The stockpiling-draft-picks era of the Cleveland Browns has come to a close. With Sashi Brown fired and replaced by traditionalist general manager John Dorsey, it’s no surprise
that the Browns put some of their record-setting draft capital to work by trading for a trio of veterans on Friday afternoon. In three separate deals, the Browns sent out
midround selections in the 2018 and 2019 drafts along with former starting quarterback DeShone Kizer for three veterans who should help the team win in the short term. It’s not
difficult to understand why the Browns made these trades, but it’s a sign that they’re stuck paying what amounts to a competitiveness tax.
In the case of their trades for Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry, the Browns sent out draft picks to acquire a veteran they likely would not
have been able to woo in free agency unless their markets totally failed to materialize. Buffalo and Miami had little leverage in making these deals, given that the Bills had no
realistic intentions of paying Taylor the $6 million roster bonus he was due on March 16. Buffalo might have publicly suggested it was willing to pay Taylor to keep its options
open, but outside of Nick Foles with the Rams in 2016, there’s virtually no track record of a team paying this sort of optional roster bonus for a player it didn’t plan to keep
in a meaningful role.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins might not have been able to afford the $16 million franchise tag Landry signed earlier this week. Landry reportedly had interest from the Ravens, but
given that Baltimore would have needed to totally restructure his deal, it’s unlikely the Dolphins would have been able to make a similar swap to the one they made here. And if
there weren’t any other trade suitors for Landry, he probably wouldn’t have signed the franchise tag. The most likely outcome for both Landry and Taylor this offseason was that
they were both going to hit free agency. Instead, they’re both Browns.
The returns here are hardly insignificant. The Browns sent the first pick of the third round to the Bills for Taylor, a selection which has delivered a pair of All-Pros in
Travis Kelce and Kevin Byard in recent years. That pick gives the Bills five of the top 65 selections in this year’s draft, and after trading their former starting signal-
caller, it seems incredibly likely that general manager Brandon Beane will move up to target his quarterback of the future early in the first round.
Trading up might also be easier if the Browns are out of the quarterback market. There was certainly scuttlebutt going around the NFL combine last week that Dorsey and the
Browns were not overly enthused with any of the passer options available in this year’s draft, although I’d be hesitant to buy into that, given how much more of the draft
process there is still to go and how wary teams are to play their hand with their interest in quarterbacks.
It seemed likely in December that the Browns and Giants would take quarterbacks with the first two selections in April, but that’s not clear anymore. At the very least, it seems
like there’s a chance that Saquon Barkley and Bradley Chubb are the first two picks of the draft. Suddenly, the Colts at No. 3 could be kingmakers with an entire quarterback
class still on the board, and the Bills have the assets to move up. If Buffalo packages its two first-round picks (Nos. 21 and 22), its own second-round pick (No. 53) and the
third-rounder it just got from the Browns, the Bills would amass 2,215 points of trade capital on the Jimmy Johnson chart. That’s nearly a perfect match for the third overall
pick, which is valued at 2,200 points.
Ironically for a team that is moving away from an analytics-driven approach, the quarterback the Browns have signed is one whose numbers often seem to deserve more praise from coaches and fans than he gets. Much of Taylor’s value comes out of his ability to avoid turnovers, a feat he accomplishes while serving as an effective runner and throwing downfield more frequently than his critics suggest. Consider that Kizer had 22 interceptions as the Browns’ starter last year; Taylor threw 16 picks over three seasons combined with the Bills.
At the same time, it would be foolish to stick Taylor in a traditional offense, drop him back from under center on most plays and hope that he turns into Troy Aikman. Coach Hue Jackson needs to keep Taylor in the shotgun and build his offense around the threat of Taylor as a runner, which Rick Dennison didn’t do in Buffalo last season. That should be just fine if the Browns draft Barkley; the Penn State star took 598 of his 671 carries out of the shotgun and averaged 5.8 yards per carry on those attempts. The potential first overall pick averaged 5.3 yards per carry on his 73 attempts from under center.
As a bridge quarterback, Taylor is a massive upgrade on AJ McCarron, who seemed like an obvious target in free agency after the Browns tried to trade for him last season. Taylor is under contract for $16 million in 2018 before his contract automatically voids, so this will likely be a one-year deal if the Browns draft a quarterback. If he succeeds, the Browns shouldn’t have much trouble signing the 28-year-old to an extension during the season.
The Browns should be more aggressive about pursuing an extension for Landry, although it will be difficult to find middle ground on a deal with the former Dolphins wideout given his present cap hit. As Jason Fitzgerald wrote before the trade, the $16 million franchise tag places the expected value of an extension for Landry somewhere in the ballpark of DeAndre Hopkins’ deal, which almost surely wouldn’t have been the case if Landry had just hit free agency without the tag.
At the same time, Landry is a player the Browns would likely have had no prayer of attracting on the free market without paying a significant premium over a team like the Ravens, so it wouldn’t have been a shock if Cleveland had given Landry a huge deal in free agency or if they give him a massive deal to stick around. The Browns did the same thing after going against type and trading a pick to the Patriots for Jamie Collins in 2016 before giving him an extension that paid him $37.5 million over its first three years, nearly $3 million more than any other inside linebacker in football.
