CLEVELAND (AP) — Jedrick Wills protected Tua Tagovailo's blind side at Alabama. He's now got Baker Mayfield's back.
The Cleveland Browns filled an enormous hole at starting left tackle by selecting Wills, one of college football's best right tackles, with the No. 10 overall pick in Thursday's NFL draft.
A starting left tackle has been a top priority over the past two seasons for the Browns, and this was the perfect year to find one with four top-rated tackles expected to go in the top 15 picks. When it was Cleveland's turn to pick, new general manager Andrew Berry, who returned to the Browns after one season in Philadelphia's front office, made Wills the first pick of his tenure.
“We thought he was a guy who fit in terms of talent, makeup and need," Berry said. "He's perfect for us.”
The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Wills played right tackle for the Crimson Trade, but he — and the Browns — are confident he can slide to the other side and perform at a high level. The Browns are set at right tackle after signing free agent Pro Bowl tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million contract last month.
First-year coach Kevin Stefanski said Plan A is for Wills to start at left tackle with Conklin on the right side, but the team will be open-minded if a change is necessary.
“I do think there is going to be some physical reprogramming or gaining a little bit of comfort," Berry said. "From our perspective with Jed, the reason that he was playing the right side at Alabama is because they had a very successful left-handed quarterback. In terms of the actual physical skill set — his speed, his athletic ability and his ability to pass-protect — all of those are top-notch from our perspective, and we think that he can really play either side of the line of scrimmage.”
Wills was at home with some family members in Lexington, Kentucky, when the Browns called. He was thrilled to hear they had him ranked as the best tackle in the draft.
“It means a lot,” he said. “I firmly believed that I was, so them believing (in) me, it makes me feel good and I’m going to prove them right.”
Going in to the draft, the Browns were in a perfect position to find their left tackle and they investigated acquiring seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams from Washington. Williams has been on the Browns' radar for more than year. Former general manager John Dorsey wanted to trade for him last year, but the Redskins were unwilling to deal the 31-year-old.
Berry would not comment on whether the Browns made another run at Williams.
Cleveland's been looking for a long-term solution at left tackle since perennial All-Pro and likely Hall of Famer Joe Thomas ruptured his triceps in 2017 and retired before the 2018 season.
Stefanski said he's planning to hook Wills up with Thomas, who has remained connected to the Browns in retirement.
Wills said Thomas did indeed reach out to him before the draft and again after the Browns selected him. Wills has also heard from Mayfield and he exchanged tweets with star Odell Beckham Jr., asking the wide receiver to “lemme know how much time you need to finish your route 13.”
When it was Cleveland's turn to pick at No. 10, Berry said the Browns were surprised three top tackles were still left. At that point, Georgia's Andrew Thomas was the only top tackle prospect not available after going to the New York Giants at No. 4.
Iowa's Tristan Wirfs and Louisville's Mekhi Becton were still on the board, but Berry opted for Wills, who made 28 consecutive starts for coach Nick Saban at Alabama and faced some of the SEC's top edge rushers. Stefanski said Wills' college pedigree was a major factor in him separating from the others.
"Obviously ecstatic,” Stefanski said. “There’s a lot of things I like about this kid. He played a bunch of games down there at Alabama, he’ll turn 21 next month. I like his make-up, I like his tenacity, his toughness, his intelligence. Great movement skills, plays with a nastiness.
"I think we got a winner and I think we got the right person.”
Browns strategy officer Paul DePodesta said new offensive line coach Bill Callahan's work in Dallas in shifting Tyron Smith from a right tackle to left is a factor in the team's confidence Wills can do it.
Before drafting Wills, Berry said the Browns consulted with linebacker Mack Wilson, his former college teammate, and Wilson said, “Man, Jed's a baller.”
Berry said there were opportunities to trade down, acquire another pick and potentially still land Wills, but he didn't want to take any chances and addressed the Browns' most pressing need.
The Browns entered the draft with seven picks and are expected to address needs at safety and linebacker during the next few rounds.
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