Thoughts on the Cleveland Browns

It doesn’t get much worse than what has happened in Cleveland. The team is 1-23 in their last 24 games and hasn’t had a winning season since 2007 when Derek Anderson was their quarterback and Romeo Crennel was the head coach. It’s a great fanbase but they have to beaten down by now to a level I can’t even imagine.  That probably makes it even harder to come to find any positives with the organization. A lot is being made recently of the Browns continued lack of success and approach to building their team, so I just thought I would throw my two cents in about the team as well.

Despite the lack of success the Browns front office is a bit polarizing. They come from a baseball background which opens them up to some unfair criticism and also opens them up to some defenses that don’t exactly hold much weight either. Still its an interesting topic to discuss.

The biggest thing being talked about right now is the team’s whiffing on the QB position. The two names being discussed are Carson Wentz of the Eagles and Deshaun Watson of the Texans. The Browns were in a position to draft both players but opted to not pull the trigger. For Wentz the Browns received the 8th pick in the same draft, a 3rd round pick, and a 4th round pick, plus the following year’s 1st and 2nd rounder from the Eagles.   The Browns would later turn the 8th pick into the 15th pick and a 3rd round pick plus a 2nd in 2017. For Watson it was the 25th pick and a 1st rounder in 2018.  I don’t think anyone would argue that the Browns got value for the trades, but there are some other considerations at play here.

The argument for the decision to pass on Wentz and Watson has boiled down to two predominant points. The first is that the Browns organization wasn’t good enough to allow them to develop so it made no sense to take a QB. The second is that the team was so devoid of talent that they needed all the picks just to fill the roster and then they could get the QB later. The old what would you rather have approach- x amount of starters or one player?

On the first argument I don’t buy that one for this team. When we look back at “roster purges” normally they are accompanied by some other factors, normally salary cap issues. That wasn’t the case with the Browns. They had and still have ridiculous amounts of cap room. While free agency is often a band aid which usually can’t be the only way to build a successful team it can certainly give a player like Wentz a few pieces around him to keep him upright.

It’s also not as if the Browns are the only bad team to ever draft a quarterback. The Colts somehow went to the playoffs in their first year with Andrew Luck. The Redskins did the same with Robert Griffin. Matt Stafford survived the Lions and Derek Carr the Raiders. Most players drafted high go to really bad football teams. Do some teams manage the roster and the development of those players better than others?  Yes they do, but the fact that some teams don’t is not reason to bypass on a selection. If you don’t think your organization can handle the development of the QB then you should be looking for a new coaching staff.

Secondly it’s not as if these Browns were afraid to play a rookie QB. The Browns gave 8 games to a 3rd round pick, Cody Kessler, in 2016 and then opened this year with 2nd rounder DeShone Kizer under center. Neither was as highly regarded as Wentz or Watson yet there they were playing. There is also nothing that says you have to play the QB as a rookie. If you are afraid the team is that bad do what the Bengals did years ago and sit him. Or wait a few games like the Giants of 2004 and see how the team is and the player is progressing before inserting him.  If a player has the talent you take him and figure out how to help him succeed.

The second point of one vs many I think has more validity, but not necessarily in this particular situation.  There is far less risk involved in picking later in the draft and the more 1st and 2nd round picks you have, generally the better your return. There really isn’t a big tradeoff with those top picks by moving down. Here is the approximate breakdown of players drafted between 2009 and 2014 who are still in the NFL by round and how many are still on the same team that drafted them:

RoundStill in LeagueStill on Same Team
Pick 11-3275.8%48.5%
Top 1080.0%43.3%

So clearly more 1st and 2nd round picks makes sense and for the short term those 3rd rounders probably help a good deal as well. Even the other spots aren’t bad to have and the Browns certainly got a lot of extra 1st and 2nd and 3rd round picks in return.

But when looking at quarterbacks I think we need to look at things very differently. Everyone acknowledges that the QB is the most important position to find in the NFL. It’s probably the only position you can not fill via free agency, at least not for a long term high level player.  It also generally produces much better at the top of the draft than elsewhere. Just as a quick reference I looked at the QBs drafted from 2002 through 2014 and did a quick good, passable, miss rating for the QBs drafted. Here are the results.

Pick 11-3211.1%11.1%77.8%
Top 1035.0%20.0%45.0%

If the goal is to find a good QB in the draft the clear spot to take the risk is when you have a shot at a top 10 player. So if a guy is there and you need a player you should strongly consider it.

