Fate of the Entire NFL Is (Somehow) in the Hands of the Browns
Fate of the Entire NFL Is (Somehow) in the Hands of the Browns
Welcome to the start of the offseason, otherwise known as the closest thing to a Super Bowl the Browns experience each year.
You are probably aware that the Browns possess the first and fourth picks in this year’s draft, plus the 33rd and 35th picks, plus plenty of later selections, plus a staggering $110 million in cap space. So they are the team in the spotlight right now.
You probably also know that the Browns often enter the offseason with plenty of picks and dough, only to either blow it all on bad decisions or, in the Moneyball era, kick the can down the road so they have even more picks and dough in later years.
What you may not know is how much impact the Browns’ decisions over the next few months can have on the rest of the NFL. Draft strategies, quarterback decisions and cap expenditures around the league are being sucked into the Browns’ orbit by the gravity those picks and cap dollars generate.
Hey, John Elway: Do you want Kirk Cousins to quarterback the Broncos? Well (Browns scribble a nine-digit number on a cocktail napkin), match this offer, buckaroo! Hey, Cardinals and Bills, are you hoping a rookie quarterback falls to you? Better hope the Browns don’t draft one of them first overall and trade the fourth pick to a team that needs one of the other ones. Is everyone comfortable with the current salary structure at wide receiver or in the secondary? After the Browns make offers to Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson, Kyle Fuller, Lamarcus Joyner and whoever else tickles their fancy, that whole structure might no longer have a roof.
The Browns can go in a lot of different directions this offseason. And most of those directions will have league-wide ramifications. Let’s examine a variety of Browns scenarios to determine both how they can reshape their own squad and what the potential consequences might be for your favorite team.
The Cousins Gambit
The Browns double down on the contract the 49ers gave Jimmy Garoppolo by not only making Kirk Cousins the NFL’s richest player but also front-loading the deal with enough bonus money to choke off any other bidders. They then cavort through the draft stuffing their pockets with an All-America team to surround Cousins with affordable young talent.
Who it impacts
Every team that covets Cousins, most notably the Broncos. Every team jockeying for position to draft a rookie quarterback or expecting a Saquon Barkley or Minkah Fitzpatrick to fall to them because everyone else is jockeying for quarterbacks. Every team that someday hopes to sign or extend a quarterback without resorting to multiple seasons of eating the salary-cap equivalent of ramen noodles. Yep, that covers the entire NFL.
There’s a lot of wisdom to this scenario for the Browns. Cousins takes the onus of quarterback development off a front office and coaching staff eager for some immediate results. With Cousins as a stabilizing influence, a strong draft class could make the Browns competitive in a hurry. And the Browns are so flush with cash that they can sign Cousins and still have cap room for appetizers and dessert in free agency.
The league-wide implications of this scenario are staggering. Right now, the Garoppolo deal is a white elephant, a one-of-a-kind contract that reflects a unique set of circumstances. If Cousins signs a similar-but-larger deal, it sends the entire quarterback market into the upper ionosphere. The price of a Case Keenum automatically shoots up, further frustrating veteran-seekers like the Broncos. Whole economic textbooks will be written to explain how the Packers and Falcons can extend Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Drew Brees may end up with his own listing on the NASDAQ.
In summary, the Browns could sign a second-tier (by most accounts) quarterback, set themselves up for an 8-8 season and destabilize the entire NFL salary structure in the process.
Moderate to high. A Garoppolo-like deal for Cousins would actually be a low-risk quick fix for the Browns, and the aftershocks around the league are not their concern.
The Moneybags Maneuver
Confident in their ability to develop a Sam Darnold/Josh Rosen/whoever once they rebuild the rest of the roster, the Browns embark on a league-wide shopping spree.
Into the grocery cart fall Jarvis Landry (100 short receptions can do wonders for a rookie quarterback’s confidence), Malcolm Butler (Super Bowl trash=Browns treasure), Lamarcus Joyner, Nigel Bradham (the Browns have quality linebackers but, hey, championship leadership) and any other free agent who wanders past their money truck. The draft brings another top-tier rookie in addition to the quarterback, your favorite mid-round running backs and depth providers and a partridge in a pear tree.
Who it impacts
Any veteran team up against the salary cap—Eagles, Dolphins, Patriots, Chiefs, etc.—is vulnerable to a Browns pirate raid. Even the Steelers could feel the heat if the Browns start dangling funny money in front of Le’Veon Bell. Heck, they could do it just to drive Bell’s price up.
Pairing a top rookie with a calculated splurge combines old-school football logic with the Browns’ need to get off the perma-rebuilding treadmill. There are plenty of smart free-agent targets on the market—Landry is super-productive and just 25 years old, Joyner is 27 and has proven he can be the linchpin of a great defense, and so on—so spending freely doesn’t automatically equate with spending stupidly.
