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Defining the 2016 NFL Draft: Don’t Trade Down Without a Plan

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Billowing smoke emanating from Laremy Tunsil’s gas mask may be the lasting image, but the 2016 NFL draft will be remembered for the top two picks. The narrative of this class hinges on Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, even if it’ll be years before we have any conclusions on that front. For the teams that once owned the first and second picks, though, this weekend provided a measure of clarity.

Both Cleveland and Tennessee received smatterings of applause for loading up on 2016 and 2017 picks with the aim of hoarding talent for two depleted rosters. And that’s where the similarities end.

In Cleveland, the Sashi Brown–Paul DePodesta brain trust made it clear that finding draft capital is a defining principle. It wasn’t just that the Eagles made a godfather offer; Cleveland made four more trades and drafted 14 players — tied for the most ever in a seven-round draft — including five in the first three rounds.

Now, if first-rounder Corey Coleman, second-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah, and Cleveland’s slew of midround picks flame out, no one is going to pat the Browns on the back for finding extra value. But their approach was a clear indication that the group in charge has a plan. With all those picks, they have new pass catchers and pass rushers who fit today’s NFL.

Meanwhile, Tennessee decided to toss around its surplus picks like Monopoly money. Handing the Browns a 2016 third-rounder and a 2017 second-rounder to move up for Jack Conklin while Tunsil was still available was a head-scratcher. Except it’s the sort of safe move the Titans are prone to make. Taylor Lewan never wanted to play right tackle, and if GM Jon Robinson had taken Tunsil, there’s a good chance the move would have embittered one of the louder, more influential presences in Tennessee’s locker room. Rather than deal with a surly former first-round pick, the Titans took the less-talented guy they could play on the right.

Their fourth pick — Derrick Henry, 45th overall — came from the same overly cautious impulse. This is the team that just dealt for DeMarco Murray and then handed him $12 million guaranteed. If they had a floundering quarterback, building around the running game might make sense. But Tennessee has Marcus Mariota, and it shouldn’t turn him into a $5.5 million handoff machine.

This weekend highlighted the Titans’ and Browns’ different approaches. Three months after hiring Mike Mularkey, a retread with 18 career wins as a head coach, Tennessee’s draft confirmed that when given a set of options, it’s inclined to pick the most boring choice possible. And while it remains to be seen whether Cleveland’s value-building strategy will yield any long-term results, the important thing is that it’s finally trying something new. For teams that have been stuck near the bottom for as long as the Titans and Browns have, the worst mistake is repeating the one you already made.

This piece originally appeared in the May 2, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.