The Browns Issues Run Deeper (Higher?) Than Prior Management

hue jackson

On December 7th, 2017, Cleveland Browns Owner Jimmy Haslam decided to fire GM/Executive VP Sashi Brown, and state publicly that (for now) Hue Jackson will continue to coach the Browns.  During the ensuing time period, internet debate raged on as to whether Brown deserved to be fired and whether or not Hue Jackson deserves to get fired.  It took merely one day for Haslam to replace Sashi Brown, as on December 8th Cleveland hired John Dorsey as the team’s new general manager.  It took Dorsey six days before throwing previous regimes under the bus stating that “they didn’t get real players.”

I’m not exactly sure if this criticism is directed solely at Sashi Brown or if it is meant to touch upon the past few front office teams, but seeing as how both Sashi Brown and Ray Farmar each had two seasons in control of the organization, let’s check out all the real players they acquired.

Ray Farmar held personnel power from 2014-2015.  In 2014, Farmar brought in proven NFL difference makers in Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner.  The Browns brought in Dansby because he was coming off his best season as a professional, despite being 32 years old.  In 2013, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, Dansby accumulated 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 19 passes defensed, 4 interceptions and 2 pick-sixes.  In two seasons with the Browns he played in 28 games, recording 201 tackles.  He was released following the 2015 season in a cost saving move when the team wanted to get younger.

Donte Whitner also signed with the Browns in March of 2014, coming off back-to-back Pro-Bowl appearances.  The Browns, at the time of the signing, were adding the 6th highest rated safety by Pro Football Focus from the prior season.  Whitner signed at the age of 29 with his hometown team.

The 2014 draft for the Browns presents solid decision making, perhaps some bad luck, and the exposure of the biggest issue with the organization.

Before going any further I want to establish that teams have, mostly, no idea what they’re doing in the draft.  Teams are overconfident in their ability to evaluate talent, and trading up is mostly a no-no, because nobody can beat the draft.  Giving up multiple picks to move up higher in the draft minimizes draft capital.  Trading down creates surplus draft capital.  The draft is a lottery and the best odds are to be holding the most tickets.

The NFL is a copycat league.  In the 2000’s, switching to the 3-4 defense was all the rage.  The wildcat was actually a fad.  The spread system has taken the NFL by storm and RPO’s are the cheat code of the modern NFL.  Hybrid safety/linebackers are in vogue since teams are spending 70% of their time in defensive sub-packages.  The blue print for winning is already out there for everyone to copy: Just do whatever the fuck Belichick is doing.

Obviously not everyone can be Belichick, and in a world where everyone is Belichick, then no one is Belichick, but taking advantage of overzealous teams and trading down to accumulate extra draft picks is something you can do without being the best X’s and O’s guy in the history of football.

Take this excerpt from the Barnwell article:

“The reason we don’t remember this as one of the worst trades in league history is because the Patriots blew the pick, drafting oft-injured cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Yes, that’s disappointing. They also turned 89 into 33, 62, and 150. You don’t need to calculate Approximate Value or analyze pick quality to realize how ridiculous that idea even seems. They basically hypnotized the league’s dumbest teams into making a trade so lopsided that it would never pass review in a fantasy football league. That’s magic.”

No, I don’t need to link you to a Chase Stuart draft value chart to hammer home the point that turning the 89th pick in the draft into the 33rd, 62nd, and 150th picks is astounding value.

Back to the Brown’s 2014 draft.

The first decision they made was perfect.  They traded down from the 4th pick with a Bills team that thought they could beat the draft, and the Bills subsequently drafted Sammy Watkins in perhaps the most loaded wide receiver class in NFL history.  The move ultimately turned the 4th pick into the 9th, 19th and 111th picks.  They traded 25.8 points of draft capital for an even 41 points of draft capital, equating in a surplus of 15.2, the same value as the 21st pick.  Belichick would be proud.

The Browns just botched it from there.

For the second time in three years, the Vikings duped the Browns into trading up a single spot in the draft to secure the player the Browns coveted.  They used the 8th selection of the 2014 draft to take Justin Gilbert, who turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

Speaking of unmitigated disasters, the public, and John Dorsey, can bash the decisions behind trading away the draft picks that became Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson all they want, but never forget that billionaire Cleveland Browns Owner (and Dorsey’s boss) Jimmy Haslam was convinced by a homeless man to draft Johnny Manziel.  To make it all worse, the Browns traded up to get Manziel, giving up the 26th and 83rd selections to take Manziel at number 22.  That is a net negative of 5.5 points of draft capital and one of the biggest busts in NFL history, and it is all on the owner.

