Over the past two seasons, the Browns have won one game, posting a 1-31 record and getting outscored by 364 points, which comes out to more than 11 points per game. But at some point in the not so distant future, the Browns will actually find ways to win football games (yes, plural).
They’ll win games by riding the arm and legs of an NFL-caliber quarterback (Tyrod Taylor and/or Baker Mayfield), who’ll be throwing to a dynamic receiving corps (Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman and Jarvis Landry) and getting the ball in the hands of a nice collection of running backs (Duke Johnson, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb). And they’ll win games with their defense, which can attack the quarterback with an array of pass rushers (Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah and Chad Thomas) and can cover all areas of the field with capable linebackers (Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey) and defensive backs (Jabrill Peppers, Denzel Ward and Damarious Randall).
As much as it sounds like an oxymoron, the reason the Browns are finally in a position to
contend (let’s not get ahead of ourselves) compete is entirely related to their 1-31 record. Over the past two years, the Browns — sorta, but not really like the Philadelphia 76ers before them — have been a failure by design.
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Under Sashi Brown, who was named executive vice president in January 2016 and fired in December 2017, and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta (Jonah Hill from “Moneyball”), who was hired with Brown and is still around, the Browns went against well-established NFL norms by twice refusing to draft a franchise-changing quarterback in the first round and instead opting to trade their high draft picks for even more draft capital. As a consequence of their stockpiling strategy, they’ve been forced to trot out quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, and Kevin Hogan — let’s just say that the list on the back of that Browns quarterback jersey remains just as depressing as it did in 2015.
It might’ve been unconventional passing on highly-touted quarterback prospects like Jared Goff/Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, and Deshaun Watson, but the reasoning behind the method makes sense. Drafting prospects is like playing the slot machines. NFL teams aren’t just horrible at drafting and developing quarterbacks, they’re terrible at drafting and developing any and all types of players. By acquiring as many draft picks as possible, the Browns were improving their chances to draft and develop good, cheap players. Call it “Moneyball” or #analytics if you want — the name doesn’t matter as much as the reasoning.
But somewhere along the way, the process became too much to handle. Patience expired. Brown lost his job this past December as the Browns tumbled toward an 0-16 parade, and the more conventional (and proven) John Dorsey replaced him, inheriting a stupid-crazy wealth of draft capital and cap space. Dorsey proceeded to hijack the process by trading for (and paying) impact-now players like receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and cornerback Damarious Randall. Finally, he drafted their franchise quarterback, Baker Mayfield, with the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft last week.
Now that the process is, for the most part, over, it’s worth looking back at how the Browns arrived at this point, and whether the decisions they made over past couple years were worth it. With the benefit of hindsight at our disposal, it’s easy for us to identify the mistakes that were made. Even still, the Browns appear to be in a position to overcome those blunders. If they do emerge as a competitive team, it won’t be as simple as crediting Brown’s process or Dorsey’s takeover.
Let’s get to it.
Wentz, Watson trades: Not as horrible as you think
After a 3-13 season in 2015, the Browns were scheduled to pick second in the 2016 NFL Draft during Brown’s first offseason in charge. But on April 20, 2016, the Browns agreed to send the No. 2 overall pick (and a 2017 fourth-round pick) to Philadelphia in exchange for:
- No. 8 pick in 2016
- No. 77 pick in 2016
- No. 100 pick in 2016
- First-round pick in 2017
- Second-round pick in 2018
The Eagles would use the No. 2 pick on Carson Wentz after the Rams took Jared Goff first overall. During an interview with ESPN in the summer of 2016, DePodesta explained the Browns’ decision by saying that they didn’t think there was a top 20 quarterback in that draft.
“We have to make judgments on the individual players and we’re not always going to be right,” DePodesta said. “But in this particular case, we just didn’t feel it was necessarily the right bet to make for us at this time. Again, it comes down to individual evaluation of a player. We will not always be right on those type of things.
“I think the hardest part, and where we have to stay the most disciplined, as much as you want a player, you can’t invent him if he doesn’t exist. In a given year, there may be two or three NFL-ready quarterbacks at the college level. In another year, there literally may be zero. There just may not be anybody in that year who’s good enough to be a top 20 quarterback in the NFL.
“Even though you have a desperate need for one, you have to resist the temptation of taking that guy just because you have a need if you don’t believe he’s one of those 20 guys at the end of the day. I think that’s the hardest part, just maintaining your discipline because you have the need. That’s what we did this year.”
