Browns’ Draft Review: Day 1

So what did you think of the first round, Geoff?

I don’t know. The players are fine, but the motivation for taking them is the issue. I’m in the same neighborhood as Pat McManamon, though not exactly in the same place.

Do I need to read the piece?

You should read everything Pat writes. He is, with three exceptions (Jeff Schudel, Steve Doerschuk, Tony Grossi), the NFL writer who has been in the area the longest. And he is smarter than two of those three (I wouldn’t want to pick between him and Schudel).

But I can summarize it for you. McManamon has seen the same process over and over again: New regime takes over, trades the old regime’s players for chump change and brings in their guys. The names change, but the talent level never rises.

He’s wondering if Danny Shelton isn’t just “New Phil Taylor”, while Cameron Erving is “New Alex Mack.”

Pat’s piece is a version of the point I was making yesterday: the only way a team improves is to add more talent than it loses.

People say “The Browns added Brian Hartline”, which is incorrect. Cleveland replaced Miles Austin with Hartline, meaning they added the difference between the two players’ contribution. Which, based on their 2014 stats, is non-existent. Austin had a better year:

 Player Age G   GS Targets Catches Yards Y/C TD
Hartline 28 16 16 63 39 474 12.2 2
Austin 30 12 11 73 47 568 12.1 2

Unless a player (like Alonzo Gee) is so bad that he was contributing nothing– actually hurting the team– the replacement (LeBron James) will always have less impact than his stat line for his old team would suggest.

There’s a a term for this in economics– it’s called “marginal value.” And I’m pretty sure that the Browns understand this concept, because Mike Pettine graduated with a degree in economics.

That fact, as I pointed out a while back (the section called “A hidden blessing”), is a very important thing. Most of the great coaches who had degrees were either education / psych majors (makes sense, a coach is a teacher) or business / econ majors (where you learn to measure cost and value)

If the only thing Shelton does is take the 450 snaps that went to Taylor (who gets hurt a lot and is in the final year of his deal), Ahtyba Rubin and Sione Fua (both off the roster), them he’d need to play like King Kong in order to improve the club much.

If Shelton takes over at nose tackle and Taylor (a) fills in for Shelton when he needs a rest and (b) plays end on running downs, then they got better. A front line of Taylor and Randy Starks at end, with Shelton in the middle would be a big improvement over what they had.

Assuming Shelton can play.

Can he play? Is he a three-down player?

Before I answer the first question, let me deal with the second. Only one defensive lineman in the NFL is a three-down player. Opponents ran 1,077 plays against the Houston Texans last year. J.J. Watt played 1,069 snaps.

After Watt, there were 3-4 guys around 950 snaps, followed by 3-4 guys in the 800’s. Most players were in the 700-750 range.  The fashion is to rotate people based on either:

  • A desire to keep everyone fresh, or
  • Playing different alignments– with people best suited for it– on every play

So Shelton will probably come off for 30-40% of the snaps- especially if Pettine uses a 4-3 on passing downs (Armonty and Desmiond Bryant at ends, Starks and Taylor at tackle). The dig is somewhat meaningless.

You know what I mean. Can he rush the passer?

Almost certainly not. It is virtually impossible for an inside lineman to get significant pass pressure– the center and guard (or guard and tackle) can double-team them. There have only been 60 seasons in the last 30 years where an interior lineman had 10 or more sacks. Only 37 guys have done it– they’re people like Keith Millard, Dana Stubblefield, John Randle and Randy White.

Put it this way: Haloti Ngata, the player Shelton is most often compared to, has never had more than 5.5 sacks in a year. He contributes by forcing offenses to use three people to stop him, so the linebackers (Adalius Thomas, Terrell Suggs, Daniell Ellerbee, Paul Kruger, et al) can nail the quarterback. They get the big contracts from other teams, then try to rush the passer without Ngata and look very mortal.

Even Ndamukong Shoe— a defensive tackle playing in a 4-3, who pays no attention to the score, down, distance, defensive alignment or his responsibilities– has never had more than 10 sacks.

If you’re going to measure Shelton by sacks, I can tell you right now that he will be a bitter disappointment unless he has a Hall-of-Fame type career. The question is whether his teammates get a lot better at the pass rush.

Can you just tell me whether he can play?

Yes. Probably well enough to make the Pro Bowl.

The thing I check at when I grade a defensive lineman is “Is he an athlete?” A lot of linemen are just big guys–or big, fat guys– who use either their natural strength or speed to to do the work. They get to the pros, everyone is big and strong, they go nowhere.

Shelton is an athlete. In high school, he played both offensive and defensive line, He threw both the discus and the shot-put in both high school and college.You don’t win All-State in High School in those events with muscle– they both require footwork, positioning and technique.

And he has one of the two things that, for a defensive lineman spells “star.”

Which is?

