BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The Cleveland Browns won’t join the Peyton Manning chase.
However, they’re still in the hunt for Robert Griffin III.
Offering few clues about his plans for the NFL draft, free agency or how he’ll solve Cleveland’s interminable quarterback riddle, Browns general manager Tom Heckert said the team will not pursue Manning, who is now a high-priced free agent after being released by the Indianapolis Colts.
“Not really,” Heckert said when asked if Manning was on the club’s radar. “He’s obviously a great player and all that, but where we’re at and where he’s at … To be honest, we have not talked to him or anything. No, that’s probably not a direction we’re going in.”
Heckert met informally Thursday with reporters for the first time since undergoing heart surgery last month. A few pounds lighter, he recently returned to the office after recovering at home and missing the scouting combine in Indianapolis, where the Browns snared an up-close look at Griffin, Baylor(‘s talented Heisman Trophy winner.
With the No. 4 overall pick, the Browns may have a chance to select Griffin, considered the best QB prospect in this year’s draft behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who is expected to be taken first by the Colts. But with Griffin’s stock soaring and several teams desperate for a franchise quarterback, Cleveland, which also owns the No. 22 pick, might have to trade up to get St. Louis’ pick at No. 2 — if they want Griffin.
The move could be costly.
It’s possible the Browns could wind up in a bidding war with several teams for a shot at Griffin. Heckert treasures draft picks and might be unwilling to part with any of Cleveland’s selections. But the price might be worth it if the Browns, who have three of the top 37 picks, feel Griffin can reshape a franchise that has just one playoff appearance since 1999 and was the only AFC North team not in the playoffs last season.
Heckert acknowledged that he has had talks with the Rams, but he wouldn’t classify them as “serious.” He was asked if the Browns would be willing to give up both its first-round picks to go higher.
“I’d never say never about anything,” said Heckert, who plans to attend Griffin’s pro day workout on March 21.
Heckert called all the speculation about a possible trade with St. Louis preliminary and labeled media reports as “crazy.” He also said it’s possible the Browns might hold onto their first pick.
“We feel very comfortable staying at four and getting a good player there, and that could happen,” he said. “And we feel comfortable in moving down and getting more picks, we really do. It’s way early to start talking about this stuff.”
Heckert said the Browns believe there are four quality quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. In addition to Luck and Griffin, Heckert mentioned Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill “untapped” and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden “super smart” during his 30-minute interview session. Heckert said he’s eager to see the 28-year-old Weeden throw at his pro day on Friday.
And while the focus has been on jockeying for position to possibly get Griffin, Heckert said the Browns have not given up on Colt McCoy, who had an inconsistent season as a full-time starter.
“We’re not down on Colt McCoy, so I just want to make that clear,” Heckert said. “We still think Colt’s going to be a good player.”
Heckert said there’s comfort in knowing what they have in McCoy. He also believes adding former Minnesota coach Brad Childress as the team’s new offensive coordinator will only help McCoy, who was plagued by a lack of protection and dropped balls last season.
“The question is whether we have enough to see what Colt can do, and I think we do,” Heckert said. “If we catch more balls and protect him better, can Colt be a lot better? Yes. That’s our goal. We still think Colt can play in this league and it’s our job to help him out.”
As for free agency, Heckert won’t change his ways.
Since his days as Philadelphia’s GM, Heckert has resisted the urge to overspend on players. He’ll stick with his method of building mainly through the draft while adding lower-tier free agents to fill particular holes — and the Browns have a bunch.
“We’re not going to go crazy in free agency,” he said. “You look at throughout the history. I know Green Bay didn’t sign one free agent when they won (the Super Bowl) two years ago. I don’t think the Giants signed anybody, or at least anybody you’ve ever heard of as a free agent. You don’t win football games by signing a bunch of free agents. Now, can they help you? Certainly. And if there’s guys that we think can help us, we’ll definitely do it. But it’s easier said than done.”
Heckert’s stance would seem to rule out the Browns making a run at Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn, the prize of this year’s free agent group.
Heckert reiterated the Browns are open to re-signing running back Peyton Hillis, who had a drama- and injury-filled second season in Cleveland. Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards in 2010, recently changed agents again and will be an unrestricted free agent.
“If we can work things out, he’d like be here,” Heckert said. “And if we can do it, we’d like him to be here. Whether he has to wait till he sees what happens in free agency, that’s fine with us. We’re willing to do that. We’ll just have to wait and see how things go.”
On other Browns issues, Heckert said:
— The team has not had any contact with linebacker Scott Fujita, who played for New Orleans from 2006-09 and is reportedly entangled in the Saints’ “bounty” scandal.
— He would like to sign veteran kicker Phil Dawson to a long-term contract. The Browns placed their franchise tag last week on Dawson, who has been with Cleveland since 1999 and his coming off one of his finest seasons.
— The Browns want to retain free safety Mike Adams and cornerback Dimitri Patterson. Both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
— Right tackle Tony Pashos underwent ankle surgery on Tuesday. Pashos was slowed by an injury to his ankle most of last season.
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