The Cleveland Browns have the most talented roster in the NFL and should be among the favorites to win it all, which isn’t something anyone is used to
The Cleveland Browns have the most talented roster in the NFL and should be among the favorites to win it all, at least in this analyst’s opinion. This may seem shocking, especially to the stodgy analytic community that has been able to safely ignore the Browns for two decades. But this 2019 team is different.
The team didn’t become loaded with talent overnight or by accident. Rather, they planned for years to hoard salary cap money and to obtain high-quality draft picks, in a plan started by Sashi Brown and brought to fruition by John Dorsey and the front office. The Browns have what they need to contend in 2019 and possibly do even more.
This observation may generate controversy, but really it should not be controversial at all, and is even obvious. Cleveland has been rebuilding for the past three years, which is a long time in the NFL, and this time they have done it right. They drafted premier players in Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward — and they have stockpiled draft picks and hoarded salary cap room.
By saving cap space for the past few years, this year they are outspending every other team in the NFL. So, of course, the Browns should have more talent than the other teams. The main reason people around the league have trouble believing it is because it hasn’t happened before.
The young Browns should not be viewed as a 7-8-1 team, talent-wise. Any analysis of the stats or game films will tell you that the Browns were hugely improved in the second half of the season. They really were the last place team the first half of the season — a bad team that was getting worse — until a coaching change sparked a major change in the team’s direction. They really were contenders the second half — and the second half team is what they are building from.
Baker Mayfield had a passer rating of 78.9 in the first half of the season, 108.4 in the second. 78.9 compares to Brandon Weeden’s lifetime mark (76.0). Not that impressive, especially as defensive coordinators were able to game plan effectively against offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s scheme.
108.4 would have ranked fourth in the NFL behind Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, and Russell Wilson. This is such a huge contrast that it is inescapably obvious that the passing game improved dramatically as the season went on. Sophomore slump? Not likely.
Fellow rookie Nick Chubb was limited to three touches per game while Haley and coach Hue Jackson started Carlos Hyde. Consequently, he rushed for 318 yards in the first eight games, 654 yards in the second eigh. It’s hard to deny that the running game stepped it up for the second half of last year. Or is there someone out there wishing to defend the Carlos Hyde era of Browns football?
If you don’t like those stats, how about 33 sacks given up in the first eight games, and only five in the second 8 games? The turnaround was phenomenal. Has any other offensive line in NFL history turned around in such stunning fashion in the course of a season?
To this team, they have added talent in the form of Odell Beckham Jr., edge Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, and running back Kareem Hunt. If the team was already a contender, they are even more formidable now.
As another crude measure of talent, let’s have a look at how many players on the team have made the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl doesn’t prove that one player is better than another or that they fit in the current scheme, but it does count for something. They don’t give away plane tickets to Hawaii to just anyone. Believe it or not, the Browns have nine players who have been to the Pro Bowl, and this is a very young team. Jeepers, not even the 1985 Chicago Bears had so many Pro Bowl talents on the team.
1. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr is a three-time Pro Bowler.
2. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry is a four-time Pro Bowler.
3. Halfback Kareem Hunt went to the Pro Bowl in 2017, a year in which he gained 1,782 yards from scrimmage in 2017. What team has a second string running back like this?
4. Left guard Joel Bitonio made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and did not miss a snap.
5. Defensive end Myles Garrett is All-World and made the Pro Bowl.
6. Defensive end Oliver Vernon also went to the Pro Bowl last year.
7. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson went in 2014 (okay it’s ancient history, but the man can play).
8. Middle linebacker Joe Schobert went to the Pro Bowl in 2017.
9. Cornerback Denzel Ward made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Now, what other NFL team has nine players on it who have been to the Pro Bowl? This isn’t including two of its brightest stars, namely Mayfield and Chubb. This is crazy. Perhaps there is an example of some other team that can boast of a similar number of Pro Bowlers, and if so please post your example in the comments section below.
Another metric that could be used is third-party analysis from references such as Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Browns fans have had our share of ups and downs with this publication, but if you compare the position-by-position evaluations, as will be the subject of a separate DPD article in the very near future, the Browns are actually on a par with the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs or Los Angles Rams.
