Cleveland Browns new players graded much higher than departing veterans

No question, the Cleveland Browns have added a lot of talent. Numbers provided by Pro Football Focus say that they have upgraded seven starting positions.

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CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 11: Austin Hooper #81 of the Atlanta Falcons runs the ball in for a touchdown defended by Jabrill Peppers #22 of the Cleveland Browns in the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The newly signed Cleveland Browns free agents are rated much higher than the talent that is leaving the team. If you believe in the grading system by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), there is a quantum difference.

Consider that the Browns are adding six players that grade in the upper half of NFL starters and two others that grade as below average starters. By contrast, the Browns are giving up seven players that are considered starters, but only Joe Schobert and Juston Burris ranked as average players at their positions, and all of the others graded below average. The Browns upgraded everywhere except linebacker.

As of March 23, the Browns have acquired eight free agents who received grades from Pro Football Focus. The grades allow the players to be ranked in order from best to worst. For the purposes of discussion, the players.

In order to convert it to a percentile, the number of players is limited to nominal starters. Not every team consistently fields the same lineup as their featured formation, but the percentiles are based on 22 starters per team.

For example, since there are 64 starting offensive tackles in the NFL, and Jack Conklin is ranked 10th by PFF, so to convert to percentile, 64 minus ten, divided by 64 times 100, yields  84th percentile.

Note that after the first string, the sequence is started over again for the second string. So please don't get too excited about second-stringer Case Keenum, who is 95th percentile as a backup, but not to be confused with a first-string quarterback like  Aaron Rodgers.

On a positional basis, Conklin replaces Greg Robinson, who was the 36th percentile. This is a very significant upgrade.

Similarly, tight end Austin Hooper is 80th percentile and replaces Demetrius Harris, who did not even grade out as a first-string player.

Though there are not very many fullbacks in the league (estimating eight as actual first-string starters), Andy Janovich is one of the best, ranking in the 70th  percentile. He will take the roster spot of one of the Browns' backup tight ends, another significant upgrade.

On defense, three defensive backs are graded as above average — cornerback Kevin Johnson (69th percentile) and safeties Andrew Sendejo (60th)  and Karl Joseph (51st). They replace a group of five defensive backs, three of whom were close to average — cornerback Juston Burris (49th),  safeties Damarious Randall  (43rd), Morgan Burnett (42nd), and Eric Murray (11th). Travis Carrie was perceived as a respectable second string (2/74).

It's almost impossible to have a team full of above-average starters because of the salary cap. If you want to pay stars, you have to pay much lower salaries somewhere else.  Nevertheless, those blue-collar players are very important.

Thus consider that a player like defensive tackle Andrew Billings (39th percentile) can be a huge upgrade. PFF did not like incumbent Larry Ogunjobi at all. He was close to third string. Hence if you believe PFF, that is a significant upgrade.

At linebacker, the Browns lose Joe Schobert (50th percentile, which is average), as well as Christian Kirksey, rated 24th percentile). This is the only area in which the departing players grade higher than the arriving players, but it is not by as large a margin as you might guess. The guy they are getting, former Giant and Packer B. J. Goodson, is rated 44th percentile. But Schobert's contract is $53.8 million over five years, and Kirksey's is two years, $13 million.

At press time, details of Goodson's contract have not been released, but it is believed that he is signing for a much lower rate and only one year. Although Goodson has never been an every-down linebacker even though PFF grades about the same in all three areas:  run defense, pass defense and pass-rushing, this is a  better value by far than the more expensive ex-Browns.

The buzz is that the analytics guys including Andrew Berry believe that linebackers are overpaid in general and thus, the theory goes, you are better off investing in the defensive lineman and cornerbacks.

Case Keenum is not an upgrade over Baker Mayfield, but he is a huge upgrade over Alliance of American Football star Garrett Gilbert. Backup quarterback is a real position. You never know if your team will lose its starter for a time, as the Pittsburgh Steelers did last year with Ben Roethlisberger.

So, despite years of disappointment, this fan is drinking the Kool-Aid this year. The Browns have made, on paper at least, significant upgrades at seven starting positions, as well as backup quarterback, and they appear to have plugged a hole at linebacker. They will still be looking for talent on defense, and they could use another offensive tackle as well.

The table summarizes who the Browns have signed, and who they will probably lose, along with their position and percentile ranking (remember, high is good), followed on page 2 by a more detailed explanation of percentile calculations.

Page 3 discusses the PFF grading system and some of the pros and cons of using PFF numbers to judge a team.


Player             Position  String/ Percentile

Jack Conklin              RT        1/84
Austin Hooper         TE         1/80
Andy Janovich          FB        1/70

Kevin Johnson          CB        1/69
Andrew Sendejo        S         1/60
Karl Joseph                  S         1/51
B.J. Goodson             LB         1/44
Andrew Billings       DT        1/39

Case Keenum           QB        2/95


Player             Position  String/ Percentile

Greg Robinson         LT        1/36

Joe Schobert              LB       1/50
Christian Kirksey     LB       1/24
Juston Burris            CB        1/49
Damarious Randall   S        1/43
Morgan Burnett         S        1/42
Eric Murray                  S        1/11

Adarius Taylor         LB         2/57
Demetrius Harris    TE        2/35
Rashard Higgins    WR        2/58
Travis Carrie             CB         2/74
Drew Stanton          QB         2/??  

How percentiles are calculated

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Because the number of players at each position varies, a percentile system better compares players to their peers. For example, the 32nd best guard is about average, given that the league has 64 starting jobs at that position.

