This offseason, the Cleveland Browns’ front office enters year two of their rebuild, utilizing a somewhat controversial strategy that employs an analytics-first (“moneyball”) approach to player valuation and acquisition. Last season, the Browns’ front office assembled the least talented roster in the NFL, tallying just one win as a team and ranking in the bottom five in offensive and defensive production. Additionally, the 2016 roster was markedly less talented than the 2015 roster, which amassed three wins and performed better in offensive and defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. In a sense, he regression in talent was by design. In an effort to maximize cap space and draft capital, the Browns’ front-office cut, traded, or let walk (via free agency) useful veteran players that would have helped the 2016 team but bogged long-term plans. In that regard, the first year of the Browns’ rebuilding “process” was highly successful. Heading into this offseason, the Browns’ will have, by far, the most cap space and draft capital of any team in the NFL. Accordingly, even though the rebuild is still in its infancy, General Manager Sashi Brown and the front office did an excellent job setting the table to build a highly talented and deep roster moving forward. Now it’s time to see if Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta and his team of “stat geeks” can actually build a contending NFL team (spoiler alert: they probably can).
Principal Owner: Jimmy Haslam
General Manager: Sashi Brown
Chief Strategy Officer: Paul DePodesta
Including head coach Hue Jackson, the Browns’ front office dynamic is among the most interesting in the National Football League. Jimmy Haslam, the team’s principal (controlling) owner who sits atop the organizational chart, has demonstrated both a propensity to meddle and lose patience with previous front office regimes during his tenure. Since the Haslam family bought the team in 2012, Jimmy Haslam has hired and and fired two separate organizational regimes–first, the Banner/Lombardi/Chudzinski regime followed by the Scheiner/Farmer/Pettine regime. This raises a specter of concern when Brown/DePodesta regime is employing a long-term rebuilding approach that requires patience and the ability to stomach losing a lot of games in the beginning, a la this past season. Reportedly, after seeking counsel from members of successful NFL organizations, Haslam has gained a better perspective on the value of exercising patience, fostering continuity, and taking a hands off approach in order to let the front office actualize its long term strategy, unabated. Accordingly, despite the team’s performance last season, the primary influencers remain in place (for now). But its fair to say that Haslam is a dormant volcano towering above a rebuilding village, and heads could roll if the on-field product doesn’t demonstrate marked improvement in 2017.
As for Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta, there seems to be a clear and effective division of labor between the two front office executives. As the Browns’ general manager, Sashi Browa–a lawyer by trade who previously served as the Browns’ general counsel–primarily handles the salary cap and transactional affairs. Conversely, Paul DePodesta serves as the Browns’ Chief Strategy Officer and is primarily concerned with formulating and implementing player valuation and roster building strategies. For the uninitiated, DePodesta is the former MLB player personnel executive who famously served as GM Billy Beane’s right-hand man in formulating and implementing a successful analytics-first (“moneyball”) approach to building a contending baseball team. The Oakland Athletics’ analytics-first approach proved a superior paradigm that changed the way practically all MLB organizations made player personnel decisions. Now DePodesta hopes to revolutionize the way NFL front offices make player personnel decisions. Extracting tidbits from a 2016 ESPN profile story, DePodesta would like player personnel acquisition decisions to be informed by 60 percent (objective) data, 40 percent (subjective) scouting and intends to “flip [the] burden of proof on all football processes, models and systems.” Without access to their internal analytical tools and data, it may be more difficult to deduce player valuation patterns with this front office than with others. Still, a couple of draft cycles may yield observable player profile and performance preferences that DePodesta and company consistently target–For instance, the Oakland A’s established a pattern of picking college prospects over high school prospects and valuing prospects that produced a high on-base percentage (OBP). At this point, the only clear mandate is to GET BETTER EVERYWHERE.