Eventually, Wentz blossomed in 2017 after a rough rookie season, emerging as an MVP candidate before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December, which has placed his availability for the beginning of the 2018 season in jeopardy. Obviously, in hindsight, DePodesta’s comments come across as foolish and misguided. They were wrong about a quarterback prospect. It happens to every team.
Unfortunately for the Browns, it happened again the following year. After taking pass-rusher Myles Garrett (not Trubisky) with the first-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (a decision nobody mocked), the Browns sat at No. 12 with the Eagles’ pick, which gave them an opportunity to draft quarterback Deshaun Watson. Instead, the Browns gave the Texans the 12th pick in exchange for the 25th pick and a 2018 first rounder. The Texans took Watson and then the Browns were forced to watch Watson set the league on fire as a rookie before a torn ACL ended his season in November. With the picks acquired in that trade, the Browns drafted safety Jabrill Peppers in 2017 and cornerback Denzel Ward in 2018. Again, the 12th pick was originally the Eagles’ pick that the Browns acquired in the Wentz trade, so both of these trades are connected like branches growing from the same tree.
The Browns, with all those picks from the Eagles, selected … it turns out, it’s not that simple. According to Cleveland.com’s Scott Patsko, the Browns traded all five of the Eagles’ picks for 12 total picks. Thankfully, Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice did the heavy lifting and compiled a list of players the Browns acquired through the process that began with the Wentz trade and ended during last week’s draft. Here’s the list:
- WR Corey Coleman
- OT Shon Coleman
- OG/OT Spencer Drango
- QB Cody Kessler
- S Derrick Kindred
- QB DeShone Kizer
- WR Ricardo Louis
- WR Jordan Payton
- S Jabrill Peppers
- DE Chad Thomas
- CB Denzel Ward
- WR Antonio Callaway
Clearly, the Browns would’ve been happy with either Wentz or Watson now that we’ve seen both of them dominate the NFL (albeit in relatively small sample sizes). But the only way we know that is by using hindsight. The Browns didn’t have luxury of hindsight when they made that trade. In the moment, their decision to stockpile draft picks made sense, as ESPN’s Seth Walder and Brian Burke explained when Brown got fired in December:
In just two years of draft-pick-for-draft-pick trades, the Browns significantly increased their draft capital. Even by the outdated Jimmy Johnson chart, they added over 2,000 trade chart points, the equivalent of the No. 3 pick. By another measure: They added over 20 AV, the equivalent of two No. 1 picks. And by Massey-Thaler’s surplus value calculations, they added more than $13 million of value in those trades, the equivalent of five or six first-round picks. That is all from just trading back.
… the ensuing rise of Wentz and Watson might have cost Brown his job. But those decisions ought to be judged based on the information on hand at the time rather than on hindsight. Neither quarterback was a slam dunk prospect, and in both situations the Browns returned excellent value for their pick. And, critically, the Browns didn’t need to jump at the first quarterback they saw because they were building for the long term. Or so they thought.
Several of the players they drafted could/will play substantial roles in the years to come. They might not have the kind of impact that Wentz or Watson would’ve, but they’ll be important to the Browns’ rebirth.
Corey Coleman has started off slowly, but most young receivers find it difficult to make an immediate impact. He should improve because he’s going to be catching passes from a competent quarterback in Tyrod Taylor and eventually (and hopefully) Baker Mayfield, and because he’ll be surrounded by Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry, both of whom will attract attention from defenses.
Shon Coleman will likely take over for future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas, who retired this offseason. To this point, Coleman’s been underwhelming as a pass blocker, but like the other Coleman, we can’t write him off yet. With Thomas gone, he’ll certainly get his chance to stick in Cleveland.
Jabrill Peppers is still adjusting to the NFL. In 13 games last season, he racked up 44 tackles, three passes defended, and an interception. He didn’t fare well under Pro Football Focus’ grading system (78th among all safeties), but like the three players named above, we shouldn’t rush to judge a young player still adapting to the next level. He should improve as the players around him get better.
Spencer Drango, a fifth-round pick, has played in 32 games and started 19 games in two seasons. He’s solid offensive line depth. Like Drango, Derrick Kindred, a fourth-round pick, represents depth in the secondary. Ricardo Louis, another fourth-round pick with 562 yards in two seasons, adds depth to the receiving group. Chad Thomas, a third-round pick this year, is a boom or bust pass rushing prospect.
For as difficult as it is to judge these young players, it’s impossible to judge Denzel Ward and Antonio Callaway because it’s all based on future projection. The two of them joined the Browns last week as the No. 4 pick and the No. 105 pick, respectively. Ward is the crown jewel. Don’t let his low interception total (2) last year fool you. According to Pro Football Focus, “Ward allowed an NFL passer rating of 52.9 when targeted in 2017, with two interceptions and 12 pass breakups from 57 targets” and “allowed just 35.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, one of the best marks in the nation.” That’s why the Browns took him over pass rusher Bradley Chubb.