The second thing we need to consider is the opportunity of drafting a player. Regardless of how bad the Browns may be, just penciling them in for a top 5 or 10 pick is not the way to run a team. Other than the Jaguars it really doesn’t work that way and the Jaguars are a clear outlier. Maybe the Browns will be one too, but basically you have a 1 in 3 shot of landing a top 10 pick. In reality you want to be in the top 5 to ensure you get a good chance as almost all the top 10 graded QBs go top 5. The odds of the top 5 are around 17%.

For the most part every year there are QBs, but you have to have the draft position to match to make it happen. In 6 of the 13 years from our sample there were 1 or less QBs drafted top 10. Half of the QBs taken in the top 10 are gone after the 2nd pick.  Essentially we are looking at about a 30% chance of being in the top 10 and a 25% chance of being able to select a QB in that draft.

This is why if you look at a team like the Eagles you can understand why they made the move they did for Wentz even though they had already made a financial commitment to Sam Bradford or why the Bears made the move for Micthell Trubisky after signing Mike Glennon. It’s a rarity to be in the position needed to draft a QB and if you find yourself in that spot you make the move to get the player if you can. This is why the Giants have to take a QB if there is one available. The stars simply don’t align that often.

While I don’t think there is a magic difference between pick 10 and 12, I think you can agree with the logic on more is better when passing on the opportunity of Watson, but the numbers really don’t work out if you are looking at Wentz.

Passing on Wentz wasn’t some grand study in analytics and team building. It was simply a miss. They passed on Wentz because the front office thought he wasn’t good enough. It’s the same reason they didn’t pass on Myles Garrett. They thought he was too good to trade the pick. If they were simply adding picks for the sake of adding them they would have traded the number 1 this past year. They didn’t because they thought Garrett would be a stud.  Passing on Watson is defendable. Wentz is simply a black eye on the organization and a mistake that the team needs to evaluate to see what went wrong and why they thought he wasn’t good enough to justify a top pick.

Therein really lies the bigger question for the Browns. What has made it not work for them when it comes to scouting talent? The Browns spent the 9th most in the NFL on veteran free agents this year and these were not small ticket items. The average APY of veteran player signed by the Browns was $7.36 million, tops in the NFL. Those included big extensions for linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey and the big money items on the offensive line with Kevin Zeitler, Joel Bitonio, and JC Tretter. They made a big mistake with Kenny Britt. They also spent a ton of money on Brock Osweiler, which is not included in the above numbers, for what amounts to a mid round pick, likely over-estimating what teams were willing to pay for a veteran QB. Since the new front office took over they rank 19th in overall APY spending.

I don’t think the Browns front office expected to be 11-5 this year but they didn’t expect to be 0-7 either. They have 22 draft picks from the last two years currently on their team, which is 5 more than the next closest team. They have nine 1st and 2nd rounders still on a rookie contract, which is tied for third in the NFL. Overall they are 18th in 1st and 2nd round talent on the whole roster. They are in the bottom 1/3 of the NFL in UDFAs. The expectations this year should have been 5 to 7 wins. They will probably end up with 1 or 2.

In that respect maybe it will work out for them since they will likely be in a position again to draft a quarterback. They beat the odds to get back there a third time in three years, but that’s luck and they would much prefer being in a different spot.

The first domino to fall has to be the head coach. His handling of the QB position is textbook 101 for how not to do the job. He is shuffling guys in and out like it’s a good team in desperate need of a spark for QB. You never do that with young talent you are supposedly developing. It’s basically desperation to try to win one game and he may have wrecked any chance for these young QBs to ever help the organization. Maybe he is the biggest problem at developing the talent and finding the best way for it to all fit together. But still the team has to look to see what is driving their decision making and why it hasn’t worked at all in two years.

Browns fans can maybe find some comfort in the success of the Raiders. The Raiders were probably the closest thing to the Browns and were actually probably worse given their salary cap issues. Oakland went through two seasons of basically being an expansion team not so much by choice but by necessity. Firing their head coach helped spark a turnaround and the early success of Derek Carr and Khalil Mack gave the fans some hope. They were 7-9 the year after making a coaching change and made the playoffs the next year.  Maybe the Browns can do the same.

The Browns can also benefit from being in an older division where the Bengals and Ravens are trending down. The Bengals will likely be too stubborn to try to fix anything while the Ravens are capped out. You never know where the Steelers are headed if Roethlisberger for some reason did actually retire. So the division isn’t as far as you may think, but they need to do a far better job to make this a reality.

My guess is the front office will be given one more chance to do it, but they need a massive turnaround next year to have any chance at being back in 2019. To have that turnaround they better go back and see what they missed on with Wentz and others and how to minimize their chances of it happening again.