Lastly, even though HC Hue Jackson has no formal authority in the area of player personnel decisions, it’s common practice that the front office tailors its player acquisition strategy to target players that fit the needs of the coaches’ systems. Based on reports, Hue is a strong personality with a past desire to control player personnel decisions (see history with Raiders in the wake of Al Davis’ passing) who may hold ideologically oppositional viewpoints to Depodesta. Specifically, Jackson is reportedly someone that favors “gut, eye and instinct over data.” While it may be unfair to draw a real-world comparison, one of the dramatized narratives of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball story was the tension between GM Billy Beane and manager (coach) Art Howe over the fact that DePodesta’s statistical approach was driving Beane’s player personnel decisions instead of Howe’s traditionalist preferences. Accordingly, it’ll be interesting to see if similar tension develops between GM Sashi Brown and coach Hue Jackson over DePodesta’s analytics-first approach. With that said, it would be in all parties best interests’ to find common ground and develop a synergistic working relationship because Hue Jackson is a smart and innovative players’ coach. But right now, if the Browns are the NFL reincarnation of the Oakland Athletics, then you’ll excuse me for having a gut feeling that Hue Jackson is playing the fateful role of Art Howe in this future Michael Lewis novel.
Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator: Hue Jackson
Offensive Assistant: Al Saunders
Defensive Coordinator: Gregg Williams
If the Hue and the front-office can avoid a toxic relationship developing over player personnel decisions, there is little doubt that Hue possesses the potential to be a great coach in the NFL. Moreover, the coaching staff heading into 2017 has some reputable assistants in place to improve the team’s play moving forward.
On offense, key strengths to this coaching staff are innovation and adaptability. Hue and Al Saunders are highly creative offensive coaches adept at tailoring the offense to the given personnel–a quality that will serve Hue well in a situation in which he has dubious influence on player personnel decisions. In regards to general offensive principles, a Jackson/Saunders offense strives to be formation diverse and achieve run/pass balance while taking a healthy dose of shots downfield on passing plays. In that regard, a bigger QB with very good arm strength and deep ball accuracy is the likely preference of this staff. Coincidentally, Jackson and company may lobby the Brown’s front office to draft Cal QB Prospect Davis Webb–a 6’5 QB with very good arm strength that won the Senior Bowl MVP while playing for the South team that Jackson and the Browns’ staff coached.
On defense, the Browns recently fired DC Ray Horton (a 3-4 base defense coach) and hired Gregg Williams, who is known for running attacking 4-3 schemes that put heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Accordingly, Williams’ hiring strongly suggests that the Brown’s intend to switch to a 4-3 base. Realistically, this fact should have some influence over which defensive prospects are targeted in the upcoming draft.
OFFENSIVE STATISTICAL ANALYSIS:*
|Overall||311.0 (30th)||-13.8% (29th)||-15.4% (28th)||16.5 (30th)|
|Pass||204.0 (28th)||-12.6% (29th)|
|YPG||DVOA (Run)||Adjusted-Line Yds|
|Run||107.0(19th)||0.0% (13th)||3.46 (28th)|
|Miscellaneous||66 (32nd)||10.6% (32nd)||14 (13th)||19 (26th)|
*These numbers are sourced from espn.com and footballoutsiders.com
On offense, the Browns need to solidify the offensive line, especially in terms of pass protection. In 2016, The Browns’ offensive line gave up a league-high 48 sacks and ranked 31st in adjusted sack rate according to Football Outsiders. Poor protection lead to devastating results, as Cleveland’s bottom-five ranked passing attack had to cycle through four different quarterbacks due to injuries.
As for the run game, Cleveland’s rushing attack showed promise as a component that could develop into a strength. The run unit averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry rushing the football and was the 13th best unit by run DVOA. With that said, advanced statistics point to RB Crowell having success despite the team’s run blocking, not because of it. Crowell ranks 7th in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and 4th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Replacement. Notably, Crowell also ranks just 29th in Success Rate which suggests, in conjunction with a high DVOA ranking, that Crowell’s gameplay is a tale of long runs interspersed with downs getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland’s offensive line ranks merely 27th in adjusted line yards. Accordingly, solidifying the offensive line would create the conditions to develop an elite rushing attack and, at the very least, consistency in the passing game. It would also create better conditions to assess whether the young QB (Kessler) and skill position players (Crowell, D. Johnson, C. Coleman, Pryor, etc.) are legitimate foundational pieces.
