BEREA, Ohio - He was careful not to go into any sort of specifics at his annual pre-draft press conference Thursday, but Browns general manager Tom Heckert said the team has a pretty good idea of who it's going to select with its first pick in next week's NFL Draft.
"We know who No. 4 is going to be if we stay there," Heckert said.
Here's a guess that "who" is Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Here's another guess, though, that Heckert's backup plan is still LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
These are strictly guesses, but isn't that half the fun? When, exactly, did the NFL Draft become some sort of advanced molecular science?
That might be a question for another day, but the Browns have spent lots of days plotting these all-important picks. They enter next Thursday's first round with Nos. 4 and 22, and they'll pick again early on Friday in the second round with No. 37 overall.
Heckert danced around some security-clearance issues while talking draft for 45 minutes -- he's in the business of helping his team, not anyone else's -- but did outline some general beliefs the Browns hold about the top prospects. His preference is to hold on to No. 4, though he's open to offers, and he said in a "perfect world" the Browns would use their first three picks to help fix an offense that was historically bad a season ago.
We come away thinking that first pick is Richardson over Claiborne, by a nose. Maybe by the thousands of muscles in Richardson's neck.
We come away thinking Heckert really likes Claiborne, knows it's not a perfect world and thinks that going cornerback isn't as crazy an idea as some make it seem.
"You need to have three legitimate cornerbacks to survive in this league," Heckert said.
Look at the Browns' roster and start counting. You won't run out of fingers.
At minimum, that's food for thought. And, yes, he did talk up all the Browns' potential targets as being no worry off the field and difference-makers on it. With quarterbacks all but sure to go 1-2 and be out of the Browns' plans, he was asked specifically about the possibility of some other team trading ahead of the Browns, to No. 3, and selecting Richardson.
"We're ready for that," he said.
All the more reason to think Richardson is Plan A and Claiborne is Plan A-2, even when Heckert admitted the Browns had a private workout with USC tackle Matt Kalil and said Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon is a "great kid and a great football player." Maybe the Browns still plan to surprise everybody and take Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but the fact they're zeroed in can probably be read as zeroing in on Richardson.
Heckert said the Browns gave first-round grades to 18 draft prospects, a pretty standard number in any given year. Because teams grade players differently, value different traits and have different needs, he's sure one of those 18 will still be on the board at No. 22. In that perfect world, a third might even still be on the board at No. 37.
The Browns are (over)due a little luck, right?
He also said what we tend to forget in this Internet-driven, oft-sensationalized era of pro day workouts and extensive background checks when he said that most of the top players in this draft were the top players at the end of the college football season, before the Underwear Olympics of the last two months. Risers and fallers generally are for columns, not actual draft boards.
We think he's had Claiborne darn close to the top of that board since the beginning.
During the pre-draft process a year ago, Heckert was public with his praise for LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, who ended up going a spot ahead of the Browns pick, at No. 5 to the Arizona Cardinals, and had an outstanding rookie season.
Asked directly about Peterson and Claiborne on Thursday, Heckert said Peterson was "super fast. (Claiborne) is not as fast but has phenomenal ball skills.
"You're nitpicking when you (try to compare) those guys. They are different, but both of them are really good."
Last year has nothing to do with this year, and Heckert admitted he probably wouldn't make the trade he made last year -- initially moving down from No. 6 to No. 27 for a future first-round pick -- because he thinks the team is further ahead than it was a year ago.
The situation was similar then. The Browns had a bunch of needs, a few of them much more glaring than cornerback. Heckert acknowledged that, and he ultimately didn't have to make the choice regarding the potential star corner.
He might not have to this year, either. The Vikings figure to take Claiborne, Kalil or Blackmon if they keep the No. 3 pick. Heckert said he has "no idea" what the Vikings will do, and that's part of the game.
When the Browns do go on the clock, so much points to Richardson. The Browns still play in Cleveland, where it generally starts snowing four or five weeks before the biggest games of the NFL year are played. They let Peyton Hillis walk in free agency and have nothing else even resembling a workhorse back on the roster. The offensive line has a chance to be good, the young quarterback needs all the help he can get and Richardson is so strong and so gifted he was probably ready to walk right in and help an NFL team two years ago.
Timing is everything, which is why -- even though the NFL is a pass-first, run-by-committee league now more than it's ever been -- the chance to grab Richardson is probably going too good to pass up. The tape says Richardson will move piles, catch passes out of the backfield and won't be afraid to mix it up with the AFC North's bullies.
Here's a bet Heckert watches the tape of Claiborne's recovery speed one more time. Just to be sure.
"Defensive backs-wise, it's not a great group (in this draft)," Heckert said. "There are a couple guys that are really good and he is obviously a really, really good player. You have to have corners."
The Browns, perhaps now more than ever, have to get this draft right. From here, getting it right looks like it will start with Richardson or Claiborne.