“Final” rosters of bad teams are always works in progress. But even a superficial glance at what the Browns have put forward makes one point very clear:
The Browns should tell GM Ray “Snapchat” Farmer, after he finishes serving the four-game suspension mandated by the NFL, not to return to Berea.
Barring some completely unforeseen developments, the 2015 Browns will have a substantially worse record than they did a year ago. To some degree, it will be because the NFL’s rotating schedule formula had the 2014 Browns playing the AFC and NFC South teams (the weakest divisions in their conference), while this year’s team will be facing the NFC West (the strongest division) and the AFC West (tied with the East for second).
Bottom line: Cleveland got 4 wins against this part of the schedule a year ago. In a best-case scenario, this year’s team might get 3.
The data is below; teams they beat (or, for 2015, might beat) are reversed.
All three of the 2015 wins are graded only as possibilities. San Francisco and Oakland have new coaches; St. Louis has a new quarterback, I have a cat who knows more about offense and handling quarterbacks than Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio.
A year ago, I thought they’d get 4-6 wins out of this segment. I was sure Cleveland would beat Tennessee, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, and thought they might (if things went well) be able to take New Orleans and Carolina.
I don’t see a game I think the Browns are likely to win this time. There probably will be 1-2; teams have injuries or they play flat. But I’m not going to predict any.
I don’t see any wins in this year’s AFC North. The Browns went 2-4 a year ago, because Brian Hoyer, while he lacked physical ability was very smart. He beat the Bengals both times he faced them (the other time was in 2013) and he came very close to beating the Steelers twice in two tries (the overtime loss in game 1).
That won’t happen with Josh McCown at the controls. He’ll look like a canary in a blender and the Browns will most likely get swept.
That leaves the the two games against the other last-place teams in the AFC: New York and Tennessee. Since the Tennessee game will be Marcus Mariota’s second start, that seems pretty likely. The Jets have a rookie coach, but Todd Bowles has a very good resume. I don’t see that as a win.
So it’s 4-12 maybe, and more likely 2-14.
And that’s on Ray Farmer.
The main reason I don’t expect the Browns to get better is that Farmer has made a hash out of at least one draft– and very likely two.
Unless you still believe the draft class of 2014 could transmogrify into greatness, Farmer blew that draft to a historic degree. #2 pick G Joel Bitonio appears to be a good player on the verge of greatness. Since we’re only in year two of their careers, it is entirely possible that one of this #3 picks (LB Chris Kirksey) or his #4 (DB Pierre Desir) might turn into a good player.
But the Browns have closed the book on his other #3 (RB Terrance West). The prognosis for both #1 picks (CB Justin Gilbert and QB Johnny Manziel) is dim. They were dreadful a year ago, the Browns obtained veterans to ensure they weren’t forced to play and they played badly enough in pre-season to suggest that 2015 won’t be any better than 2014.
It’s early, but his 2015 draft is at least a bit iffy. At this point 2 of the 12 picks have been cut (#4 WR Vince Mayle and #7 LB Hayes Pullard). The Browns’ ability to re-sign Pulford to the practice squad is more a signal that nobody else wanted him. (He’s probably interchangeable with LB Tank Carder on kicking teams).
Two additional picks will miss the season on IR (TE Randall Telfer and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu). The probability of a rookie who sits out a year on injured reserve making the team next year is below 50%– especially if they’re low picks (Telfer is a #6, Ekpre-Olomu a #7).
Two others will miss at least part of the season. The #6 pick, CB Charles Gaines, is on IR until game 6 or 8. The #3 pick, RB Duke Johnson has a concussion and a hamstring. The Browns will try to play him anyway, but I don’t expect that to work well.
Of the others, two will start. The Browns’ first #1 pick (NT Danny Shelton) looks like he’ll contribute– maybe a great deal. The other starter (#6 pick FB Malcolm Johnson) looks like an excellent blocker with good hands… But the Browns only used a fullback on 324 of their 1,078 snaps last season.
