Next week I will be appearing on my friend Jack Duffin‘s podcast titled, “The Paul Brown Show,” so I’m looking over some of his questions for the upcoming episode to prepare. I hope you’ll be able to listen, I love talking about the Browns and the process they’ve gone through over the last few years; I’ll post a link on my Twitter when it’s up.
In that preparation I was reminded of the trade with the Texans that brought Brock Osweiler to the Browns. In the deal the Browns gave up a 2017 fourth-round pick that became defensive tackle Carlos Watkins for the Texans. They received Osweiler and his contract, plus a 2018 second-round pick and a 2017 sixth-round pick. The 2017 sixth-round pick was then traded to the Jets, where they selected running back Elijah Maguire. The Browns moved up to pick #160 to draft offensive tackle Roderick Johnson. The 2018 second-round pick was the big return on this trade for them though as they drafted running back Nick Chubb.
I tweeted this out, with a huge response from Browns fans that they would much rather have Chubb than the $16 million in cap space. I’d tend to agree, especially considering the $87 million in cap space they already have for 2019 before potential releases like Jamie Collins, which would net them $9.25 million more in cap space:
It’s an interesting situation or result of a situation. Jason has been talking for awhile about what a bad deal that was for the Browns with Osweiler because, as Jason points out, it was a bad bet based on who Osweiler is as a player is knowing that was a bet with a low-probability of high-performance. But that said, the result of the trade is that they have a player who Pro Football Focus is grading out as the best running back in the NFL despite his limited action so far.
The Osweiler trade resulted in $16 million in dead money on the 2017 books without him ever playing a snap for the organization, which isn’t a good investment for any organization, but in the Browns case they had more than enough cap space to make that bet, while still acquiring a second round pick. The issue becomes, as Jason has pointed out, is $16 million in dead money worth the cost of acquiring a second round pick. For the purposes of keeping this simple, we’ll disregard the fourth and sixth round pick that became a fifth round pick in this scenario as we can consider them a near even deal. Watkins and Johnson haven’t performed at a high level, so they’ve basically been the same result.
If you prorate out the $16 million in dead money to $4 million a year over four years, then add to Chubb’s $1.85 million per year over his contract, it’s like the cost of Chubb was $5.85 million per year. So to this point, he costs about $650,000 less than Lamar Miller per season if we were to think about his contract in these terms.
Considering teams can’t really acquire top running back talent through free agency and the market for the top players on extensions has climbed all the way to $13 million, up from Devonta Freeman’s $8.25 million contract from August 2017, the high performing Chubb seems like he could be a tremendous value for the team over the next four seasons. Again though, you can’t find a Nick Chubb talent in free agency at running back and even if you do, the probability of him being a success is very low.
Le’Veon Bell might be a rare case of a viable free agent running back worth big money, but spending $15 million a year on a 27-year old running back with over 1500 career touches, an injury history, and a drug suspension history is a risky investment itself.
In the five games since he took over as the Browns lead running back after the trade of Carlos Hyde to the Jaguars, Chubb has averaged 21.2 carries for 98 yards (4.6 per carry) and 0.8 rushing touchdowns per game. He has 9 catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns through the air as well.
This would come out to 16 game totals of 1568 rushing yards on 339 carries for 13 touchdowns with 29 catches for 294 yards and six touchdowns.
James Koh from Next Gen Stats shared the thread attached, which detailed how Chubb may be the most elusive player in the NFL according to their statistic named Yards Gained After Close (YGAC). This stat details how much of an impact a running back’s elusivity (I think that’s a word, or it should be one) has on a play.
Yards Gained Before Close (YGBC) explains the impact of the offensive linemen on how much positive yardage they create up front before a running back has to make a move.
The league average for yards gained after close is about 3.7 yards. Nick Chubb is the top running back in this stat for those who have carried the ball over 70 times at 5.6. Isaiah Crowell is second at 5.0.
Considering success rates of a second-round pick, I’m not positive it’s worth the bet on Osweiler, but it’s another way to consider the end result of the deal. Because of how the Texans season went, it ended up basically being a first round pick at #35, so what is the probability that a player drafted here provides the almost $6 million in value we discussed with Chubb?
In Jason’s 2016 article titled “Drafting Decisions and the Salary Cap 2016,” he found that the expected average per year for a player drafted #35 overall was about $4.2 million per year. That was against a $155.27 million salary cap, so factoring in the 14% increase in the salary cap since then, his expected value was about $4,788,000.
