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Where do the Browns go in 2018?
Before you get into this, I want to make something clear:
This is NOT meant to change the Browns to a Super Bowl contender is 2018. This is directed toward changing the trajectory of the franchise. Immediate results of Championships are out of the question right now. The Browns are 1-30 over the course of the 2016 & 2017 seasons (with 1 game remaining in 2017). With that in mind, a 5-11 or 7-9 season would be a welcomed sight. Get that far and THEN we will discuss what needs to be done to make the playoffs.
Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft I wrote a series of Tweets regarding the Cleveland Browns upcoming picks. Afterwards, I was very encouraged by the Browns decisions to stick with Myles Garrett as #1 overall (shades of Kevin Costner in the movie Draft Day, “Vontae Mack no matter what”), then also landing David Njoku and Jabrill Peppers (even though I wanted Pittsburgh to get Peppers) all in the first round. Then they did what I believed to also be a smart move by drafting DeShone Kizer in the 2nd round. For the first time in a long, LONG time, the Browns nailed a draft. Granted these moves weren’t viewed to be a quick turnaround for a franchise that has been the perennial bottom-feeder in not only the AFC North, but the entire NFL. This was the first step in the right direction. JUST a first step.
With an 0-16 season just one loss away (week 17 matchup vs the 12-3 Steelers), the Browns have already locked up the first overall selection again. Not only that, they also own the rights to the Houston Texans first round pick from their perfectly managed 2017 Draft where the Texans traded up to draft their franchise QB, DeShaun Watson. The Texans are currently sitting at 4-11 which, as of today, rests as the #4 pick. In short, the Browns will have TWO selections in the first 5 picks this coming April.
An encore showcase of the 2017 Draft is unlikely but possible. The worst part of the way the 2017 Draft played out is that it makes 2018 even harder to look hugely successful. How can the Cleveland Browns be successful in the offseason? I will make this extremely clear, it will NOT be easy. It will take sacrifice. It will take determination. It will take negotiating extremely well. Most of all, it will take a little swagger. Yes you heard me right. SWAGGER. Something that the Browns severely need after a season filled with disappointment and heartache. How does a team like the Browns develop “swagger” after going 0-16? After 2 decades of let-downs, mis-fires, suspensions, flops and you name its, you start with the Head Coach.
There are multiple reports flying around that Bruce Arians will part ways with the Arizona Cardinals at the conclusion of this season. If you have watched Bruce Arians at all over the last ten years, you know that man has “swagger.” He also has the resume’ to back up that attitude. He has been NFL Coach of the Year TWICE in the last 6 years. Once as interim head coach of the Colts (2012) when Chuck Pagano was out while battling cancer and the 2nd time was 2014 with Arizona despite losing his starting QB after 6 games. What makes this even more perfect is that Arians wanted to be the HC of the Browns in 2009 when he was passed over for Eric Mangini. Bruce was quoted as saying, “I always thought if you could build a winner in Cleveland how special that would be.” If you recall, Arians was the Browns offensive coordinator from 2001-2003 which also is part of his desire to return as he has also been quoted saying he loved his time in Cleveland and believes “its one of the greatest fan bases in the world.” So here is where I would start. Bruce Arians, Cleveland Browns Head Coach.
Where to next? Quarterback. Ugh…yeah…the “Q” word. This has been a tough topic since the Browns return to the NFL in 1999. That said, the Browns have started more than TWENTY DIFFERENT signal callers under center since 1999. They have selected numerous first round quarterbacks that were either a complete “whiff” (see: Johnny Manziel or Brandon Weeden) or could not stay healthy. Currently the Browns have Kevin Hogan, Cody Kessler & DeShone Kizer(R). Between these 3 QBs, they have a COMBINED 2 years of pro experience prior to the start of the 2017 season. None of these three players have logged more than 8 consecutive starts. The start of my solution to this would be to cut Kevin Hogan. Currently, Kessler and Kizer are not ready to lead the team so my next decision would be to target Alex Smith. Everyone, including Alex Smith, knows that he will NOT be returning to Kansas City for 2018 since the Chiefs traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017. Smith is under contract through 2018 with the Chiefs so the Browns would need to trade for him. The Browns have more than enough salary cap space to absorb the $20M hit that comes along with Smith plus they could offer him a sizeable 3 year extension. The Browns also have the leverage to offer the #33 overall pick (2nd round, 1st pick) to the Chiefs because they come right back with the #37 from the Texans. This move gives the Browns the chance to compete with a pocket-passer QB that has a history of winning games, a lot of games. With Alex Smith at the helm for the next 3-4 years, the team could afford to cut ties with either Kessler or Kizer while the other learns slowly under Smith for an extended period of time. Alex Smith is given multiple seasons as “the man” and the Browns don’t have to force anyone into the game’s most important position any time soon. Win meets win.
