Undrafted free agents are Cleveland Browns key to 2021 NFL draft

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Cleveland Browns

PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 01: Stephen Carlson #89 of the Cleveland Browns stiff arms Steven Nelson #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half on December 1, 2019 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Unprecedented talent will slide out of the draft this off-season, which could help the Cleveland Browns

So how will the Cleveland Browns afford all of these great free agents and major contracts? One way is that they have to make a killing on the minimum NFL wage rookie talent pool, particularly in 2021 in order to clear mid-level veteran salaries.

The 2021 pool of Undrafted Free Agents (UDFAs) will be the strongest in NFL history because it was not possible to properly scout the 2020 NCAA season, which was severely impacted by Covid-19. Many NFL-worthy talents will be missed by the NFL Draft altogether.

Conversely, this season is the worst-scouted college class of all time and will be filled with draft busts that they need to avoid. The Browns need to be prepared to identify a few star players from the UDFA talent pool and have the roster spaces available to sign them.

If you think that UDFAs are not talented, consider the following. In 2019, Deonte Harris went undrafted, was signed by New Orleans and wound up leading the NFL in return yards, and went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

The Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX because undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler made a heads-up interception of Russell Wilson when the Seahawks decided to give Beast Mode a rest at the goal line. You will also remember Josh Cribbs was undrafted out of Kent State and was All-Universe as a return man and wide receiver for the Browns.

Linebacker James Harrison of the Steelers, quarterback Tony Romo of the Cowboys, center Jeff Saturday of the Colts, linebacker London Fletcher of the Rams, slot receiver Wes Welker of the Patriots, running back Priest Holmes of the Ravens and Chiefs, Antonio Gates of the Chargers and quarterback Kurt Warner (Rams, Giants, Cards) are some other major names that land somewhere between the Pro Bowl and Canton, Ohio.

The 2021 class of UDFAs will be one of the strongest since 1946 because Covid-19 messed with the NCAA season to such an extent that normal scouting was impossible because a normal season did not happen.

In a salary cap league, it’s not possible to outspend the other teams at every position. That is not a formula for success. Cleveland’s front office has to somehow produce better value, meaning the best possible players at the lowest possible cost. The players at the bottom of the roster really do matter.

The advantage of Undrafted Free Agents (UDFAs)  and minimum scale veterans (MSVs) is that the team evaluates players based on a 90-player off-season roster,  and they can replace players whenever they want. Hence, they can go through 40 or 50 players looking for talent and keep only the ones who are the top performers and weed out the ones who cannot play. That’s why there are so many more stars who are undrafted, compared to stars who were seventh-round or even sixth-round picks.

It’s very likely that the UDFA process will be richer than normal because so many players have not been properly scouted. By the same reasoning, the draft pool is weakened since those missing scouting reports result in players not getting drafted.

There’s no way that the data for the 2020 season can remotely match the data for last season. The NCAA product was the weakest in recent history. Look, quality is quality, and you can believe in Trevor Lawrence and the top 10 draft picks. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 played most of their schedules and generated reasonably reliable data, but the Big Ten and especially the Pac-12  were jokes last season. Probably there will be a decent database on players within the Power Five who were able to play a reasonable percentage of their games, but even so, a huge number of games were lost, and many players simply lost their opportunity to develop.

The situation for smaller school players is much worse. The NFL teams would have liked to scout players from Mid-America Conference schools, for example, against to see how they would perform against Power Five Conference competition. But how do you compile those scouting reports when those inter-conference games were never played? That’s a bit of a problem.

Hopefully, Andrew Berry reads Dawg Pound Daily every day and knows all about these bright shiny draft picks he is supposed to select, but the whole idea of devoting nine roster spots to this year’s poorly scouted group seems like it an investment in disaster.

Instead, they should find a way to consolidate the number of picks to about five, either by trading up (two-for-one deals to move to a higher pick) or trading out (trading for future year picks).

The Browns currently have nine picks. Realistically, Andrew Berry and the front office have to admit that this year has a much higher risk of getting stuck with draft busts than a normal year because it has not been possible to scout as thoroughly as usual due to the inferior NCAA football product in 2020. In other words, draft picks are not as good of an investment as they usually are because of the havoc of Covid-19.

