• Let's hear it for the NFL's downtrodden. Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit and Cincinnati went a combined 19-45 last season and have jointly produced a grand total of three playoff trips in their last 44 seasons -- from 2000 on. But the four who have been mostly on the floor look like winners to me coming out of the 2011 draft.
The draft is supposed to be the league's great equalizer, allowing the lower class to pull itself up by the bootstraps and improve its lot in life. It doesn't always work out that way, but you have to like the outlook for the Browns, Bills, Lions and Bengals more today than you did before the start of Thursday night's first round.
Here are some of the draft highlights of those four perennial losing franchises, who all finished at or near the bottom of their divisions in 2010:
• Cleveland -- Maybe this Mike Holmgren character knows what he's doing as a talent evaluator. The Browns came away from their draft with two big valuable pieces for their transition back to a 4-3 defense in burly Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor and athletic Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard, and that was just the start of their strong work.
They also picked up a potential No. 1 receiver in North Carolina's Greg Little, former basketball player and pass-catching tight end Jordan Cameron of USC, and two-way Stanford star Owen Marecic, who played both fullback and linebacker for the Cardinal, but at fullback will be asked to bulldoze the path in front of leading rusher Peyton Hillis.
What's not to like about the Browns' draft, especially since their bonanza of a first-round trade with the Falcons -- moving down from sixth to 27th in exchange for five Falcons picks -- also sets them up for 2012, with extra first and fourth-round selections?
• Buffalo -- The Bills didn't get tricky, they just got better. They needed help on defense, and got plenty of it. They resisted the urge to take a quarterback in the early rounds and focused like a laser on improving their run defense, which finished last in the NFL in 2010 with almost 170 yards allowed per game. Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was one of the elite players in this draft, and the Bills made him their pick at No. 3 overall.
But Texas cornerback Aaron Williams in the second round and LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard in the third round were inspired choices as well, with both players representing great values. The impressive talent haul continued on Saturday, drafting versatile North Carolina strong safety Da'Norris Searcy of North Carolina and a big, tall right offensive tackle prospect in the fourth round, Clemson's Chris Hairston. Fifth-round running back Johnny White of North Carolina was another well-received selection for a Buffalo team that already proved it could do some damage on offense last season.
• Detroit -- There's something coming together quite nicely in the Motor City, and we're not talking about any auto assembly line. This is a young and improving Lions team that has now put together back-to-back-to-back impact drafts. Their latest coup is the selection of first-round defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who will pair with last year's rookie of the year Ndamukong Suh to form one of the most disruptive defensive tackle tandems in recent NFL history. Maybe the Lions' problem secondary won't be such a weak link with Suh and Fairley increasing the heat up front.
The Lions didn't have quantity in this draft, but the quality is definitely there. They got two exciting playmakers for their offense in the second round, grabbing Boise State receiver Titus Young and Illinois running back Mike Leshoure. Young should add instant impact in the slot receiver role, drawing some coverage away from Calvin Johnson, and Leshoure is a powerful and durable runner who will split time with Jahvid Best and help both of them stay fresh and productive.
• Cincinnati -- It has been all bad news for the Bengals for more than a year now, but this crucial draft might have saved a sinking ship. Cincinnati just remade its offense by picking Georgia receiver A.J. Green and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the first two rounds, and it's intriguing to think what might come of a young Bengals offense that also includes weapons like receiver Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
And Cincinnati didn't stop there. They plucked Nevada outside linebacker Dontay Moch out of the third round, and he's a gifted athlete who can run and chase down the ballcarrier in the open field. In the fourth round, the Bengals added a possible starting guard in Georgia's Clint Boling, who had second-round potential in the eyes of some scouts. Boling, an offensive tackle in college, also gives Cincinnati an excellent option at right tackle should 2009 first-round pick Andre Smith fail to stay healthy and produce.
• I give the Redskins plenty of credit for moving around the board with trades and playing the draft game well, amassing what turned out to be a haul of 12 picks over the past three days -- their highest amount in almost 30 years. The Washington roster desperately needed a healthy infusion of youth and had needs everywhere, so it was the right call for the Redskins to go for quantity.