Bad teams with beaucoup bucks have blown the lid off free-agent markets in the past, so the Browns resetting the top of the scale at wide receiver or defensive back won’t have quite the impact of dropping $75 million in upfront cash on Cousins. That’s small consolation, however, for teams on the brink of Super Bowl contention that may lose core veterans because the Browns can easily outbid them.
High. In addition to making football sense, the Moneybags Maneuver is like Reverse Moneyball, and new NFL regimes always compulsively do the exact opposite of what the last regime did.
The Packers Paradox
New Browns decision-makers like John Dorsey and Eliot Wolf cut their teeth in the Packers organization, making them advocates of the slow-and-steady approach to roster management. So the Browns draft their franchise quarterback early, add high-upside developmental players at high-leverage positions (cornerback, a left tackle for the post-Joe Thomas near-future) with their other high picks and perform a surgical strike or two in free agency. But they hoard much of their money to spend on future extensions for young veterans they think can help them win an eventual Super Bowl.
It’s not sexy, but the Packers Paradox prudently addresses both the team’s short-term and long-term goals.
Who it impacts
If the Browns play it safe in both the draft and free agency, it won’t send many ripples through the league.
Browns fans have endured roughly a generation’s worth of two-year rebuilding cycles, so the slow-and-steady approach may not have much appeal. But the Browns should have enough in-house talent to climb to about 6-10 with an influx of top rookies and some smart coaching (neither Hue Jackson nor defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should purchase any new office furniture if they can’t produce a few early wins). Such relative success would give Dorsey and company the leeway to spend money tactically over the course of a few seasons to acquire and maintain a nucleus of quality players, something the Browns have never accomplished in living memory.
A plan like this will make the rest of the NFL happy: no quarterback contract detonations, no leveraged free-agency buyouts, a predictable draft strategy that everyone can plan around.
Low to moderate. Dorsey and company know how impatient Browns ownership is and won’t fool themselves into thinking they have three years to implement their plan. Also, there’s so much cash in the kitty (and so few in-house veterans worth extending) that it may make more sense to be a little generous in free agency instead of saving everything for a rainy day.
The McCarron Compromise
The Browns trade for a quarterback another team holds the rights to. AJ McCarron (currently embroiled in a grievance against the Bengals to achieve unrestricted free agency) is the obvious choice, but anyone from Nick Foles to Tyrod Taylor could be in play once the trade offers start flying.
Once the Browns acquire a veteran and sign him to an affordable (by Garoppolo-Cousins standards) four-year deal, the rest of their offseason plan proceeds like the Cousins Gambit, except the Browns have fewer early draft picks but much more cap space.
Who it impacts
Potential trade partners like the Bengals, Bills or Eagles. Teams seeking rookie quarterbacks in the draft, because this scenario, like the Cousins Gambit, takes the Browns off the market.
Hue Jackson loves McCarron, and while Jackson probably has so little decision-making power these days that he needs permission to select ranch dressing over Thousand Island, Dorsey and company may be tempted to pursue a veteran quarterback who won’t cost quite as much as Cousins.
The 33rd pick in the draft should be enough to liberate McCarron and consummate the deal that turned into a bad improv routine at last season’s trade deadline. The Browns can then offer McCarron enough money to forget the whole grievance thing while still offering less than what Cousins can command. The Bengals draft an offensive tackle, and everyone is happy.
Wanna get nuts? LET’S GET NUTS. The Browns tempt the Eagles with a full bouquet of draft picks for Foles: the 33rd, the 64th, a 2019 first-rounder, etc. Foles, under contract for 2018, signs an extension that, again, is cheaper than a Cousins deal. The cap-tight Eagles submerge Carson Wentz’s knee in a healing mineral spring and use the extra picks to compensate for free-agent defections. The Browns start 2018 with the Super Bowl MVP under center.
Or maybe the Browns grab Taylor and the 21st pick from the Bills in exchange for their fourth pick. The Bills get Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield, the Browns pair Taylor with Saquon Barkley in the backfield, and…OK, maybe we are getting too nuts.
But before you write all of these scenarios off as outlandish, remember last month’s Alex Smith trade, or the 2015 Eagles-Rams Foles trade, or any Sam Bradford trade, or any other jaw-dropping trade involving quarterbacks and draft picks in the last decade. Wild stuff happens…
But wild stuff is also very unlikely. The McCarron ship probably sailed when Jackson lost creative control to the Packers expatriates. Even if the Eagles are willing to trade Foles (a gigantic "if"), the Browns are better off just squirting Cousins with the money hose, because the draft picks are worth more to them than dough right now.
No matter what the Browns decide to do with the contents of their treasure chest, it will almost certainly affect the plans and budgets of multiple teams and shake up the balance of power around the league. Even the Browns themselves could emerge as winners, which would make this one of the most revolutionary offseasons in history.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.
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February 15, 2018 at 04:07AM