Football / Sports

Browns select lineman Joel Bitonio, linebacker Christian Kirksey despite possible suspension of receiver Josh Gordon

BEREA, Ohio -- The Browns filled two areas of need on the second day of the NFL Draft, but perhaps the biggest hole created on Friday remains unfilled.

Hours after ESPN reported Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon is facing a year-long suspension for yet another failed drug test, the Browns ignored the receiver position and instead drafted Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio with their pick in the second round (35th overall) and Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey (71st overall) with their third-round selection. They traded their second pick in the third round Thursday night to move up and select Johnny Manziel.

To pass twice on a receiver, knowing Gordon's potentially dismal fate, was perplexing. With only one day and four picks remaining on Saturday (two in the fourth round, one in the sixth and one in the seventh), the Browns' top receivers right now are Nate Burleson and Greg Little if Gordon is indeed facing a suspension. The Browns referred all questions regarding Gordon to the league office.

In selecting Bitonio and Kirksey, they found perhaps a starting guard and an inside linebacker.

Bitonio has long been described as having a nasty streak, a reputation he embraces proudly as inherited from his late father.

Mike Bitonio was a bare-knuckled brawler who competed in the early days of Mixed Martial Arts. His day job was laying flooring, but he moonlighted as a fighter. His 1995 fight against the bigger, stronger and more accomplished Bart Vale remains legendary among early MMA fans. Vale bloodied Bitonio on a head butt during the first minute of the match, but Bitonio hung in for another six minutes while taking a severe beating that left him a crumpled, bloody mess.

Mike Bitonio later died of a heart attack in 2010.

"He was tough as nails, man," Joel said Friday on a conference call. "He was always telling me, 'Be mentally tough, be physically tough. No one is going to be able to outwork you.' I think I take those traits to the football field . . . he was a huge inspiration in the way I play and just my attitude on the field."

Bitonio is listed at 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds. He started 38 consecutive games for the Wolf Pack, playing primarily at tackle and acknowledged Friday he is more comfortable there. But he is projected to move inside now in part because he is too undersized to remain at tackle.

He surrendered just two sacks and was penalized five times on 2,054 snaps, according to NFLDraftScouts.com.

Bitonio left Nevada as an economics major with a minor in civil engineering. He earned a 3.25 grade-point average and was a two-time Academic All-Mountain West Conference selection. In a poll of pro scouts, he was selected to the NFL Draft Report's All-American second team and All-Conference first team.

Bitonio caught scouts' attention this season when he shut down UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, who was selected ninth overall in Thursday's first round by the Minnesota Vikings.

"He didn't say much on the field . . . I could sense he was a little bit frustrated with certain things," Bitonio said. "But it was also the way we were running the offense. He likes to chase things down, he likes to be open. We weren't letting that happen."

Despite his father's love for fighting, Bitonio never invested much time in it.

"I stick to football," he said. "We sparred a little bit, but I loved basketball and football when I was growing up so it wasn't really for me."

Kirksey was projected as a fifth-round pick, but now could serve as a replacement for Craig Robertson. He played mostly outside linebacker at Iowa, but he played inside as an underclassmen and the Browns already told him they would like him to play inside, he said.

Kirksey didn't run at the combine because of a hamstring injury and only produced 16 reps on the bench press, second-fewest among all the linebackers. He is considered undersized at 6-1 and 233 pounds and has a reputation of getting stuck on blocks.

But he was a two-time team captain and finished 15th in school history with 315 career tackles. He has long been considered a strong leader, traits he said he received from his father, who was a pastor before he died following a stroke before Kirksey's freshman season at Iowa.

"Since I was little, looking up to my father and seeing the type of man he was and the way he carried himself, he always told me to be proud of myself and be proud of who you are," Kirksey said. "He instilled a lot in me through church. Watching him and the type of man he was, the way he led his church and led his people, he wanted me to be the same thing."

If the ESPN report on Gordon failing a test for smoking marijuana is accurate, the Browns' dreams of a Manziel/Gordon/Jordan Cameron attack lasted less than 24 hours. It would be Gordon's third strike in the NFL's strict drug program and be accompanied by a one-year ban.

Browns General Manager Ray Farmer was aware of the suspension prior to the start of the draft, according to the report, but passed on Sammy Watkins at the top of the first round, then passed on USC receiver Marqise Lee and Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews at the top of the second round in favor of Bitonio.

(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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