In the seventeen years since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL, the team has had a 87-185 win-loss record. If not for a fortunate wild card appearance in 2002 and a ten win season in 2007, they would be the unquestioned worst-performing franchise of the 21st century (Buffalo still has to get the burden of the playoff drought, which has never seen them double-digit games in a season, out of the way). Cleveland goes through coaches and general managers faster than Westeros changes rulers, a gray fog where players fade into mediocrity and obscurity away from the public eye.
It's the type of organization that is perfectly primed for a paradigm shift, if an innovator could be given the reins to drive a long-term experiment. Just like that, owner Jimmy Haslam announced the next wave of executives for his front office, and shocked the world. Today, we're going to look at Cleveland's ongoing experiment, and discuss what it means for the field of football analytics.
An Ivy League front office
Replacing Ray Farmer (a former NFL player who worked his way up the ranks to general manager by starting as a scout) as Executive of Football Operations was Harvard graduate Sashi Brown, an attorney who spent ten years in the Jaguars organization as a Senior VP doing a lot of business negotiations.
Taking on the high-powered Chief Strategy Officer role is Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate who spent the last twenty years working in Major League Baseball, holding various General Manager and Executive VP roles. Most notably, he rose to fame as part of Billy Beane's organization, using mathematical analysis to inform player scouting and free agent decisions.
The new VP of Personnel is Andrew Berry, a former scout from the Indianapolis Colts who also happens to be a Harvard alumnus.
Interestingly enough, Haslam then chose to fill his head coaching position with someone well-respected by the NFL's mainstream football minds: Hue Jackson, who most recently was responsible for scheming an offense that rose Andy Dalton out of mediocrity.
As the Browns went through free agency and the draft, those were the names in the room where it happened.
The Browns annoyed a number of agents for their "frugal" approach to the start of the offseason.They cut veterans Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby, Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, and Randy Starks. Pretty much every player whose contract expired in 2016 was allowed to leave without any courtesy negotiations. That includes their best playmaker, Travis Benjamin, their top safety (Tashaun Gipson), and reliable right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
They finally dipped their toes into the market, signing Robert Griffin to a two-year, $15 million deal (with less than $7 million guaranteed). They signed DeMario Davis to a two-year, $8 million deal ($4 million guaranteed), added guard Alvin Bailey for a three-year, $6 million deal ($1 million guaranteed), and signed three more players to one-year deals for a total of $0.4 million guaranteed.
Moneyball cap management
In my previous article, we dove into the details of how teams can manufacture space under the salary cap. To their credit, the Browns seem to be embracing this approach. They cut four of their top ten salaries from 2015, turned $21 million of cap space into $40 million, and only have two players locked into big-money contracts past 2017: Joe Thomas and Joe Haden.
Assuming they understand the strategy employed by the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars, expect the Browns to be quiet in free agency next season. They'll spend a little bit, free up more cap space, and wait for their young players to develop. 2018 is the turning point for the franchise. Right now, they only have $69 million committed to the cap for that season. Add in a couple free agents and some draft picks, and you could bump that up to $90 million. Well, the salary cap will probably be around $170 million by then. Also, they'll have around $50 million in cap space to carry over. Yeah, this will be a team with money to burn in a couple of years.
Another smart strategy by the Browns: Buying low on Griffin. As I've said, the biggest market inefficiency in NFL contracts is the valuation of the veteran quarterback. Griffin's $5 million cap hit in 2016 ranks him 28th among quarterbacks, and although his salary rises in 2017, he can also be cut for $1.75 million in dead money.
Griffin was the most intriguing quarterback on the market this year, a reclamation project who had the greatest rookie quarterback season ever in a reined-in simplified offense. If he can rediscover his magic with the help of Jackson's system, the Browns may have stumbled upon their franchise quarterback. If not, that's okay, because the team is supposed to suck.
Embracing the tank?
Of course, by being so careful with their money, the Browns are also essentially acknowledging that their team doesn't have a chance to challenge for the playoffs this season. This image I grabbed from Dawgs By Nature essentially sums it up:
The team lacks star talent, it's young, and its best course of action is probably to accumulate draft picks and look to the future. They did just that, with 14 picks in this year's draft, and they added a first and a second round pick for next year. Given how well the Browns did with scouting players in previous years where they had extra picks, you can excuse us for being skeptical about how they intend to use those selections.
By far, the most intriguing part of Cleveland's restructured front office (in my mind) was what effect this would have on the types of players being added by the team. What sort of prospects would they seek out, and did they already have a plan in place? With such a small group of free agent signings, this answer would come from the draft. The Browns made some things clearer, but there is a lot to be confused about.