Of the other four, two seemed to be role players:
- The other #3 pick (DL Xavier Cooper) made a few good plays and looks like he can pressure the passer. The draft analysts gave him abysmal marks on run defense; he proved those to be entirely accurate in pre-season.
- Scouting reports on the run defense of the #2 pick, LB-DE Nate Orchard also graded as awful. The Browns validated that by using him almost exclusively on pass defense. he also made a few plays rushing the passer
But both the other #1 pick (OL Cam Erving) and #4 pick (SS Ibraheim Campbell) looked confused and struggled to make plays. neither looked remotely close to being ready to play this year. I’m not even sure they’ll be ready when they’re needed in 2016.
The fastest way to express the issues with the draft is this chart. The first four columns are self-explanatory; the last two are:
- What’s the probability, at this point, that he’ll wind up being a bust?
- If he is a bust, what will be the likely cause?
If the player has already been traded or waived– or is is off the team– or is hurt and will miss time– I shaded the line.
You can scream about the grades– and obviously the 2015 ones are entirely my guesses. But the rules I used are pretty basic:
- The higher the pick, the sooner he should win the job and contribute. It isn’t unusual for a #4 pick (like Pierre Desir) to play sparingly as a rookie. But 11 players taken after Justin Gilbert in the first round of 2014 started the majority of his team’s games. 4 went to the Pro Bowl.
- The farther down the depth chart you start, the less likely you are to contribute that year. That’s especially true if the player belongs to a unit that doesn’t rotate much (offensive line, linebackers).
- The more games you miss (or play badly in), the more likely the team is to write you off and look for someone else. Coaches keep a running tally– after a player gets half a dozen bad grades, they assume that what has happened will continue to happen.
- Once a prospect loses the job to anyone else, their chances of displacing them plunge. A second-string player usually can’t win a job by playing well in garbage time or practice– the starter has to lose it, by playing badly in games.
Point #4 is especially true when the starter is a veteran who was signed as a free agent. Xavier Cooper stood a pretty good chance of beating out Ishmaa’ily Kitchen or John Hughes for playing time. But when the team signs Randy Starks– who has been to two Pro Bowls– not playing him is a big freaking deal.
Peter Queen and the Mean Girls (AKA, the national media) don’t pay attention to stuff like Starks turning 32 in December, or his last Pro Bowl season being in 2012, or the Dolphins moving him inside in 2012 because they thought he was losing his burst.
You put Cooper in, you’re the idiot benching a possible Hall of Famer for some guy.
Free Agent Review
A good general manager uses free agents for one of three purposes:
1. Solving a problem at a position, by obtaining a quality player who has finished his rookie contract, is 25-27 and can perform for a high level for the next 3-4 years.
2. Improving the depth, by either (a) signing a a backup for the capable starter who had nobody behind him, or (b) getting a starter who transforms the scrub who had been playing into a backup.
3. Buying a little time with a veteran. The team has needs at 8 positions and has only 4 high picks. Signing a star near the end of his career can give the club some time to find a long term replacement in a year or two.
A bad GM uses free agency for three additional reasons:
4. Replacing a starter he doesn’t like. The team has a player who seems OK– but the GM doesn’t think he’s any good (or thinks he’s overpaid). So he cuts the guy (or lets him leave in free agency) and signs (or drafts) someone else.
5. Obtaining an emergency replacement for a starter who bailed out. The GM expected to re-sign a starter whose contract was up, but didn’t realize that one or more of the following conditions applied:
- The player was sick of losing
- He didn’t like the city (or liked another one more)
- Other teams were offering a lot more than his current team
- He disliked either the coach, the scheme or some of his teammates
- He was angry about the way he was treated in past negotiations
The GM is flabbergasted by the departure and dashes out to find someone who can fill the gap.
6. Living in denial. Most players begin to lose their skills in their late 20’s. Quarterbacks and kickers (who are one-dimensional players) can stay a little longer– as can a player with truly phenomenal skills. But most players will be struggling to hang on by the time they turn 30.
A good GM will sign a player in his thirties, but only as a short-term solution. Maybe he’ll offer a four-year deal to make the money work… but most of the money will be up front, so it’s pretty clear both sides expect the player to be cut after two years.
