April 19, 2014

Follow the Lions Model

I like Tom Heckert. The second-year Browns GM is attempting to essentially build a team from scratch, thanks to years of botched drafts from the Phil Savage/Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini: head decision maker eras.

Flush with money to spend after this summer’s lockout ended, Heckert decided to stand pat, only spending a little of the cap space to plug a few holes on the likes of nickel corner Dimitri Patterson, spotty Safety Usama Young, and the since-injured third-down back Brandon Jackson. The Browns have a plan – play the young kids, develop from within, and don’t waste money on past their prime “name” free agents.

The plan will only work if Heckert hits on his early round draft picks and finds late-round steals. I know this sounds obvious, but its imperative that the Browns stay the course with this.  It’s even more imperative that Heckert’s eye for talent comes through. Savage was brought in because of his supposed scouting genius. As it turned out, neither his talent evaluations nor his GM abilities translated to wins on the field.

Who could forget Savage getting rooked by his old boss Ozzie Newsome and his Baltimore Ravens when he traded down a couple of slots so the Ravens could come up and get their man. (Who does that in the division?) That player turned out to be perennial All-Pro DT Haloti Ngata, who is generally viewed as the best in the league at his position. The Browns took OLB Kamerion Wimbley at #13 and tried to convert him into a 3-4 outside linebacker. Other than one good year, Wimbley flopped in Cleveland, but has found a home in Oakland. The Browns dumped him for a third round draft pick two years ago. His “steal” of that same draft, WR Travis Wilson (3rd round, #78) played a whole four games in his NFL career, catching two passes for 32 yards.

It was one of many swing and misses that have put the Browns in a perpetual rebuilding mode year in and year out.

Braylon Edwards was taken third overall by Savage in 2005. A future first round pick was traded for the rights to Brady Quinn in 2007. True, Joe Thomas was a home run at #3 overall in  that 2007 draft, but the Quinn trade the Browns short-handed for 2008. Ah, 2008. Who can forget the Browns not having a pick until the fourth round where they proceeded to take LB Beau Bell and then traded a future third rounder to take TE Martin “stone hands” Rucker.

In the one year of Eric Mangini: master of all he surveyed, the Browns traded down twice and allowed two teams (Tampa Bay and the New York Jets) to use those trades to draft their QB’s of the future (the solid Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez who has led his team to back to back AFC title games). Mangini went the Belichickean way – picking up extra picks. He positioned himself with three second round picks. Two of them were the great reach of all reaches David Veikune (#52) and Brian Robiske (#36), who was recently demoted, a move that was long overdue. It would shock nobody if Robiske was cut at some point this season.

I know, nobody wants to recount the history. But there is a method to my madness.

The current flavor of the month team in the NFL is the Detroit Lions. The best thing that happened to this organization was the end of the Matt Millen era. He drafted one first round bust (Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers) after another (Mike Williams, Ernie Sims). But on his way out, he took WR Calvin Johnson, aka “Megatron,” #2 overall in 2007. Johnson has emerged to become the best receiver in the league, an absolute beast that cannot be guarded. (SIDE NOTE – this has me thinking, if A.J. Green would have been there for the Browns this past April, would they have still made that deal with Atlanta? Green looks as advertised thus far for the Bengals teaming with fellow rookie QB Andy Dalton). QB Matthew Stafford (2009) and DT N’damakong Suh (2010) were taken overall #1 back to back for the Lions and have been great. This is Stafford’s third year and when he has stayed healthy, he has looked like the real deal.

Along with Johnson, Stafford has another draftee that has become his security blanket over the middle, fellow first rounder TE Brandon Pettigrew (2009, #20). Did you enjoy that 88 yard speed blast TD in the Lions Monday night win over the Bears? That was none other than Jahvid Best, Detroit’s other 201o first round pick (#30). The heart and soul of the D, their leader in the secondary Louis Delmas? Another second round pick from 2009 (#33).

