Our offseason blueprint for the Cleveland Browns
Step one: fire Hue Jackson and get an adult instead
When you’re a young team like the Browns without a stable QB situation, you expect to lose games. In a sense, it’s excusable. What is NOT excusable in my mind is a coach who refuses to accept any responsibility for that, and continually throws his co-workers and QBs under the bus instead. The Browns should obviously fire Jackson and replace him with a true leader.
What’s that, you say? They’re keeping Jackson? Oh. Okay then. Let’s try this again.
Step one: keep Hue Jackson (?) but surround him with adults
Clearly, I’m not a fan of the decision to keep Hue Jackson, but the organization is making some strides toward credibility with their other moves. New GM John Dorsey has a strong track record. He hired Eliot Wolf, who was in play for a larger role in Green Bay. I can’t claim to know much about Dorsey or Wolf behind the scenes, but they’re clearly “football guys.”
And while Steelers fans may disagree, hiring Todd Haley as an OC should provide a boost to their offense as well. Haley’s a master developer of wide receivers, and his quick-hitting offense juices his quarterbacks’ efficiency. Better yet, it keeps their jerseys clean. Over the last two seasons, Ben Roethlisberger‘s taken a grand total of 38 sacks combined. Prior to Haley, Roethlisberger had gotten sacked over 38+ times in 6 separate individual seasons, which doesn’t even account for all the years he missed time.
Both of those virtues fit in perfectly with the Browns’ needs on offense. Aside from a general inefficiency in their passing game, the team also allowed way too many QB hits. Under Hue Jackson’s guidance these last two years, Browns’ quarterbacks have been sacked 116 times. That’s obviously the most in the NFL; the next highest is Indianapolis, all the way down at 100. Given that they have solid talent on their offensive line, that figure is absurdly high.
If the team empowers Haley to run this offense (and perhaps delegates Hue Jackson to more of a general overseer and run game guide) they’ve mitigated the damage that Jackson can do to this organization.
And you know something? If you take away Jackson, the Browns have the chance for success and perhaps an immediate turnaround potential. They have $100+ million in cap space — and no that’s not a misprint. They have the # 1 overall pick — AND the # 4 overall pick. They have three more picks in R2, and two in R3. They’re quite simply flushed with assets at their disposal. Given all that potential, “excuses” are out the window. Time to get some friggin’ wins.
Step two: F the process, focus on results
There are a few reasons why a Philadelphia 76er / Sam Hinkie style “Process” doesn’t work in the NFL. For one, football is based more on coaching and culture than singular talents. If you create a toxic environment where players get used to losing, you’re going to have a harder time turning that ship around.
The other reason is more pragmatic. In the NBA, players’ timelines and development are more predictable. You’re going to draft a kid when he’s 19 years old, and usually, watch him improve and improve until he’s in his prime 4-5 years later. In the NFL, that’s not always the case. You draft a R1 pick when he’s already 22 years old, and often watch him break down and enter a decline in 4-5 years. Theirs are shorter windows, filled with much higher rates of injuries and bust potential along the way.
Realizing that inherent risk, the Browns wisely stockpiled extra draft picks / extra swings at the plate. That’s smart. However, they never demonstrated a special aptitude when it came to drafting talent, often taking swings that felt too ambitious. They drafted developmental players who were YEARS away from being good starters and may have never gotten there at all. R2 pick DeShone Kizer had never shown much consistency in college. R1 pick Jabrill Peppers hadn’t landed on a surefire position yet. R1 pick David Njoku didn’t have the strength or bulk to hold up as an every-down tight end yet. The Browns were playing a long game and thinking several years ahead but may have only served to ruin those players’ confidence and cast their future in doubt. Of those three, Njoku looks like the best bet to be a long-term starter, but even that’s not a sure thing. This sort of riskiness when it comes to early picks is perhaps what Dorsey complained about when he said the previous administration didn’t give Jackson “real football players”; they gave him projections instead.
Now armed with a new boatload of draft picks, the new Browns administration would be wise to focus more on “sure things” (at least, as close as you can get in the draft process) and more polished players. That’s especially true for their # 1 pick, likely to be spent on another QB this year.
There are two high-profile QB prospects that still feel like “developmental” plays to me: USC’s Sam Darnold and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Both have size, athleticism, and arm talent, but both have raw skill sets that may require a full year on the bench. Darnold’s stats don’t illustrate that (his stats are very good, save interceptions) but his mechanics and delivery need work. He has a tendency to break from the pocket and make improvised throws into traffic, but that works a lot better when your teammates are the fastest on the field more so than the evenly balanced NFL.
As for Allen, you have to question his overall feel for the game right now. It’s a little outrageous to think that a QB may parlay a year like his (1812 yards, 16 TDs, 6 int, 56.3% completion, 6.7 yards per attempt) into the # 1 pick. Allen defenders (like Mel Kiper Jr.) have started to utilize the comparison to Matt Stafford to defend him. Hey, Stafford only completed 57.1% of his passes in college! Yes, but that was for his entire career — including his 13 starts as a true freshman (Allen didn’t start until later on in his career). By his junior year, Stafford had upped that to 61.4% and 9.0 yards per attempt. That, despite being a full year younger than Allen was this past season.
