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A 'Moneyball' approach for the Browns might not work in the NFL

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The NFL landscape may not be all that favorable to the analytics movement.

While Cleveland Browns executive Paul DePodesta was waiting in line to head home from the NFL Combine, he says he heard several of his peers openly mocking him. Given the initial resistance that met the analytics movement in Major League Baseball, DePodesta is used to skepticism. But in the NFL, it will be more difficult for him to prove his doubters wrong.

The Browns hired DePodesta in January to serve as the organization's Chief Strategy Officer after a two-decade run working in MLB. DePodesta got his start in baseball with the Cleveland Indians before working his way up to become Billy Beane's top assistant with the Oakland A's (a character based on DePodesta was played by Jonah Hill in the 2011 Moneyball blockbuster). In 2004, the Dodgers hired him to be their general manager, but he lasted only two years. DePodesta most recently served as the vice president of player development and scouting for the New York Mets.

If any organization in the NFL needs a dramatic upheaval, it's the Browns. They've only finished above .500 twice since returning to Cleveland in 1999 and have been mired in turmoil ever since Jimmy Haslam purchased the team in 2012. They went 3-13 last season, which was four games worse than their performance the previous year. But is a "Moneyball" approach the kind of makeover the Browns need?

What is the "Moneyball" philosophy?

Given the lack of a salary cap in MLB, certain teams are at a significant financial disadvantage. Thus, one of the only ways for small revenue clubs to win is to find undervalued assets in the marketplace.

The A's have embodied this approach under Beane. In his best-selling book, Moneyball, author Michael Lewis chronicled the A's battle to compete with a Goliath such as the New York Yankees, who spend well over $100 million more in payroll than them. In the early 2000s, a hitter's ability to work the count and simply get on base was often overlooked, which is why the A's loaded up on previously unheralded hitters with high on-base percentages.

"Moneyball" is more a financial philosophy than anything else. It stresses the importance of staying ahead of the curve and identifying market trends before the competition.

Problems with applying the "Moneyball" philosophy to the NFL

Unlike in baseball, teams are largely on a level financial playing field in the NFL. The advent of revenue sharing and the salary cap, combined with the lack of guaranteed contracts, ensures that no club is at a significant financial disadvantage. The need to find value is greatly diminished.

In the NFL, even an underachieving franchise like the Jacksonville Jaguars can spend heavily in free agency as long as it has the cap room. The Jaguars have gone on a spending spree this offseason, prioritizing short-term gains over all else. The NFL's financial structure allows them to do that.

Signing a veteran center like Alex Mack may be a poor long-term investment, but the Browns wouldn't have been obligated to keep him around for the entirety of a five-year deal. Having Mack on the offensive line alongside tackle Mitchell Schwartz for next season would probably be worth the risk of keeping them as they age, because Cleveland could always restructure their contracts or release them.

Unlike baseball, which is an individual sport at heart, football is the ultimate team game. Downgrading in one area --especially one as vital as the offensive line -- could generate a dangerous domino effect. Robert Griffin III, who was signed after the Browns troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel, will likely see his performance suffer if he doesn't have a competent offensive line in front of him.

Former NFL coach Brian Billick articulated this argument in a January interview with ESPN's Mike & Mike.

"One of the most common questions I get is, Can you do Moneyball, for lack of a better term, in the NFL? And the answer is, No, you can’t," Billick said. "You can’t quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It’s not a statistical game. The parameters of the game, the number of bodies and what they’re doing in conjunction with one another."

It's easy to see the value in signing RG3: On a two-year, $15 million deal with just $6.75 million in guarantees, Cleveland is paying him less for a couple of seasons than what Colin Kaepernick is set to make in one. He's also just four seasons removed from a Rookie of the Year campaign, so he has considerably more upside than current Browns quarterback Josh McCown, who will turn 27 in July, or a journeyman like Ryan Fitzpatrick.

But all of that upside will be wasted if Griffin is under constant duress.

DePodesta has been far more passive than aggressive

Over the last month, the Browns have lost four starters to free agency, including Mack and leading receiver Travis Benjamin. The only player who left without much fanfare was Manziel.

In early April, the Browns continued to dismantle their roster by releasing safety Donte Whitner. The veteran took a shot at the club's new apparent ideology on his way out the door.

At this point, it's clear that the Browns are largely opting to stay out of the free agent market, which produces far more busts than bargains. Given the brief shelf life of the average NFL career, most players who hit free agency are getting paid for past performance rather than future production. Last year, for example, only four of the first 86 players selected to the Pro Bowl changed teams the previous offseason -- and two of them, LeSean McCoy and Brandon Marshall, were traded.

With those facts in mind, it's easy to see why DePodesta and his staff would choose to bypass free agency. But unlike in MLB, where contracts are guaranteed, bad deals don't hamper NFL teams for years on end. Oftentimes, players can be cut on a whim.

Where can analytics be applied?

History shows certain types of advanced statistical analysis can be useful when it comes to constructing an NFL roster. Bill Belichick, for example, is believed to employ those kinds of models in his draft strategy, which relies heavily on trading down for additional draft picks. Given how unpredictable the draft is, the thinking goes, "The more picks you have, the better chance you have at hitting on a successful one."

DePodesta will be put to the test later this month in the NFL Draft. The Browns hold the No. 2 overall pick in a draft that's believed to be thin at the top. To make matters even more interesting, Cleveland let six of its college scouts go just last week. Beane, whose conflict with A's scouts was profiled in depth in Moneyball, believes analytics are an extremely valuable complement to the traditional "eye test." But that methodology may prove to be dubious in professional football where advanced metrics are arguably years behind their baseball equivalents.

There's a place for analytics in the NFL, but it remains to be seen how much can be applied or even how much the Browns will use them. What's clear is that every move DePodesta makes will be heavily scrutinized.

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