The Cleveland Browns' roster is a barren wasteland. This offseason, a new regime led by head coach Hue Jackson and vice president of football operations Sashi Brown cleaned houses, letting several of the team's best players leave in free agency.
Gone are starting offensive linemen Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin, safety Tashaun Gipson and special teams ace Johnson Bademosi. The Browns also let linebacker Craig Robertson leave and cut veteran Karlos Dansby. Now the Browns are Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Joe Haden and little else.
"There's a been a lot of things going on within our organization," Jackson said on the NFL Network in March. "I'm very proud of the direction and the things that we're doing. You know, there's a process and a plan to everything you do and sometimes people don't understand but I'm okay with that because I know exactly where we're headed and what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish."
What the Browns are trying to accomplish is using analytics to turn around a team that was 3-13 last season with a roster that is worse now than when Brown and Jackson took over. They're trying to change a franchise that has become the laughingstock of the NFL.
The only analytics we know the Browns are using
The notion of the Browns using analytics is a lazy descriptor. At this point, no one knows exactly how the Browns' new front office will apply those principles to the draft. In an effort to accelerate the analytics movement in Cleveland, the team hired Paul DePodesta as chief strategy office. A lifetime baseball man who is famous for the Moneyball analytical approach with the Oakland A's, no one is really sure what DePodesta is doing to change the Browns.
"When I think about analytics, I think, much more broadly than others do," DePodesta said when he was hired in January. "To me, it’s not really about numbers or algorithms, for me it’s really just about a mind set and the mind set is about trying to use information to make better decisions, especially in the face of uncertainty which is what all of these professionals sports are really about."
Everything Brown and DePodesta say about the topic is as vague as the above quote. The only thing we know for certain this new front office values is acquiring extra draft picks. All of those free agents we allowed to leave because the Browns will now get compensatory picks in the 2017 draft.
The Browns still needed to take action for 2016, though. That happened earlier this week when the team sent the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft and a 2017 fourth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles. In exchange, the Browns got a first-, third- and fourth-round picks from the Eagles this year in addition to a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 second-round pick. You don't have to be a statistician to understand why that deal was made. The Browns now have a league-high 12 picks in the draft next week, including six in the top 100. Those include Nos. 8, 32, 65, 77, 99 and 100.
"We feel really good about the fact that we have what could have been a bet on one player, now becomes a bet on four, understanding that the player that you get at No. 8 may not be the same choice that you had at No. 2," Brown said on April 21. "Maybe for us, in our case, actually [it will be]. We feel really good about our opportunity to move forward and select players, and that’s without comparison or disparagement on the past groups."
Would the Browns really trade down again?
Some of the popular opinion after the trade is that the Browns will move down again. Maybe they would move down to pick No. 13, so the Miami Dolphins can come up and draft Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. Or perhaps the Browns would drop to No. 15, so the Tennessee Titans can get an offensive tackle like Ronnie Stanley or Jack Conklin.
"I think we really liked the eighth slot," Brown said. "It is one thing that I will tell you was a particularly valuable piece of the deal for us. We think there are still going to be really talented players at that spot. There is a lot of depth throughout the first round this year, so we like that aspect of being able to have Philly as a trade partner."
How the Browns can ace the 2016 NFL Draft
The Browns could trade down again, but lets assume the Browns stay at No. 8 overall in the first round.
Pick No. 8: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
At No. 8, the Browns could be choosing between the long-term viability of a running back or the long-term viability of linebacker Myles Jack. In defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 defense, Jack would play on the inside. As long as he's healthy, he'd provide an all-around talent on a defense with few effective players.
Assuming the Dallas Cowboys don't take him at No. 4, Elliott can be a building block on offense. He does everything, and he does it well. He's a running back who will beat you with speed and power. He'll deliver crushing blocks in the running game and is a weapon in the passing offense. This isn't another Trent Richardson for the Browns, this is a modern day Edgerrin James.