As bad as the Lions were, the one reward was the high draft picks. They managed to hit on just about all of them, something that is almost unprecedented in the NFL these days.

The Heckert/Mike Holmgren drafting stretch has been just two years and has paid some nice dividends on the field. The 2010 draft delivered future Pro Bowl CB Joe Haden, solid starting safety T.J. Ward, RB Montario Hardesty, starting QB Colt McCoy, and right guard Shawn Lauvao. This year’s version produced DT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard, who have both had their moments through the first four games. WR Greg Little has the look of the big play receiver the Browns have lacked and has moved into the starting lineup alongside Mohammad Massaquoi. Fifth rounder Jason Pinkston has been an unexpected surprise at left guard, taking over for the injured Eric Steinbach. CB Buster Skreen has shown he can be used in the dime package and in the return game.

The real big chip may come into play next year when Heckert will have two first round picks, acquiring the Falcons pick, who traded up to take WR Julio Jones.

I never thought I’d be writing the following sentence, but the Browns must go the way of the Detroit Lions. If they do and they continue to hit on draft picks, they will finally be able to compete with the Pittsburgh’s and Baltimore’s of the world in the very tough AFC North. Failure to do so will only set them back even further and make an angry fan base the worse thing it can be; apathetic.

  • mgbode

    “Mark Sanchez who has led his team to back to back AFC title games”

    ok, you knew you weren’t going to get away with that one. the same Mark Sanchez who had a worse QB rating than Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson that year. The same Mark Sanchez that has not progressed in his time with the Jets. The same Mark Sanchez that has looked so bad this season that Rex Ryan has completely changed his offense to go back to featuring more Shonn Greene (who has also not looked great). All of this while having a solid OL, decent to good WRs, and a great defense to back him up.

    The one thing Mangini did well in that draft was NOT drafting Mark Sanchez. I would rather have Alex Mack (10+ year OC) than Sanchez. If we had drafted Mark, then he would be labeled a complete bust by now and we’d be either figuring out how to replace him or we would have already drafted his replacement.

  • mgbode

    sorry for that first comment, but it needed to be said.

    outside of that, I completely agree with the premise of what you wrote. add in that GB under Thompson has also been a fantastic model (wherein some teams expected to be great here like NE actually are falling off in the draft recently).

    hopefully, we will continue to have the drafts like the last 2 seasons that currently see 11 of 16 draft picks playing a significant role (and no clear busts from any pick higher than a 4th round pick)

  • TSR3000

    The premise here is incredibly obvious. Draft awesome players.

    Easier said than done. Not only do you have to have high draft picks, guys like Calvin, Stafford and Suh have to be sitting there when you draft.

  • Nullster

    Hey hate on the Mangini 2008 draft all you want (and I agree there’s plenty to hate one), but Alex Mack was a steal of the 2008 draft if you ask me. Go look at the top 15 picks from 2008 … talk about a dog of a draft. We did pretty well getting Mack instead of having to draft up there instead.

    Now we didn’t capitalize on the picks we go for moving down in the draft but that again is a completely different story.

  • Ben

    Signs that you have hit rock bottom:

    Follow the Lions model.

  • DonFelder

    I definitely respect the plan, but I’m not sure I understand applying it across the board.

    I know it’s been beat to death. But I haven’t gotten a satisfactoryWould it have really killed us to get a vet, proven decent receiver (no, not TO… Evans, Rice, Breaston), even if we “overpaid” a bit, just to aid us in evaluating Colt McCoy?

    I was sold on the kid last year. This year, even the most staunch supporter would say he’s been “inconsistent,” to say the least. But it’s really hard to tell if part of that is the lack of competent help given that we’ve switched to a pass-first, supposed “west coast” offense.

  • DonFelder

    Whoops, mistaken enter key there. I was trying to finish by saying I haven’t gotten a satisfactory explanation as to how we can fully evaluate Colt without any help around him?

  • stin4u

    Heckert has been invaluable so far and will continue to be so in the future. Everything starts from the top and he’s been the right guy from the start. I’m hoping he continues the trend of picking impact players and not just names.

    BTW, Matt Millen may be a worse commentator than he was a GM. I don’t understand how the guy continues to get gigs.

  • Ghost To Most

    The Lions started 6-2 in 2007, lost 7 of their last 8 and then went 0-16 the following year.

    I agree the Browns best bet is to build through the draft, but I wouldn’t crown the Lions just yet. Nor would I suggest that the Browns follow their model, or follow anything else of theirs for that matter. They haven’t had a winning season since 2000.

  • Boomhauertjs

    This Browns fan has already become apathetic.

  • architrance

    Former/Recovering Browns Fan – Apathetic since 2002.

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Skreen!

  • NJ

    Step 1: Suck
    Step 2: Get good
    Step 3: Profit

    @1 – A-freakin’-men! Sanchez has been at best fair on teams infinitely more talented than any the Browns have had over the last three years.

    Mangini made the right play by trading down. He just screwed up the picks. I’m a Mangini fan who was well aware of his shortcomings. Still, it amazes that his detractors refuse to give him any credit for the good moves he made and Mack-over-Sanchez has to be at the top of that list.

  • stin4u

    @NJ – A blind squirrel my friend… A la Millen with Megatron, Savage with Joe Thomas. All these guys find at least one keeper. It’s what they do with the rest of the picks. I agree though, Sanchez isn’t a great QB and I wouldn’t have wanted him here.

  • NJ

    Which is beside the point. Dismiss it how you want, but Mangini made the right move in that situation. That’s all I’m saying.

  • Jack

    The big difference, of course, being that Detroit was picking 2, 1, and 1. Whereas the Browns continue to win just enough games to put themselves out of the “can’t miss” territory. Honestly, it seems like EVERY year the Browns pick one spot shy of the # of can’t miss players available.

    I don’t blame them for trading down. Sanchez is not good. Julio Jones is not the answer.

    People calling for marginal improvement are short-sighted.

    FLOP. Please. You HAVE to.

    Isn’t anyone as despaired as I am that we don’t have a franchise QB ANYWHERE in our sights???

    I would have gladly taken 0-16 this year. THAT’s where the Lions were smart. Not winning random games at the end of the season that are MEANINGLESS. If you are not looking to sign free agents, they really are meaningless. In fact, they are a net negative.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com BAJ22

    The true and amazing talent of H&H is that they are able to find great players w/o being in the top one or two of the draft.

    It is difficult, however, to know whether these players will lead to future wins. That is the bottom line. Right now, they look good and are playing, but they have not gotten many wins…yet.

    Unfortunately we’ll all have to wait and be patient. The returns should start to payoff in wins in 2013 or 2014.

    Next year will be another important draft with 2 in the first round. Give them a year or two to develop and the wins should follow.

    As good as H&H have been, it still takes years to build a good team through the draft.

  • Jackson

    We need to start using our high picks to draft high-end players. The “Belichkian” model of trading works if you are a team like NE that already has key pieces in place and are looking to add solid/average players for depth.

    This team has 0 offsensive playmakers outside of maybe Hillis. The past few years we’ve been in position to use high picks to get potential playmakers but keep trading down to collect average guys. To win in this league, you need more than a team of average players. Hopefully, we do follow the Lion model and start using our perpetually high picks to get some difference makers.

  • BuckeyeDawg

    Calvin Johnson is the perfect example of what a true, #1, stud WR does for your offense. Take him off that team, and that offense is average at best. The rest of the WR’s on that team aren’t any better than ours. I’m not convinced that Stafford is really that good…but when you have a play called “throw the ball to Megatron” in your back pocket, it makes you look pretty good.

