How the Cleveland Browns can compete in 2017
John Kosko checks in on the Browns' rebuild following the team's mathematical elimination from the postseason.
How the Cleveland Browns can compete in 2017
It’s the start of Week 12 in the NFL, and the Cleveland Browns are officially eliminated from playoff contention—as if we needed the mathematical certainty. The NFL’s lone winless team, Cleveland is having a rough go in 2016, to say the least. While a big zero in the win column will bring out a lot of negativity around the franchise, and rightfully so, not all is bad at Browns headquarter.
Much of the blame for the season has been placed on the front-office decision-makers, including Executive VP Sashi Brown and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta. While those two are the main decision-makers on how the roster looks, gutting a team that went 3-13 and rebuilding through the draft is why the Browns are winless thus far—but not the reason to waiver in faith in the plan the front office has set in motion. They understood where this roster was after years of failed drafts, first-round busts, and patchwork free-agent signings—all factors behind the team’s consistent mediocracy. No NFL team has ever sustained success by keeping old players past their prime, signing free agents to big-money deals based on past production, and trading away draft picks for the shot at a franchise player.
The first major decision by the front office was to sign Robert Griffin III and trade back in the draft for a haul of future picks, passing on Carson Wentz. The move was instantly criticized and continues to get receive heat based on how this season has played out. Meanwhile, second-overall pick Carson Wentz started the season on fire with the Philadelphia Eagles, earning the NFL’s highest grade among QBs through his first five games of the season, sporting an impressive 7-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.
This made the decision to pass on Wentz look really bad, but if you consider that NFL defensive coordinators typically need four games of film on a quarterback to learn his weaknesses, Wentz was ripe for regression, and regress he did. In his last five games, the Philadelphia QB has graded as the sixth-worst QB in the league, with a four-to-six TD-to-INT ratio, and a passer rating worse than that of Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick. At this point, we don’t know if Wentz will be a top-tier QB in the NFL, but to immediately write off the Cleveland front office based on a quarter of a season’s work from a player they passed on is short-sighted.
This team clearly intends to build through the draft, and has stockpiled picks for that purpose, but they aren’t afraid to use some of that collateral to secure a proven star if one is available. A third-round pick for a versatile linebacker like former Patriot Jamie Collins is a steal; even if they are unable to sign Collins to a long-term deal, or decide not to place the franchise tag on him, Cleveland will still get a third-round compensatory pick in 2018, receiving exactly what they traded for him.
Offseason to-do list
Looking at the offseason to-do list for the Browns, keeping both Collins and WR Terrelle Pryor is essential. Pryor has made an incredible transition from failed backup quarterback to legitimate receiving threat out wide; opposing defenses often roll coverage to his side to limit the damage the former Ohio State Buckeye can do. Currently owning the league’s 14th-highest overall grade among WRs, there is no telling what a stable QB situation could do for Pryor’s production.
Equally important to retaining Collins and Pryor is nailing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. The Browns are obviously on the path to receiving the top pick, something they haven’t had since 2000 when they whiffed, taking DE Courtney Brown and passing on stars such as Chris Samuels and Brian Urlacher. While the Browns traded back twice in the 2016 draft and set themselves up for future drafts, they have a golden opportunity to land a generational talent in Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett or Alabama DE Jonathan Allen. Don’t overthink it—just take Garrett or Allen and build a defense around him.
While we at Pro Football Focus loved what the Browns did in the 2016 draft, expecting that haul of picks all to succeed at the same time is unrealistic. Injuries have forced rookies into action much sooner than expected, and the results have not been good. 10 rookies have seen multiple starts and have over 200 snaps apiece. Patience is needed when viewing this draft class.
While the on-field production has been poor this year, not everything is as bad as it might seem. The offensive line is actually a strength—when healthy. Critics will point to quarterback injuries and blame them on poor O-line play, but that isn’t the case here, as the unit ranks 19th in pass-blocking efficiency this season, at 76.8. While the sack (19) and QB hit (24) numbers are high, so is the number of passing snaps (456)—third-most in the NFL this season.
Heading into Week 11, PFF ranked Cleveland’s offensive line as ninth-best in the NFL; most Browns fans will immediately roll their eyes at that. Go watch the Vikings, Seahawks, Colts, and 49ers offensive lines, and see what really bad O-line play looks like. Outside of Cam Erving, the Browns’ unit is average-to-elite in its makeup.
On offense, the obvious question mark is still at quarterback, but even Cody Kessler, a rookie who wasn’t expected to play any snaps this season, has exceeded expectations. Through Week 11, Kessler has been one of the more accurate passers in the league, ranking sixth in adjusted completion percentage, first in adjusted completion percentage under pressure, and fourth in passer rating under pressure. It’s worth noting, however, that Kessler brings a good amount of pressure on himself by holding onto the ball too long in many situations (also making the O-line look much worse than it is). Overall, Kessler is still an unknown quantity at this point, but we have seen positives in his first season.
On defense, second-year defensive tackle Danny Shelton has flourished after a shaky rookie season. His development should be a lesson for Cleveland fans that rookies and young players need time to learn and develop in the NFL. Shelton has graded out as one of the better interior defenders in the NFL this season, excelling in run defense, where he ranks second with 32 run stops.
The Browns will absolutely be better in 2017, as they’ve already held fourth-quarter leads in several games this season. Another year of experience goes a long way towards learning to finish games. Several rookies have shown flashes of great play, and they need to build upon that with the help of head coach Hue Jackson and his staff. Remember that the coaches are also learning what their players do—and don’t do—well.
With a young nucleus of front-seven defenders playing well in Shelton, Emmanuel Ogbah (playing well as a pass-rusher), Collins, and Chris Kirksey and a defensive backfield with the likes of CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun—who leads all NFL rookies in total pass disruptions (two interceptions, four passes breakups)—and CB Jamar Taylor, grading as the 15th best CB since Week 3, the Browns’ defense has some of the pieces in place to be successful once they start gelling together as a unit.
It may look bleak for Cleveland fans now, and yes, the front office has to hit on their draft picks they’ve stockpiled, but there are clear reasons for optimism for the future. While the team could have as many as four wins at this point in the season, winning games in 2016 means nothing in 2017 and beyond when the team hopes to compete in the AFC North—and beyond. With the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals all regressing because of relatively poor recent drafts, the Browns are setting themselves up for long-term success, not one-year feel good stories.