Pick No. 32: Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia
The Browns defense lacks an identity, and Joseph can help provide one. The team brought him in for a pre-draft visit and had to be impressed with Joseph's ability to close on the ball carrier and deliver a hit. Joseph isn't just a reckless head hunter in the secondary, though. He got a little better in pure coverage every season at West Virginia and was off to a stellar start to 2015 before a knee injury in October ended his season.
The Browns replaced Gipson with free agent Rahim Moore at free safety, but the strong safety is currently held by Ibraheim Campbell. Joseph is good enough to beat Campbell out for the starting job because he can come down and play the run and will set the tone in the secondary. If he can break up a few passes, it's just a bonus. For the Browns he could provide a defensive identity to a team in need of one.
Pick No. 65: Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State
The Browns receiving corps is a mess. Josh Gordon is still suspended by the NFL, and even if he's reinstated his future in Cleveland isn't bright. The Browns have solid players like Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline, but neither is a top receiver. Higgins could be.
Higgins doesn't have imposing size at 6'1 and 196 pounds, and a 4.64 40-yard dash doesn't blow you away. But he's one of the draft's best route runners and has good hands. In just three seasons, he caught 230 passes for 3,520 yards and 31 touchdowns. He's willing to go over the middle and will make some impressive catches in traffic.
Pick No. 77: Kyle Murphy, OT, Stanford
After the Browns let Schwartz sigh with Kansas City this offseason, the right tackle spot is left to Austin Pasztor, a decent player who is probably best as a backup. Murphy was recruited at Stanford by Browns offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. He should be comfortable with Murphy's ability to move to the right side thanks to his technique. Murphy may need to get a little stronger, but his size and NFL-ready technique make him a player who could step into a starting lineup immediately.
Pick No. 99: Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
Back-to-back Stanford players. The top of the fourth round may be a little early for Hogan, but he is the type of quarterback who will quickly learn the offense and at worst be a good backup. If the Browns are trading off the second overall pick, they may be looking ahead to 2017 or even 2018 to get their franchise quarterback. In Cleveland, having a good backup is vital.
There's an outside shot that Hogan can be developed. His biggest issue – and it's a doozy – is a slow release. If you can figure out how to hasten Hogan's delivery, his arm strength and football smarts are good developmental tools.
There's also a fun connection here beyond Hogan being just another Stanford player. When Bill Parcells was in the NFL, he had a formula for picking a quarterback. The quarterback had to be a three-year starter, be a senior in college and graduate, start 30 games with 23 wins, have a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and complete at least 60 percent of your passes. In this year's draft, Hogan is the only quarterback who fits that criteria. Not enough? DePodesta recently picked Parcells' brain. Illuminati confirmed.
Pick No. 100: James Cowser, OLB, Southern Utah
The Browns have been waiting for Barkevious Mingo to break out as a pass rusher since taking him in the first round in 2013, and it just hasn't happened. Right now, the team's pass rush consists of Mingo, Paul Kruger, Armonty Bryant and Nate Orchard. Kruger's play has been slipping in recent seasons, Bryant is suspended the first four games of the season and Orchard was inconsistent as a rookie.
Cowser could provide some pop to the pass rush. He had 80.5 tackles for loss and 42.5 sacks in four seasons at Southern Utah. Those are eye-popping numbers regardless of the level he played. Cowser's game is speed around the edge. He may be used as a pass rush specialist to start his career in the NFL, but a fourth-round pick is fair to use on a specialty player.
What's next for Cleveland
The No. 8 pick will tell the direction of the Browns. If their first-round pick is an offensive tackle, the team could look to trade franchise left tackle Joe Thomas for more picks. If they don't take a quarterback early, they're looking to future drafts to find Jackson's franchise quarterback.
The Browns are several years away from filling all the holes on the roster, but with 12 picks in the draft this year, they can get off to a good start.