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How the Browns got their man
How the Browns got their man
Posted: May 4, 2006
The Browns are on the clock with the 12th pick in the draft, and Bill Rees is on the phone. The team's player personnel director has nose tackle Haloti Ngata on the line, and he won't let him go. He is trying to make small talk, and Ngata is responding with one- and two-word answers. It is an excruciating 15 minutes, but Rees needs to maintain the impression Ngata is their man.
Flashback: It is February 23, nine weeks before the draft. Browns general manager Phil Savage is being interviewed by the NFL Network at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He is asked about Ngata. Savage says he would take him if he were available at No. 12. Savage believes it, and apparently he is not the only one.
Sitting across from Rees, Browns coach Romeo Crennel is working another phone line, talking with another draft prospect who could help in the reshaping of the Browns' front seven. This conversation is less stunted, more natural. There is give and take.
Flashback: It is March 12, seven weeks before the draft. Savage has been negotiating with Kennard McGuire, the agent for Detroit free-agent pass rusher Kalimba Edwards. The Browns finished last in the league in sacks in 2005, and they are desperate for a pass rush. When they say goodbye at 3:30 a.m., Savage and McGuire are under the impression Edwards will sign with the Browns. But the deal goes sour later in the day when Edwards decides he wants to stay with the Lions. Savage walks into his office and ponders how to replace what he almost had.
With about 3 minutes left before the Browns have to pick, Savage picks up a third phone and calls Ravens G.M. Ozzie Newsome, with whom he worked for 14 years, mostly in Baltimore. Savage is offering to swap picks with Newsome and move down one spot in exchange for a fourth-round pick. Newsome, who wants Ngata, stalls. Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta is in Newsome's ear, telling him not to give up the pick because he believes the Browns won't take Ngata.
Flashback: It is April 10, three weeks before the draft. The Browns' scouts and coaches are discussing linebackers in their draft room. Crennel often doesn't offer an opinion unless he is asked. But when he opens his mouth, it gets quiet enough to hear a magnet slide. After a long debate, Savage asks for Crennel's opinion about the three players the Browns are targeting. "I think we'll look better with Kamerion Wimbley as opposed to Ngata or (Brodrick) Bunkley because that's what we need: pass rush."
The clock is ticking down on the Browns. Scouting assistant Bobby Vega, representing the team at the draft headquarters in New York, writes "Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon" on the card to be turned in to league officials. A Ravens representative sitting nearby sees what Vega has written and reports back to Newsome. What he doesn't see is the Browns' other rep in New York, salary cap assistant Ryan Seelbach, who had "Kamerion Wimbley, OLB, Florida State" written on a second card. In his pocket.
Newsome offers Savage a sixth-round pick, and Savage accepts. The Ravens get their man, Ngata. The Browns get Wimbley, who was on the phone with Crennel. Later, Cleveland uses the sixth-round pick from Baltimore for another front seven piece, nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo of Stanford.
Savage wasn't trying to fleece Newsome so much as he was trying to get value for a spot in the draft that a number of teams had expressed interest in acquiring. "The consensus across the league is Ngata was rated higher than Kamerion, so I wanted to have something to show for it," says Savage, who, shortly after the deal, set up a summer golf date with Newsome at Kiva Dunes in Gulf Shores, Ala.
Wimbley was the only 4-3 end in the draft the Browns were sure could make the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker. He was the one big-needs player they were in position to draft because neither USC running back Reggie Bush nor Texas quarterback Vince Young was going to fall to them and they couldn't find a taker in their trade-up attempt for Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk.
This was a critical draft for the Browns -- the first in which Savage had been with the team for the entire previous season. Savage and Crennel have a better feel this time for what the Browns are not and what they have to be. Thanks in part to six straight years in which the Browns didn't get what they expected from their first-round pick, Savage inherited arguably the least talented roster in the NFL a year ago.
Under Crennel, the defense switched from a four-man front to a three-man front, so linebackers and linemen who fit the scheme were the first priority. Yet, it was a challenge for the scouting staff to identify and project players who fit a defense that is played by few college teams. "We don't have clear vision totally in what we're looking for, I don't think," Savage says. "It's still not totally synced up."
