CLEVELAND – Sorry, LeBron. Apologies to the Cleveland Indians.
But one of the biggest days on the Cleveland sports calendar has finally arrived, and it’s the one Browns fans eagerly – or is it anxiously? – await each year: the NFL draft.
“This is our Super Bowl. That’s what we’ve come to celebrate,” Browns super fan Gus Angelone told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “It’s sad, but that’s how it is.”
Cleveland is full of long-suffering fans like Angelone, 40, who began rooting for the Browns as a child growing up in Parma, Ohio. He worked inside the stadium hawking credit cards after the team returned to town in 1999, and bought his own season tickets in 2004. That year, he also started showing up to games in a full Browns uniform, with a hollowed out pumpkin on his head. He wound up on the Jumbotron, enjoyed the attention he got from his getup, and his "Pumpkinhead" alter ego stuck. But there hasn't been much fun in being a Browns fan in recent years, especially during last year’s 1-15 season.
Now Angelone raising his own Browns fans, and wants nothing more than to see his favorite team win in his lifetime – or at the very least, for his eight- and nine-year-old children’s.
Any turnaround may depend on the next few days, which Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown described as a chance to assemble a “momentous draft class” that could help the franchise finally reverse its fortunes.
“This is an important draft for us. We can get some players that can transform our franchise, and the way we are positioned, it is to some degree the volume of players that can help us. We want to get those right,” Brown said.
The Browns own the No. 1 overall pick and are set to pick again at No. 12. As a result of last year’s multiple trades down the draft board in order to acquire more picks, the Browns have 11 total selections in the 2017 draft, including five picks in the first three rounds.
“This year, being poised with all the ammunition, and obviously the first and 12th pick, I think a lot of fans feel, if they don’t succeed this year, we’re just doomed forever,” Angelone said. “We’re all just very anxious to see what they’re going to do. I think the one consensus among the fan base is, if they trade down and get out of the No. 1 spot, we’re going to lose our minds.”
Indeed, the Cleveland fan base is preparing itself to welcome Myles Garrett, the pass rusher from Texas A&M who has been widely considered the best player in this class.
It’s that second first-rounder – and whether the Browns will use that pick on a quarterback – that is generating the most discussion in the days leading up to the draft.
And doesn’t the focus in Cleveland always come down a quarterback debate? The Browns have drafted a passer in the first round four times since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999, and none have panned out. The most recent first-rounder, Johnny Manziel in 2014, was the biggest bust of the bunch. Manziel and the Browns’ other first-round pick that year, cornerback Justin Gilbert, are both currently out of the NFL.
With Cleveland having started 26 quarterbacks since the team's return, from Tim Couch to Brady Quinn to Robert Griffin III to Cody Kessler, Browns fans seem energized by the debate between North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, and the idea of a new quarterback arriving in town.
“There’s a mindset of keep swinging until you find one,” said former NFL cornerback Dustin Fox, who co-hosts an afternoon radio show in Cleveland and also provides analysis on Browns radio broadcasts. “Fans in Cleveland love quarterbacks, and love draft picks, so this is perfect.”
The challenge for head coach Hue Jackson, Brown and Andrew Berry, the vice president of player personnel, is that there is no consensus top passer in a year in which the Browns have built up substantial draft capital. Much of the pre-draft buzz has linked the Browns to Trubisky, though Cleveland might have to move up from No. 12 to take him.
“What’s frustrating to me is that last year Browns were picking at No. 2, they could have had Carson Wentz, and they traded out. That will forever haunt this franchise until they find a quarterback,” Fox said. “If you trade up to take Trubisky, you’re saying he’s as good or better than Wentz, and I just don’t see it.”
The wild card remains the possibility the Browns could trade for a veteran on Thursday night – perhaps finally convincing the New England Patriots to part with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, though multiple reports have indicated they'll stand pat. Such a move that would certainly energize fans who will gather for large tailgate draft party in the Municipal Lot outside First Energy Stadium.
“We have such a lack of talent at every position, go package picks and make this exciting,” Angelone said. “Go get us some marquee players.”
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.