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Friday, April 22, 2011
Tom Heckert is Browns' secret weapon

By James Walker

Tom Heckert
Browns GM Tom Heckert has built his reputation on doing solid work in the draft.
BEREA, Ohio -- When you think of the face of the 2011 Cleveland Browns, high-profile president Mike Holmgren is the first person who comes to mind.

After Holmgren, quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs and tailback Peyton Hillis might be next. They're among the few Browns players known on a national level. McCoy made his name at the University of Texas, Cribbs is a former Pro Bowler, and Hillis has a chance to become the "Madden NFL 12" cover boy next week following a breakout 2010 season in which he rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

But as you continue down the list, eventually you will come across arguably the most important person in the organization: general manager Tom Heckert.

Holmgren has final say in Cleveland. But he is not the person laying the groundwork for the team behind the scenes.

Quietly, Heckert and his staff have worked hard to add talent to what was once a very thin roster. Last year, the Browns signed key veteran free agents such as tight end Benjamin Watson and linebacker Scott Fujita, in addition to completing a cunning trade with the Denver Broncos for Hillis in exchange for former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.

But the draft is where Heckert has built his reputation.

Heckert joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001 as director of player personnel and worked his way up to general manager five years later. During his stint, Philadelphia went to four consecutive NFC championship games and made the playoffs in seven of Heckert's nine seasons in the front office. He had a major hand in the Eagles' acquisition of recent draft picks such as tailback LeSean McCoy, tight end Brent Celek, quarterback Kevin Kolb and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

Heckert continued his draft success in Cleveland last season. The Browns acquired three starters in the first three rounds -- first-round corner Joe Haden, second-round safety T.J. Ward and McCoy in the third round.

Now the Browns have a young nucleus to build around as Heckert tries to work his magic in Year 2.

"I think last year we did a pretty good job," Heckert said in his pre-draft news conference Thursday. "Media-wise there were questions whether T.J. was worth the pick, and we said 'this guy is a good football player. He is going to come in here and start for us and he is worth that pick.' You can try to get cute and say maybe he'll be there later in the second round, so you try to trade down and you lose him. How stupid is that? If you like the guy, take him. Don't try to get too cute."

Getting cute is not what Heckert is about, and he definitely hasn't put himself out there to receive all the credit.

This week the Browns notified the local media that Heckert would hold a solo news conference, and people noticed that the charismatic Holmgren wasn't on the schedule. It was one of the few times since joining the Browns that Heckert addressed the media without the shadow of Holmgren looming over him, presumably to help raise Heckert's low profile.

Working in the shadows is nothing new for Heckert. Eagles head coach Andy Reid commanded the spotlight in Philadelphia while Heckert worked diligently behind the scenes to help find great players year after year.

Heckert's current boss has made it a point to express his appreciation.

Tom Heckert and Joe Haden and Mike Holmgren
Tom Heckert, left, and Mike Holmgren, right, spent their first-round pick last year on corner Joe Haden, center, who had six picks as a rookie.
"Tom Heckert is the real deal," Holmgren said recently. "The people that work with him, our personnel department, they do their jobs and they do them very well. If I put on my coach hat for a moment, that's a real encouragement to Pat [Shurmur] and the coaches."

This year's draft may go down as one of the most important of the Holmgren-Heckert regime. Cleveland holds eight draft selections, including the No. 6 overall pick in the first round.

The Browns are coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, but there is optimism that Cleveland is finally heading in the right direction. If things go as planned for the Browns, this may be the highest draft pick for Heckert and Holmgren in the next several years. In what's considered a deep and talented draft, the Browns cannot afford to miss with their top pick.

"If we end up staying at where we're picking, we are going to get a good football player," Heckert said confidently. "There are six guys, and we are going to get a good football player. Obviously you don't want to be picking up there all the time, but that's the nice thing about it."

The mountain the Browns are trying to climb is steep.

The rival Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are unrelenting within the division. They are well-run organizations, perennial contenders in the AFC, and they don't make many mistakes in personnel. That raises the bar for Cleveland to do the same when finding players.

After several front-office failures over the past dozen years, Heckert's track record and experience as general manager give the Browns their best chance. But to make up ground in the AFC North, Cleveland must have another solid draft for the second year in a row, which is not an easy task.

Any big mistakes next week could keep the Browns at the bottom of the pack. So the pressure is on.

"Just try to not force anything," Heckert said of his draft philosophy. "It's easier said than done. ... Once the board is set, I don't think anyone is going to sit there and start jumping guys off their draft board. It happens in the whole process where you may say 'whatever the position is we need this,' so you maybe make the guy better than he is. You just have to be careful of doing that. It happens. I've been guilty of it, just like everyone else. It's a tough thing to do, but you have to be smart about it."