DEFENSIVE STATISTICAL ANALYSIS:*
|Overall||392.4 (31st)||14.6% (29th)||14.7% (31st)||28.3 (30th)|
|Pass||249.8 (21st)||27.3% (30th)|
|YPG||DVOA (Run)||Adjusted-Line Yds|
|Run||142.7 (31st)||1.2% (27th)||4.49 (31st)|
|Miscellaneous||26.0 (30th)||5.7% (21st)||10 (23rd)||7 (30th)|
*These numbers are sourced from espn.com and footballoutsiders.com.
On defense, the Browns are largely devoid of impact talent at all three levels. As a result, the Browns ranked 32nd in defensive DVOA last season, including bottom-five rankings in both pass and run defense, according to standard and advanced statistics. Moreover, the Browns’ defense failed to generate pressure on the QB (32nd in sacks), create turnovers (29th), and contain top wide receivers (29th) and tight ends (32nd). Anytime you have a unit, offensively or defensively, that is a complete failure in every measurable facet, it’s a good idea to start the rebuilding process by focusing on the unit’s front. Offensive and defensive lineman have a direct impact on the success of every single snap in an NFL game. Accordingly, all needs being equal, the quickest way to improve the unit as a whole is to add superior talent at the positions that create the most impact on a play-to-play basis. In the Browns case, the defensive line needs pass rushing talent. Thankfully for the Browns, the presumptive number 1 prospect in the draft is Myles Garrett, a potential generational edge rushing talent.
THREE YEAR DRAFT HISTORY: (applicable to current regime)
|1(15)||Corey Coleman||WR||5’10 185||Baylor|
|2(32)||Emmanuel Ogbah||DE||6’3 275||Oklahoma St|
|3(65)||Carl Nassib||DE||6’7 275||Penn St|
|3(76)||Shon Coleman||OT||6’6 310||Auburn|
|3(93)||Cody Kessler||QB||6’1 215||USC|
|4(99)||Joe Schobert||OLB||6’1 245||Wisconsin|
|4(114)||Ricardo Louis||WR||6’2 215||Auburn|
|4(129)||Derek Kindred||DS||5’10 210||TCU|
|4(138)||Seth DeValve||TE||6’3 245||Princeton|
|5(154)||Jordan Payton||WR||6’1 209||UCLA|
|5(168)||Spencer Drango||OT||6’6 315||Baylor|
|5(172)||Rishard Higgins||WR||6’1 198||Colorado St|
|5(173)||Trey Caldwell||DB||5’9 185||LA Monroe|
|7(250)||Scooby Wright||LB||6’0 235||Arizona|
2015 DRAFT: (N/A)
2014 DRAFT: (N/A)
Currently, we only have one year of draft results to infer drafting patterns and preferences representative of the Browns’ internal philosophies. Moreover, because neither DePodesta nor Sashi Brown came from other NFL organizations, we have no indirect basis to infer likely patterns and preferences in that regard. However, we can still note a few things that may be trends moving forward. First, when DePodesta worked for the Oakland Athletics, a common practice of the front office was to trade star players for multiple prospect packages, betting on collection providing more overall value than the individual star. Last draft, the Browns trade down twice in the first round, forgoing a opportunity to draft a star QB (Carson Wentz) and star-level talent (e.g. Jack Conklin OT) in order to collect multiple packages of draft picks. We are unlikely to see the Browns’ trade down from the number 1 pick because the need to acquire premium talent and Garrett’s projection as a star-level player at a premium position at the next level. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Browns trade back from their second pick in the first round (12th overall), especially considering the depth of this draft class.