As for Callaway, he’s a first-round talent based on his football skillset alone. The problem is away from the field. Whether or not Callaway can remain eligible to play remains to be seen. If he can, he’ll bolster an already strong receiving corps. If he can’t, a fourth-round pick won’t be viewed as a huge loss.
Obviously, there were some misses in that group, like using a third-round pick on Kessler (since traded to Jacksonville for a late-round pick) and a second-round pick on Kizer (since traded to Green Bay for Damarious Randall and a swap of Day 3 draft picks).
But both of those quarterbacks’ struggles represent why the Browns’ strategy of passing on quarterbacks in the early stages of their rebuild might’ve been smart. Kessler and Kizer struggled mightily when given a chance to play, but a significant portion of their struggles can be chalked up to the lack of support structure around them. To put it simply, most young, unproven quarterbacks would’ve struggled in Cleveland over the past two seasons — probably even Wentz and Watson — with that roster and that coaching staff (which still remains in place, of course).
We saw how big a difference a new roster and coaching staff made with Jared Goff over the past two seasons. So, it’s wrong to assume that Wentz or Watson would’ve torn up the field in Cleveland. Teammates and coaching matters.
Mayfield at least has the benefit of joining a team that figures to be stronger than the teams Kessler and Kizer joined. And the only reason Mayfield has that benefit is because the Browns chose to build a team before picking a quarterback.
So really, the question comes down to, would you rather have:
- Wentz without much help on the roster
- Watson, Garrett, and possibly Ward (who knows if they still could’ve grabbed him in 2018?)
- Mayfield, Garrett, Ward, and all of those players listed above?
The answer isn’t as simple as No. 1 or 2.
Nobody knows how Wentz would’ve fared on a team that didn’t have a stacked offensive line, a top-tier tight end (Zach Ertz), one of the game’s best coaches (Doug Pederson), and an elite defense. For as much hype as we’ve given Watson, nobody knows how the rest of his NFL career will unfold. What he did in 2017 was amazing, but he only did it over a seven-game stretch. Let’s pump the breaks on his Hall of Fame projections until he proves he can sustain his high level of play over a larger sample size. Plus, he’s already torn both of his ACLs in a span of three years. Health concerns over Watson are legitimate — as they are with Wentz considering how much of his game is built around his athleticism.
Wentz and Watson are more proven than Mayfield, that’s for sure, but let’s give Mayfield (and Garrett, Ward, and others) a chance to play before we dismiss the third option. It still could be the best one. We just have to let them play before we know for certain.
The Brock Osweiler trade: A win for Cleveland
We’ll get to Mayfield soon, but first, we need to address the trade that was a clear win for the Browns.
Last summer, the Browns traded FOR Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler and his mega contract. With their cap space, the Browns had the ability to take on his contract. Because the Browns were eating his deal, the Texans gave the Browns a 2018 second-round pick (other Day 3 picks were exchanged). Osweiler never made it to the 2017 regular season with the Browns. Last week, the trade was completed when the Browns used the second-round pick on a tackle-breaking machine, running back Nick Chubb.
Just another stat when Nick Chubb stands out pic.twitter.com/OS6iLKXv8d
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 19, 2018
With their second pick in the second round, the Browns add Georgia’s Nick Chubb, who can make people miss with the ball in his hands! pic.twitter.com/1FSdjtvg3l
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 27, 2018
Chubb joins a stacked backfield that already features Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson Jr. The trio will certainly be weaponized.
Dorsey alters but finishes the process
Though the Browns’ rebuilding job will certainly continue into next season, the “Moneyball” portion of the process appears to be over.
Dorsey made sure of that, trading away some of the draft capital he inherited from Brown for players who will help the Browns win now. Most notably, he gave up an early third-round pick for bridge quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and fourth-round and seventh-round picks for slot receiver Jarvis Landry.
Brown’s fingerprints are all over those trades considering he’s the one who acquired so much draft capital that Dorsey knew he could spend some of it freely, but he likely wouldn’t have been the one to actually pull the trigger on those deals — especially the Taylor trade. What’s the point in giving up a draft pick for a quarterback who has no long-term future with the club? At best, Taylor will start one full season. At worst, Mayfield will pass him on the depth chart before the end of the 2018 season. Taylor brings short-term security — he’s the best quarterback in Cleveland over the past decade — but the process that Brown initiated didn’t value short-term security. The plan was always the long run. Dorsey still values the long-term, but he’s also making sure the Browns field a competitive team before his rookie quarterback can contribute. This is how Dorsey has hijacked the process. He wants to win some football games now while the long-term process continues to play out.