The 2014 draft ended up getting the Browns Joel Bitonio and Christian Kirksey on the second day.  Bitonio was signed to an extension in March worth $51.2 million and $23.7 million in guaranteed money, while Kirksey led the team in tackles in 2016 with 148, which ranked 3rd in the NFL, and earned an extension in May worth #38 million with $20 million guaranteed.

2015 free agency was similar in the attempt to bring in veterans to make immediate impacts.  Farmar brought in Josh McCown, Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline.  These signings didn’t move the needle much as the team went 3-13.

Other contributors in 2015 included the 2015 draft class.  That extra pick the Browns got from the Sammy Watkins trade? Well, they totally blew it, as Cameron Erving has not performed up to his draft position at all.  However, with their own first round pick, 12th overall, the Browns took Danny Shelton, who has developed into one of the best run defenders among interior defensive lineman in the NFL.

This draft also yielded the Browns Duke Johnson, who is second on the team in scrimmage yards this season, averaging 6.46 yards per touch, and is arguably the best play maker on this offense (more on this later).

Onto the Sashi Brown era.

In 2016 free agency, Brown notably brought in Demario Davis, Rahim Moore and RG3.  Neither Davis or Moore worked out, and RG3 was a no risk lottery ticket that Hue Jackson wanted.

As for the 2016 draft, this is where the major criticism begins as, we all know, the Browns traded away the pick that became Carson Wentz.  The Browns received picks 8, 77, 100, 12 (2017) and a 2018 second rounder that is currently slated to be 64, while shipping out picks 2 and 139.  Add it up and the Browns created 27.1 points of surplus draft capital from the trade (the calculation is slightly skewed since the Browns traded the 12th pick to Houston, but I will address that later), which is the equivalent of practically the 3rd pick of the draft (27.6).

The counter is basically what Ernie Accorsi has to say on this matter: If you hit on draft a quarterback, no price is too high.  I’m sure the Eagles feel good about their trade, and in hindsight perhaps the Browns would like a do-over.  However, at the time of the decision, based on everything we know about how little we can accurately project college prospects, the trade adhered to sound reasoning and logic.

But let’s not forget Hue Jackson was in the room when the Browns made the decision to trade the pick.  I was not in the room, so I don’t know how hard Jackson fought to keep it, or if he even did fight to keep it.  Hue Jackson and his coaching staff are the same people that dumped bottles of water on the footballs when they worked out Wentz.  You may think this was a quite a witty maneuver to attempt to simulate poor weather conditions for late season games in Cleveland, but Wentz and his agent found it to be “pretty unrealistic,” and noted “it would’ve had to be a torrential downpour,” for the ball to be that soaked.

Before continuing I’d like to address an article Mary Kay Cabot published on December 3rd.  For the record, I have a very high opinion of Mary Kay Cabot.  I think she does a wonderful job and is good at her profession.  However, there are just too many things going on in that article that don’t pass the smell test.  When an article is written citing sources regarding a player, coach or general manager, you have to ask yourself who might be the source, and who is benefiting from this information becoming public?  It is also no secret that journalists will do agents or members of an inner circle a favor, and put something out there, in exchange for some good information or a breaking story in the future.

Nothing about this is unethical.  The journalists aren’t lying or spreading false information, or pushing some immoral agenda.  Players, coaches and agents all play games with teams through the media.  We see this all the time in the NBA if a star wants to be traded.  The agents will leak the desire to a journalist, and subsequently it will be revealed that the player has no intentions of resigning and he is committed to reaching free agency.  It simultaneously puts public pressure on the team to trade him as soon as possible to extract the most value for him for the remaining duration that the player is under team control, while also driving down his own trade value so the team that acquires him gives up less than fair market value, making his future new team as competitive as possible.

There is only one person that Cabot’s article benefits, and it is Hue Jackson.  Yes, that is really obvious, but look at these clues in Cabot’s piece that really point to her doing Jackson’s camp a favor.

First of all, how about this timing?  Four days before Sashi Brown gets the axe Cabot breaks the story that in April of 2016 Hue Jackson really wanted Carson Wentz.  I have to imagine that those in the know within the Browns organization knew that Haslam was going to fire Brown in the coming days.  A large reasoning for Brown’s firing was his inability to evaluate quarterback prospects correctly, and also that Haslam wanted to beat the Giants to John Dorsey.  Claiming Jackson wanted Wentz distances Jackson from the decision to trade the Carson Wentz pick.