Reshaping the wide receivers
The Browns had a whopping 14 draft picks, and they used four of them on receivers, including their first round pick Corey Coleman. Two of them stand out for athletic ability, but are coming from very basic college offenses with little polish: Coleman and Ricardo Louis. The other two are less athletic, but known for their route-running skills.
One analytical thread tying these players together: They were all crucial pieces of their passing offense. Look at the shares that these players claimed:
Corey Coleman*: 37% of receiving yards, 34% of receptions, 45% of touchdowns
*Coleman didn't play in the final game of the season, so I didn't count it
Ricardo Louis: 32% of receiving yards, 26% of receptions, 27% of touchdowns
Jordan Payton: 30% of receiving yards, 26% of receptions, 22% of touchdowns
Rashard Higgins*: 38% of receiving yards, 35% of receptions, 35% of touchdowns
*Higgins didn't play against Minnesota, so I didn't count it
There are already some theories that receivers who dominate their team's passing production tend to be more successful in the pros. It's possible the Browns could be buying into this thought process, while also testing the merits of different agility metrics.
Okay, seriously. Cody Kessler?
Obviously the most important indicator of the team's scouting values was going to show up if and when they drafted a quarterback. The Browns failed to disappoint, using their third round pick on someone I didn't think would survive training camp.
I am at a loss for what metrics or analysis could have led the Browns to make this selection. He passes the Bill Parcells filter, but he played in a safe college offense that keeps sending talented receivers to the NFL. Pro Football Focus doesn't like him, noting that he ranked 21st out of 22 quarterbacks with regard to deep passing accuracy. He won't win any track and field competitions, stands six-foot-one, and has a notably weak arm. His mechanics are solid, but when you watch him on the field, he really struggles to read defenses quickly, and he plays tentatively.
Hue Jackson said "trust me" in regards to the Kessler selection. I'd love to hear the reasoning for this pick in a few years, because I'm baffled. But then again, Billy Beane thought he was outthinking everyone when he drafted an overweight catcher with a patient approach in 2002, and Jeremy Brown only spent a month of his career playing in the majors.
Is "compete" really the best metric you could come up with?
A large assortment of other players in this draft class are ones who were overlooked due to weak athleticism or low production, but that are renowned for their hustle. Carl Nassib was a former walk-on who gained 70 pounds in his transformation to a defensive end. Scooby Wright had outstanding production as a sophomore but didn't find the same magic after being hit with injuries. Shon Coleman overcame cancer to return to the field. Derrick Kindred played through a broken collarbone. Joe Schobert was an undersized outside linebacker but one of Wisconsin's most productive defenders.
These are all great stories, but it's tough to say if players with "compete" will elevate their team in a game. Is this the approach that Brown and DePodesta thought would earn them an edge? Or is this just an overreaction to the disastrous Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert picks?
It's still early in the experimentation phase
When Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta came to the New York Mets, they had an overpaid, underachieving roster to manage. Making matters worse, the team's owners were fooled by a Ponzi scheme, which severely hamstrung the salary. Their first big move was to trade star centerfielder Carlos Beltran for a talented pitching prospect. In the amateur player draft, they added a raw, toolsy outfielder from Wyoming and a high school pitcher with a strong arm using their first two picks. In 2012, they went in the other direction, selecting a high-floor shortstop and two high-floor college position players with their first three picks.
After R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young award that year, Alderson and DePodesta chose not to keep him around, dealing him for highly-ranked catching prospect Travis D'Arnaud, a young flamethrower named Noah Syndergaard, a young, raw, outfielder, and a journeyman catcher. When the recently-added Marlon Byrd got hot midseason, they traded him for another pair of prospects.
Two years later, the team found itself in contention at last. The young power arms already in the system developed into a fearsome rotation, bolstered by Syndergaard. Sensing their moment was near, the Mets traded away a chunk of prospects for a few relief pitchers and Yoenis Cespedes, whose hot streak carried the team into the playoffs. They made it to the World Series.
In the first few seasons, the Mets were treading water, settling for fourth place finishes and trading away their stars. They experimented with a few different options in free agency. Eventually, they figured out their prototype: Tall, athletic pitchers with tons of velocity, position players with plenty of power, and backups who could fill in at multiple positions.
I'm pointing this out to say that it might seem like the Browns have no idea what they're doing, but it's entirely possible they don't. At least, not yet. If Haslam has patience and allows the team to bottom out, we'll be able to see what a forward-thinking front office can accomplish. He would be the first.