Why the Cleveland Browns should trade back in the 2021 NFL Draft

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces a pick by the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces a pick by the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT /

2021 is a good year for the Cleveland Browns to trade back

This is a good year for the Cleveland Browns to trade back in the NFL draft, for three reasons, which are indirectly related to the chaos of Covid-19. First, the NCAA college football season was a mess last season, and there are more players than ever before who were not able to demonstrate their skills, who nevertheless are highly talented players who will slide into the late rounds.

Scouting just cannot possibly be up to par this season, so it’s nuts to invest too heavily in a game with so much uncertainty. Second, by the same reasoning, there will be more and better undrafted free agents this season than ever before. They’re a better bargain, so they are a much better value to save cap space, which is at a premium this year with the reduced league-wide cap allowance.

Third, free agents are such a bargain this year that a team with money to spend really doesn’t need to take draft picks to plug the holes in the roster. The strategy should be to try to sock away an extra first-round draft pick for 2022 while getting better quality players in Day 2 of this year’s draft. Day 3 picks, certainly the seventh round and probably the sixth round, should be avoided entirely. It will be better to have the open roster spots to audition undrafted free agents because there will be so many good ones available.

That’s the view from the numbers guy, feel free to disagree. However, analytics means out-thinking the opposition, and determining the concept of value — who are the best possible players at the lowest possible cost? It’s not just waddling up the bar with a fad wad of cash and dealing it out for the most expensive players (unless of course, you are Jerry Jones). The Browns cannot just sign All-Pros at every position because every team has the same amount of salary cap. So what’s smart this season?

First of all, the Draft Class of 2020 is the worst-scouted class of the modern era, because of Covid-19. You cannot possibly be serious about wanting to invest heavily in a market segment that is so poorly characterized. Many schools chose to cancel their football season. Others did not play games with major conference opponents, so it is impossible to gauge player performance against top competition.

Some players were just sick and not able to perform. It’s flat-out impossible to have reliable scouting reports all the way up and down the draft this season. That means that there are going to be some quality players that will slide to Day 2 and Day 3 — even all the way out of the draft.

Draft picks are always a gamble, and this year they are more of a gamble than ever, with certain exceptions. There’s not that much question about Trevor Lawrence and the top 10 or so picks, but even at the Justin Fields level, scouts wanted to see more of him before making up their minds, and the shortened Big Ten season has made their evaluation more difficult.

The unhappy truth is that the normal value may not be there in the late first round, so if some team is offering a deal, they should probably take the deal at the top of the draft, and roll the dice in the middle of the draft hoping to catch a first-round talent in Round 2, 3 or 4. That says that the Browns might get better leverage from getting extra picks in these rounds

Conversely, Round 6 and especially Round 7 picks are usually of questionable value because having an open roster spot allows the team to audition Undrafted Free Agents (UDFA’s) and longshot veterans for a week or two during the season, and perhaps take a look at five or six players over the course of the season. In this year’s draft, there is no question that the team is better off having the open roster spot and looking at additional UDFA’s.

In addition, there are a number of NFL players who chose not to play last season due to Covid, who will now be added to the 90-player roster. In the case of the Browns, this includes offensive linemen Drew Forbes, Drake Dorbeck, and Colby Gossett, and veteran defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Billings and Forbes are the most likely players to make the 53-player roster. Billings, in fact, has a guaranteed $3.5 million contract, and Forbes was challenging for a starting job in 2019.

If you were Andrew Berry, would you rather spend up to $8 million on rookies this season, or would you rather invest in veteran free agents, particularly if the free agents were willing to sign for half of their normal value?

Here is one analyst’s view of the 2021 NFL draft.

Round 1 Top 10 Picks

This is never an exact science, but we all know who the superstars are, headlined by Trevor Lawrence. Even so, there are some scouts who wanted to see more of Justin Fields, for example. and might have had him at number two overall but instead knocked him down a few slots because they did not see enough of him last season.

So there’s some weakness in scouting reports due to the relatively small data sample. Still, these picks are the Gold standard and are as good as it gets.

Unfortunately, the Browns do not own a pick in this region of the draft. If Cleveland wanted to move up this far in the draft, they would have to package a star player plus a combination of picks, probably including 26th overall.

It’s possible that they could do it for the right player, packaging the first and second-round draft pick is not that attractive of a proposition, because as argued below, the second-round pick has enhanced value when the scouting database has been weakened by the reduced data sample size due to Covid-19.  The Browns should probably hang on to that second-round pick.

Mid to Late First Round

Cleveland currently holds the rights to the 26th overall pick, but this year it’s not a great spot to be drafting. The reason is that the first round normally sees some players from non-Power Five Conferences who the scouts like well enough to recommend for the first round.