A bad GM will offer a 4-year deal… and truly believe the player will last that long.
Most of Farmer’s signings, over the past few seasons, have fallen into the latter categories.
Six of Farmer’s moves can be considered swaps. All made the team better, but four also made them older.
Farmer also signed a number of players who didn’t replace anyone specific. TE Jim Dray (27) and FS Jim Leonhard (32) contributed; the rest were worthless:
- WRs Earl Bennett and Nate Burleson
- FB Chris Pressley
- RB Ben Tate
- CB Isaiah Trufant
- QBs Tyler Thigpen and Vince Young.
Not as impressive as you thought, right? The buzz generated by the signings was substantially greater than the results. When the Browns signed Tate, it seemed like it would ensure that they’d have at least the foundation of a solid running game. But when all was said and done, Tate gained 333 yards on 106 carries– not a lot better than Willis McGahee (377 yards on 138 carries) had a year earlier.
And by making the team older, Farmer increased the likelihood that the team would need to find players again. Austin and McQuistan both had to be replaced; Leonhard’s retirement opened a hole that had to be filled.
The Alex Mack Contract
But whatever value Farmer’s free agency had was erased by his handling of Alex Mack’s contract. Farmer didn’t think re-signing Mack would be a problem. He was so sure, in fact, that he didn’t use the Franchise Player designation on Mack, which would have:
- Required the Browns to extend a one-year deal with a salary that was the average of the five highest-paid players at the position, but
- Prohibited Mack from signing with any other team.
Instead the Browns chose the Transition Tag designation, which extends a contract offer, permits the player to negotiate with other teams, but gives the team the option to match any offer.
In effect, it turns an unrestricted free agent (who can sign with any team) to a restricted free agent (who can’t). Practically speaking, it kills any chance the player has to change teams. Clubs are reluctant to extend offers to Transition players, because it can end with only two outcomes:
- If you make a reasonable offer– his actual market value– the team matches it and you wasted time negotiating and get nothing.
- If you make an outrageous offer– a deal it isn’t in the team’s best interests to match– you’re stuck with the deal.
The only way around this is to extend a contract with a “poison pill”– a condition that the team would be insane to match. This concept was introduced by Carmen Policy of the 49ers in 1996, when he proposed to sign RB Rodney Hampton to an offer sheet that guaranteed Hampton would be “on the field for 70% of the offensive plays over the next 2 seasons.”
The guarantee was a problem because Hampton was 28 and the Giants had just spent a #1 pick on RB Tyrone Wheatley, whom they were grooming as his replacement.
The 49ers never made the offer (they were afraid the NFL might rule against them and penalize them), but in 2005, the Minnesota Vikings used that concept to obtain G Steve Hutchinson from the Seattle Seahawks by the same method.
The deal was $49 million for 7 years, with $16 million guaranteed. But it also included a clause that guaranteed the other $33 million immediately if the team (the Vikings) ever had an offensive lineman signed to a contract with a higher dollar value.
The catch, as you might guess, is that Seattle already had an offensive lineman making more than $49 million over 7 years– left tackle (and future Hall of Famer) Walter Jones. So if the Seahawks matched the offer, Hutchinson’s contract immediately became fully guaranteed… but if he went to the Vikings, only $16 million was.
The Seahawks screamed bloody murder (Mike Holmgren, by the way, had been demoted from GM after the 2002 season, so it wasn’t his fault), but an arbitrator ruled that the provision was entirely acceptable.
I’m going into this level of detail to explain why NFL teams rarely use the transition designation. Not only do you have to offer the player a lot of money, but you can’t use both the transition and the franchise tag and you can get stuck in a situation where you have to match an unpleasant offer.
Like Jacksonville. They offered Mack a very clever deal:
- $42 million over 5 years (an average salary of $8.4 million)
- A frontloaded deal: $10 million for the first year, $8 million for the next two, then $6 million for the final two (with a $2 million roster bonus each year).
