The NFL affords losing franchises the opportunity to rebound quickly, thanks to free agency, the machinations of schedule-making, and most of all, the NFL draft. No fan base should have to suffer for more than a season or two; it’s the league’s most endearing quality.
The only catch is that a team has to be smart enough not to screw up the draft, which is harder than it should be.
A shared vision for what the front office wants a team to be and a gaggle of extra picks is the starting point for rebuilding a team, but it isn’t enough to turn a moribund franchise into a perennial contender.
This will be the fifth time that the Browns have had a pair of first-round picks. In the past that’s netted them franchise cornerstones like Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, and Johnny Manziel. You can’t paper over incompetence with more picks.
Without pulling up its Wikipedia page, I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the year 2010 (the EU bailed out the Irish economy, I think). All I remember clearly from that year is that things were finally looking up for the St. Louis Rams.
That was the year they settled on a franchise quarterback, taking Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford with the first overall pick in the NFL draft, a pick earned thanks to a 1-15 effort the year before. The Rams already had their left tackle of the future, Baylor’s Jason Smith, whom they picked at No. 2 in 2009. Mix in a handful of up-and-coming defensive stars, and you could finally see better days ahead for the most overlooked franchise in all of professional sports.
But here’s a simple truth about life that you’ll do well to remember — whenever it looks like everything’s coming up Milhouse, some defensive end slides past Jason Smith and crushes that hope.
I hadn’t given up completely on the Rams in 2012, when the team hired head coach Jeff Fisher and his hand-picked general manager. They still had Bradford, who was OK enough to allow them to send the second overall pick to Washington in exchange for a haul of draft picks that should have been enough to pull the team out of perpetual rebuild mode and into contention.
Guided by Fisher’s 7-9 hubris, the Rams failed the draft IQ test by making more dumb picks.
In 2013, they used two first-round picks on a glorified role player, Tavon Austin, and an average outside linebacker, Alec Ogletree. A year later, they landed a bona-fide defensive superstar in Aaron Donald, but offset that by using the second overall pick on yet another left tackle draft bust, Greg Robinson, missing yet another opportunity to build a viable offensive line.
They committed the cardinal sin of overvaluing running backs. Five draft picks in four years were used on running backs, including three picks from the top 75 selections.
The result? Year and after year of 7-9 bullshit. They were good enough for just long enough to fool people into thinking they’d be winners the next year, as those draft picks developed and their next bunch of draft picks filled the holes.
In one last desperate attempt to right the ship, the Rams traded away a big part of their future for the No. 1 pick in 2016 and drafted Cal quarterback Jared Goff. This in spite of the fact that air raid quarterbacks have a dismal track record in the NFL and plenty research to suggest that trading up for Goff just wasn’t worth it.
But they’re STILL rebuilding. The NFL draft is a franchise’s ultimate IQ test; the Rams failed miserably. They weren’t the first team to do so, and they won’t be the last.
It’s easy to see the results of a team failing that test. I’m cynical. I assume a team is going to screw it up until I’m proven wrong. But we’re not here to wallow in my own wrecked fandom — we’re here to fairly judge the work all 32 teams do in the draft.
To do that, we have to establish a minimal set of standards, a cheat sheet for how to pass this test.
Do the homework
Like any test, a team can prepare itself for this one. It starts with knowing how a player will fit with your team.
- Air raid quarterbacks put up a lot of great numbers in college, but does the coaching staff have the flexibility to bend the offense to help him succeed?
- Recent drafts have been littered with highly drafted offensive linemen who turn out to be busts. The key is knowing what to look for, which retired NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz explained for us.
- And study up. One thing that’s great about the scouting reports from retired NFL defensive end Stephen White — he gives you a sense of how a player fits in an NFL system.
Understand the value of a pick
Loading up on young talent is the NFL’s version of Moneyball. The people who brought that revolution to baseball are now in Cleveland to keep the Browns from blowing it.
- They have 11 picks to work with this year, and whether they stand fast or use those assets to move around and get the players they want, they should come out of the draft with cornerstone talent on cost-controlled contracts for the next four to five years.
- Or, just do what the Patriots do. No team better understands what a draft pick is worth. It’s why they make so many winning trades during the draft.
Draft the right players at the right time
- There’s a reason the best teams use most of their first-round picks on defensive players. The last few Super Bowl winners have been helped by the fact that they have their franchise quarterback, but there’s generally a much better return on defensive players in the draft’s opening frame. Few bust spectacularly, and even if those players don’t turn out to be superstars, they can be reliable starters. When a first-round quarterback flames out, it’s much harder to survive the damage.
- Follow that logic into the later rounds of the draft. Load up on offensive line depth. Look for wide receivers or running backs on the second day of the draft.
- Quarterbacks will be more successful if they’re surrounded by talent from day one than when a franchise tries to cobble together a team around a young signal caller. Think about Jared Goff and the Rams vs. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.
That’s the bullet-point version of it. I promised a cheat sheet, not the answer key (though we did already take a stab at what each team needs to do to ace or flunk the draft).
We won’t fully grasp the impact of this year’s draft for a couple seasons. But by the time we find out who Mr. Irrelevant is on Saturday evening, we’ll have a good sense of how each team did on its franchise version of the Wonderlic.