Wrestling. Success in wrestling is based on leverage and body control. He wasn’t an all-state, undefeated champion like Fred Smerlas was– in fact, he didn’t wrestle in college.

The only things better are martial arts, tai chi or yoga– all of which are about body control and disciplined movement.

Plus he’s a serious student. Academic All American isn’t a big deal– it’s easy to game. But the significant thing is that he made the effort. Most guys don’t bother– they think studying is for suckers.

Also, he’s had to confront adversity/ When he was a senior, he saw his two older brothers shot. He’s unlikely to be a guy who assumes that the world is his for the taking.

One thing I will say about this regime: they’re pretty serious about character. Other than Johnny Football, they haven’t had a guy who’s a real lifestyle problem, And even he seems to be serious about playing. Chris Kirksey, Terrance West, Pierre Desit– they have guys who have made admirable life decisons.

And, at least for the moment, you have to put Johnny Football into that group. If his checking himself into rehab was an act, he snowed Joe Thomas pretty good. If he looks like he’s serious about football when the game starts, I might even start using his last name.

Was there anyone else you would have considered?

The only other guy was WR DeVante Parker of Louisville. Like Shelton. he’s a senior. . He’s tall, he can run, and he doesn’t drop many passes. That’s always the first thing I look at– a receiver’s job is to receive. Some people love guys like Breshad Perryman because he can fly. I don’t care if the guy gets open if he doesn’t come down with the ball.

The one knock on Parker (other than his being skinny; he’s 6’3″ but only 209) was that he spent his first three years catching passes from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But when Bridgewater graduated, Parker came back. Even though he missed half a season with a foot injury and neither of his QBs is likely to be drafted, he performed well.

But I’m OK with getting a defensive lineman (who contributes on every play) instead of a receiver– who can block on running plays on decoy on passes but makes most of his contribution on the 75-150 times the ball is thrown his way.

Assuming Shelton isn’t just the Farmer-Pettine rgime’s version of Phil Taylor, this is a step forward.

So what’s the deal with Cameron Erving?

This is a really intriguing pick. Erving can probably play any position on the line., so he could play anywhere. Let’s run through the scenarios from best to worst:

1. He’s here to take Joe Thomas’s job: Because tackles need so much speed to counter the pass rush from ends and linebackers, very few of them last as a starter for more than 10 years. Their legs begin to go, they lose a step, opponents can get around them– and they’re done

Of the Hall of Famers:

  • Rayfiield Wright started for 8 years.
  • Ron Mix started 9 years.
  • Bob Brown, Jim Parker, Dan Dierdorf, Mike McCormack, Jon Ogden and Walter Jones started for 10.
  • Bob St. Clair and Forrest Gregg lasted 11.
  • Art Shell, Anthony Munoz Ron Yary, Gary Zimmerman and WIllie Roaf lasted 12.
  • Rosey Brown and Jackie Slater lasted 13.

Note, before you cut and paste that, that all of those guys played longer– but they weren’t starters in those years.  Centers and guards, because they play inside, don’t need nearly as much speed and they last longer

Joe Thomas, who will join those men someday, has played 8 years. His contract expires at the end of 2018– four seasons from now. That will give him 12 years in– and unless the Browns lose Super Bowl 53 on bad call, I’d bet my life that Thomas will not be back in 2019.

The Browns could put Erving at right tackle let him learn the ropes for four years and then slide him into Thomas’s spot for another eight. And while he learns the ropes:

  • Mitchell Schwartz can move to guard,
  • John Greco can become the super-sub.

Tom Heckert, who drafted Schwartz in the second round of the 2012 draft, guessed right in one respect and wrong in another. He was right to think that Schwartz was the best tackle remaining in the draft (Baltimore’s Kelechi Osemele, if he can stay healthy, might have a better career).

But he was wrong in this respect– Schwartz’s savvy, work ethic and footwork don’t compensate for his lack of quickness. You can beat him with a speed rush– or a few fakes and a blast. He’s only OK at right tackle and he’d get killed on the left side.

But lack of speed doesn’t damage a guard, s who lack speed won’t make the Pro Bowl, because they can’t pull on the sweeps that impress voters. But he’s several steps ahead of Greco, who couldn’t last three weeks at tackle.

Move Schwartz inside– between Erving and Alex Mack– and he’d be a big improvement over Greco. The Browns would have three first-round picks, two second-rounders and probably have the strongest line in the league.

Plus, Greco (a good starter, but not a great one) can become the insurance at three different positions. If Mack or one of the guards goes down, Greco can stop the bleeding.

And when it come time for Thomas to hang ’em up, the Browns have his replacement ready.

If this is what the Browns are planning, it is an excellent, excellent idea. Erving would make them stronger, get them ready for the future and provide disaster insurance.

That does sound good…

No kidding. The only guy who wouldn’t like it is the class clown of Cleveland NFL writers, Tony Grossi, who has written many times that drafting offensive linemen is a waste of time. (Though his reaction isn’t nearly as bad as I expected.)