Second, as stated above, when DePodesta worked for the Athletics’ they valued prospects with more seasoning (college prospects to HS prospects). Of course, the big reason for this philosophy was due to the reality that MLB prospects, unlike NFL prospects, have to go through years of minor league development and had a higher risk getting injured and/or failing to develop–Accordingly, college prospects represented a safer investment because they were more developed and, thus, closer to providing value at the big league level. This is inapplicable to the NFL draft where there is no minor league system and prospects must be three years removed from HS to enter. However, the A’s philosophical preference to target college players also had statistical underpinnings that may be helpful to decode the Browns’ current approach. College players statistics were inherently more reliable to evaluate than HS players statistics because of the superior and, more importantly, less varied competitive talent. Everybody playing NCAA D-1 is more or less a D-1 talent, but what constitutes Varsity-level talent at one HS maybe Junior Varsity or Freshman-level talent at another. Accordingly, creating advanced metrics that accurately adjusted for HS competition was much more difficult, if not impossible. Accordingly, the Browns’ 2016 draft selection provides evidence that a variant of this philosophy–to pick among players that demonstrate excellent statistical production against superior competition–may be a driving factor in prospect targets. Of the 14 draft selections, 12 prospects played in Power 5 conferences. Moreover, with the exception of WR Coleman and DE Ogbah, all of the selections were seniors–and in Coleman and Ogbah’s case, both players started since their freshman seasons. Lastly, the draftees, for the most part, put together at least one exceptional statistical season, by standard metrics. For instance, each front-seven defensive player (Ogbah, Nassib, Schobert, S. Wright) drafted had at least one season with more than 15 tackles for loss. Again, its difficult to deduce patterns from a single draft. But its fair to say that there are some signs of developing patterns.
THREE YEAR FREE AGENCY OUTLOOK: (key players)
Projected Cap Space:*
Projected Cap Space:
Projected Cap Space:
|Terrell Pryor (WR)||Joel Bitonio (OG)||Joe Thomas (OT)|
|Jamie Collins (LB)||Christian Kirksey (LB)||B. Boddy-Calhoun(CB)|
|Austin Pasztor (OL)||Ed Reynolds (S)||Gary Barnidge (TE)|
|Stephen Paea (DL)||John Greco (OG)||Duke Johnson (RB)|
|Britton Colquitt (P)||Demario Davis (LB)||Nate Orchard (DE)|
|Isaiah Crowell(RB)(RFA)||Andrew Hawkins (WR)||Xavier Cooper (DT)|
|Josh McCown (QB)||Ibraheim Campbell (S)|
|Cam Johnson(DE)(RFA)||Alvin Bailey (OG)|
*Numbers sourced from overthecap.com
As exhibited above, the Browns are in extremely healthy shape in regards to salary cap space over the next three years. Moreover, even after signing any internal free agents, the Browns will have the cap space to fill multiple starting positions via free agency before the draft. However, regardless of cap space, top free agents may refuse to sign with the Browns until they show signs of being able to compete. Accordingly, the Athletics approach to free agency may prove instructive to the Browns’ approach, at least early on. Because of payroll restrictions, the A’s were rarely in the market for top MLB free agents. Accordingly, they looked for bargains and diamonds in the rough to find free agent starters. The Browns may opt to sign multiple mid and lower tier free agents to front loaded contracts that will allow them to cut the one’s that fail to perform without creating dead cap space. Reggie McKenzie has employed a similar strategy in building the Oakland Raiders, filling the talent and veteran leadership void with productive (but aging) veteran free agents on front-loaded contracts that provides financial flexibility to cut bait when the player declines and/or a young player develops. Accordingly, unlike with some teams, free agency should have relatively little impact on who the Browns target in the draft.
QB Depth: C. Kessler, R. Griffin, J. McCown
In all likelihood, the Browns’ quarterback of the future is not currently on the roster. Griffin, if he returns at all, continues to be major injury risk whose athletic prowess, his competitive advantage, may have already eroded. McCown is a very solid fill-in, but on the wrong side of 35, he’s not the answer to start 2017 or beyond. That leaves Cody Kessler, who showed signs of an ability to develop into a serviceable starting QB, if not more. Kessler is an undersized QB lacking better than average arm strength. But he gets by with solid instincts, field vision, and the ability to make accurate and timely throws. At the very least, Kessler may be the perfect placeholder QB, while the Browns’ front-office builds out the rest of the roster and/or unearths its eventual “franchise” QB.