On the high end, the top 25% of players drafted at #35 overall though, Jason found their value in terms of average per year would be $8.96 million in 2018 dollars. For the players in the 50 to 75% quartile, the expected value per year is $5,699,969, right around what Chubb’s four-year cost was in the exercise where we prorated out Osweiler’s dead money cap hit.
One could debate whether or not the bet was worth it based on these numbers. I’m sure the Browns got deeper into this kind of thinking and maybe even came up with an exact figure on how much that #35 pick would be worth to them. I would imagine that an analytics based organization has a more complex draft chart than the one Jimmy Johnson came up with thirty years ago.
As I said before, Watkins (#142 overall) and Johnson (#160) were basically the same value as these picks have similar probabilities of their likelihood of being hits. The #142 pick in 2017 had an expected value per year of $1,813,757 and the #160 pick had an expected value of $1,538,040. It’s an almost $300,000 difference, but more or less a similar situation.
Jason’s expected value for these deals far outpace the salaries that all three draft picks are seeing on their rookie contracts. As I detail in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, the NFLPA needs to be focused on increasing the rookie pay structure towards the level of the actual value that the players are producing on the field.
What’s happened across the league is that teams are saving so much money on rookie contracts that the leftover money has been moved into a few key markets, most notably quarterback, so the veteran markets are increasing past a player’s actual value because of the lack of compensation for rookie contract players. The quarterback market has increased from $25 million per year for Derek Carr in June 2017 to $33.5 million for Aaron Rodgers in August 2018, I think that growth is more a function of cap space than a realistic rate of growth in terms of player value. I mean It’s great that veterans are making more money, but most of the NFL doesn’t make it to the second contract, so most of the NFL won’t see that money. It essentially creates two classes of players.
This is a team that has a core of Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb, Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku, and Larry Ogunjobi all on rookie contracts for two or three more seasons. Joe Schobert has one more year on his rookie deal and there are other rookie contract players contributing as well. That’s the benefit of having 33 draft picks from 2016 to 2018.
There is another quarterback-involved series of trades to consider with the Browns over the past few seasons that countless writers have bashed and without much understanding of a) how a team is constructed or b) the salary cap implications of it all. Whenever the Browns would be floundering over the past few years, someone would tweet something about how the Browns could have Carson Wentz or Deshaun Watson based on their draft position. It would get them retweets from other people who also didn’t know what they were talking about, but it wasn’t based in the reality of the process the Browns were going through (#TrustTheProcess).
Cleveland has tried the path of drafting the quarterback to a garbage roster repeatedly since they came back into existence in 1999, they’ve tried spending money to chase mediocrity. Instead, they did what the Houston Astros did for a few seasons to build up their roster leading into their 2017 World Series Championship: they sucked! They didn’t spend money to chase a 6-10 season, they didn’t draft a great quarterback in the first round to prepare for the Concussion sequel where Owen Wilson, who looks nothing like Roger Goodell, still lies about the effects of concussions. The 2016 Browns led the NFL with 66 sacks and were sixth in 2017 with 50. They’re still seventh with 35 through 11 weeks, but they have the cap space to make changes there this offseason.
The Browns built up a roster, then placed their franchise quarterback in once the team had a roster that was capable of competing due to an infusion of young talent and the cap space to do whatever they needed to do to solidify the positions they hadn’t drafted well.
And they wouldn’t have been able to do any of this if they drafted Wentz or Watson, in fact, Wentz or Watson wouldn’t be “WENTZ” or “WATSON” if they were on these Browns teams. The entire conversation would have been different regarding those two players if they were on these Browns teams without the trades that involved their draft picks.
The Carson Wentz trade involved the #2 pick that became Wentz with the Eagles also receiving a 2017 fourth-round pick, which they traded to move up to draft RB Donnel Pumphrey. The Browns received the #8 pick, a third-round pick (#77), and a fourth-round pick (#100), plus a 2017 first-round pick, and a second rounder in 2018.
What resulted out of the Wentz trade and all the moves the Browns made off of these picks were the following players: WR Corey Coleman, OT Shon Coleman, QB Cody Kessler, WR Ricardo Louis, S Derrick Kindred, WR Jordan Payton, OG/OT Spencer Drango, S Jabrill Peppers, QB DeShone Kizer, CB Denzel Ward, DE Chad Thomas, and WR Antonio Callaway. Kessler, Corey Coleman, and Shon Coleman have all been traded in the last six months for future seventh round picks, so, barring those seventh round picks being involved in trades to move up in the draft, the Browns could net a total of 15 players out of this trade.