The problem is that it might not be why they took him. Here’s scenario number two:

2. He’s here to replace Alex Mack. Mack’s contract didn’t just give him a premium salary– it gave him the right to opt out after the season and become a free agent. He could to any team who needs a center.

If he does this, having Erving ready to play is a big plus. We know he can play center– when Florida State lost their starter, he moved over. And he moved to offensive tackle from defensive line. Erving isn’t one of those marginal talents who has been coached up to the very limit of his ability– he’s a raw talent with a huge ceiling.

If Mack were to leave, Erving could very possibly go to a series of Pro Bowls in his place.

Do you really think Mack would leave? 

No I don’t. I learned how to guesstimate this when I worked for player agents, and I’m pretty good at it. Barring some sort of horrific story (Jimmy Haslam caught in a love nest with Ray Farmer and Rand Paul; a return of the epidemic of staph infections) Mack will stay. Offensive linemen like two things more than anything else:

A. Run-blocking. Pass-blocking is a miserable experience; linemen hate it. You can’t fire off the line, because it might create holes the defenders could slip through  You have to be passive– step backwards, assume a (no pun intended) defensive position and absorb whatever punishment the defender dishes out, as you try to keep him in front of you.

When you run-block, you get to be aggressive. You fire off the line, engage with your man and drive him off the ball and to a location that you decide. The roles are reversed– you’re dishing out the punishment and he’s trying to get away from it.

The more a team runs the ball, the better offensive linemen like it. Especially Mike Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, which chops and cuts the defender.

B. Great teammates. Lineman, more than anyone play as a unit. What the men on either side of you do– and how well they do it– substantially determines how much success you will have.

You can absolutely nail a block… but if Oniel Cousins just committed a holding penalty or John St. Clair couldn’t keep his feet, the defense wins and you lose.

Playing beside good linemen means, at the very least, you have someone who can help you if you need it. But a good teammate makes you even more effective– the two of you can clear and hold a larger area.

Lineman consider playing with a future Hall-of-Famer like Thomas a privilege– most would kill to work do with a teammate that good. Last year the Browns added Joel Bitonio– who will be a Pro Bowl player and might be an all-time great too.

If Erving turns out to be exceptional. Mack has a chance to be part of possibly the best line in the NFL– a unit that can dominate any defense.

The quality of the unit, coupled with the amount of running the team does, coupled with the aggressive blocking scheme they use, makes being a Brown an almost irresistible proposition for a lineman.

The only players who walk away from that situation are players who (1) only care about money or (2) want a title more than anything. Mack is already being paid well– and the Browns just doubled their win total. Assuming the Browns make more progress this year (going 8-8 or 9-7), I don’t expect him to go anywhere.

You’re that sure? 

The only thing working against keeping Mack is that he was born in Los Angeles and went to school at Cal-Berkeley. His family is on the coast; he can’t enjoy the weather (Thomas is from Wisconsin; he’s used to it.)

But since LA doesn’t have a football team and one of the three other teams (Oakland) is a rat’s nest, the only places that might get him would be San Francisco (which might fall apart) or San Diego.

I’ve never heard you so optimistic.

Well, there is a catch. Here’s scenario #3:

3. Erving was drafted to take Schwartz’s job. They sign him, then Schwartz is traded. Or maybe he’s moved inside to guard– but has to compete with Greco and they let Greco win.

In that scenario, Schwartz is 100% guaranteed to leave– which means the marginal value of drafting Erving is much lower. You still have Greco playing guard. You still need a better right guard, You still don’t have a backup. The #2 pick you spent on Schwartz returned 3-6 seasons of value, where the club (so far) went 16-32.

That’s not a good return on the Schwartz investment– and it undercuts the value of obtaining Erving. It means spending another #1 and being substantially in the same place.

Do you really think they’d do it?

Every new front office / coach combo has done it. For example:

  • Butch Davis wanted to move out Shaun O’Hara and Dave Wohlabaugh and get Jeff Faine.
  • Phil Savage traded Faine away, signed LeCharles Bentley and ended up with Hank Fraley when Bentley got hurt.
  • Eric Mangini had to get Mack, and he dumped RT Kevin Shaffer and ended up with John St. Clair.
  • Tom Heckert brings in Jason Pinkston, Lauvao and Tony Pashos.
  • This front office brought in Bitonio.

Many of those moves were necessary and a few upgraded the team. But many were shuffling the deck chairs just to change players. The same would be true on the defense or skill positions,

So that’s why I’m not getting too happy. The front office dumped a bunch of players they didn’t like via free agency, and weakened the team. These two players could help quite a bit– but not if they serve as the excuse to subtract more depth.

And the only way we’ll know what they plan to do is wait and see.

The good news is that they didn’t trade for Sam Bradford or William J. Le Petomane to play quarterback. The bad news is that I have to add the qualifier… “Yet.”

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