Cleveland Browns can balance ‘win now’ and ‘draft for the future’

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Cleveland Browns

Oct 28, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns vice president Andrew Berry (L) talks with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (R) on the bench before the Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The balance between winning now and drafting to win later is classic analytics and the Cleveland Browns can obtain that balance

The Cleveland Browns are faced with the problem this season of trying to win now while preparing for the NFL draft, the purpose of which is to build the team for later years. These objectives are related but definitely not the same, and provide excellent fodder for analytics specialists chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and general manager Andrew Berry.

Multi-objective optimization is standard stuff for fellows from Harvard with backgrounds in economics and computer science. Translated, the basic problem is that there are two goals that come into conflict. “Win now” and “win later” might sometimes be solved by the same action, say, if the best player available is also the one with the highest ceiling and is also the one that fits the team’s needs. But that is not always the case.

The team has to prioritize which goal is more important, and also determine where the bargains are.  Previously, this author has pointed out that free agents are cheaper this season than they will ever be again because of the temporary salary cap allowance disruption caused by Covid-19.

Namely the cap allowance leaguewide is $182.5 million instead of $210 million, and free agents are just not getting the salaries that they were expecting. The Browns have decided to be buyers.  This is the right strategy to win in 2021. Free agency satisfies the need to “win now.”

The role of the NFL draft, in general, is to “win later.” It’s essential to draft talent, and not get cute and plug holes left by not signing the right free agents. For example, the Browns would much rather add to the defensive line than the offensive line this season.

But if the choice is a mediocre defensive lineman versus a stud offensive lineman, they have to go with the offensive lineman even if it means that the fat kid sits for a season as a backup.

Alternatively, they trade out of that draft position. But it is lethal to accept vast differences in talent to plug holes.

There are better opportunities to plug holes via trade, waiver wire, or bringing in some candidates in summer training camp. Accepting a lower overall talent level in order to compensate for failures to sign the right free agent signings is compounding the error and conflating “win later” with “win now.”

Let’s draft the best athletes, not guys who play positions on our shopping list. An exception is if there’s no roster spot available. For example, the Browns might not draft a running back with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson, not to mention fullback Andy Janovich already on the roster. And it would be almost impossible to justify drafting two.

The 2021 draft has some peculiar nuances because of the huge influence of Covid-19. This writer has previously pointed out that the inability to scout the NCAA season in 2020 means that a number of players are going to be missed by the 2020 NFL draft and wind up as Undrafted Free Agents.

It’s better to have open roster spots to audition several players in summer camp, rather than commit to a sixth or seventh-round pick. If you want proof, Browns UDFAs Josh Cribbs, Tashaun Gipson, and T. J. Ward were legitimate stars who made the Pro Bowl while wearing the Brown and Orange.

Since 1999, only three Browns 7th round picks became first string (Paul Zukauskas for 18 games back in 2001-2004, Joaquin Gonzalez for 14 games in 2003-2004, and kicker Zane Gonzales for 18 games in 2017-2018). It’s hard to justify keeping seventh-round picks on the roster with such pathetic returns. With an empty roster spot, you get unlimited do-overs until you find the right UDFA worth keeping.

Perhaps because the free-agent dollars are so tight, teams are getting ridiculous bargains for  2022 draft picks. Would you believe that the discounted value is reduced by as much as 60 percent?

Take a look at the recent trade involving the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins. We can break this down using the draft point system of Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit, which is used by Drafttek.com.

It is based on the Gil Brandt-Tex Schramm-Jimmy Johnson model used since the early 1990s.  The idea is that the average first-round pick (16th overall) is set to 1,000 points, and the other picks are scaled accordingly. They’re about the same, although the Brandt chart does not include compensatory picks which can throw you off (208th overall is really in the middle of the sixth round, not the seventh round as it appears in the Brandt chart).

So use the Hill/Drafttek model for this year’s draft. Of course, in real life, the players are not going to be exactly so nice and neat and mathematical. It’s just an estimate that varies from year to year and draft to draft.

So here is what the Dolphins and Philadelphia trade looks like.

Dolphins Get:

2021 Round 1    sixth overall          worth 1,600 points

2021 Round 5  156th overall         worth     27 points

TOTAL                                                                      1,627 points

The Dolphins traded the following picks.  The Eagles cannot be sure what draft position the Fins will occupy in 2022, so they should guess the middle of the first round or 1000 points valuation.

Philly Gets:

2021 Round 1        12th overall       worth 1,200 points

2021 Round 4     123rd overall        worth      49 points

2022 Round 1                                      1,000 x (100% – discount)  = ?

For the math to work out (Philly = Dolphins =1627 points), Philly got their 2022 first-round pick for only 1627-1249 = 378 points, implying an almost unbelievable discount of 62 percent.

Another way to look at it is that by 2022, the Eagles will have a haul worth 2,249 points, give or take, depending on the draft position associated with that pick. Even if the Dolphins win the Super Bowl and draft 32nd overall, that pick is worth 590 points, so Philly’s haul will be worth a minimum of 1839 and a maximum of 4249 points, with 2249 as the midpoint guess.

They’re making out like bandits. If it were stocks, and you could invest $1,627 per share and have it be worth an average of $2,249 per share in one year, who would not take that deal?

This is a crazy good deal for Philadelphia. Yet many fans — NFL and general managers — will insist that there is some special player that the team just has to have in this year’s draft, and it is worth paying twice as much to draft this special player.

They are conflating “win now” with the NFL draft, which is supposed to be for building the team down the road — “win later.”

From an analytics point of view, however, this is of poor value. This point of view says that the team should obtain the best possible players at the lowest possible price, rather than willingly pay double year after year. Whatever priority is assigned to building for the future should be reflected in investing in the future, rather than just using minimal resources and praying for miraculous results.

Draft futures — picks in 2022 and even 2023 might be heavily discounted in trades if the Eagles and Miami are any indication. Quarterback draft trades typically involve top ten picks, though the Browns have been involved in deals involving later picks as well, in which major draft capital gains were realized.

Before developing those scenarios, let’s break down a second trade, in which the Dolphins moved back instead of up, to see if they were given a similar discount to the one they had to surrender when they moved up.

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