Could the Cleveland Browns break tradition and select a running back No. 1?

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley runs a drill Friday during the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

The Cleveland Browns are looking for a quarterback. Of course they are. Since relaunching as an expansion franchise in 1999, the Browns have started 28 different quarterbacks, four of whom they drafted in the first round.

Seeing as the team has gone a combined 1-31 the last two seasons, has yet to locate a quarterback to build around, and that this is a draft class particularly rich in talent at the position, it’s logical to think the Browns would select a quarterback with the No. 1 pick.

And they might. But they shouldn’t.

The Browns, who select first and fourth, should use the top pick on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who is coming off a jaw-dropping performance at the scouting combine. As noted on Twitter by @NFLResearch, Barkley had a better bench press performance than tackle Joe Thomas, had a quicker 10-yard split than DeSean Jackson, a faster 40-yard dash than Devin Hester, and jumped higher than Julio Jones.


Cleveland, which desperately needs help at running back, is going to evaluate its free-agent options at quarterback. Even if the answer is addressing the position through the draft, the Browns will still have an array to choose from at No. 4. (unless they are absolutely in love with one of these quarterback prospects).

It’s entirely possible that the New York Giants at No. 2 and/or Indianapolis at No. 3 will trade out of those spots to a quarterback-hungry team. The Giants are in the market for a quarterback, too, although they’re committed to 37-year-old Eli Manning at the moment and appear to be in a win-now mode.

But it’s hard to imagine the Giants letting Barkley slide by if he’s on the board when they pick, and the Colts need a running back as well.

It has been 23 years since a running back was selected No. 1 overall, and it was another Penn State tailback going to another NFL team from Ohio. The Cincinnati Bengals kicked off the 1995 draft by taking Ki-Jana Carter, and that turned out to be a colossal mistake. He endured a string of season-ending injuries, played for four teams over nine years, and compiled career totals of 14 starts and 1,144 yards.

There’s no guarantee that Barkley will be a grand slam — so many Browns picks have fizzled — but Cleveland would be getting him for the first five years of his career, typically the career prime of a brutal position, and before that potential massive second contract.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley runs the ball 92 yards for a touchdown during a game against Washington on Dec. 30.
( Jennifer Stewart / Getty Images )

Consider what Ezekiel Elliot has meant to Dallas, Todd Gurley has meant to the Rams, Leonard Fournette to Jacksonville, Le’Veon Bell to Pittsburgh, and Kareem Hunt to Kansas City. It wasn’t so long ago that people were talking about the dwindling importance of running backs in the league, but now everything points to the contrary.

“I listen to this jabber-jabber about ‘running backs don’t count anymore,’ and, ‘they’re passé,’ ” Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown said by phone Sunday. “Can you really say a running back is not a first-line player when you have two minutes left in a ballgame and you have a running back who can run the clock out? He’s invaluable. If you get a great running back, that’s a fantastic asset to your offense, there’s no doubt about it.”

Brown, who played for Cleveland from 1957-65, was the NFL’s most valuable player three times, and is considered by many the game’s greatest player. He said he has no special insight about who the Browns will take first overall, but that it wouldn’t surprise him if it were Barkley.

If the Browns do that, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer