The HBT Guide to Building an NFL Team

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.

Other 2017 Cleveland Browns preview articles at WFNY

  1. Or not, I really don’t care. []
  2. One of those trades also landed current starting cornerback Jamar Taylor as icing on the cake. []
  3. This trade also included sending a 2017 fourth round pick to the Texans for a 2017 sixth round pick. []
  4. $23,000,000 fully guaranteed over five years. []

  • RGB

    Tenet 5: Dumpster diving. One man’s trash is another man’s cheap serviceable replacement.

  • Pat Leonard
  • Pat Leonard

    If I learned anything writing this article, it’s that I REALLY believe Tenet #4 is a real thing now.

  • Chris

    I think (hope?) the precedents set with HBT and Schwartz/Pryor will pay dividends going forward. HBT proved that they have an ability to offer a fair-to-favorable deal for players before they hit the market. An equally important part of this precedent is that the offer seems to expire or decrease once free agency starts.

    Message: the Browns are not your safety blanket. Take the offer, or good luck.

    It’s a good precedent to set, but I hope there is wiggle room in the right situation.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi PAT … i almost asked yesterday if you were still contributing articles … you are obviously are & that’s a good thing.

    in regards to tenet 4 : we made Collins & Zeitler the highest paid players in the NFL at their respective positions.

    when Haslam brought in a new FO & coach they scoffed … when he brought in an analytics guy , they scoffed again … the HBT came in & blew the whole thing up & they were ridiculed again … then they took on Osweiler in a salary dump move you don’t see in the NFL … oh yes , they laughed even harder then … but , for the very first time since 1999 i think most Browns fans can feel the change in the air. many accused Haslam about being about the money … i always said he wants to win. i am proud of Mr. Haslam , the HBT & Hue … they are smart & cutting-edge . and considering we are sitting real nice in next year’s draft , i am looking at us challenging for an AFC North division championship & a playoff bid in 2019 … one more really good draft & FA period next year should do the trick.

    i actually think that blowing the whole thing up last year & suffering through the worst season in our history was the ballsy & smart thing the Browns have done.

  • tigersbrowns2

    I can’t help it , I’m gushing with pride … now i’m gonna start working towards my authentic NFL Kizer jersey & hope I don’t jinx the guy.

  • scripty

    “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.”

    There’s some pretty clear evidence out there that more rushes are coming over the guards. DC’s realized with the increased # of 3-step drops that blitzing over the guards has a higher rate of pass disruption – therefore having weaker guards has becomre more of a liability. I won’t say that’s lessened the cost of tackles but it has increased the pressure on guard play.

  • scripty

    True fact, dumpster diving results in less than half of 1 percent of bank fraud. 90%+ is from family members.

  • scripty

    I only recognize Toledo as a part of OH in purely legal terms.

  • tigersbrowns2


  • scripty

    Teams and agents have substantial time to determine the market and work in good faith prior to free agency. If the pressure of the start of free agency, (yes a man-made artificial deadline but still an actual market factor) doesn’t drive the two sides to a deal, there’s no point in working forward.

  • Pat Leonard

    I’m actually not a regular writer anymore, and I apologize for not having communicated that to the commentariat yet. It was a huge privilege being allowed to write for this site that I love, and I don’t take that for granted, but I found out some things about myself in the process. The two main things are that I hate writing on a schedule and that I’m an incredibly slow writer. It would take me hours to get my progress reports to a point where I was okay with posting them. I learned that what I love is reading other people’s ideas and then sparking my own thoughts from that, which I can express clearly and succinctly in under 300 words 🙂 I’ll always be around here in the comment section, and I do love that Scott, Andrew, Craig, Bode, Josh, and the crew allow me to submit articles when I have an idea. They also haven’t realized that I still have my mod privileges, so I am going to try to be more active in making sure the comment section is moderated.

  • tigersbrowns2

    you’re a good man & i’m glad you’re here.

  • Pat Leonard

    Well said, sir.

  • woofersus

    Belichick’s dirty secret has always been that he’s an analytics guy. Think about it, the signs have all been there from the beginning. The impersonal, disciplined approach, the employment of a strategist who isn’t strictly a football guy, the proprietary evaluation systems, the heavy emphasis on developing processes… (I remember Art Model saying he was impressed that Belichick came to his interview with a blueprint already developed for building the team and a huge notebook in tow with all the details) I guarantee you Adams is feeding him scenario-based probabilities during games.

  • mgbode

    “Haven’t realized” or “trust in your usage” – whichever terminology you prefer good sir

  • mgbode

    He was also an economics major with a background in statistics and game theory.

  • scripty

    “i actually think that blowing the whole thing up last year & suffering through the worst season in our history was the ballsy & smartest thing the Browns have done.”

    I’ve been chewing on this for a bit. It’s up there. I think it may have been more of a necessity than a ballsy move.

    I’d say ballsiest moves
    1A – Firing Paul Brown
    1B – Acquiring 1# pick in supplemental draft to be used on Kosar with curious undefined legality of move
    3 – Filling mid-80s roster with USFL players when consensus on their skill level was undefined

  • scripty

    He wisely uses it as a tool and not a mantra, but I would also note cap management as a non-analytics move in the traditional sense.

  • tigersbrowns2

    1A – just plain stupid (thanks Art !)
    1B – this was smart & ballsy
    3 – this was risky & ballsy

    every new regime we’ve had since 1999 came in & tried to work with what was already here & never got it right and / or they weren’t given enough time to execute a plan.

  • scripty

    Jim Brown was probably going to sit out/retire, along with a few other veterans had they not canned PB at that point. He’d become intractable and Forrest Gregg helped Brown set the rushing record that next year with new rushing system they implemented. They also won a title without PB so it wasnt the worst. If anything, perhaps there was a chance he could have worked on the relationship but it was pretty bad between PB and the players at that time, and PB was not having it.

  • MartyDaVille

    In 1835-36, Michigan and Ohio engaged in a nasty border “war” over disputed territory that included Toledo. As the old joke goes, Ohio lost.

  • woofersus

    I don’t know if I really understand the distinction there. If people had known before he was “Bill Belichick the legend” that he was using quantitative analysis to develop strategies for making decisions about football matters, he would have been laughed at and mocked in much the same way the early baseball pioneers were, with defensive old-schoolers joking about spreadsheets telling him what to do. Hell, if he put all of that stuff out there right now people would still say “yeah, but it wouldn’t work if he wasn’t a master talent evaluator,” because they think that’s where the real magic HAS to lie. (and yet, the Patriots made more draft picks than anybody else over the last 10 years, because they know there’s no such thing as a talent oracle – just like what the HBT is saying)

    The whole point of analytics is to find a structured way to allow for constant improvement in your decision making process. Stubbornly sticking to what you think you know is the opposite. What Belichick has been doing is exactly what the nerd revolution in MLB was all about.

  • woofersus

    Identity theft too. People are freaked about being hacked, but it’s usually somebody you know.

  • scripty

    Okay, I absolutely agree on the quantity of picks aspect, as that is a strategic decision that is based that over time all GMs fall in a very standard range of hit/fail on draft picks. Using the second piece of that to drive the decision to get more picks (sometimes by trading veterans and other times by trading down) is analytics.

    I just see “we can afford four 2nd round picks for an aging defensive lineman” as a blatantly obvious personnel strategy given all picks have universal standards – their contracts – that will either (A) – fit under your cap or (B) won’t fit in your cap. But, I guess there’s a whole subset of cap managment that perhaps I don’t know. I’d love to learn more on it. But this said, our small differences on this isn’t a hill I feel is ncessary to die upon.

    Long-term strategic thinking is the link across both though.

  • tsm

    It was Blanton Collier not Gregg who followed PB as coach.

  • scripty

    my memory is a little hazy cassius

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  • woofersus

    Fair enough. I suppose there’s a fine line between “disciplined” and “inflexible.” Interestingly enough, cap management seems to be the one area many teams have allowed analytics to take hold, I guess because it already involves math, lol.