Give Dorsey credit for salvaging some of Browns’ mistakes, though. The drafting of Kizer didn’t work out, but Dorsey turned Kizer into a player (Randall) who’ll contribute immediately without giving up much draft capital. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out in the immediate aftermath of the trade, “by Chase Stuart’s draft chart, the trade value of the picks resolves down to the Packers‘ gaining something close to the 188th pick, a selection in the middle of the sixth round.” That’s a fair trade off for Randall, who has collected 10 picks in three seasons, and will transition from cornerback to safety in Cleveland.
As a whole, after Dorsey dedicated much of the offseason to bolstering the secondary, the Browns’ secondary looks dangerous.
Finally, Dorsey completed the process by drafting Mayfield. The Browns finally have their quarterback. And then they used the Texans’ first-round pick (which they got when they passed on taking Watson, which they were only in a position to do because of their trade down with the Eagles in 2016) to take Ward.
The Browns still have plenty of work to do. The process never really stops in the NFL. But the Browns’ period of stockpiling picks is over. For better or for worse, they’ve got their short-term and their long-term quarterback, and a roster around the quarterback that won’t be a complete liability. Now, the results of the process will be unveiled.
A promising future awaits despite uneven results
The process certainly wasn’t perfect.
Trading down instead of taking Wentz and Watson made sense at the time, but hindsight has demonstrated that the Browns might’ve been better off taking either of those two quarterback. It’s difficult to envision an alternate universe in which the Browns actually take Wentz, but if they had taken Wentz, you’d think they still would been picking high in the following two drafts. If they had taken Wentz, they likely wouldn’t have been able to draft Myles Garrett first overall in 2017, but they might’ve been able to get Ward this year with whatever pick they would’ve had.
But the Browns’ future finally looks promising in large part because of Brown’s “Moneyball” strategy, which gave them leeway to miss on some draft selections while hitting on a few. Remember, that was the entire point. The Browns knew they’d miss on some draft picks like everyone else does. But they collected enough picks to allow them to overcome their misses the way other teams can’t.
Brown missed on Kizer and Kessler, but young players like tight end David Njoku, defensive end Myles Garrett, receiver Corey Coleman, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, safety Jabrill Peppers, and cornerback Denzel Ward figure to play a substantial role in the Browns’ return to relevance. The trade for Jamie Collins remains a solid one. His free agent signings of offensive linemen will give Mayfield a not-horrible support structure. If Mayfield ends up turning into a franchise-saving quarterback, Brown deserves credit for building a halfway decent team that doesn’t completely hinder a young quarterback.
Really, the reason the Browns have hope is Mayfield. He’s that good of a quarterback prospect.
If Mayfield, who is expected to sit behind Taylor this season, develops into a top-tier quarterback, Dorsey will be lauded as the Browns’ savior. He’ll get the credit, which will be deserved.
It’s not like Mayfield was the consensus top quarterback. Most pundits figured the Browns would take either the strong-armed Josh Allen or the safer Sam Darnold. It wasn’t until the morning of the draft that Mayfield emerged as the favorite. Sure enough, the Browns chose the short, athletic, mobile quarterback coming out of a college system over the more traditional type of quarterbacks. Mayfield was the quarterback most of the #analytics community chose as their QB1, perhaps demonstrating that the nerds (I say this as a compliment) still hold some — if not all — the power in Cleveland. It also indicates that perhaps if Brown had survived to this point, he would’ve taken Mayfield over the other quarterbacks, though there’s no way to know for certain what he would’ve done.
Really, the best way to look at the past few years and the next few years in Cleveland is through a nuanced lens. Would the Browns have been better off staying at No. 2 and taking Wentz in 2016? Probably, but we’ll never know, because there’s no way to know how Wentz would’ve fared in the barren wasteland that is Cleveland. Would the Browns have been better off taking Watson? Maybe, but let’s see how Watson fares in the years to come first. Does that mean the Browns’ current formula with Mayfield, Ward, Peppers, Coleman, and so on can’t be as good as those other two outcomes? Of course not.
There’s still a chance that the path the Browns took will be the best one. We just have to let their young players actually play before we rush to judgement. If the Browns do end up becoming competitive, Dorsey, Brown, and DePodesta will all deserve credit. All three of their fingerprints are all over this rebuilding job.
Sashi Brown died for it. Paul DePodesta is still there fighting for it. John Dorsey co-opted it. Now, Cleveland gets to live it.
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