On the other hand, the 32nd best quarterback would be the worst starter in the NFL. The percentile basis conveys the value of the player within his position group (50 is average, the best player is close to 100 and zero denotes the lowest performer within the group.

It's not possible to neatly lay out the first-stringers at each position, but all 32 NFL teams field 11 players on defense and 11 players on offense, making 704 nominal first-string players. First string is defined as the 22 athletes who are on the top of the depth chart of the base formation of the NFL. Second-string would be the next group of 22.

The comparison is made a little complicated because not every team uses a fullback in its base formation; some teams elect to start two tight ends and others go for an extra wide receiver.  Also, it often changes from week to week depending on the game plan. Likewise, some teams start extra defensive backs, some have extra linebackers,

On defense, most teams start four down linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs.  Other teams play 3-4- and still, others use nickel formations using 4-2-5 or 3-3-5. In addition, you could argue that key substitutes are just as valuable as starters.

The position groups are broken down as follows:

32 QBs can be first string. After that, second-string would consist of the 33rd highest grade down to the 64th highest grade. Percentiles are recalculated for second string. So the example used previously was that Case Keenum had the 34th highest quarterback grade, which means he was the second-best second-string quarterback. Thus his percentile ranking is 32 minus two, divided by 32, times 100 or 2nd string,  94th percentile (2/94).  Drew Brees is graded as the second-highest inf first string  (1/94). Big difference between the two!

32  Tailbacks.

8 Fullbacks. Not every team starts the fullback and many do not even have a fullback in today's NFL. Those who do have a fullback usually do not use him for as many as half the team snaps. Nevertheless, PFF grades ten fullbacks in the NFL. So while admitting that several players do not fit into nice, neat categories (for example, Kareem Hunt last year), eight were chosen as a representative number of first-string fullbacks in the NFL.

64 Tackles. The O-Line, at least, is consistent for each team.

64 Guards

32 Centers

40  Tight Ends. Some teams start two tight ends or use the tight end as a modified fullback or H-back. The Ravens are deep into the two tight end formation, as were the Chiefs, Texans, Colts, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Titans, Panthers and sometimes the Browns. 40 was chosen as a reasonable estimate of how many first-string tight ends are first string.

80  Wide Receivers. A few years ago almost every team started three wide receivers, but recently an extra tight end or fullback may replace the third wide receiver.

Defensively there is ever greater variation. Many teams start extra defensive backs, and many have hybrid safeties that can be used as linebackers.

72 Cornerbacks. Sometimes teams start extra defensive backs instead of a linebacker. In all, there are eight extra CBs who are considered starters and 8 extra safeties. That corresponds to 16 extra wide receivers on offense.

72 Safeties, sometimes hybrids that play with linebackers.

64 Defensive Ends. The defensive end position varies across the NFL. The 3-4 defensive ends are generally bigger than 4-3 defensive ends.

48  Defensive Tackles Some teams start one NT, who is usually about the size of a mountain, but other teams start two DT

96  Linebackers Most teams start three, Some teams start four, others only two, and in many cases, an extra strong safety takes over the linebacker's duties.

So, these are the populations of first-string players used to create percentiles for discussion purposes. This fan looks at the numbers and sees great improvement in the team across the board.

However, you have to take the Pro Football Focus rankings with a grain of salt, as explained on the next page.

3 of 3

Pro Football Focus grading system and implications for the Browns

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CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: A message for Kevin Stefanski on the scoreboard at FirstEnergy Stadium on the day he is introduced as the Cleveland Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Some comments are needed to explain the Pro Football Focus grading system, which is a useful aid in evaluating talent, but not the last word. PFF says they review every play on tape and assign players a grade based on how well they carried out their assignments.

It's not the same as evaluating the talent of the player or his total value.  An obvious case would be if your player is a defensive back, and one game he is assigned to be the extra DB in zone formations, but the next game he might be assigned to cover the league's best receiver in man-to-man coverage. In that case, it's tougher to get a good grade when you draw a difficult coverage assignment.

Alternatively, you could be a quarterback and the coach might have a terrible game plan. That's not your fault, but nevertheless your grades will be low as a result.

Or it may be that some players are good in one system but not in another system.

So PFF grades are not a sure-fire method to predict team success, so please do not take a second mortgage load to bet on the Browns and win Super Bowl tickets. If Bill Parcells is right that "you are as good as your record says you are," then the Browns were a 6-10 team last year and just not very good. They could improve a lot, but they still share the AFC North with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati and it is not easy to win.

Another cautionary note is that the Browns probably didn't improve their defense as much as they improved their offense. If the defense is giving up points, it is difficult to be truly dominant.

It is worth noting that PFF's Anthony Treach has an alternative view of the Browns' free agency compared to this fan's view. Treach was less impressed by the team's overall performance, citing overpaying for Austin Hooper.

Actually Treach has a valid point about the costs of the prime players and at some point, the Browns will run out of carryover cap to cover these investments. However, if you just look at how much the acquisitions improve the team for this year, it is very impressive. Is there another team that upgraded seven positions with only a minor downgrade at one position?

Despite the cautions listed above, this fan is more optimistic than ever.  Somehow Andrew Berry and his staff have charmed unprecedented levels of talent to come to play for the Browns. This has happened so fast, this fan's head is spinning.

Next: Way too early 2020 Bold Predictions

It was only a few years ago that unrestricted free agents and their agents were avoiding Cleveland like the plague. This year the Browns have upgraded several positions in a way that we have never seen before.