The Watson deal was a part of this entire process as that trade netted them the #25 pick in 2017 that became Peppers and the #4 pick in 2018 that became Ward. Kizer was also traded to the Packers for safety Damarious Randall, along with a swapping of fourth and fifth round picks between the two teams, who has been a key player for them in the fourth year of his five-year rookie contract.
Sure, a lot of those picks didn’t work out, but you need a lot draft picks to bet on players because of the lack of success teams generally have in the draft. Really, the only way to ensure you do well in the draft is to have a lot of picks just based on league-wide odds. If you just look at how many teams activate the fifth-year team options for their first-round picks, only about 60% of teams do. Even at the top of the draft teams aren’t drafting players who live up to their expectations.
I don’t have exact math on it, but considering the likelihood of success of drafting a contributing player in X round with Y pick is a thought every organization considers when making trades. It’s something they surely thought about when considering the Osweiler trade that netted them the pick the resulted in Chubb.
Even with the misses they had, they’ve come out of it with Peppers, Ward, Callaway, and Randall looking like players that will be key core players moving forward. If you could trade Carson Wentz for what may be 15 total players, including those four starters, while still having Baker Mayfield, would you do it?
(They also wouldn’t have made the Osweiler trade in 2017 if they drafted Wentz or Watson, so they wouldn’t have Chubb either, but that’s not directly tied to the Wentz trade, so we won’t count that in this.)
Also, even with those misses, even with the players that haven’t developed into starters, the “busts” have filled a key role: they’re inexpensive rookie contract back-ups, which means the team didn’t have to go out and spend money on more expensive veterans to fill the roster, which saved more cap space. Considering the low cost of rookie contracts, it’s also a tremendous value having two reliable safeties, what seems to be a top young cornerback and a developing, but promising receiver on these deals.
Maybe most importantly out of all of this is that, because they didn’t spend cap space chasing mediocrity (and maybe a little help from Hue Doing Hue), the Browns sucked so bad they got the #1 pick again in 2018, which resulted in the selection of Baker Mayfield, a quarterback who looks like he can be on the same level as Wentz and Watson considering the abilities he’s already shown and the moxie we all know he has. He’s looking much improved since Jackson and Todd Haley were fired as well. Through his first six games, his completion percentage was 58%, he passed for 245.2 yards per game, and had eight touchdowns to six interceptions. In the three games since with offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens he’s completing 74% of passes for 257.0 yards per game with nine touchdowns to one interception.
The key aspect of this as well is that, if all things were equal, which they aren’t because the Browns wouldn’t have had all these low-cost rookie contract players they were able to draft on their roster, and they drafted Wentz, then they would’ve wasted at least his first two seasons on horrible teams. That would’ve been two years of a quarterback’s rookie contract wasted and likely more. Who knows when the Browns would have turned this around if they implemented the same rebuild they’d already tried a few times before.
Over the past few years, it’s become apparent to me that having a low-cost, high-performing quarterback may be the most valuable asset in the NFL as players like Wentz, Mahomes, Goff, Trubisky, and Watson are giving their teams a similar level of performance to the veteran quarterback standard, but for 10-12% of the cap less than what those veteran quarterbacks cost. This extra 10-12% of the cap they have to spend means they’re building more well-rounded rosters around these above average quarterbacks, which means their rosters are more competitive than many teams with the expensive quarterbacks. The Browns
Look at the struggles of the Packers and Falcons this year after the big contracts they just gave Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Both players are performing at a high-level, but there’s less cap room to afford talent around them.
Look at the Lions. They gave Matt Stafford a contract in 2017 with the three years from 2018 through 2021 in that same 15-16% of the cap range that Rodgers and Ryan will find themselves in next yearafter winning zero playoff games up to this point in his career. And, surprise, the Lions still suck.
In summary, it’s precisely because of the move to trade out of the opportunity to draft Wentz that the Browns are in position to start competing at a much higher level in the coming years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team compete for a Super Bowl by 2020 because of the way this roster has been constructed. When you stop thinking of the Browns as the Browns and you just look at what they’ve done strategically from a team building perspective, you begin to realize the glory days may be back again in Cleveland and there may be no fan base more deserving.
Enjoy it Browns fans. Brighter days are coming.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.