Hardesty's Sports Corner: The Browns' draft this year may have ended the phrase 'Maybe next year'

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Someday, the Browns are going to have a great draft.

Someday, the Browns are finally going to find their franchise quarterback.

Someday may have been last week.

With the team's selection of Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick -- combined with locking up Pro Bowler Joe Haden to a long-term contract earlier this week -- the Browns just might have their 21st century version of the franchise's Hanford Dixon-Frank Minnifield lockdown-corner combo of the 1980s.

If the Haden-Gilbert duo is anywhere close to Dixon and Minnifield, the Browns will instantly have one of the top cornerback tandems in the NFL.

Which takes us to Johnny Manziel and the roller-coaster ride the Browns put us through last week.

On the draft night of May 8, Browns Nation was anxiously awaiting a franchise quarterback to be taken with the team's No. 4 pick. And then the Browns traded down to No. 9.

You could almost hear a collective groan emitting from Northeast Ohio.

But then the Browns traded up from that ninth pick to No. 8, and the fans were back on the wagon.

With that eighth pick, the Browns took Gilbert, possibly the best cornerback in college football. But it wasn't a QB.

More groans. After all, Browns Nation has seen this horror movie before, when their favorite team trades down in the draft, while Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers are selected in the Browns' original draft position.

While the Browns did have another first-round pick, it was way down at No. 26. No way a potential franchise signal-caller would still be available by then.

But then the Browns traded up again, giving the Eagles the No. 26 pick in exchange for the 22nd selection -- and Johnny Manziel was shockingly still on the board. Again, the Browns Nation wagon was up and running.

As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell strode toward the podium in New York City's Radio City Music Hall to announce the Browns' pick at No. 22, this thought crossed my mind: If the words Johnny and Manziel don't fall out of his mouth, it's quite possible that irreparable harm could be done between the franchise and its loyal-to-a-fault fanbase.

Here's a team that hasn't had a franchise quarterback since Bernie Kosar over 20 years ago. And sitting right in front of them -- getting more and more camera time with each team that passed on him on draft night -- was Manziel, a quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Texas A&M and was, without question, the most dynamic player in college football the past two seasons.

The Browns have no choice, I thought. They have to draft him. They can't take the chance of passing on him twice, then watch him play his way to the Hall of Fame.

And to the delight of most of Browns Nation, they did it. They drafted Johnny Manziel and everything that comes with him: Flamboyance, arrogance, swag, media attention, star power.

And a whole lot of talent.

WHAT ABOUT HOYER?

Some in Browns Nation were -- and still are -- content to give hometown boy Brian Hoyer a chance to be the team's quarterback this season and beyond. The former Cleveland St. Ignatius star had flashes of brilliance early last year before an injury suffered in his third game, versus Buffalo, sidelined him for the rest of the 2013 campaign.

And Hoyer may yet become the team's elusive franchise QB. He has a good arm, he's decisive in the pocket and he can throw in the face of pressure. Plus, he's still young, which means he should only get better.

But politically, Browns general manager Ray Farmer and his draft team had to take Manziel at No. 22. They simply could not afford not to.

FARMER RECEIVES CRITICISM

Farmer has taken some flack for not selecting a wide receiver in the draft when he knew going in that troubled receiver Josh Gordon had failed another drug test and was likely going to be suspended for the entire 2014 season.

But to Farmer's credit, he stuck to his original draft plan and decided to pass on the college receivers available and instead pick up veteran professional wideouts via free agency. The result was landing two proven, very capable wide receivers earlier this week in former Cowboys wideout Miles Austin and the Bears' Earl Bennett.

Regardless of who quarterbacks the Browns this fall, Austin and Bennett should combine with Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron to give Hoyer or Manziel a strong group of pass-catchers. Austin has struggled to remain healthy the last couple of years, but when he is on the field, he is productive. The Browns may not be done in free agency in this area, either.

And if Manziel ends up winning the job, there's no better friend for a rookie QB than a veteran group of receivers.

Email: thardesty@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9446

Twitter: @TomHardestyRC

Facebook: Tom Hardesty, Record-Courier

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