After having the first overall pick in each of the past two drafts, the Cleveland Browns are selecting at 17 this year. For the first time since 2016, and just the second time since 2011, Cleveland has only one first-round pick, at least right now. The Browns own 11 picks in total, and with an already strong roster, it is unlikely that they will be able to carry 11 first-year players; Cleveland should be expected to move around quite a bit. For now, here are five prospects the Browns should target with the 17th selection.
5. Dexter Lawrence
Defensive tackle is Cleveland’s biggest need heading into the offseason (this is the first time since about 2002 that it isn’t QB). Larry Ogunjobi is an excellent player, but he doesn’t really have any help inside. Fortunately for the Browns, this year’s draft class is absolutely loaded on the defensive line.
Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence is a very unique player. At 6’4″ 340lbs, he has prototypical size for a run-stopping nose tackle, a position that has become more or less obsolete in the NFL. However, Lawrence is not a typical nose tackle. He has the athleticism of a player 100 pounds lighter than him, and has a good chance to break some testing records at the NFL combine. His pure mass makes him an elite run stopper, but he does much more than that. In spite of constant double-teams, Lawrence excels at collapsing the pocket, creating more pressure opportunities for his teammates.
The issue for Lawrence is that he was suspended for Clemson’s College Football Playoff run because he tested positive for ostarine. It remains to be seen how much of an impact this had on his play, or how it will affect his draft stock. One thing is for certain; the Lawrence that played in college was a dominant defender whose game should translate well to the NFL, and he would dramatically improve Cleveland’s defensive line.
4. Jeffrey Simmons
Another highly talented player with a major question mark, Simmons fits what the Browns are looking for perfectly; an athletic pass-rushing DT. Simmons stands 6’4″ 300lbs and excels at splitting gaps and pursuing the QBs. He is also a solid run stopper, although not on the level of Lawrence. Simmons has only seven career sacks, but 32.5 tackles for loss, including 17 last season.
The issue with him is that before his college career began, he was filmed beating a woman who was on the ground. The story was that he was breaking up a fight between his family and another, but the video shows him clearly going too far. Simmons has not had any issues while at Mississippi State, so it’s entirely possible that he is a changed person.
However, one incident, no matter how long ago, is enough to remove him entirely from the draft boards of some teams. With recent situations involving Kareem Hunt and Rueben Foster, NFL teams are aware of the PR impact of drafting a player with Simmons’ history. Browns GM John Dorsey is not one to shy away from drafting troubled players (see Tyreek Hill, Antonio Callaway), but he has never taken a character risk in the first round. Simmons has immense talent, but his history could lead to him sliding down the draft board for many teams.
3. Ed Oliver
The third DT on this list, Oliver will likely be the first to be taken. Aside from Quinnen Williams, he is clearly the top DT in the class, and has first overall talent. He has been highly touted every since arriving at Houston, and for good reason. The 6’3″ 295lbs lineman is an exceptional athlete, able to generate his incredible burst into power, driving offensive lineman into the backfield. He is extremely effective against both the run and pass, and could easily make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
In a 4-3 system like Cleveland runs, he has the potential to make an Aaron Donald-like impact. He is too small to play nose tackle, which would be a waste of his skills. Oliver and the next player on this list will almost certainly be gone before the Browns are on the clock, so if Cleveland wants to add an elite prospect to their defense, they will need to trade up.
2. Devin White
Like Oliver, White is in the first tier of prospects, and will be taken before the Browns have a chance at him. There is a good chance he winds up playing against Cleveland for the Cincinnati Bengals, who pick 11th. That isn’t something the Browns should be looking forward to, as White is going to be a fantastic player. He combines good coverage skills with solid field vision and pass rushing ability, but his biggest asset is his speed.
At 6’1″ 240lbs, White has elite sideline-to-sideline speed, similar to former LSU star Deion Jones. Joe Schobert is arguably the NFL’s best coverage linebacker, but he lacks in run support. Christian Kirksey is solid enough, but Jamie Collins is far too inconsistent to warrant his contract; White would be far young, cheaper, and a considerable upgrade. The addition of White would transform Cleveland’s defense, and as new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ scheme is dependent on linebacker player, White would be a very smart pick, even if he requires the team to trade up.
1. Christian Wilkins
Wilkins is the most likely player on this list to end up in Cleveland. He fills a big need, is a high character guy, and has been incredibly productive for his four years in college. He totaled 16 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss while winning two National Championships. He is an equally good run stopper and pass-rusher, a very good all-around player.
There were concerns that he benefited from playing next to Lawrence and likely top-15 pick Clellin Ferrell (which he obviously did), but two strong performances against Notre Dame and Alabama with Lawrence on the sideline proved Wilkins can do things himself just fine. He is a very smart player and always seems to have leverage against his opponent. Even when he isn’t making the play, he is collapsing the pocket and making it easier for his teammates to do the job.
Wilkins may not be super flashy, but is very productive and consistent. Pairing Ogujobi and Myles Garrett with Wilkins will create a very strong line, and even though selecting Wilkins may not create the most headlines, it would be an excellent pick that would certainly improve the team, both on and off the field.