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Commentary: Hope in Cleveland extends beyond the draft this year

For Cleveland Browns fans, the NFL draft is always the most exciting time of the year. It’s the peak of each season, and everything usually goes downhill from there.

Yet, for the first time since 1999, I honestly feel that the franchise has a chance to turn the corner. It’ll have to add some marquee names this year to do it.

Yes, they did come off a 10-6 season in 2007, but the following season’s draft didn’t offer a chance to add a lot of young talent — the Browns had just five selections.

In 2003, off of the previous season’s 9-7 record and playoff appearance, the Browns had selections late in each round. This year, they’ll have the opportunity to add top-tier talent, starting with the sixth overall pick in the draft.

The biggest difference between this year and the past 12 drafts is that the Browns finally have some level of competence within their front office.

Before coming to Cleveland, general manager Tom Heckert established himself as an elite talent evaluator with the Philadelphia Eagles. During his time there, he drafted or acquired 10 players who would play in the Pro Bowl.

As if that weren’t enough to restore credibility to the franchise, owner Randy Lerner hired Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Holmgren as team president.

This tandem looked great on paper, but they really proved their worth during last year’s draft by taking a lockdown cornerback in Joe Haden and stealing safety T.J. Ward in the second round. Not to mention, the later rounds brought the team starting quarterback Colt McCoy and a solid guard in Shawn Lauvao.

With those young pieces, the Browns still went 5-11. Usually, this is no reason to inspire confidence — yet, with wins against the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints, and the development of McCoy, I can see the makings of a future playoff team.

It will still take a lot of work to get on the same level as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, who consistently have dominated the AFC North. But the Browns have the Cincinnati Bengals in the division to compete for the title of “most inept franchise.”

With another good draft this year, however, the Browns can inch closer to their hated division rivals.

In switching to a 4-3 defense, the Browns need a solid pass-rusher at defensive end. That could net them North Carolina product Robert Quinn.

Of course, the sexy pick would buy a dynamic, playmaking wide receiver, considering the team’s two best receivers last season weren’t wideouts at all — they were tight end Ben Watson and running back Peyton Hillis.

If Georgia’s A.J. Green fell to No. 6, that would be heavenly — but many mock drafts have him being scooped up earlier.

The most exciting rumor has the Browns drafting LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson at six, and then trading back into the first round to grab Alabama wideout Julio Jones. Browns fans always are dreamers.

No matter how the draft shakes out, I have full faith in Heckert and Holmgren to add a little bite to go with the Dawg Pound’s barking.

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