However, in 2020, many small school players missed the chance to show their skills against Power Five competition because those games were canceled. They’re much more likely to slide to Day 2 or Day 3. It’s still a safe bet to draft players from the SEC, but even many of the major conferences played truncated seasons and did not develop players the way they normally would have.

How much can they show scouts in a six-game season versus the normal 12-game season? Many draft decisions are going to have to be based on what they observed in 2019. The 26th pick will pull down $1.7 million for 4 years ($6.8 million-plus an option year). Normally that is not a huge amount of money, but in a buyer’s market that could be enough to re-sign Rashard Higgins, say.

First-round draft picks are a good investment, but this season free agents can be a great investment. If the Browns are offered two second-round picks or perhaps assets in 2022, they should consider parting with their first-round pick this season. Years ago, Cleveland gave up a number two pick and a number one the following year in order to move up and draft Brady Quinn.

Perhaps this season the Browns could work the reverse of that trade.

Day 2 Picks

More than ever before, there are going to be first-round talents who slide into later rounds. The Day 2 picks may offer better value than the first-round pick because they cost a lot less, but the quality of the player might be very similar to the late first round. Better that the front office should take some extra shots in rounds two and three.

There’s a decent chance that they will uncover some first-round talent. The Browns currently own one second-round pick (59th overall), and two third-rounders (89th overall and 91st overall). Accumulating additional Day 2 picks is a worthy gamble. Hopefully, they will find a way to add at least two picks in Day two

Day 3 Picks

Let’s work this problem backward and start with round seven. Do you ever wonder why undrafted free agents seem to consistently outperform 7th-round picks? It’s not your imagination, it’s true.

The reason is that with the UDFAs, first of all, they bring about 30 of them to camp each summer and continue to look at them via the practice squad during the season, moving players in and out. If the team makes a mistake, they just cut the player and sign a replacement until they find one that they like.

They get to roll the dice about 50 times on UDFAs, but there is usually only one 7th-round draftee. It’s a good bet that any NFL team will have two or three UDFAs that outperform their 7th-round pick in any given season.

This season, the team should plan on succeeding four to six times with UDFAs, meaning they need to keep the roster spots open and not fill them with (usually — apologies to Donovan Peoples-Jones and of course Tom Brady, who are exceptions) mediocre players from the sixth and seventh rounds. Therefore, this season definitely they should trade away the seventh and sixth-round picks and bet instead on the UDFAs who will be auditioned in summer camp.

Cleveland currently has one pick in rounds four, five, six, and seven. If they can consolidate some picks — say by trading a fifth, sixth and seventh to move up to get a second pick in Round 4, they should do it. The Browns do not need piles of draft picks this season.

Undrafted Free Agents

This is the real story of the 2020 draft. There will be a huge number of undrafted free agent players who were not properly scouted who can actually play at a high level at the NFL minimum salary. There are always two or three players who come from nowhere.

This season there will be twice as many as usual. They’re definitely out there, and the team must plan on looking for them, identifying them, and holding roster spots open for them. The Browns should plan on holding open about four or five roster spots this season for UDFAs on the 53-player roster.

For this reason, they should avoid drafting borderline players in the sixth and seventh rounds. They will do better by looking over thirty or so candidates in training camp and choosing the best ones and then supplementing the original 53 from the practice squad during the season.

This draft class has not been properly scouted and evaluated, to be blunt  It is a mistake to place too much hope on a crapshoot. They might just as well ask Mr. Haslam’s homeless buddy who recommended Johnny Manziel so stridently.  They should spread the risk by trading out of the first round and taking extra shots in Rounds 2, 3, and 4.

At the same time, the roster has to plan for returning players from the Covid opt-out list (including massive defensive tackle Andrew Billings, who has a guaranteed contract, and offensive lineman Drew Forbes, a 2019 sixth-round pick). The Browns probably should accumulate picks in Day 2, but limit their draft to about seven or eight choices because the true value is in the UDFAs, so don’t clutter the roster with marginal value draft picks.

Round 2 and Round 3 picks are valuable because there is an excellent chance of landing first-round talent, and the cost is only half the cost of a first-round pick.

If there are five UDFAs, the team does not need a huge number of draft picks. It may look like this:

1.  Extra picks in rounds two, three, and four, one pick in round five.

2.  No picks in rounds six or seven. Six picks total for 2021. Stash an extra high pick for 2022

3.  Four empty roster spots for  UDFAs

4.  One spot for Drew Forbes and one for Andrew Billings

5.  Five spots for Free Agent signees, including Rashard Higgins. Biggest bucks for a defensive end and a shutdown corner. Free agents will come cheap this year because everyone is scrambling to figure out how to deal with a shrinking cap situation.

Next. 4 defensive sleepers Cleveland Browns should sign. dark

This scenario would mean 16 players who were not on the 53-player roster last season. Only 37 players on the current roster would be kept