But I don't see any slam-dunk impact rookies in Washington's draft, and the starting quarterback position remains a mystery of sorts. Donovan McNabb will be headed somewhere at some point, Rex Grossman is a free agent, and that leaves the unproven John Beck as the heir apparent. Redskins fans going to be OK with that? I don't think so.
• I love the fact there are certain draft traditions you can count on year after year. The NFL commissioner announcing the selections in the first round. The last pick of the draft being declared "Mr. Irrelevant.'' The Raiders taking at least two of the fastest prospects on everyone's draft board.
Oakland stayed true to Al Davis's need for speed, selecting Miami cornerback Marcus Van Dyke, a former track sprinter who didn't even start for the Hurricanes, in the third round. The Raiders followed that up by choosing Taiwan Jones in the fourth round. Jones was the fastest running back in the draft, recording a 4.33 time in the 40 at his pro day and generating significant buzz in recent weeks.
• The David Akers era in Philly looks like it's at the "thanks for the memories'' stage after the Eagles spent a fourth-round pick on Nebraska's Alex Henery. The ex-Cornhusker went 120th overall, the highest a kicker has been selected since New England took Stephen Gostkowski two spots earlier than that in 2006.
Akers is a free agent and he's not done kicking in the NFL. Given the challenges the Cowboys and Redskins have had with kickers in recent years, I wouldn't be surprised if Akers wound up somewhere else in the NFC East, facing his old team twice a year. Not exactly the Donovan McNabb to Washington storyline of 2010, but it might be fun.
• I'd like to say it was the power of the Wes Welker Watch List, but I think I know better. Georgia receiver Kris Durham went in the fourth round to Seattle, 107th overall, and that made him the highest-drafted non-combine invitee of the year. Durham was one of the 10 prospects I highlighted earlier this month in my third annual look at some of the more under-the-radar draft prospects.
He probably sealed the deal for the Seahawks with that strong early-season showing when fellow Bulldogs receiver A.J. Green was suspended for four games. Durham also didn't hurt himself one bit by running under 4.5 at the Georgia pro day.
• Chad Henne has to be feeling much better about life at the moment. Not only did Miami refuse the urge to draft a quarterback -- especially Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, who Henne wasn't high on when both were at Michigan -- the Dolphins went out and helped their starting quarterback as much as possible in this draft.
Miami's first four picks were all on offense: Center Mike Pouncey in the first round, Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas in the second, speedster receiver Edmond Gates of Abilene Christian in the fourth, and Tulsa fullback/H-back Charles Clay in the sixth.
I guess the Dolphins' standard way of conducting business is now clear: You publicly flirt with the idea of replacing head coach Tony Sparano, but then stick with him. You publicly kick the tires on all the available top-notch quarterbacks in the draft, but then stick with Henne.
• The Chiefs did a little risky business in this draft. They took a talented receiver who has been accused of being a diva in the first round (Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin), and gambled a bit on an play-making outside linebacker who reportedly failed a combine drug test in the third round (Georgia's Justin Houston).
That's either a sign of the Chiefs doing their homework and feeling as if both players haven't been fairly characterized, or Kansas City is willing to take a few more chances now that it has established a baseline of success in the Scott Pioli/Todd Haley era.
• I'm wondering how quickly Eagles fans are going to embrace their new fourth-round linebacker, Oregon's Casey Matthews? After all, it was Casey's famous older brother, Green Bay All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, who knocked Philadelphia quarterback Kevin Kolb out of last year's season opener at the Linc, and then helped knock Michael Vick and the Eagles out of the playoffs in the NFC's first round.
• The Falcons meant business when they said they were in search of explosive play-makers on offense. They put their money where their mouth is with the blockbuster deal for Julio Jones on Thursday night, and then followed suit Saturday by trading up to take elusive Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round. Without a doubt, Atlanta is going to be tougher to defend in 2011.
"We talked all offseason about becoming more explosive offensively and having more play-making ability,'' Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the NFL Network on Saturday. "This was something that was over about a month and a half an ongoing discussion. We talked about it at so many levels, and we feel like we've accomplished what we needed to do on that front in the draft.''