By Jim Green
After a tumultuous week I’m carrying on with this series of articles by looking at the future fortunes of underachieving franchises with a focus on the biggest losers of them all – the Browns (sorry Browns fans but if you can think of another franchise that warrants this title then let me know!).
The history of the Browns from the 50s and 60s is a good one. They were a powerhouse of a franchise winning multiple championships led by their talismanic full back Jim Brown. Then in 1995 their world collapsed when the franchise upped sticks and moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. Reborn in 1999 it has since been a miserable existence with only two winning seasons.
However from 2015 things have got worse – if you thought that was possible. At time of writing, from the start of the 2015 season, the Browns have a record of 4-39. Executive Vice President, Sashi Brown, has been sacked and John Dorsey the former Chiefs GM has been promptly installed.
So, what next for the Browns?
I don’t know what the Browns have been trying to do. I mean that. What’s their style? Are they trying to build a mean defence and a solid run game? Are they trying to build a dynamic passing game? Is their focus on drafting and developing or being aggressive in free agency? It feels like they’re trying to do a bit from each and nothing is working.
In 2015 the Browns hired Sashi Brown and then went on to hire Paul DePodesta as Chief Strategy Officer in a move that saw them break away from a lot of traditional structural models that NFL clubs use. DePodesta, of Moneyball fame, and Brown, were charged with running the draft in lieu of there being a more traditional General Manager but aside from make three good picks in the first round in 2017 and gather a whole load of other picks for future draft they’ve not done all that much. Any front office should be able to make a first round pick. The real talent of a scouting department and a front office running the draft should be able to find the gems in later rounds – Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor by the Seahawks for example. With John Dorsey now in and DePodesta staying it’ll be interesting to see how they approach the off season. They’ve got five picks in the top two rounds following last years wheeling and dealing and they’ve got a good amount of cap space.
Hugh Jackson has a good footballing brain, but he has had no one above him he can lean on. We all need a second opinion from time to time and by not having traditional ‘football people’ above him he’s been lacking that – he now has John Dorsey who has had experience at the NFL level and put together a good team in Kansas before being fired earlier this year. Dorsey has come out and said his priority is finding a QB and I don’t think many people will disagree with that!
Whatever the Browns do they need to put in place a strategy as to how they want their franchise to be seen. Build an identity around how they want to play and then draft or acquire players around that style. The Jaguars have spent years building what is now a league leading defence with an offence led by a strong running game. This has masked their inability to draft success at the toughest position – quarterback – and allowed them to challenge for a playoff position despite Blake Bortles. If I were in John Dorsey’s shoes this is the direction I would go in and this is why….
They’ve got some good pieces to build around now. Despite a slightly injury ridden season, Myles Garrett has shown the flashes of brilliance that made him an undoubted number one pick in the first round of the draft. Like the Texans have done with JJ Watt, the Browns would be well served to build around him. On the other side of the line, Carl Nassib has had some good performances and proven he can be a solid player at the NFL level. If they do choose to use a high draft pick on bolstering the D-Line they could look to Nick Bosa coming out of Ohio State. He’s got a very similar stature to his older brother Joey and could become a force himself in the NFL.
Behind the line, the line backing division is led by the ex-Patriot Jamie Collins. His stats don’t jump off the page for the year but he’s a solid player, has good experience from his days in New England and can add some leadership to what could turn out to be a young team.
In the defensive backs they have Jabrill Peppers who again, is young but has shown quality. Letting Joe Haden go was an odd decision as he not only adds experience but also quality. However, if he wasn’t 100% committed then he could have become a bad influence on a young team. Defensive backs can be found in the draft if the scouting department is doing their job well. A high pick could be used on Denzel Ward, another Ohio State product. Ward isn’t the biggest of cornerbacks but that doesn’t stop him from making some big hits which would get the Dawg Pound going!
Building a strong defence is probably the quickest way to get some wins in the NFL. We’ve seen the Seahawks do it to win a championship and we’re seeing the same thing in Jacksonville now where despite have Bortles people talk of the Jaguars as a tough opponent because of their defence.
Probably the area where they need the most work. It should go without saying (though Dorsey has said it) that QB is what they need most and there’s a lot of hype about the class of QBs coming from the college game this year. I fear that when the Browns pick at No.1 again next year (which is looking more than likely) that they’ll get crucified for not picking a QB and trading down, however it might not be a bad idea. If they trade down for some more solid picks on defence and maybe pick up a running back then they could be set for developmental season in which a new, young QB might get crucified (both by a negative media and several NFL defences!). If they trade down, build the defence and add some pieces on the O-Line and a shiny new running back then there’s less reliance in having a superstar QB under centre.
If they do go for a QB (which I think they will after passing on Roethlisberger, Wentz and Watson to name but a few) then they need to find someone solid and strong. It’s a tough division to play in both in terms of weather conditions and the defences he’ll regularly have to play (namely Baltimore and Pittsburgh). Rosen and Darnold are likely to be the favourites to be picked with the first overall pick. Both are strong athletes (Rosen 6-4 and 210, Darnold 6-4 and 225) and both have had flashes of excellence. There’s a question mark as to whether Darnold will leave the college game this year or not (and if going to the Browns is a likely occurrence then he may choose to stay in college). A slightly more left fielded prospect could be Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State who has a strong stature but would need a fair bit of development.
If the Browns were to focus on the running game then they could look to Saquon Barkley from Penn State. Barkley is being touted as ‘better than Zeke’. His average yards per carry is around 5.7 for the season and he’s rushed for 16 TDs. He’s also a threat in the passing game where he’s had 47 receptions for 594 yards and three TDs. If the Browns are serious about having a solid weapon this could be an ideal pick.
So, What Next?
The Browns have started to clean house. I’m surprised to read that DePodesta won’t follow Sashi Brown out the door, though I think that is a little to do with Haslam saving a bit of face and looking to pursue the use of data analysis. Dorsey has a tough, but I think an exciting challenge. He’s got a load of high draft picks to play with and a lot of cap space. He could build something special in Cleveland. I would genuinely like to see this franchise start to do well again – I’d love to see them at least start towards a positive trajectory and prove that on any given Sunday in the NFL any team can win – even the Browns!