RB Depth: I. Crowell, D. Johnson, G. Atkinson
In Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, the Browns have quality young pair of running backs to build around. Crowell, only 24 years old, was the 11th best RB in defense-adjusted yards above replacement, per football outsiders. He was also a mere 42 yards short of a 1000 yard season, averaged a healthy 4.8 yards per carry, and scored 7 touchdowns on the ground. Crowell also was an effective safety valve in the passing game, tallying 40 receptions for 319 yards. With better run blocking in 2017, Crowell is capable of reaching 1500 total yards and 10+ touchdowns, marks that would garner pro bowl consideration. As expected, Duke Johnson offers excellent 3rd down production, tallying 53 catches (on 72 targets) for 514 yards in addition to averaging 4.9 yards on 73 carries. Duke Johnson, 23, will be entering his third season with the Browns and has the talent to challenge Crowell for serious playing time on first and second down. But absent further development, he provides a valuable change of pace back. The 2017 draft class is as talented at the RB position as it has been in years, but with incumbent talent and so many other holes to address, the chances of the Browns drafting another RB with a high draft pick is unlikely.
Wide Receiver/ Tight End:
WR Depth: T. Pryor*, C. Coleman, A. Hawkins, R. Louis, R. Higgins, J. Payton
TE Depth: G. Barnidge, S. DeValve, L. Teller
Terrell Pryor is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and is due to receive a significant payday after the potential he showed in 2016. Accordingly, the Browns need to decide whether Pryor’s 2016 season was a flash in the pan, or whether he was just scratching the surface of his potential. Given Pryor’s, 27, athletic prowess (at 6-4 230 and 4.5 speed), notable work ethic, and production (77 catches for 1007 yards and 4 TDs) while playing with four different QBs in his first extended opportunity, the Browns would be wise to bet on the latter and lock Pryor up to a long-term deal. Coleman, last year’s 15th overall selection, had an up and down season his rookie year. After showing signs of breaking out against the Ravens in week two (5 catches for 104 yards and 2TDs), Coleman broke his hand, missed approximately 6 weeks, and was never able to regain momentum once he returned. Still, Coleman is an explosive young player and deep threat that should form a quality 1-2 combination with Pryor, assuming he is signed. Louis, Higgins and Payton are second year players that offer quality complimentary potential to Pryor and Coleman. Hawkins, the current slot receiver, is a solid option to provide complimentary production until one or more of that trio develops. Accordingly, after the 2016 draft, the Browns are well stocked at wide receiver. With so many draft picks, its conceivable they draft another one in 2017, but its safe to say that the Browns office will be focusing on getting better at other positions. Lastly, it should be noted that, for now, the ultra talented, but indefinitely suspended, Josh Gordon does not figure into the mix.
At TE, Gary Barnidge, 31, is one year removed from producing pro bowl numbers in 2015, which included 79 catches (on 123 targets) for 1023 yards and 9 TDs. Last season, Barnidge predictably regressed, amassing only 55 catches (on 81 targets) for 612 yards and 2TDs. Even with improved QB play, Barnidge is unlikely to replicate his 2015 season–but he should be, at least, a serviceable placeholder until the Browns can find and develop a more dynamic option. DeValve, a converted WR in his second season out of Princeton, showed some flashes of ability to develop into a complimentary pass-catching TE. Still, given the rare quality and depth of talent at the TE position in the 2017 draft, the Browns would be wise to grab their TE of the future.
