The Cleveland Browns built up the defensive side of the ball in the 2020 NFL Draft, and they could use a moneyball approach with two of their draftees.
One thing we have not heard sportscasters describe yet is how Cleveland Browns draftees safety Grant Delpit and linebacker Jacob Phillips fit together in a defense that uses the nickel and dime formations rather than staying in the base formation all the time. These two players complement each other perfectly and we may see linebacker Phillips in most of the time when it is a running situation, and Delpit will come in when the situations calls for additional defensive backs.
Listen to the pundits knock these two players: Phillips is a premier tackler who is not great in pass coverage. Delpit is a safety who is brilliant in coverage but not a great tackler.
Maybe there is a certain amount of truth to that. Nevertheless, it does not take a rocket scientist to come up with the formula. Phillips will play in early downs and short yardage in the base formation. Delpit is going to come in on the nickel and dime formations in passing situations. Together they are going to be fine. In fact, more than fine.
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At that platoon position, Phillips will get the opportunity to do what he does best on running downs, and Delpit will be on the field in passing situations. Together, they will be way better than they would be as every-down players. Together, these two draftees are going to be much better because the Browns will put them in situations in which they can succeed.
This is similar to baseball, where some left-handed batters can’t hit left-handed pitchers, and yet right-handed batters murder lefties. So, the manager puts the left-handed batter in the lineup against the righties, and he goes with right-handed batters against the lefty pitchers. You may recall that Casey Stengel won the Nobel Prize in Sports Analytics for that theory. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.
In football, teams should use run-stoppers in running situations, and use extra pass defenders in passing situations. Three linebackers will be used in the base formation, and then they will shift to only two in the nickel formation, with an extra defensive back taking the field in place of the linebacker.
That is one of the reasons why the Browns front office did not want to pay big money to Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, even though both were perceived as excellent players. The Browns seem to believe the defense should include situational players who perform well in some formations better than others. Last year, in fact, former Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks stayed in the nickel almost all the time and rarely used three linebackers.
It makes sense to limit the responsibilities of the young players rather than making them learn the entire playbook in two months and immediately play the entire game where their shortcomings will be exposed. It will work out better if they can learn to play in certain situations first, and gradually expand their playbook. Three years from now, Phillips and Delpit may very well evolve into every-down players. But if they can each do a good job on half the downs right now, that is good enough.
Looking at the salary cap, an every-down star linebacker is going to cost the team some $10 million per year. Does it make sense to pay that kind of money and then sit the player down when the nickel is used? Or should they tough it out when the offense puts in an extra wide receiver, and give the linebacker the responsibility to cover a wide receiver? Similarly, an every-down safety is going to be in the same price range, but you may not want to use the safety in every formation.
Of course they must take care to not overdo it and become overly one-dimensional. If they do, the other team can win by passing on early downs and running the ball in pass situations. It is not going to work all the time, but generally the Browns will be money ahead putting in players who can stop the run on running downs, and switching players who can stop the pass on passing downs.
This is moneyball at work. Andrew Berry and the Browns drafted players who complement each other. They are going to be just fine with a run-stopping linebacker on the field to shut down the running game on early downs, while using an extra defensive back with great coverage skills in passing situations.