote getter for the Heisman Trophy, the Bayou Bengals kicked Mathieu off of the team. He ultimately stayed at LSU and is said to have worked on himself as a person in addition to going to school and training, which are all great things, taking his word for it. He did not play that year and just worked on himself. The fact that Mathieu has torn his ACL after a great rookie year with the Arizona Cardinals should have no bearing on the quality of the pick in this discussion.
Much like with Josh Gordon, the Cardinal fan base will be holding its collective breath this offseason as he rehabs. So often, rookies who have had problems with substance abuse tend to get through their rookie season without issue. There is so much attention, scrutiny and everything else as a rookie. After that first year, provided the player did not have any setbacks, that pressure and scrutiny disappears and it is far easier to slip back into old habits. Hopefully for Mathieu’s sake, he can continue to stay clean and maintain his NFL career, but if he does trip up, will all of the people who criticized the Browns for drafting him then stand up and say they were wrong for not taking him?
Alec Ogletree was a former safety playing linebacker for the Georgia Bulldogs with a ton of athletic ability and regarded by some as a top 10 talent in the NFL Draft, but he went 30th to the St. Louis Rams. Jeff Fisher has a history of taking players with immense talent in spite of character concerns. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins came out with a drug past that had him go from Florida to playing his last season at North Alabama including some other issues that would scare an NFL team. To this point, Jenkins has been a great player and not had a misstep. When Fisher was with the Tennessee Titans, they took a corner out of West Virginia named Adam Jones with the 6th pick of the draft in 2005. “Pacman” flashed talent on the field before a series of arrests and problems with the law ultimately took him down and made the pick an absolute bust for the Titans. Jones has been able to find a second career with the Cincinnati Bengals, but that is not doing the Titans any favors.
Getting back to Ogletree, he had the following issues in Athens. He was arrested on misdemeanor charges for stealing a motorcycle helmet. Ogletree also served a 4-game suspension for violating the Bulldogs substance abuse policy. After he declared for the NFL Draft, leading up to the combine, he was arrested for suspicion of DUI. That is why he went 30th, why the Browns could not afford to take him at 6 and why he still carries a great deal of risk for the Rams. The fact that Kanicki is using hindsight to add in a trade for an extra second round pick (which would have been nice, granted) while still getting Ogletree, does not change the fact that he had a number of problems while at Georgia.
And while Kanicki can completely ignore character and none of these character concerns are quite on the level of the Jeremiah Pharms debacle, the Browns front office under Joe Banner has put it at the forefront of decision making. When the selection of Barkevious Mingo was made and he was introduced, they certainly emphasized the amount of talent he had, but also really emphasized just how good of a person they thought he was. With all of the pressure that comes with the NFL Draft, it can be easy for outsiders to make picks in a vacuum and not have to deal with the people involved. The Browns want talent without having to have many players that risk phone calls in the middle of the night; at least not with their foundation players. People can debate whether they like that approach or not.
Criticize Mingo for his play on the field, but he is second on the team in sacks and his potential to get better appears to be unlimited. That pick, like many of the moves the Browns made, was more about next season than this one. They took him the same way the San Francisco 49ers took Aldon Smith and considering his off field issues, he should be right up Kanicki’s alley. He was eased into the lineup as a rookie and just got better and better with time. That is what the Browns were looking to get when they picked Mingo.
Leon McFadden has to play better. Injuries really hurt him in camp and he has been playing catchup, but he has gotten better with more playing time since the bye week. He is not in the conversation as the defensive rookie of the year like Mathieu warrants and he is not anyone that can be counted on for the future, but he is not to be written off either. It could ultimately be a missed pick, but it is difficult to kill the front office over their approach to valuing character in their evaluation process.
The other part of this issue that has been ignored is the locker room. Part of the reason that Mathieu was selected by Arizona was their comfort level with Mathieu because of the presence of Patrick Peterson, a fellow LSU Tiger who had an established relationship with him. Peterson accepted the role of being a mentor for Mathieu. This is not a token gesture. Peterson has gone all in with Mathieu and really worked with him, helping him just about every step of the way through his young career.
Earlier in the year, the locker room put Josh Gordon on notice when he got in trouble off the field and his immaturity. D’Qwell Jackson went public with it and made everyone known what was expected from Gordon. So far, so good and Gordon has blossomed on the field into a super star. Hopefully, that carries over into the offseason and he can either surround himself with people like they have in the locker room or just live in the training facility. If it can, the Browns have a borderline Hall of Fame talent, but if not, it is a case of what could have been. In either scenario, the character in the locker room provides an environment that can allow that to happen.
It is important to have character guys like the Browns have gathered over the last few front offices, sadly. There is far more accountability than the team has had in the past. They have to have talent and be able to play, but having players who play at a high level, demand a lot from themselves and their teammates has an important impact on what can happen with players. It is a balance that has to be maintained and one that should not be taken lightly. Maybe the Browns could have absorbed both Mathieu and Ogletree, but they opted to add talent and character in Mingo while going for the big risk, big reward move in Bryant late in the draft.
The Browns have put character into their evaluation process and really worked to minimize risk. As a result, a player like Bryant, who had his problems in college with immense upside, but he is easily disposable if he cannot stay out of trouble. The DUI was an unfortunate incident and not remotely something that should be ignored, but he has turned in a nice season for the Browns and helped them with an intriguing pass rusher who can play with his hand in the ground if he can stay out of trouble. For some people, only the product on the field and the standings matter. For others, they like to feel some kinship with the team and want to be able to feel proud of their team for what they do on the field and off the field. There really is no right or wrong answer in that vein, but the regardless of the approach, the Browns front office has to deliver.