I’m not against Sam Darnold or even Josh Allen as R1 picks in theory, but they come attached with some special instructions and stipulations. Ideally, you’d acquire a reasonable vet (like an Alex Smith or A.J. McCarron) who could hold down the fort for a year rather than allow the team to throw the kid to the wolves. After all, the Browns showed that approach didn’t work with Kizer, another “upside” play that Hue Jackson appears ready to give up on at the ripe ol’ age of 22. Darnold and Allen may have better success elsewhere, with a team and staff that can better protect them. But quite frankly, I don’t trust Hue Jackson to develop a raw QB, nor to stick long enough to see that development through. His team may be better served with a more pro-ready signal caller.
In my mind, there are two options for quarterbacks who are closer to game-ready than their peers: UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. Although Rosen is only a true junior himself (meaning he’s only been on campus for 3 seasons without a redshirt year), he’s extremely advanced for his age in terms of his polish and his mechanics. He’s also a naturally confident/cocky kid that shouldn’t be afraid of the big stage. Some bristle at his personality and his intellect (he’s the son of a surgeon), but I happen to like it. Top flight QBs win with their minds as much as their arms, and he has the “tools” to succeed in that aspect as well. I don’t know if he’s going to be a player that can carry a team on his back alone, but I see him as a good starter in the NFL — with Matt Ryan as a natural comp. That’s worth a top 5 pick to me, presuming you can strap him to a plane and send him to Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Mayfield is more advanced and game-ready than his peers because of age and experience. He’s turning 23 soon and coming off three full seasons as a starter for Oklahoma where he ripped up record books. His stats are astronomical; at OU, he completed 69.8% of his passes for 10.6 yards per attempt, even better stats than fellow Sooner and former #1 pick Sam Bradford. I’m a little less convinced that the shorter Mayfield can win in a traditional NFL offense, so I would personally rank Rosen ahead of him. However, I can see an argument for Mayfield as well.
Step three: keep overloading the defensive line
It wasn’t too long ago that the Jacksonville Jaguars were in a similar position to the Cleveland Browns — largely treated as a doormat and a punchline for the rest of the league. However, the Jags showed the Browns a good blueprint on how to rebuild.
The Jaguars utilized the draft to find some core pieces — like superstar CB Jalen Ramsey — but made sure to keep adding veteran talent around him year after year like Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, and A.J. Bouye. Eventually, their talent pool became so deep and so overwhelming that the scales tipped into a winner. The Browns need to do the same and add some more veterans who are ready to “win now,” and help their young pups step up their play by proxy. The Browns have signed one or two vets (like OG Kevin Zeitler last year) but they should look to add at least 2-3 more difference makers this year given all their cap space.
Determining where to invest your money and your draft capital is a different story altogether and would say a lot about your philosophy on team building in general.
For me, personally? I love when teams build through their defensive line. And then keep building on top of that. Over and over again. Again, the Jags (or the Eagles) would be a great example of how that investment can pay off. Cleveland DC Gregg Williams cut his teeth on the same Titans staff with Philadelphia DC Jim Schwartz back in the day, and they bring the same aggressive wide-nine approach to their defensive fronts. In Philadelphia, Schwartz has been able to build an exceptional d-line. They were already good before and still added DT Timmy Jernigan. And still drafted DE Derek Barnett in R1. You see, Schwartz knew that he needs more than 4 “starters” for his line. He needs WAVES of pass rushers. The Eagles ended up playing 7 good linemen in their rotation, even when their starters were fully healthy. That enabled them all to stay fresh and stay aggressive.
For their part, the Cleveland Browns have already invested in their defensive line. # 1 pick Myles Garrett should be a Pro Bowler as soon as next season. Fellow draft picks like Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi, and Caleb Brantley should all have a place in a rotation for the long term as well. But cue the maniacal supervillain cackle here — because I want MORE. MORE! The Browns have the makings of a good defensive line here, but they can be a great one with 1-2 more studs up front.
If I ran the Browns, I’d take a swing at free agent DTs like Sheldon Richardson or DT Bennie Logan. And if I ran the Browns, I’d seriously consider drafting North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb with the # 4 overall pick as well. Chubb is arguably the best overall player in this draft, having racked up 44.0 tackles for loss and 20.0 sacks over the last two seasons combined. It may sound like overkill, but if this team added Richardson and Chubb, they could have the best defensive line in the entire NFL within one or two year’s time. Teams like that don’t finish 0-16; they win playoff games.
I also value cornerbacks highly, so I’d consider investing heavily there as well. Rams CB Trumaine Johnson appears to be the # 1 corner on the free agency market and would be “gettable” given their cap space. Alternatively, I’d consider Alabama DB/CB Minkah Fitzpatrick with that # 4 pick if the team believes he can play cornerback full time. In my mind, that pick will come down to Fitzpatrick (perhaps the favorite) and Chubb as a “best player available” selection. If it’s not Fitzpatrick, the Browns obviously have enough picks to take a CB with a high pick in R2 or R3. I may also recommend a ballhawk safety who can perhaps slide Jabrill Peppers down to a nickel linebacker spot.
If you disagree with me, you may suggest the team needs to pony up for more playmakers at the RB or WR position to open up the offense instead. Personally, I value DEs and CBs more. But either way, you slice it, the Browns will have enough money to attack a lot of needs this offseason. It wouldn’t shock me to see them have as many as 8 new starters next year.
The bottom line
If you couldn’t tell, I wish the Browns fired Hue Jackson. That’s only partly because I dislike him. It’s also because this franchise is ripe with potential for a turnaround given their cap space and draft picks. I wanted them to land a great coach because I would have bought a lot of Cleveland Browns stock if they did. Hell, that turnaround may happen regardless. If they load up this roster with some vets in addition to their picks, they could make the playoffs in a couple of years. And if they nail that QB selection along with that? We could be talking about them as a playoff fixture for years to come.