    If we can get an above average #1 WR, it changes our entire offense. Imagine a WR corp of Calvin Johnson, Little, MoMass, and Cribbs with Watson and Moore at TE. Are you smiling yet? I am…

    I hope H & H’s prime objective this off season is to find the next Megatron.

  • http://twitter.com/cpmack Chris M

    Sanchez has consistently had a sub 55% completion rate in his near 2.5 seasons, and Josh Freeman has looked rather pedestrian so far this year.

    Those aren’t really viable examples of the Browns getting fleeced for trading down.

    The additional picks were botched, that much is undisputed. However, all in all the entire draft class pretty much sucked.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    @ 16 (Jack). COmpletely agree with you on the actual draft pick numbers. Stafford and Suh were pretty much the consensus number one picks in their drafts. I would like to see what the Lions do when they have to pick somewhere between 8-15 (this year probably even later).

    Moving forward, I am onboard with the idea that we need to trust Heckert to build through the draft. How many more drafts will it take though? We have to have one of the 3 youngest teams in the league, if not the youngest. The depth is growing, and so I think its really time to quit the trade down method and go for the stud players in the draft.

    Its no secret this team’s biggest weakness is lack of playmakers. If we get an interception, is anyone capable of taking it to the house? Is there a lineman/linebacker that could record double-digit sacks on the D? Is there a WR we can just throw a jump ball to that will consistently come down with it? Do we have a deadly accurate QB who makes everyone else that much better? We need some of these players intermingled in with the talent we have at this point.

  • mgbode

    @21- we technically have the 8th youngest team according to our 53man roster. but, I imagine it gets bumped up more if you only factor in starters.

    http://espn.go.com/blog/nfcwest/post/_/id/44505/2011-nfl-team-age-ranks-at-53-man-cuts

    @19 – Stafford would like to present the past 2 years of the Arizona Cardinals (w/ Fitz) as evidence that his QB play has more to do than Calvin Johnson.

    @18 – the Belichickean model isn’t working for NE lately either. They have not drafted well in recent years.

    @17 – you speak the truth.

  • paulbip

    Nice dividends????? Ward can’t cover. Hardesty can’t catch. McCoy can’t throw long.
    Pinkston can’t block and will bust. Lauvao is shaky at best. Too early to tell on the rest.

  • mgbode

    but not too early on those 5?

  • NJ

    @22- Agreed that the Belichick Model doesn’t seem to be working any more.

    I remember when many-a talking head applauded the Pats for not giving Richard Seymour a new contract. “Stockpile them picks! The Pats keep getting better!” Yadda, yadda.

    Then the Ravens ran ALL OVER them in the playoffs. Sheesh! Probably could have used somebody stout there in the middle, right Bill?

  • mgbode

    @NJ – great point on Seymour.

  • Shamrock

    The Browns can’t afford to draft like the past one otherwise it’ll take forever to rebuild. They could also spend something on free agents. There were guys out there who would have helped.

  • -bobby-

    As much as a stud receiver may make your QB look great (like Megatron, possibly Andre/Schaub in Houston), I think the right system and QB and make WRs look great also (Manning, Brady, Brees, etc- I leave out Rodgers because he has some great WRs, and hes pretty great too). I think mega-WRs are overrated, and that your QB really needs to just be great- if your building for a SB. Teams can gameplan WRs out, or limit effectiveness of them. Its much harder to gameplan against Manning or Brady in the playoffs.

    Also, Lets do this the “Browns” way instead of trying to mimic all these other teams. Heckert had his way in Philly, Holmgren had his ways in the past, take the best from each and get a contender on the field.

  • mgbode

    “The Browns can’t afford to draft like the past one otherwise it’ll take forever to rebuild.”

    what? Taylor is proving to be a great pick, I’m mixed on Sheard but he has promise, and Little looks like our best WR (he has to prove it still). Plus, we picked up a 1st round 2012 pick.

    Even discounting 3rd and below (which we have starters from), that was a great draft.