The Browns rebuilding project is not going as planned
The Browns fell to 0–11 on Sunday are now staring in the face of a winless season.
Cleveland’s new brain trust — featuring a genuinely smart and innovative coach, and a supposed smart and innovative front office — have conspired for the worst start in franchise history.
Yes, for as awful and tortured as the franchises past has been, it’s never been worse than its present.
Of course this year was always going to be difficult, perhaps even 0–16 difficult. The new staff are in the first year of a fully-fledged rebuild; tearing down the roster and hoping to build it back up through the draft. Veterans like Paul Kruger were cut in favor of giving valuable reps to rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib. Sure, they may not be as effective on every down, but it was a long-term play.
That long-term building, which has long been a part of the Browns lexicon but has never come to fruition, was to be built with a treasure trove of draft assets.
Again, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Browns planned to amass multiple picks in three consecutive drafts and grab foundational pieces that could bring long-term success.
Through a pre-draft trade last year, multiple in-draft pick swaps, and pre-season player trades, general manager Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta assembled a war chest of picks. Along with last year’s 14 draft selections, the Browns have 22 picks combined in the 2017 and 2018 drafts. That’s 36 potential selections in three years, and an arsenal of picks akin to that which the Cowboys’ used to build a dynasty after trading away Herschel Walker.
However, it’s all well and good having the picks, but then you have to go and select good players.
The new regime’s first draft is shaping up to be an almighty dud. Of their 14 draft picks only a couple look as if they can be long-term contributors and none stand-out as foundational franchise pillars.
Think about that for a moment.
Cleveland entered last year’s draft with the second overall pick. They moved down from that spot in a mega-deal with the Eagles and wound up taking Corey Coleman at 15th overall. In doing so they looked past both quarterbacks who were taken at the top of the draft, Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Jalen Ramsey, and Laremy Tunsil.
It’s tough to criticize not taking a quarterback. Firstly, we don’t know how good either Carson Wentz or Jared Goff will be long-term (though I believe Wentz will be a star). Secondly it’s a position that relies on that talent that surrounds it, and there’s a lack of a supporting cast in Cleveland. The same is true for Elliott. He’s a special player, but the Browns run game hasn’t exactly been a disaster; they’re currently sixth in the league in yards per rush attempt (Dallas is fifth).
But passing on Bosa, Ramsey, and Tunsil, in favor of picking up multiple picks, is a franchise-altering decision. It was the wrong one at the time and it looks even worse now. Those positions rely less on what surrounds them. And each player has lived up to their pre-draft billing: Ramsey is already getting shutdown corner treatment in Jacksonville, Tunsil has been a dominant force playing inside in Miami (and has been equally good filling in for an injured Brandon Albert at left tackle), and Bosa has been as good as any pass-rusher in the league, rookie or otherwise.
Any of those three would have been a true foundational piece that the team could point to as a legitimate building block as they added depth in the later rounds.
Instead, this is what they have to show for their 2016 draft class:
Early draft picks Corey Coleman and Emmanuel Ogbah are exceptional athletes, at positions that should translate quickly, yet both have struggled in their rookie years. Elsewhere there is just one player — Derrick Kindred — who has played more than 50 percent of their unit’s snaps, and guys Shon Coleman cannot even get on the field despite a raft of offensive line injuries. Quarterback Cody Kessler may have been the most impressive rookie this year; showing poise, anticipation, and toughness behind an awful offensive line. But he’s sustained a number of injuries and projects to be nothing more than a long-term backup.
Given all those picks it’s about as underwhelming a haul as imaginable, with only two players who may become difference-makers but have been poor in their rookie seasons.
Take a look at the entire roster and you see the same thing: A jarring lack of future talent.
On the entire depth chart there appears to be only four true building blocks, with the hope that Corey Coleman could become a fifth; Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, Joel Bitonio, and Terrelle Pryor. And both Collins are Pryor are pending free agents, while Bitonio (a very talented interior lineman) has battled injuries.
The big names; Joe Haden, Joe Thomas, and even Gary Barnidge, will either be too old, playing elsewhere, or have suffered a decline in performance by the time the franchise is ready to be competitive.
This front office knew what they were getting into. They let talent like Mitchell Schwartz and Alex Mack walk out of building in free agency. Schwartz continues to play like one of the best right tackles in the game after signing a team-friendly deal in Kansas City. And Mack has been the key to Atlanta’s explosive rushing attack. Their replacements in Cleveland have been a mess. Particularly center Cameron Erving who may be the worst starting player anywhere in the league.
Even Joe Thomas criticized the moves, telling reports after the Pittsburgh loss on Sunday “You’ve got to lie in the bed that you’ve made,” according to the Cleveland Plains-Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot.
Thomas is right to be frustrated. The front office opted to move on from two of the team’s best players and has been unable to replace them, turning a position group that was a strength into a disaster.
All too often this team has looked uncompetitive. They’re 32nd in total DVOA, and 0–11 for a reason. And while that was always in play, the hope would have been to see consistent flashes of what the young players could develop into.
Those flashes haven’t come. And the return on many early decisions have been nothing short of a failure. The next two drafts are going to give the front office every opportunity to turn it around. But nothing in their early personnel decisions inspires any kind of confidence that they know what they’re doing.
Remarkably, it may get worse in Cleveland before it gets better.