The NFL is stuck in the past, both culturally and in regards to the game of football itself. While other sports have transitioned to an analytics-friendly approach since the turn of the century and reaped rewards, the NFL has lagged behind. When the Cleveland Browns hired Sashi Brown — someone without a long background in football who trusts in computers — as their general manager, they were universally laughed at for no reason other than going outside of the mainstream.
If any team should have been looking for an unconventional approach, however, it was the Browns. One playoff game since (this version of) the team has existed will drive one to extremes, but a year into the project, things look great.
Sure, the Browns were 1-15 last season, but that was a given. Brown had implemented a full-scale teardown — the football version of Sam Hinkie’s process — and Cleveland is now primed to build the core of a championship team over the next few drafts.
Building this way is at the top of a long list of things other teams should be doing. Why? At a given time, there are between 20 and 24 quarterbacks you can fathom having under center on a title-winning team. Of those, about eight require a historically good defense to take a team far into the playoffs. In short, if you don’t have a top-12 quarterback, you’re probably screwed. This is the basis by which all football transactions are made, regardless of whether a team adheres to analytics or not.
So, if you don’t have one of these quarterbacks with whom you can win a title, how do you get one? The answer, by-and-large, is at the top of the draft. Few top quarterbacks become free agents or are available in trades. Teams fishing for quarterbacks in these areas are usually the same teams that end up giving the Brock Osweilers of the world $72 million (more on that later). The Browns understand this, so they’re hoarding draft picks like gold.
Suddenly, instead of fishing for Jay Cutler in free agency, Cleveland has multiple appealing options. And they can wait until the right one comes along instead of rushing into the first semi-appealing draft pick, as evidenced by trading the No. 2 overall pick last season instead of drafting Carson Wentz.
In a year such as this — without quarterbacks filling the top of the draft — the Browns have an easy choice to take the best player — Myles Garrett, a defensive end.
From there, they can trade the No. 12 pick (acquired in the Wentz trade) in a package for Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, take Davis Webb in the second round if he’s available, or simply ignore the quarterback position and start Brock Osweiler this year.
The last option would result in another losing season, and with it the Browns would have a legitimate chance to draft UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Washington State’s Luke Falk or another top quarterback option. Cleveland can do whatever it likes, giving it the best chance to build up a foundation.
Tanking also opens up another option that we’ve never seen in the NFL (at least until earlier this month): taking on negative assets in exchange for picks. The Browns have cap space in droves and no chance of competing next year, so they took Osweiler and got Houston’s 2018 second rounder in exchange.
They can keep doing things like this until they build their desired foundation. The Jets want to offload Muhammad Wilkerson’s five-year, $86 million deal? That’ll be a second and third rounder. The Chiefs decide Eric Fisher isn’t worth $48 million over four years? They can get rid of him, if they’re willing to offer up a 2019 second rounder in exchange.
Every bad team should be replicating this. Look at the Jets’ history since 2011. They’ve started (among others), Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith at quarterback. They’ve missed the playoffs every year, going over .500 just once. Right now, it looks like their quarterback in 2017 will be either Josh McCown, Jay Cutler or Bryce Petty. The only way for them to compete is to draft a franchise quarterback, but there’s enough talent on the roster to go 5-11 next season. In short, they’re stuck in mediocrity.
Isn’t it better to tear down and be godawful for two years than suffer through ten years where 8-8 is the ceiling?
The only other team that values draft picks the way Cleveland does just so happens to be the New England Patriots. Why? Because Bill Belichick (and his analytics guru Ernie Adams) understands that building through the draft results in a constant churn of good, young players.
The Browns have merely taken it to the extreme because, well, they’re not starting with Tom Brady on their team. Soon, they too will reap the rewards.