- No signing bonus, but the salary for the first three seasons ($26 million) guaranteed. The guarantee for the year goes into effect on April 5 of each year.
- A player option letting Mack opt out after the 2015 season (two years in).
Farmer matched the deal, which means that Mack has received $18 million for two seasons. At the end of this season, he can either:
- Stay with the Browns, and be paid $24 million over the final three seasons ($8 million a year), with $8 million guaranteed.
- Get a new contract.
We can guess what that new deal will be worth, because two centers just signed new deals. Mike Pouncey re-signed with Miami for a 5-year, $45.5 million deal ($9.1 avaregs) with $22 million guaranteed. Rodney Hudson signed a $44.5 million deal $8.9 million a year) with Oakland with $20 million guaranteed.
So we can pretty much bet Mack will opt out– and either the Browns will pay him about $47.5 million over five years (a guess based on the jump in center contracts between his in 2014 and theirs in 2015) or he’ll leave.
Why did Farmer do it? The best theory I have heard is that they wanted to save some money because they wanted to extend CB Joe Haden… and maybe, depending on how things played out, Phil Taylor “Puff” Gordon and “Poke” Cameron.
Wanna know how much they saved? Offensive linemen given the transition tag got a 1-year $10,039,000 contract (it’s an average; that’s why the number is odd). The franchise tag– which would have eliminated Mack’s ability to field offers– cost $11,654,000.
So, rather than pay $1.615 million more of Jimmy Haslam’s money, the Browns ended up in situation where they had to make Mack the NFL’s highest-paid center (counting salary only) in 2014 and 2015, then either give him another deal or lose him. As the guys in the Guinness commercials say, “Brilliant!”
This is running a longer than I want my intro to go, so I’ll present a few charts and finish. Here’s the list of moves that have made the team older at some position this year:
Those are not ranked in any order– but, yes, an old punter is a big deal. As a punter gets older, he loses distances on his kicks (as his muscles go)– but he also gets hurt more often. That’s often how careers end; Scott Fujita didn’t lose his skills so much as he lost the ability to play without getting hurt
The positions where the team, got younger are below. Other than obvious step forward (line two), it is not clear how any of this helped:
You may argue that some of these changes benefited the Browns by bringing in better players. I don’t agree about many, but it doesn’t matter.
A better player who has to be replaced
almost immediately isn’t much help.
For example, let’s say Randy Starks, even at 32, is better than Ahtyba Rubin. Maybe his superior performance wasn’t due to having better talent around him or better schemes– or not having to change defenses or positions pretty much every year.
Maybe he’s good enough to play this year at a high lever– and do it again next year.
But signing Randy Starks means you might have to replace him in the 2015-2016 off-season. And you will definitely need to replace him after the 2016 season ends.
And there is a pretty good possibility– not guaranteed, but a 1-in-3 shot– that Starks will either play badly, or (as many 32-year-olds do) get hurt. If he goes all Nick Swisher on the Browns, they have a big hole they need to fix
And somewhere along the line, they have to replace Whitner and Dansby and Mack and DE Desmond Bryant (now 30)– all these other old guys.
A team can solve 6-8 problems per off-season. There aren’t enough draft picks and you don’t have enough salary cap space to take care of 10-12 holes. Plus other teams are trying to get better– sometimes by signing your players.
Since Ray Farmer has trouble signing his good players– even recognizing the ones who want to leave– and he definitely has trouble drafting good players, it’s pretty obvious that he won’t be ready when all the duct tape, bungee cords and Krazy Glue starts to come apart.
Unless I’m dead wrong– unless the decision to give big money to John Hughes and draft Xavier Cooper in round #3 are a lot smarter than I think– the S.S. Browns will bubble under and Jimmy Haslam, after swearing that he wouldn’t blow things up, will need to do it again.
Since there is a good chance that the Browns will be 1-3 or 0-4 by the time Farmer comes back, the simplest thing to do might be to tell Farmer to take the rest of his contract off. The only thing worse than Ray Farmer building a team might be Ray Farmer trying to fix one on the fly.