If the Browns can manage those two scenarios, they will already be well ahead of the game for next season before the 2018 Draft even gets rolling. That leaves the team sitting amazingly pretty with a boatload of picks still. As of writing this, the Browns hold the #1 overall pick and the #4 overall pick (from the 4-11 Texans). There are a lot of ways the Browns could run this but here is what I would do if this was my call.
With the #1 overall pick, take Saquon Barkley. Some might say this is a few picks too early for Barkley but the Browns have the luxury of being able to get away with this without over-criticism. With the offensive line that the Browns currently have, Barkley makes a ton of sense. He’s a better prospect than Ezekiel Elliott was coming out of college and it would give Alex Smith a 3-down monster to hand off to which would help open up play-action passing. It’s also unlikely that Barkley would still be available at 4th overall, so just be safe and tag him #1. After drafting Barkley and taking care of a HUGE need, the Browns will now have the option of trading out of their #4 overall pick and not overspending on a reach pick that they could get a little later in the night. Since this will be a QB heavy draft, trading down with either the Broncos, Jets or even the Dolphins seems like a pretty easy call and should also net them an additional first rounder the following year (2019) and even another 2nd round pick in 2018 (putting them back at 3 picks in the 2nd round based on the scenario of acquiring Smith by using at least 1 2nd round pick). Trading with either of those 3 teams would drop them somewhere between 6th& 12th (based on current draft order) and in a position to safely grab a CB/S or even a top LB which never hurts to grab when you play in the brutal AFC North. Derwin James or Minkah Fitzpatrick could be available here and that would make for a NASTY combo paired with Peppers. If they trade down further than 6-12, maybe WR should be considered here to pair with a renewed Josh Gordon.
If the Browns can implement anything remotely close to what I listed out, they will take care of 4 of their glaring needs before the conclusion of the drafts first round which will then give them a chance to build on depth. For the Browns, that is sorely needed.
Things to avoid:
Trading for A.J. McCarron. DO NOT DO THIS. Putting McCarron under center changes the complexion of the offense. Alex Smith is the real solution here (as far as tangible outcomes).
Hiring John Fox or Jeff Fisher as HC. This would be disastrous even for the Browns. The Browns passed on Arians once already. Consider this equal to their chance at redrafting for either Big Ben or Wentz.
Drafting a QB at #1 or #4. Those who don’t learn from mistakes of the past, are doomed to repeat them. The Browns have had more success in recent years when a veteran (of more than 1 year) was in at QB than when they play a rookie or 2nd year QB. So if you have 2 young quarterbacks that you drafted on your roster already, do NOT compound that problem by taking a high pick QB.
If they aren’t able to get Smith (which is actually absurd if they don’t) then their next best option is Kirk Cousins or potentially even Ryan Tannehill. Obviously Smith is the ideal candidate here and warrants the largest trade offer (personally I would offer as much as the #33 overall and a mid or late round pick). If a Smith trade isn’t looked at until the draft, this might be a good chance for the Browns to trade out of the #4 down to a 20s pick (acquiring at least 1 additional 1st round pick, possibly 2) and then trading away that late 1st rounder in a swap for Alex Smith (but I wouldn’t do that if the pick is above 23rd). How hungry the Chiefs are to move Alex is the real factor here. His $20M cap hit makes him impossible to keep onboard as a backup if the plan is still to play Mahomes in 2018. I see the Chiefs dealing him before March 16th though to avoid paying him the $2M roster bonus so a draft day trade is unlikely.