BROWNS: SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM?
By JASON B. HIRSCHHORN
The Cleveland Browns' analytically minded front office has asked a lot of the team's fans and ownership. After a trying 2016 and an anxiety-filled draft off season, that patience appears to have paid off in the form of a celebrated free-agent haul and talented draft class that could become the nucleus of a future title contender. Yes, you read that right.
The "trust the process" mantra proffered by rebuilding teams can frustrate fans, especially the long-suffering supporters of the Browns. The franchise has rebooted its staff more frequently than other in recent years, employing six different general managers and head coaches since 2008. Accordingly, Cleveland's decision to reorganize its front office around Sashi Brown and former baseball executive Paul DePodesta last off season tested an already broken trust.
In the time since those changes, the Browns produced little on the field. They looked destined for much of last season to become just the second team ever to finish with an 0-16 record. When they did win late in the season, it all but eliminated their shot at the No. 1 overall pick. The San Francisco 49ers bailed out Cleveland with an inexplicable December victory of their own, but it did little to dispel the fans' concerns.
However, in the past few days, the Browns have gone a long way toward changing their narrative. After publicly flirting with the idea of drafting local kid Mitchell Trubisky with the top pick, the team selected Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, the near-consensus top prospect in the draft and a DeMarcus Ware-like edge rusher capable of transforming the defense. Cleveland held the 12th pick as well but traded down to No. 25 -- eventually used on versatile Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- in order to pick up a future first-round selection. Not satisfied, the front office traded back into the first round to take uber-athletic Miami tight end David Njoku.
But perhaps the franchise's biggest move came the on Friday. While three teams traded up for signal-callers on Day 1, the Browns waited to scoop up Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer midway through the second round. Kizer proved to be one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft, with some teams concerned with his self-comparisons to Tom Brady and Cam Newton as well as his midseason benching last year. Still, the 6-foor-4, rocket-armed quarterback offers more talent and upside than those selected before him. Finally separated from a sometimes-toxic environment in South Bend, he could bloom into a star under the tutelage of his new head coach, Hue Jackson.
The draft has potentially resolved two long-time needs for the Browns: a true alpha pass-rusher and a franchise quarterback. Over the past decade, only one Cleveland player has recorded double-digit sacks in a season (Paul Kruger's 11 in 2014). Garrett has the talent to eclipse that figure as a rookie, and his fit with new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams further elevates his chances.
As for Kizer, the presence of 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler and others should prevent the Browns from prematurely forcing the rookie onto the field. That gives Jackson and the coaching staff some time to iron out Kizer's flaws and determine when he can adequately pilot the offense. Njoku and a receiving corps led by Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt should provide plenty of help.
Those additions in the draft build upon a massively successful free-agency period for the Browns. In one of the most creative maneuvers of this or any offseason, the team traded a Day 3 draft choice for Brock Osweiler and a second-round pick. While Osweiler performed like a third-string quarterback and his contract contains onerous guarantees, Cleveland and its over $100 million of available salary-cap space can easily absorb his deal regardless of whether he plays a snap at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Furthermore, the Browns made significant investments in the offensive line. Guard Kevin Zeitler and center JC Tretter both signed multi-year deals to bring their talents to Northeast Ohio while the team proactively extended guard Joel Bitonio. With All-Pro Joe Thomas still manning the blindside, the offensive line has transformed from a weakness to one capable of insulating Kizer when he eventually steps into the starting lineup.
All of which underscores how the Browns have changed. In years past, the team could only peddle false hope and a plan that seemed likely to change in a matter of months. Finally, ownership, the front office and the coaching staff appear share a singular vision, one that should set the team up to break its 14-year playoff drought.
The faith in Cleveland might finally be rewarded.