Would you rather have a seventh-round draft pick, or 10 UDFA’s, and you get to choose the best one at the end of summer camp? Especially if you have reason to believe there are several better-than-usual talents hidden among the UDFAs this off-season? In a normal year, this writer believes that the NFL overvalues seventh-round draft picks. This season, UDFAs represent a no-brainer over 7th round and even 6th round picks.

If you do not believe that seventh-round picks are worse than UDFAs, kindly peruse this list of every Cleveland seventh-round pick since 1999: Donnie Lewis (2019), Zane Gonzales (2017), Matthew Dayes (2017), Scooby Wright III (2016), Hayes Pullard (2015), Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (2015), Armanty Bryant (2013), Garrett Gilkey (2013), Trevin Wade (2012), Brad Smelley (2012), Eric Hagg (2011), Alex Hall (2008), Chase Pittman (2007), Syndric Steptoe (2007), Justin Hamilton (2006), Jon Dunn (2005), Adimchinobe Echemandu (2004), Joaquin Gonzalez (2002), Paul Zukauskas (2001), Andre King (2001), Manuia Savea (2000), Eric Chandler (2000) and Rashidi Barnes (2000), Madre Hill (1999).

Zane Gonzales is doing okay for Arizona and Joaquin Gonzalez and Paul Zukauskas started a few games, but you have to admit this list is overall rather depressing.

In this certain-to-be-poorly-scouted draft, the Browns should jettison seventh-round picks immediately for whatever they can get.

Even sixth-round picks are questionable, although two points will be conceded. First, some wise-guy will point out that statistically there has been one Tom Brady drafted since 1936, and that is frequently enough to justify continuing to draft quarterbacks in the sixth round in search of another. Second, the selection of Donovan Peoples-Jones by the Browns in 2020 upsets the recent calculus of the sixth round. Peoples-Jones is by far the best sixth-round pick the Browns have ever had since fullback Lawrence Vickers in 2006.

Now think about the UDFAs. Right now, the Browns still have Stephen Carlson, Porter Gustin, Jamie Gillan,  D’Ernest Johnson, Charley Hughlett,  and several others. You might count KhaDarel Hodge as a waiver wire pickup, though his price tag has gone up as a Restricted Free Agent.

Going back, the Browns have had several starters and key players, including three-time Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs, Pro-Bowler Tashaun Gipson, running back Dontrell Hilliard, special teams ace Tavierre Thomas, defensive tackle Jamie Meder, linebacker Craig Robertson, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, running back Isaiah Crowell, defensive back Johnson Bademosi, tight end and wildcat quarterback Marqueis Gray,  and you can probably name twenty others.

You are invited to do so in the comments below.  Going way back, the 1946 Browns featured Lou Groza, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley, all three of whom made the Hall of Fame.

The unmistakable trend is that that the seventh round is a disaster (zero hits in 20 years), and the sixth round is borderline (two hits in 20 years). The UDFAs, on the other hand, provide two, three, even five hits per year. You need open roster spots to sign UDFAs, so if you want to carry them, the roster spots cannot be simultaneously occupied by sixth and seventh-round picks and entrenched (i.e., guaranteed contract) mediocre veterans.

If the Browns keep all nine draft picks, they are not helping themselves to win now with extra young stars as it might appear. Instead, especially in this Covid-contaminated draft, they are increasing the odds of sticking themselves with additional draft busts. Because draft picks are tied to the team via contract guarantees of different sizes, they will block the acquisition of UDFAs.  This is not smart.

The Browns faced an analogous situation in 2016 when Sashi Brown clogged the roster by foolishly drafting four wide receivers in one draft (Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, and Rashard Higgins). Consequently, the Browns had to cut Taylor Gabriel, Terrelle Pryor, and Willie Snead, though they eventually re-signed Pryor. Well, at least they got Higgins out of the deal.  But had they left themselves some roster spots to work with, they could have saved themselves some misery.

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