Weeden hopes to solve Browns' age-old QB problem

Ever since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL for the 1999 season, they've been unable to find a long-term answer at the quarterback position.

They've tried several times to draft their franchise quarterback, but Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Colt McCoy were all mediocre at best as the Cleveland Browns' starter. Veteran acquisitions like Jeff Garcia and Jake Delhomme brought even worse results.

In fact, the new Cleveland Browns have played in only one playoff game during their 13 seasons (Trivia question: Who was the Browns' starting QB in that 2002 postseason game? It was journeyman Kelly Holcomb.).

At the recent NFL Draft, the Browns took another stab at finding that elusive franchise quarterback. With the 22nd overall pick, Cleveland selected Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, and he figures to be one of the NFL's most intriguing players in 2012.

Weeden is not your typical NFL rookie. He's going to turn 29 on Oct. 14, which makes him three years older than McCoy, the man he's expected to replace. At 28 years and 195 days on draft day, Weeden became the oldest first-round draft choice in NFL history.

It's hard to say how this is going to work out. In two seasons as Oklahoma State's starter, Weeden was tremendously productive, throwing for 71 touchdowns. He engineered 2011 wins over all three of the quarterbacks selected ahead of him in the draft - Stanford's Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts), Baylor's Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins) and RyanTannehill (Miami Dolphins).

On the other hand, Weeden played in a spread offense. There's going to be a learning curve as he tries to master the Browns' West Coast attack.

The optimist would point out that since Weeden is more mature than the average NFL rookie, that he should more easily adjust to being a professional. Heck, he already was a professional athlete for five years, having spent 2002-06 as a minor-league pitcher in the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Kansas City Royals organizations.

The pessimist would argue that, despite his age, Weeden has no more quarterbacking experience than other typical rookies. Being a baseball player for five years basically took away the potential for five more years of development as a quarterback.

Weeden made 26 college starts. By comparison, Griffin made 41 starts at Baylor and Andrew Luck 38 at Stanford. And Luck made those starts in a pro-style offense. Weeden did not.

When comparing Weeden to the incumbent McCoy, though, the rookie is bigger, stronger and possesses superior arm strength. On the flip side, a major reason why Weeden gave up baseball in favor of football was that shoulder injuries - a torn labrum and rotator cuff tendinitis - had stunted his development as a pitcher. It's hard to imagine those injuries didn't raise some red flags for teams that were considering drafting a quarterback.

Weeden has drawn comparisons to former Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, since Weinke was an ex-minor-league baseball player who was 29 when he began his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers in 2001. Weinke didn't have much success in his pro career, but Weeden has much more physical talent and will undoubtedly be a superior NFL quarterback.

But the big questions are these: How much can Weeden improve the Browns, and will he finally end Cleveland's search for a franchise quarterback?

The Browns stumbled to a 4-12 record last season with McCoy as their primary starter, so there's plenty of room for improvement. The team is much better positioned to be successful now, thanks to the addition of top draft pick Trent Richardson, the elite running back from Alabama. Chosen at No. 3 overall, he should instantly become a top-five NFL running back.

Cleveland also will be bringing back the key components from a defensive unit that ranked 10th overall last season. The upgrade at running back will allow the Browns to play a more effective ball-control offense, which should only help an already solid defense.

It's not all good news for Weeden, though. McCoy's biggest obstacle to success in Cleveland was a lack of skill position talent. The team's usual starting wide receivers last year were Mohamed Massaquoi and rookie Greg Little, neither of which is likely to ever be a true No. 1 target.

Although wide receiver was considered by many to be the deepest position in the 2012 draft, the Browns didn't pick one until taking Miami's Travis Benjamin in the fourth round. Their lack of elite receiving talent is probably going to limit the rookie production of Weeden, who threw to Justin Blackmon (who went No. 5 overall to Jacksonville) at Oklahoma State. There's no receiver as good as Blackmon on the Browns' roster.

Although the Browns' interest in Weeden was widely reported during the week leading up to the draft, they were supposedly leaning toward taking Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright with the No. 22 pick. The Tennessee Titans, however, surprisingly picked Wright at No. 20. Instead of taking the next wide receiver on their draft board, the Browns picked Weeden at 22.

I wasn't a fan of the move on the first night of the draft because I thought the Browns could have taken a wide receiver at No. 22, such as Georgia Tech speedster Stephen Hill (who went to the New York Jets at No. 44), and still come back at No. 37 to pick Weeden.

It became obvious on Day 2 of the draft, though, that Cleveland didn't really like many of the consensus top-rated wide receivers. A.J. Jenkins (San Francisco 49ers) and Brian Quick (St. Louis Rams) were the only wide receivers who went off the board in between the Browns' 22nd and 37th picks, and they still did not pick one at 37. The Browns instead drafted California's Mitchell Schwartz, who is expected to start at right tackle.

Since the Browns' biggest needs were at the skill positions, I believe taking Richardson, Weeden and Hill would have been a better way to go than Richardson, Weeden and Schwartz, but Schwartz also filled a need at right tackle. And, with Richardson looking like a can't-miss prospect, this draft will probably always be judged by what Weeden becomes anyway.

So, what will he become? I suspect he'll be an upgrade over McCoy, based on arm strength. His transition to the NFL will be aided by the fact that Cleveland can lean on a solid ground attack and defense to lead the way, putting less pressure on Weeden to have to carry the load. The 2012 result will be probably be something like Mark Sanchez's 2009 rookie season with the Jets (albeit with fewer wins, most likely).

I suspect that Weeden will have the ability to get Cleveland to the playoffs once or twice during his career, but two things will probably prevent him from becoming the Browns' first consistent winner at quarterback since Bernie Kosar.

First, the AFC North is possibly the best division in the NFL, and Cleveland is clearly last in the pecking order right now (with no signs that Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Cincinnati will tumble out of contention for the next few seasons). Those three teams have particularly tough defenses. Secondly, it's going to take a couple of years for Weeden to master the offense. When he does, he could, unfortunately, be simultaneously entering his phase of physical decline.

Then again, who knows for sure? There's never been an NFL rookie quarterback quite like Weeden, and how his career plays out is going to make the Browns an interesting team to watch during the next few seasons.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.