Next, Cabot says that Pep Hamilton (the offensive coordinator under Jackson at the time of Wentz’s workout) “squirted the ball with water,” during their workout with Wentz.  Does this sound different to you than Wentz and his agent saying Pep Hamilton “dump(ed) a water bottle on the ball,” and saying the ball could only get so doused if it was “a torrential downpour”?  What is the motivation for Wentz and his agent to lie in this situation?  The draft is over, Wentz is an Eagle and a budding star, and by all accounts he is a really good guy.  Wentz would have to be maliciously attempting to make the Browns look bad if he is gravely overstating how much water the Browns’ coaches dumped on the ball.  Or, Jackson’s camp is downplaying the water bottle tactic so it doesn’t reflect so poorly on Hue Jackson.  I’ll let you decide what is more plausible.

Cabot goes on to blame the decision to trade the pick on Paul DePodesta and his view that there wasn’t a quarterback in the 2016 draft that would ever develop into a top-20 guy at the position.  This has been a popular chorus line in Cleveland, to blame DePodesta and this exact quote for trading the pick.  This continues to push Jackson further away from the decision to trade the pick.  Cabot even finds space in her article to mention that one NFL personnel executive told that “when all is said and done, Wentz will be right up there with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.”  How this is relevant to the premise of Cabot’s report that Jackson wanted Wentz?  It is relevant only through the prism that Jackson was smart enough to know Wentz would become an MVP caliber player, and the front office around him had no idea what they were doing.

Immediately after, Cabot says sources said Wentz felt he would be a Brown because of his connection with Hue Jackson.  She uses a source to present us that information, not a direct quote from Wentz.  However, in the ESPN article chronicling the journey Wentz and Goff took in becoming the first and second picks in 2016, there are plenty of quotes from Wentz and agent Ryan Tollner about how much “smoother” things went with the Eagles, and how Wentz “felt a great connection with this coaching staff, with the city.  Just kind of the blue-collar work ethic — everything about it.  I just kind of fell in love with it.”  Take it with a grain of salt since the article is about his journey to the Eagles, but these statements are from the horse’s mouth.

The last flaw in the Cabot article is the proclamation that Pep Hamilton “left Cleveland after the 2016 season and took over as Michigan’s passing game coordinator, dismayed that the Browns were so far off on their QB evaluations that season, sources said.”  Let me get this straight: An offensive coordinator at the NFL level left his job to downgrade to passing game coordinator at the college level because he didn’t agree with the organization’s evaluation of a single draft prospect in exactly one scenario?  Uhhh, sure.

Ok, back to the main topic here.  The Browns traded down again from the 8th pick in 2016, this time with the Titans, where the Browns received picks 15, 76 and 52 (2017) for 8 and 176.  The Browns created 10.7 points of surplus draft capital with this trade, which is equidistant to the value of the 42nd and 43rd picks of the draft.

This time when they fell back they selected Corey Coleman.  Coleman has shown flashes thus far in his career of being a receiver capable of making big plays, but he has missed a total of 13 games due to hand injuries.

In the second round of 2016, Sashi Brown grabbed Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib, both edge defenders.  While both have shown to be good pieces for a defensive line rotation, Ogbah himself has played like he belongs in this league.  He seems to be better against the run than the pass, but he is someone that will contribute to your team’s success.

Derrick Kindred in the fourth round has proven to be quite the find.  He is playing at the level of a good starter in the NFL.  Shon Coleman has not pass blocked well but has been adequate as a run blocker and can stick in the league for tackle depth purposes or when teams want to bring in a third offensive tackle in short yardage situations.

During the 2016 season, Sashi Brown traded for Jamie Collins in a trade that really questioned what Belichick was thinking.  The pick the Browns shipped out ended up being the 103rd pick of the 2017 draft.  Sashi Brown was praised as the winner of this trade and no one around the league could figure out what Belichick was doing other than avoiding having to pay Collins and bumping up the compensatory selection he would receive for Collins leaving in free agency by a year.  Now Collins hasn’t performed very well as a member of the Browns (once again, just don’t trade with Belichick) but Sashi deserves credit for pulling the trigger on this deal as Collins was 27 and coming off a second-team All-Pro selection.

The 2017 offseason was easily Sashi Brown’s best (granted it was one of only two years he was in control).  In free agency he brought in Kevin Zeitler, JC Tretter and Jason McCourty.  Depending on who you ask, the Browns brought in an elite free agent and a nice starter in Zeitler and Tretter, or an elite free agent and a really good starter in Zeitler and Tretter.  Regardless, both Zeitler and Tretter were good players that helped bolster the offensive line.  Each player in 2017 grades as a top half starter at their position, per Pro Football Focus, and Zeitler specifically is playing at a very high level.

