Why the 49ers plan is working better than the Cleveland Browns plan

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Sheldon Richardson #98 of the Cleveland Browns and Bryan Cox #94 combine to tackle Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Miami Dolphins during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 24, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland defeated Miami 41-24. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Sheldon Richardson #98 of the Cleveland Browns and Bryan Cox #94 combine to tackle Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Miami Dolphins during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 24, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland defeated Miami 41-24. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

Despite strong similarities between the building programs of the 49ers and the Cleveland Browns, the 49ers went to the big dance and the Browns stayed home.

Both the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns used very similar methodologies to build their teams, but the 49ers went to the Super Bowl in Kyle Shanahan‘s third year, whereas the Browns sputtered to a 6-10 record. A lot comes down to execution, while the Browns also suffered from a lack of patience, prematurely shutting down the process of working the salary cap and investing in the draft.

The 49ers forged a viable partnership between head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, who were both given six-year contracts. This setup ensures that these guys will either succeed together or they will probably be fired together, in contrast to the Browns system in which the coach and general manager continually complained to the Haslams to get the other guy fired.

In 2017, the newly hired Shanahan and Lynch tore down the structure of the team, just as the Browns did.  The two teams ranked 1-2 in terms of hoarding cap space, with the Browns rolling over $59.4 million in carryover, and the 49ers rolling over $59.5 million, almost the identical amount.

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The 49ers had 10 draft picks that year including two first-round picks. The Browns also had 10 draft picks, including three first-round picks. It’s not rocket science. The teams figured out that they can invest in future draft picks and be richly rewarded.

For example, the Browns allowed the Houston Texans to move up from 25th overall to 12th overall in 2017 and were rewarded with an additional first-round draft pick in 2018, which turned out to be fourth overall (Denzel Ward). The interest rate for that trade was over 100 percent.

At any rate, the 49ers started out 0-9, and then were able to pick up Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, finishing 6-1 to go 6-10. The Browns started 0-9, but unlike the 49ers they finished the job!  They pretended DeShone Kizer was their franchise quarterback (he wasn’t) and went 0-16 for the season and forcing head coach Hue Jackson to jump in Lake Erie as punishment.

In 2018, the 49ers wrote a huge contract for Garoppolo, and thus spent more than the previous year, rolling over only $33.9 million. They had nine draft picks that year. But Garoppolo got injured and the team was only 6-10. The Browns drafted Baker Mayfield, had nine draft picks and slightly overspent, rolling over $54.1 million or about five million dollars less than the previous campaign. However, Mayfield was on his rookie contract instead of his second contract, which helped to limit the amount of overspending.

In 2019, both teams decided it was time to overspend, big time. Once again their financial decisions were similar. Cleveland was second in the NFL in spending, and rolled over “only” $32.3 million (still second highest in the league), while the 49ers led the NFL in spending and shrank their carryover to only $9.5 million.

San Francisco still drafted eight players, including Nick Bosa in the first round and Deebo Samuel in round two. The Browns had no first-round pick in 2019, having traded it as well as Jabrill Peppers for superstar Odell Beckham, Jr. Hence that draft yielded only seven players, none of whom were impact players.

Both teams were loading up for a Super Bowl run, though the Browns tend to deny that today, pretending that overspending was part of the plan all along and that 6-10 is just fine. However, when a team overspends by $21.8 million dollars and makes the team older by trading away draft picks and young talent and fails to make the playoffs or even finish above .500, the general manager is just asking to be fired. Despite the fact that John Dorsey is a brilliant judge of talent, his utter disregard for salary cap management gave the Haslams little choice.

We all know what happened in 2019. The 49ers loaded up on free agents and relied on the masterful playcalling of Kyle Shanahan to win the NFC championship. Cleveland, on the other hand, proved that Freddie Kitchens is not Kyle Shanahan. Yes, Shanahan made some bonehead mistakes in the Super Bowl, but he did a lot of good things to get there. Kitchens can’t be compared as a head coach. He is not in the same area code.

Another enormous difference was that the 49ers drafted Nick Bosa in 2019 while the Browns had no first-round pick. Trading first-round picks is okay if your team is the Chargers or Saints, trying to get one more shot at the Super Bowl before the star quarterback retires.

Cleveland, however, added several pricey veterans in the form of Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Odell Beckham, Jr., Adarius Taylor, Demetrius Harris, Eric Kush, Kendall Lamm, and others. Obtaining one or two star veterans is great, but probably not adding half a dozen veterans while shedding first-round draft picks without replacing those picks.

It is not just the immediate contribution of the draft pick. If developed properly, almost all players get better in years two, three and four. In financial terms, they are appreciating assets, improving with time. Players at their peak are depreciating assets, becoming less valuable with time. It’s very hard to imagine how a 6-10 team will get better by investing in depreciating assets. This is just the Law of the Farm: you can harvest at any time, but once you do, the growing season is over.

As it is, after greatly overspending the annual cap last year, they have six wins to show for their increased payroll and acquisition of older players. They have seven picks in 2020, the standard number, but no compensatory picks.

The 49ers also have shifted their model from “build through the draft” to “win now,” but unlike the Browns, they were actually in the Super Bowl this year. They have just six picks in the 2020 draft.

So there you have it. The 49ers held onto their investment in first-round draft picks last year and were rewarded with Nick Bosa. The Browns not only stopped their investing in the draft, but actually gave up draft picks while over-investing in too many high priced veterans.

San Francisco also had a terrific partnership with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, while the Browns had dysfunctional Freddie Kitchens as well as a GM in John Dorsey who could evaluate talent but not manage the salary cap. His modus operandi seems to have been “pedal to the metal, all the time.”

The Browns took several steps backward last year, but are still better off than in 2017. To recover, Browns may well deal away a few highly paid veterans in 2020, but will probably not return to the Stalinist purges of Sashi Brown.

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This fan’s prediction is that the team will try to win in 2020, but will try to win with younger players than the 2019 squad. They will also find ways to stash a few extra picks for 2021 and beyond to resume the San Francisco plan that was not given time to work last year.