Cleveland Browns training camp has officially ended, the preseason is in full swing, and everybody has their eyes set on the players who will don the Orange and Brown in 2017. What about the guys who have been busy molding this team into its current form? What have they been doing?
There hasn’t been a lot of chatter recently about the guys I have affectionately nicknamed the “Harvard Brain Trust” or “HBT” for short. Executive Vice President of Football Operations Sashi Brown, Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, and Vice President of Player Personnel Andrew Berry have all been relatively quiet over the past several months, giving only a handful of interviews. However, in spite of the lack of public appearances, there is a decent picture of this group’s intentions based on the moves they have made to date.
Submitted for your approval;1 The HBT Guide to Building an NFL Team.
Tenet 1: Acquire Draft Picks
When Sashi Brown took over for Ray Farmer on January 3, 2016, he immediately made it clear that the team wanted to acquire draft picks, especially in the earlier rounds. Draft picks are seen as a valuable commodity. As Brown put it to 92.3 The Fan:
We don’t want to get into a habit of turning 2 picks into 1… we just don’t think that is a good way to do business over time…It does not mean that if there is a player there we might not go take a shot. We think we are positioned to be able to do that without impacting our draft much.
Brown is also not afraid to use a draft pick to trade for a talented player if that player is a building block for the future. During the 2016 season, Bill Belichick was willing to part with linebacker Jamie Collins for a conditional draft pick, and Brown jumped at the chance. He later locked up Collins on a four year deal. However, most of the transactions were done in the opposite direction, trading players for draft picks.
Brown traded down from the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft to the eighth pick and added a 2016 third round pick, a 2016 4th round pick, a 2017 second round pick, and a conditional 2017 fourth round pick in the process. He then traded the eight overall pick and a sixth round pick to move back to the 15th overall pick, and he added another 2016 third round pick and 2017 second round pick to the pile. By the time he was done, Brown had 14 picks in the 2016 NFL Draft and obtained two additional picks in the 2017 NFL Draft.2
Sashi Brown continued to wheel and deal in 2016 trading former first round pick Barkevious Mingo to the New England Patriots for a 2017 fifth round pick, Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee to the Carolina Panthers for a 2018 fourth round pick, and former first round pick Justin Gilbert to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2018 sixth round pick. If the HBT didn’t see a player as a contributor to the long-term success of the Browns, that player was shipped out for a draft pick.
So far we have seen more of the same in 2017, but at a slower pace. Having the most salary cap space in the NFL, Sashi Brown conducted an NBA-style trade where the Browns agreed to absorb the massive $16,000,000 contract of Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler in exchange for a second round draft pick in 2018.3
In the 2017 NFL Draft, the HBT traded away the 12th overall pick to move down to the 25th pick and net a 2018 first round pick. They did spend a fourth round pick to move up four spots to select tight end David Njoku in the first round, but we have already seen that the HBT values picks on the first and second day of the draft much more than picks on the third day of the draft.
The current tally for the Harvard Brain Trust is two draft picks traded away and ten draft picks added. As Paul DePodesta told the MMQB’s Peter King:
We’ve looked ourselves in the mirror and said, ‘Do we think that we are actually superhuman when it comes to picking players?’ And we pretty easily answered that with a resounding no. So how are we going to increase our chances? We need to have more picks. So, if we have the same number of picks every year as everyone else, we don’t expect do better than anyone else.
Tenet 2: Free Agency Is for Suckers, Except When It’s Not
The Cleveland Browns have a truckload of cap space right now, currently estimated at about $52,000,000. The Browns needed a lot of upgrades over last year’s roster, but you’re not going to see Sashi Brown go out and blow that cap space on any old veteran. That is not how this team will be built. Brown spent major draft capital on a handful of players who need to be allowed to grow on the field in a starting role to achieve their true potential. However, that will not prevent him from strategically acquiring free agents at positions of need depending on whether he feels those players are undervalued in the market.
Brown spent more money than any team has ever spent on an interior offensive lineman to sign guard Kevin Zeitler4 He also signed center J.C. Tretter to a guaranteed $6,500,000 over three years. Finally, Brown signed guard Joel Bitonio to a huge extension of $17,164,777 fully guaranteed.