Savage's goal is a draft room in which every scout knows exactly what to look for. He has revamped the scouting staff with six hires and established a detailed, organized approach in which every guideline is committed to paper. At his side is his sounding board: Rees, who is known for his analytical ability and attention to detail; T.J. McCreight, the assistant player personnel director who is Savage's jogging partner and worked with him in Baltimore; Pat Roberts, the team's national scout and a rising star in the business; Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield, a respected elder statesmen among the scouts; and pro personnel coordinator Steve Sabo, whose eye for talent has enabled him to bridge three coaching regimes in Cleveland.
The scouting staff spent an inordinate amount of time on college ends the Browns projected to outside linebacker. Many ends, tackles and linebackers were devalued by the Browns because they did not fit the scheme. Among them were Ernie Sims, Manny Lawson, Tamba Hali, Mathias Kiwanuka and Thomas Howard.
Even D'Qwell Jackson, the Maryland linebacker the Browns traded up to take in the second round, is not an ideal fit because he lacks size. But Jackson was easier to evaluate than most because the "bubble" linebacker position he played in college lined up similarly to the weak inside linebacker position the Browns expect him to play.
Savage cautioned his scouts against "zonking" every player who was not a perfect fit. "While you're trying to draft prospects for certain systems, you really want versatile players," he says. He points out the Super Bowl champion Ravens of 2000 had eight linebackers/ends who had the ability to play in a 4-3 or a 3-4.
A big-picture approach is important to Savage. He isn't focusing solely on immediate needs -- rather, he's looking at a three-year period as he makes decisions. That explains why the Browns chose guard Isaac Sowells in the fourth round. After the third round, Savage had asked to see what the team's depth chart would look like in 2007. The contract of guard Cosey Coleman is set to expire after the 2006 season.
A kind, soft-spoken man from Fairhope, Ala., Savage, 41, does not fit the stereotype of an NFL G.M. He is widely regarded as one of the premier talent evaluators -- and one of the hardest-working ones -- in the league. His last day off was Super Bowl Sunday, which he spent in St. Thomas with his wife, Dorothy. Last fall, he saw 50 college teams in person, either practicing or playing. Between the NFL Scouting Combine and the draft, he averaged eight hours a day of tape work.
The way in which the Browns approach the draft has changed dramatically since Savage was hired on January 6 of last year -- and the intention is the results will change dramatically, too.
Before hiring Savage was hired, former coach Butch Davis was the de facto general manager. According to those who were in the draft room with Davis, the process was more dictatorship than democracy. The team would formulate its draft board during a meeting with the scouts in December, but when the scouts returned from the road in February, the board would be jumbled, as Davis and his right-hand man, Pete Garcia, disregarded scouts' opinions and arranged it to their liking.
In 2001, the consensus in the draft room was to select defensive tackle Richard Seymour with the third overall pick, and the understanding in the draft room was Seymour was going to be a Brown. But Davis overruled the majority and chose defensive tackle Gerard Warren instead. Oops.
The process is much more inclusive now, as Savage seeks to build a consensus on each player, even if it means bending his own opinion -- as he did with one player drafted Sunday. During meetings with the scouts, almost everything out of Savage's mouth is a question. "Last year, the first time I asked, 'Hey, Smith or Jones?' it kind of set the room back," Savage says. "The scouts weren't used to being put on the spot like that. Their opinion had never been valued to that level."
Comparisons are a staple of the Browns' draft room, which marks another change. Savage might compare a player's stock with the stock of 10 other players. In a discussion of Wimbley three weeks before the draft, Savage asked his scouts to compare the value of Wimbley with the value of N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams, Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney, Ohio State receiver Santonio Holmes, USC quarterback Matt Leinart, Maryland tight end Vernon Davis and Bunkley, the Florida State defensive tackle.
Savage also compares prospects with players from previous drafts. He calls it a "career board." Ngata is measured against past highly rated defensive tackle prospects such as Dewayne Robertson and Tommie Harris. In one meeting, Wimbley is contrasted with Peter Boulware, a player Savage helped draft for the Ravens. "This guy is every bit as fluid, if not more fluid, than Peter," Savage says. "I don't think he has the burst of Peter."
The draft comparison that matters most is Savage vs. his predecessors. On a sunny weekend in Berea, Ohio, there really is no comparison.