Landry probably won’t be able to match the five-year, $82.5 million extension Mike Evans signed earlier on Friday, but his representation knows the Browns are going to be desperate to hold on to a player they hope will represent the new, competitive Browns. They could franchise Landry next year and pay him $19.2 million, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see a five-year, $75 million extension hit the books for Landry before the season begins.
The fit here is a little curious, if only because Landry is a slot receiver and the Browns actually had a few options to operate there in 2018. Duke Johnson has quietly become an effective weapon as both a runner and receiver, posting a positive DVOA in both categories last season. The 24-year-old might very well have served as a regular slot receiver for the Browns next season if they hadn’t traded for Landry. With Johnson entering the final year of his rookie deal, it seems possible that Cleveland might not keep the Miami product around after this season.
It’s also possible that 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman might have ended up in the slot, given that the 5-foot-11 Coleman hasn’t yet emerged as a useful weapon on the outside. Injuries and poor quarterback play have unquestionably stunted Coleman’s growth, but this is also a receiver who has caught 56 of the 131 targets thrown his way over the past two seasons, producing a catch rate of just 42.7 percent. That’s the lowest rate in football among guys with 100 targets or more over that time frame. Dorsey has no ties to Coleman, and with Josh Gordon back in the lineup, this seems to push Coleman third (or fourth behind Johnson) in line for targets.
The Browns sent to the Dolphins the fourth-round pick they got from the Panthers in a long-ago swap of punters and a 2019 seventh-rounder. Mike Tannenbaum and the Dolphins have to be happy to come away with a meaningful return for Landry, given that they spent all of the season suggesting through the media that he wasn’t in their plans. Miami could theoretically have held on to Landry and picked up a third-round compensatory selection, but it’s not quite that simple. The Dolphins would have needed to sit out most of the free-agent period to avoid signing a player who would have canceled out the compensation for Landry, which isn’t exactly their style. I doubt Landry would have picked up a big enough deal to qualify for a third-round pick, which means Miami was likely looking at a fourth-round pick.
By making this trade, the Dolphins lock in a better fourth-round pick, get that selection a year earlier than they would through the comp market and can make moves in free agency without having to worry about impacting the compensatory formula. They still have to clear out more space — the Dolphins are $3 million over the cap even after trading away Landry — but this is a nifty sign-and-trade maneuver for a guy who wasn’t going to be on the Dolphins roster in 2018.
The third move of the bunch is my favorite for the Browns, although it comes with the most risk. It was only a year ago that Cleveland used the 52nd pick of the draft on Kizer, but Jackson’s bungling mismanagement of the former Notre Dame starter left Kizer entirely bereft of confidence. Few rookie quarterbacks are lame-duck starters by November of their debut seasons, but that was quite clearly the case with Kizer. As a backup behind Taylor and perhaps the No. 3 passer if the Browns draft someone this year, Kizer’s value wasn’t about to go up anytime soon.
Getting a viable starting defensive back on a rookie deal in Randall is a reasonable return for a quarterback who probably wasn’t going to take another snap in Cleveland. The former first-round pick never really seemed to settle as a slot cornerback in Green Bay, and it’s entirely possible the Browns move him back to free safety, which was ably occupied by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in Green Bay. That move would allow Jabrill Peppers to push back into the box, which would make two positions in the defensive backfield better for coordinator Gregg Williams. The Browns can pick up Randall’s fifth-year option and evaluate him in 2018 before deciding on a possible extension next offseason.
As for the Packers, Kizer offers them a backup for Aaron Rodgers with more upside than Brett Hundley, who failed his audition last season when Rodgers went down injured. Hundley’s contract is up after the year, while Kizer is under contract for three more seasons and should have time to develop behind the 34-year-old Rodgers. Kizer won’t be the long-term replacement for Rodgers barring some serious injury, but he could represent a cheap backup option with more upside in a West Coast scheme than Hundley.
The two teams also swapped fourth- and fifth-round picks as part of the deal, and while the Browns were picking first in each round, the deal doesn’t amount to a huge return for the Packers. By Chase Stuart’s draft chart, the trade value of the picks resolves down to the Packers’ gaining something close to the 188th pick, a selection in the middle of the sixth round.
The Browns still have the option of trading down from one of their two top-four picks, of course. Maybe they’ll take Barkley first and send the fourth pick off to a team who does believe in one of the quarterbacks, or deal the first pick to someone in love with Barkley and trust that they can find a similar running back later in the draft. Dorsey comes from the Ted Thompson tree in Green Bay, and both Thompson and his acolytes were historically aggressive in trading down to acquire extra picks as they entered new jobs.
Given the rapid-fire succession of trades we saw from Dorsey on Friday, though, it’s difficult not to see this as an inflection point for Cleveland’s team-building strategy. It has been popular (if not entirely accurate) to think of the Browns as the NFL equivalent of the Philadelphia 76ers, compiling draft pick after draft pick while failing to show any shred of competitiveness for a number of seasons.
Sixers fans have to be happy to have a team with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons right now, but architect Sam Hinkie wasn’t able to reap the benefits of his strategy, given that he resigned under pressure in April 2016. Likewise, Sashi Brown spent years losing and then turned over a clean cap and a historic amount of draft capital to Dorsey after being fired in December. The names have changed in Cleveland. Now, the plan is changing, too.