Speaking of playing at a high level, Jason McCourty is enjoying the best season of his career and his best easily since 2012.  He has showcased to be a very good starting corner this season.

The 2017 draft?  Let’s address the immensely touched upon elephant in the room first: The Watson trade saw the Browns send the 12th pick to Houston for the 25th pick and Houston’s 2018 first rounder, which is currently slated to be the 4th pick in 2018.  I don’t know where the Houston pick will end up, but let’s just use the value of the 5th pick for rough estimations in the present.  The Browns created 19.6 points of surplus draft capital, which is equidistant to the 10th and 11th picks of the draft.

I mentioned earlier the calculation for the Wentz trade was skewed since the Browns traded the 12th pick in 2017, so if you add the surplus value from the Wentz trade with the surplus value from the Watson trade, the Browns created 47.2 points of surplus draft capital which is equivalent to the 1st pick in the draft AND another pick that is equidistant to the 31st and 32nd picks in value.

I’d like to hammer home this point (again): Hue Jackson was in the room when the team decided they wanted to trade the pick that became DeShaun Watson.

No, I didn’t forget about Myles Garrett.  Garrett missed the first four weeks of the season due to injury, but upon his return he quickly made a substantial impact.  Garrett has missed more time since due to injury and has played in 9/14 games for the Browns this season.  However, he is already performing at a high level, ranking in the top 15 of edge defenders, per Pro Football Focus.  Additionally, he has been nearly identical in his quality of play against the run and against the pass.  So far, Garrett is everything the Browns were hoping for when they took him first in 2017.

The highest graded rookie edge defenders in the NFL!

A post shared by Pro Football Focus (@profootballfocus) on

The 25th pick became Jabrill Peppers.  The Browns then packaged some picks to move up and draft David Njoku, who has shown flashes of high upside while splitting time with Seth DeValve (another contributor drafted by Sashi Brown).

The Browns used the second rounder they got from the Titans to select Deshone Kizer, who is dreadful but it was a beautifully calculated risk.  In 2017, the Browns had to walk away from the draft with some quarterback and they took the guy they viewed as the best available at the 52nd pick.  If Kizer turned out to be good then, hell yea!  If he doesn’t turn out to be good (he didn’t) the Browns find themselves with the first pick in an absolutely loaded quarterback draft in 2018 (which is exactly what happened).

Another third round find for this team was their selection of Larry Ogunjobi, who has, next to Danny Shelton, played at a high level as a run stopper.  With Ogbah, Shelton and Ogunjobi leading the way, how has the Browns’ run defense faired in 2017 you ask?  Oh, no big deal, they’re just the best run defense in football by DVOA, and tied for first in average yards per carry allowed at 3.3 yards per carry.

What else have the Browns been decent at this season?  The additions of Bitonio, Zeitler and Tretter to Joe Thomas have the Browns sitting 9th in adjusted line yards as an offensive line, and that’s with Thomas playing in only 7 games this year.  The Browns do rank 24th in adjusted sack rate, but there’s two caveats.  First, Joe Thomas has played in 7 games.  Second, the metric doesn’t chart the sacks and assign blame to the offensive line or to the quarterback.  How many sacks this season are the result of Kizer?  I honestly don’t know, but it is probably more than 0.  I think given Kizer’s play and Thomas’ absence, we can reasonably conclude the Browns are more middle of the pack in terms of pass blocking than on the cusp of being in the bottom quartile.

So Cleveland is good in the trenches on both sides of the football.  Isn’t the game of football won in the trenches?

Sashi Brown wasn’t perfect.  The Wentz and Watson trades get all the media attention but allowing Alex Mack to leave in free agency was also a blunder.  However, the heir to Brown’s job, John Dorsey, will decide what to do with twelve picks in the upcoming draft, including the 1st pick, potentially another selection in the top five (top ten worst case), three second round picks, a third round pick, and two fourth round picks.  Additionally, before re-signing any of their own players (they don’t have any major expiring contracts) or accounting for rookie salaries, the Browns are looking at $118 million in cap space in 2018.

This is seriously the 76ers forcing out Hinkie before his plan completely worked.  Front office leadership proposed a patient, calculated method to rebuilding the franchise and ownership signed off on the proposal.  Then, right before front office leadership was about to reap the benefits of the strategy, ownership hits the abort button.  As a result, John Dorsey is inheriting a treasure chest of draft picks and seemingly his own personal federal reserve for free agency.