To summarize some of the key takeaways, PFF agrees that the Browns are very talented on offense, though they really don’t like Greg Robinson. The guy became the starter in Week 9, did not miss a snap and gave up precisely zero sacks for the entire year. Still, PFF knocked him down to the 63rd best tackle in the NFL, i.e., just barely good enough to be a starter.
PFF also doesn’t believe in several Browns defenders, including safety Damarious Randall, linebacker Christian Kirksey, linebacker Genard Avery defensive back Terrance Mitchell, or new addition Sheldon Richardson, both of whom are judged to be ordinary talents.
And as always, PFF will protest that they really aren’t intending to evaluate talent, but to grade performance, so the grades are scheme and play-call dependent. Nevertheless, the talent evaluators are telling us that the Browns are as good as Super Bowl favorite New England, talent-wise.
If you don’t care for Pro Football Focus, coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens says that he believes that the Browns have the most talent in the AFC North. He probably shouldn’t have said that, because now he has provided bulletin board material for everyone in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. But he probably meant it.
The Browns are not only star-laden, but they’re also deep. If you go down the list, there are players at most positions who have starting experience in the NFL. If someone goes down with an injury there are teammates in place who can step in.
Several players have significant starting experience: RB Hunt, Duke Johnson; WR Antonio Callaway; TE Demetrius Harris, TE Seth DeValve; OL Eric Kush, OL Desmond Harrison, OL Bryan Witzmann; QB Drew Stanton, DL Anthony Zettel; LB Adarius Taylor and DB Travis Carrie.
Players like this simply did not exist on previous Browns’ teams. Or if they did, they were starters instead of key second stringers.
There are not any weak positions on the team unless you want to count right guard, where second-round pick Anthony Corbett must step in for Kevin Zeitler. But the Browns have other alternatives there.
The Browns also figure to add some help via the 2019 Draft, though this year they are without a first-round pick.
Although the bulk of the credit rightly goes to John Dorsey, his predecessor Sashi Brown did a very good job of conserving cap space and accumulating draft picks, even though he was not a good evaluator of talent.
Still, Brown went down because he either sabotaged or bungled the trade of draft picks for A. J. McCarron, and for this deed he should be warmly remembered. Think about no Nick Chubb, no Mayfield, and instead, we have Hue Jackson still in charge, and McCarron as the starting Browns quarterback. No, Browns fans should definitely petition the Vatican to have him installed as a saint.
Sashi Brown did us an enormous favor, by falling on his sword and not bringing McCarron to the team. This even outweighs the sin of gift wrapping Joe Haden for the Steelers. It was also fortunate that Brown left at the right time to allow ace evaluator John Dorsey to bring Mayfield to Cleveland. It probably wouldn’t have happened without both of them executing part of the overall plan.
For once things worked in the Browns favor, as Dorsey was able to see the ability of Mayfield, and also draft Chubb with one of the draft picks not traded for McCarron. It also goes without saying that Brown allowed Dorsey to inherit young superstar Myles Garrett, Pro Bowlers Joe Schobert and Joel Bitonio, as well as the recently traded Kevin Zeitler (for Vernon) and Jabrill Peppers (for OBJ, along with a first round pick).
The Browns are overspending the annual cap by more than 15 [ercent. They can continue that for a year or two because of the large number of carryover dollars (about $56 million at the beginning of the off-season) they have accumulated over the years. Eventually, they will have to cut back at the same time they are paying Garrett and Mayfield.
Some future article will discuss whether it might have been wiser to save some money for those two in the out-years. However, given that Dorsey appears to have been given free rein to overspend this year, there is little doubt that the 2019 team is going to have a bigger payroll than anyone else in the NFL, and that gives them an edge for this year and next.
So if the Browns have more Pro Bowlers than anyone else, and excellent depth, are they going to win the Super Bowl? The fan, of course, will say heck yes, but the analytics-based answer is that football is not that predictable. There are too many random bounces of the ball, too many injuries, and most importantly of all, the other team might have a better game plan on any given Sunday.
So this analyst is too chicken to call it before a single game is played. But based on talent, based on evidence of improvement and based on the way they have worked the draft and salary cap, the Browns have as good or better a chance than anyone this year.
Do you remember the old commercial for General Motors, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile?” Well, it’s not your father’s Browns this year. The Browns are very, very talented this year. Fasten your seat belts.
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