On the money: Cleveland’s road to redemption

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May 2, 2017 by coachcarter717

Myles Garrett (left), Jabril Peppes (center) and David Njoku (right) are the first round draftees for the Cleveland Browns. (Courtesy of Ken Blaze / USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Carter Cotrupi

The NFL draft has come and gone and all 32 teams have brought new competition to the table in the chase for Super Bowl LII. Some teams are filling in gaps to improve their stacked rosters while others are simply trying to build a team that can last a whole season. Signing veterans in free agency helps initially, but it’s the young rookies that can really make or break the foreseeable future of a franchise.

Perhaps no team is struggling with this concept more than the Cleveland Browns. When football analysts are debating on whether a college team could beat your roster of professional athletes, you might be doing something wrong. There is no question the Browns have become the laughingstock of the entire league over the last few years. The team has not had a winning season since 2002.

The unfortunate franchise has fallen victim to a carousel of coaches and general managers that have tried to put together a winning team only to be the scapegoats for upper management’s resounding ignorance.

After ending the 2016 season with a pitiful 1-15 record, expectations were at an all-time low for what the team could accomplish in the offseason. Even the most loyal Cleveland fans found themselves in a hilarious frenzy when the team would come somewhat close to winning. It’s true, the Browns have dug themselves into a deep hole littered with misused young talent and a laundry list of quarterbacks that, believe it or not, is actually more laundry than Marlon Pitter has on his bed at any given time.

Marlon Pitter’s bed in real time. (Courtesy of Alex Salucco / The Nosebleeds)

But something about their performance so far in this offseason has led this writer to believe the organization is finally heading in the right direction. The acquisition of free agent linemen Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter, along with WR Kenny Britt, has shown that this team wants to win.

Change became apparent at the start of the new year when Joe Thomas, offensive lineman for the Browns, tweeted out and publicly pleaded for team management to address any position other than the quarterback. Thomas, the 10-time pro-bowler with Cleveland, had just experienced a particularly bad season in which the Browns rotated through three different starting quarterbacks due to injury and poor performance.

In fact, since Brian Hoyer was the starting QB in 2014, the Browns have not had a quarterback start more than eight games in the regular season. The team keeps trying to rush young players into the pressure of carrying an entire franchise and Johnny Manziel was the latest failed example of that.

(Courtesy of Paul J. Bereswill/AP)

Thomas’ tweet seemed particularly aimed at the organization’s hiring of Paul DePodesta in 2016 and the internal promotion of Sashi Brown as the new General Manager. DePodesta, the Browns’ new Chief Strategy Officer, is best known for his moneyball approach to personnel management and is highly praised for his intellect by his peers. Sashi Brown is a lawyer out of Harvard Law School who has mostly dealt with the business side of football management like contract negotiations.

One major concern about DePodesta’s moneyball approach is that it had only been previously tested on the baseball diamond, not the football field. Browns owner Jim Haslam took a major risk in putting two executives without any prior football personnel management experience at the head of the organization. Cleveland now has two guys out of Harvard Law scouting players and making final roster decisions.

Needless to say, the first year of the experiment did not pan out for fans eagerly waiting on a dramatic turnaround from the franchise. Yet, moneyball is all about patience and waiting on the market to reveal small-scale opportunities that can then cumulate into success down the road.

Now, here we are in the second year of DePodesta’s experiment and the Browns have seemingly won the 2017 NFL draft. Something has finally clicked within the organization and management has started to pay attention to the future. Many other GMs and analysts were shocked by the Browns as they displayed unfamiliar intelligence in their draft strategy this year.

For those who aren’t familiar with moneyball, the logistics can best be summarized like this: the Browns had amassed eleven picks within the first six rounds of the 2017 draft, including five of the first 65 picks. They had stockpiled enough assets heading into the draft and it was GM Sashi Brown’s turn to make the right moves.

(Courtesy of John Kuntz / cleveland.com)

To everyone’s surprise, the Browns broke out of their Groundhog Day-esque tradition and avoided drafting another “quarterback of the future” in the first round, opting instead to dive into the pool of defensive talent. At number-one overall, the Browns wisely chose the best player in the draft: DE Myles Garrett out of Texas A&M.

Give the Browns credit. Every analyst watching the draft speculated with utmost certainty that the Browns were going after Jimmy Garappolo or Kirk Cousins even after the team showed that the quarterback position was not their primary focus.

Later in the first round, the team stuck to the road of redemption and pulled off a trade with the Texans that gave them the #25 pick in exchange for their #12 pick, which the Texans used to draft Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. The Browns used that pick to reach for a true wildcard piece in Michigan SS Jabril Peppers, a phenomenal athlete who can use his raw talent to fill in whatever position is lacking in a team’s roster.

The Browns’ newfound aggressiveness would not be settled with just two picks in the first round. Because of their trade with the Packers for their #33 pick, the Browns moved back into the Day 1 rotation at #29 to snag their first offensive weapon of the draft in Miami TE David Njoku.

In Day 2 of the draft, the Browns eventually fell back on the habit of drafting another quarterback and did so with Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer. However, this time around, it appears that Kizer will have a chance to be a clipboard rookie behind second-year QB Cody Kessler, who showed promise in the eight games he started last year.

It’s too early to tell if Moneyball has successfully transferred into the NFL. The results of DePodesta’s analytics can only be determined by results on the field. We are still waiting to see how many of Cleveland’s off-season acquisitions will pan out this year. but I urge football fans not to overlook the legitimate potential that the Browns have created for themselves heading into this season.

As a lover of bold management strategies and good Cinderella stories, I look forward to seeing the revitalized intelligence at work within the Cleveland Browns and what the future holds for this franchise in 2017.

(Courtesy of Joshua Gunter / cleveland.com)

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