Tackle Depth: J. Thomas, C. Erving, S. Coleman
Guard Depth: J. Bitonio, J. Greco, S. Drango, A. Pasztor
Center Depth: A. Fabiano, A. Reiter
Assuming a full return to health, Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio form an elite combination on the left side of the offensive line. However, the rest of the line remains uncertain. At center, the Browns drafted Cam Erving in the first round a couple years ago on the hope that he could develop into a high quality center in the NFL. However, that has yet to happen and he was moved to RT toward the end of season. Accordingly, the Browns have a major hole at the center position moving forward. On the right side, Greco and Pasztor represent serviceable veteran options at RG and RT, respectively. However, the Browns need to find a better long-term option, especially at RT. If Erving doesn’t prove to be that, the Browns have other potential developmental options in Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango. Accordingly, in consideration of the 2017 OL draft prospects, if the Browns want to draft a superior plug and play option at RT, they need to grab Robinson, Ramcyzk or Bolles in the first two rounds. Otherwise, they can probably get by with the current options, hoping for good health and significant development from one of the younger options. However, at center, the Browns need to draft a superior option to Fabiano and could look to draft Ethan Pocic or Pat Elfein somewhere on day two.
DE Depth: E. Ogbah, C. Nassib, C. Johnson, N. Orchard, T. Holmes
In Ogbah and Nassib, the Browns have two young players capable of developing into very good strong side defensive ends in a 4-3 base scheme. In particular, Ogbah, last year’s second round selection, offers immense potential. At the weak side DE position, Nate Orchard has the talent to develop into a serviceable option, but the Browns need focus on acquiring an elite pass rushing option at this position. If drafted number 1 overall by the Browns, EDGE Prospect Myles Garrett will represent an elite plug and play prospect to fill that need.
DT Depth: D. Shelton, S. Paea, J. Meder, X. Cooper
Towards the end of the season, Danny Shelton seemed on the verge of developing into an elite two-gap DT. Accordingly, he’s a nice foundational piece to build on. Beyond that, Paea, Cooper and Meder have shown flashes of serviceability, but the Browns should look for a superior one-gap penetrating DT to pair with Shelton in the 2017 draft.
LB Depth: C. Kirksey, J. Collins, J. Schobert, D. Davis
After acquiring the mid season acquisition of Jamie Collins, the Browns arguably have a very good linebacking core in place, especially if they switch to a 4-3 as expected. Reportedly, the Browns have already come to terms with Jamie Collins on a long-term deal so the assumption is that he will be in the fold in 2017. Collins is a highly versatile and (arguably) elite linebacker, capable of playing outside or inside linebacker in either a 3-4 or 4-3. Even with the addition of Collins, Kirksey looked like the best linebacker on the field at times. I do not believe its hyperbolic to say that he has a chance to develop into a pro bowl caliber talent. Kirksey can play either the middle or weak side in a 4-3 scheme. Schobert is another second year player that has the potential to develop into a quality starting strong side linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Lastly, Demario Davis is a serviceable inside linebacker in either a 3-4 or 4-3. Accordingly, while the Browns are likely to draft depth, their short and long term starting options are, for the most part, in place.
CB Depth: J. Taylor, B. Boddy-Calhoun, J. Haden
The biggest question at CB is whether Haden can regain form as a shutdown cover corner. His declining play the last two seasons suggest otherwise and the Browns may be eager to cut bait this offseason. Beyond Haden, Jamar Taylor, 26, showed signs of developing into a quality starting CB after failing to develop as a first round selection with the Dolphins. Boddy-Calhoun, 24, also demonstrated interesting potential as an undersized slot corner, tallying 3 ints last season. Beyond that, the Browns have significant depth needs and could stand to acquire shutdown CB capable of consistently shutting down opposing team’s number 1 receivers.
S Depth: E. Reynolds, J. Poyer, D. Kindred, I. Campbell
The Browns have four young players capable of developing into serviceable options but lack, in all likelihood, an impact talent. Accordingly, in a deep and talented draft for safeties, the Browns would be well served to invest at least one selection on a safety in the first three rounds.
The table is set for the Browns to build a talented and deep roster. After the 2016 draft, the Browns have plenty of prospects capable of developing into serviceable starters at multiple positions. Now, in the 2017 draft, they need to land elite prospects in order to take the next step in their development towards becoming a contending team.