Cleveland Browns: The front office went too far with rebuild

Feb 25, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cleveland Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cleveland Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Browns experimented with using analytics in order to rebuild the organization. However, they overlooked one very important detail.

The Cleveland Browns embarked upon a baseball-style rebuild entering into the 2016 football season. It was an experiment not only in the use of analytics for projecting future football performance but also an experiment in whether or not a rebuild of this style can work in the NFL.

After last season, Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, went on a journey to see how successful professional sports organizations are managed. He then found a man in Paul DePodesta who has experience successfully tearing down and rebuilding professional sports franchises.

He hired Sashi Brown as the executive vice president for football operations. With him, it was assumed that a full on analytical approach to team-building was underway. The duo of Brown and DePodesta even hired a coach whose major asset was the ability to motivate and get the absolute best out of players.

Once the trio of the Browns Construction Company was in place, the rebuild began. The front office began stripping the roster of older and mid-range veterans whose salary did not match their level of play. In their place, the Browns sought to bring in younger players who could learn on the job with minimal decline in production.

Gone from the roster were players like Donte Whitner, Paul Kruger, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, etc. The list is almost as long as the number of starting quarterbacks for the Browns over the past 16 seasons.

All seemed to be going as planned. Without a strong analytics base already established in the NFL, the Browns decided to put analytics at work to fill out vision that head coach Hue Jackson brought to the team. The front office did not dictate schemes, styles or approaches. Instead, they let Jackson set the tone for the team and employed analytics to help identify players that would succeed at the NFL level.

The success of the player personnel approach has yet to be determined. However, in this past draft, the Browns have found starters in the first, second and third rounds. Players acquired in the later rounds are still projects to be developed but are contributing nonetheless.

The plan seemed to be working fine. But then a harsh reality that nobody in the front office anticipated set in. The NFL does not have a developmental league. This fact may seem trivial but it is vital to understanding why the Browns are struggling this season.

Most professional sports organizations have a developmental league. Major League Baseball has a tiered minor league system. The same for the National Hockey League. The National Basketball Association is closest to the National Football League. It has a developmental league; but, it is not the main impetus for player development. Player development occurs often in European leagues and other leagues around the world. Only the NFL does not have a developmental league.

The lack of a developmental league means that most of player development occurs at the NFL level. Players often come to the NFL having played in a spread offensive system which does not develop players for the NFL. It is argued that college football is not a developmental league and does not bear the responsibility for developing players for the NFL. Players often arrive at the NFL level unprepared to play NFL-style football.

Paul DePodesta’s experience in team-building has come in organizations that have developmental leagues. Thus, during the initial tearing down phase of a rebuild, there are always professional ready players in the minor leagues simply needing a chance to compete. Those players are sufficient to keep the organization respectable while the front office works to infuse high-end talent into the organization.

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The architects of the Browns rebuild failed to take into consideration the level of NFL-ready players actually coming out of college football. In baseball terms, it is the equivalent of drafting high school and college kids and immediately playing them at the major league level. It rarely happens because those players are rarely ready to compete at that level. There are years of player development that must occur.

The same is true for the NFL. Only in his second season is Danny Shelton starting to play like an elite player. Christian Kirksey, who is among the league leader in tackles, is in his third season. Players need time to be developed to play at the professional level.

The Browns front office realized the lack of readiness for rookies to play in the NFL too late. They had already let all the above mentioned players leave. In their place are a lot of younger players who still need years to develop in order to be NFL quality players.

To help the Browns next season, the front office needs to sign mid-level veterans, who may cost more, to make this team respectable while developing young talent. The front office needs to realize that player development happens at the NFL level. In order to successfully develop a player, there needs to be a model of how a professional approaches their job and how successful NFL football is played.

Right now the coaching staff is being asked to develop players and win football games. It is too big of a burden for the staff to carry.

The Browns rebuild was an experiment from the start. Nobody anticipated just how unprepared rookies are to play in the NFL. The Browns paved the way for future rebuilds to take this fact into account. In the meantime, they need support the staff and rookies by bringing in some players who can play (even if they are only mediocre players) to help speed this rebuild up.

Next: Long-term steps to AFC North contention

Nonetheless, it looks like the experiment will continue and succeed. The abysmal 2016 season is a bump in the road. The future is bright for the Browns but the future may be further off than originally hoped.