Tangent: If I were John Dorsey, I would hand Le’Veon Bell a blank check in free agency.  Forget the cliche about hurting your division rival.  Build the best infrastructure possible around Rosen or Darnold by giving him (whichever one) the best running back in football.  Rosen or Darnold could step into a very similar situation as Dak Prescott where he had a wonderful offensive line, a stud running back, and a big time receiver (Josh Gordon).  The NFL doesn’t like to pay running backs, and Bell wants a lot of money, but the Browns don’t need the money.  $118 million is an astronomical figure, their quarterback is going to be on a rookie scale deal for the next five seasons, and another large influx of cheap, cost controlled talent is coming in April 2018.

There are plenty of excuses for Hue Jackson, most notably at quarterback.  In 2016, the Browns had six different quarterbacks attempt a pass.  That is far from ideal.  Cody Kessler kinda, sorta looked serviceable but he kept going in and out of the lineup with injuries, and Jackson preferred to start RG3 (the guy he wanted to take a flier on) when he was available.

In 2017 Jackson has mostly gone with Kizer, who has started 13/14 games this season.  In those 13 games, Kizer has been pulled four times.  There is nothing wrong with benching a young player who is not performing.  There is substantial risk of allowing a young player to continue to play and perform below expectation knowing there is no threat to his job security.  However, the benchings haven’t seemed to do much good for Kizer’s development.

On the season, Kizer is completing 53.9% of his passes for 2,398 yards, 170.6 yards per game, 9 TDs, a touchdown rate of 2.2%, he has thrown 19 INTs, an INT rate of 4.6%, with a QBR of 24.5 and a passer rating of 59.4.  Take a look at his game long.  There isn’t a string of even two consecutive games where you can say he is at least slowly improving.  He has posted a QBR above 44.4 twice in 13 games.  And Hue Jackson is supposed to be the Yoda of quarterback training.

I actually like Isaiah Crowell, but Duke Johnson is so much more dynamic and Jackson insists Crowell out touching Johnson 207-131 so far this season.  I mentioned earlier that Duke Johnson is averaging 6.46 yards per touch on the season.  Well Crowell is averaging 4.69 yards per touch on the season.

Good coaches simply don’t go 1-29 over a 30 game stretch.  After Hue Jackson began his Browns tenure 0-7, fivethirtyeight looked into the history of coaches losing at least their first seven games of a new job.    The list isn’t pretty, but includes two massive outliers in Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson.  I’m willing to bet Hue Jackson won’t end up a multiple time Super Bowl winning coach.

You’ll notice in the chart that no coach has compiled 29 losses in only two years.  The worst full two year record is Leeman Bennett of the 1985 Buccaneers at 4-28.  The Browns final two games of 2017 are at Chicago and at Pittsburgh.  Considering the Steelers are currently fighting for a bye with the top seed still possible, it is safe to assume they will be attempting to win that week 17 game and not resting starters, and therefore I would prognosticate the Steelers’ win percentage in week 17 at 99%.  FPI disagrees and says it is 89.8%, but I will stick to my non statistically driven formula of giving the Browns absolutely no shot at winning that game and go with 99%.

That leaves a road game in Chicago as the Browns’ last realistic opportunity to win this year.  FPI is giving the Browns less than a 30% chance of winning that game.  If the Browns go 0-16 I have to imagine Jimmy Haslam will (shockingly) change his mind and fire Jackson.  Whether Jackson sits at 1-31 or 2-30 after this season, his winning percentage will be the worst among coaches that lost their first seven games of a new job and coached at least two full seasons.

If we can’t measure the Browns’ success in wins then we should at least be able to measure some improvement.  The Browns are dead last in the NFL in DVOA.  Last season they finished 31st.  The Browns are currently last in the NFL in point differential.   Last year they finished last in the NFL in point differential.

John Dorsey decided to throw prior Cleveland regimes and current players directly under the bus in his first public statements as General Manager of the Browns.  That itself is an issue.  But the biggest issue in Cleveland is Jimmy Haslam.  No, I’m not making any ground breaking statements here, but Haslam has demonstrated he has no patience and is impulsive.  After Haslam fired Brown, Twitter basically asserted that Haslam is the worst owner in sports.  I could link you to a myriad of articles speaking to the point of how terrible Haslam is as an owner, but if you simply check out the results of this Google search I think you’ll get the point.

No one in the entire organization is innocent in all of this, and that includes ownership and Hue Jackson.  The Browns have in fact acquired “real” players and Sashi Brown specifically did a tremendous job setting this franchise up with assets and cap space.  The real hope for Browns fans, unfortunately, seems to be that Jimmy Haslam’s legal trouble could somehow empower the league to seize control of the Browns and sell it to someone new.  I mean, who knows, maybe LeBron will try to go from King of Cleveland by bringing home a title, to God of Cleveland by buying the Browns and making them sustainably competitive.

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