These signings lead me to believe that the HBT believes they have found an efficiency in the market on which they intend to capitalize. Of all of the offensive line positions, tackles have historically received the largest salaries with interior linemen receiving substantially less. However, you could also make a case that the best defensive players are lining up all over the line of scrimmage these days. If your team’s offensive line has a weak spot, defensive coordinators are willing to move their best players to take advantage of your weakness. It’s no longer one team’s best pass rusher against the other team’s blind side blocker. In 2017, it’s the team’s best pass rusher against the biggest chump on the other team’s offensive line, and you’d better make sure that position gets a lot of help. Centers and guards need to be able to hold their own against the J.J. Watts of the world, and the HBT recognizes that.
Tenet 3: Take a Lesson from the Master
Like it or not, Bill Belichick is the modern day epitome of head coaches. His New England Patriots are almost always near the top of the AFC. It would make sense if Sashi Brown is attempting to copy some of the things that the Patriots do.
One possible move would be to add a strategist to the front office. Ernie Adams has been the Football Research Director for the Patriots since 2ooo, right at the beginning of their success. However, he has been with Belichick longer than that. Their relationship goes back to Belichick’s days as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, at a time when Art Modell famously quipped, “I’ll pay anyone here $10,000 if they can tell me what Ernie Adams does.” His role with the Patriots is largely a mystery, and Belichick likes it that way. As uncovered by the Boston Globe:
Adams works up to 100 hours per week during the season. He studies film, devours statistics, reports on trends, and develops strategies on 2-point conversions, fourth-down attempts, and timeout preservations. He runs the vaunted Patriot “value chart,’’ helping Belichick on personnel decisions regarding free agents, trades, and the draft. He appears to be the voice inside Belichick’s head for 60 minutes every Sunday, but no one will say for sure.
It just so happens that Sashi Brown hire a Chief Strategy Officer named Paul DePodesta, and I think it’s safe to assume that DePodesta does a lot of similar things for the Browns when they’re off the field. Although he originally applied his gifts to the world of baseball, DePodesta’s talent for finding efficiencies is not limited to one sport. Some of the same concepts can likely be applied directly or indirectly to the world of football. Processes can always be streamlined and revamped to perform better. I honestly can’t find anything online or in print that would tell me exactly what DePodesta does, and in that way his role seems to be extremely similar to that of Adams. Sashi Brown seems to have borrowed this key lesson from the master.
Tenet 4: Don’t Overpay for Your Own Players
This one has a knack for getting Browns fans extremely riled up. The HBT is not willing to pay above market price to keep their own unrestricted free agents. Two perfect examples of this tenet can be found in the negotiations between former Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz and former Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor.
In the offseason after the 2015 season, Mitchell Schwartz was widely viewed as the top right tackle with the potential of hitting the free agent market, and his agent surely knew this. The HBT weighed his performance, weighed the market, and reportedly came up with an offer of $7,500,000 per year to keep Schwartz in Cleveland and off the free agent market. Schwartz decided that he wanted to test the waters to see how he was valued by other teams, and he turned down the Browns’ initial offer. After looking around, the best Schwartz could find was a $7,000,000 per year offer from the Kansas City Chiefs. He was looking for the Browns to do better, but at that point the HBT didn’t have the same offer for Schwartz.
It’s a matter of speculation as to why the Browns didn’t offer him as much when he came back around. Sashi Brown is on the record saying that the offer wasn’t pulled, but the end result seems to be Mitchell Schwartz taking a deal that is less valuable than the one that the Browns supposedly offered him at the beginning. I believe the HBT doesn’t want to be in the habit of paying more than market value for their own players. If you have players who are scheduled to enter free agency, you want those players to sign with your team. You don’t want them testing the market to see what they can get because that just increases the possibility of those players leaving. I believe the HBT wants to give a fair offer to a player, and if that player rejects the initial offer, then the offer is going to drop. There’s a premium for loyalty.
So far, this strategy has caused some headaches for Browns fans. The HBT seemed to apply similar logic to Terrelle Pryor’s free agency, and they ended up losing him to the Washington Redskins even though the Browns’ initial offer may have been the best. The offer was reportedly lowered when Pryor came back to the Browns after perusing the market.
We’ll see if the HBT continues to use this same strategy moving forward. Some players, like Joel Bitonio, have already signed extensions and may have been happy to accept the premium offered to loyal players. Other players may be completely turned off by this ploy.
Regardless of how you may feel about the success of the HBT up to this point, I think it’s pretty clear as outlined by the four tenets above that they have a plan and they are sticking to that plan. Maybe this is what gives me such assurance of the future success of the Browns. The members of the front office aren’t doing something one week and then doing something completely different the next week. The HBT has obviously put a lot of careful consideration into how they want to build this team, and I love it when a plan comes together.