As the NFL Combine gets ready to start in Indianapolis this week, the Cleveland Browns and the rest of the NFL will have their top front office members on hand to evaluate top talent for the upcoming draft.
For the Browns, the 2016 NFL Draft will once again be the “beginning of a new era,” so to speak, as the team ushers in yet another new coaching staff and front office. As we pointed out in the first article in this series, Jimmy Haslam and company blew things up yet again—but actually landed arguably the best offensive mind and head coach on the open market in Hue Jackson.
Now, we do not need to go into details (you can read the first article if you want those) about all of the hires again in this article—but there is an old NFL adage that comes with new regimes. That adage is simple, as most want “their guy” at the quarterback position. So, it is only fitting that the first positional breakdown of CSZ’s “2016 State of the Cleveland Browns” is the one the team has seemingly been searching for an answer at since 1999.
Look Back to 2015
Okay, I know none of you really want to relive the 2015 NFL season for the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately to paint a complete picture of the quarterback situation—and all other positions for that matter—we will begin with a brief look back (emphasis on the brief part).
As it has been par for the course for the Browns the last three seasons, the 2015 season saw three different quarterbacks start a football game for the Orange and Brown. After a tumultuous end to the 2014 season followed by a Johnny Manziel stint in rehab, the organization was forced to hit the open market and bring in veteran Josh McCown as the “stable” force at the quarterback position.
However, that did not go according to plan—as McCown would be knocked out of the team’s first game of the season during the first quarter. That injury would set a tone of sorts for the Browns season, as McCown would go on to start just eight games for the team in his first year. He finished the season completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 2,109 yards, 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His 93.3 quarterback rating was the second highest of his NFL career, and the highest for a Browns starting quarterback since Kelly Holcomb’s 96.8 rating in 2004 (only two starts).
Most Browns fans will not give McCown any credit because of his 1-7 record as a starter in 2015, but those numbers are pretty solid for a 36-year old guy who was supposed to come in and mentor a 2014 first-round draft pick.
Speaking of that 2014 first-round draft pick, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite topic—Johnny Football. Off-the-field antics aside (those come later), Manziel started six games for the Browns in 2015—compiling a 57.8 completion percentage with 1,500 yards passing, seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a quarterback rating of 79.4 in his sophomore season. Manziel also added in 230 yards rushing on 37 carries, while being sacked 19 times.
From an evaluation of football standpoint, Manziel showed signs of progression in his six starts in year two. He looked night and day more comfortable in the pocket from his frantic, running around style as a rookie—and even decided to go through progressions instead of locking on to his primary read and then running from time to time. Unfortunately, Manziel’s off-the-field problems surfaced again toward the end of the year, which will likely end his time in Cleveland when the new league year starts in March.
The final quarterback to see the field in 2015 was Austin Davis, who started two games for the team after oddly earning a two-year contract extension in September of 2015 after signing a one-year deal with the team earlier in the offseason. For the 2015 season, Davis completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 547 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a rating of 66.2.
At 26-years old, the Browns could do a lot worse than having a guy with starting quarterback experience in their system during the 2015 season—though the contract extension is still peculiar to this day. Nothing was impressive about what Davis did on the field, though he did have a few “flashes” of being an average No. 2 quarterback for someone.
Contract and Roster Status for 2016
Starting with McCown, he was signed by the previous regime to a three-year deal worth $14 million. Of his deal that goes through the 2017 season, $6.25 million of that was guaranteed according to Spotrac. Making up that $6.25 million guaranteed was his $2 million signing bonus, $2.25 million 2015 base salary, $1 million 2015 roster bonus and $1 million of his 2016 base salary.
With a base salary of $4.375 million for 2016 and $3.625 million for 2017, McCown’s future in Cleveland is not exactly guaranteed at this point in time. Though he proved to be a good veteran mentor for Manziel according to reports (well, as good as he could be), the Browns could decide to eat $1 million of his remaining two years and let him go—saving $7 million in base salary and avoiding a $750,000 roster bonus in 2017 in the process.
While it would be easy to cut McCown and save just under $8 million in base salary and future roster bonus, the team could just as easily say the extra $3.375 million is worth it for this season to have a veteran in the mix who has shown the ability to start and mentor a young quarterback. They could then cut him following the 2016 season, and still save just north of $4.3 million on his contract.
Next up is the aforementioned odd contract of Davis. His two-year extension for 2016 and 2017 was for $4.05 million, with a $500,000 signing bonus and $600,000 total guaranteed. If I am reading this correctly with the $500,000 already paid, it seems like Davis is an easy candidate to be cut—given he has $250,000 roster bonuses in each of the next two seasons and just over $3 million in total base salaries. Though it is a small amount for a quarterback, the team will likely need the roster spot—especially if they decide to keep McCown around.
Finally, it is time for the complicated world of Manziel who is entering year three of his four-year, nearly fully guaranteed rookie deal. Manziel’s deal was worth $8.24 million for those four years, with $7.99 million of it guaranteed ($250,000 roster bonus for 2017 not guaranteed). The team also has a fifth-year option available should they wish to exercise it.
Now, since Manziel’s money is already paid—there are not any financial reasons to move on from the 23-year old quarterback. No, the reason why there is likely zero chance he is back with the team in 2016 is squarely on the growth of him off the field and the immaturity he has shown in his first two years with the team. Jackson is a no-nonsense type of coach, and having the centerpiece of his franchise come with as much baggage as Manziel is about as much of a deal breaker as there is.
To summarize, the Browns could have a completely brand new quarterback room in 2016—though I would not be at all shocked if McCown is still in the mix when the season opens.
Free Agency “Options”
As owner of the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, speculation has already emerged that the Browns will take the best QB available there. Before we get into a few of the draft options, there are a couple of names to watch for—both as potential starters and backups in free agency.
The three “top” names on the market could be Sam Bradford, Kirk Cousins and Brock Osweiler if they do not strike deals with their current teams before free agency. Osweiler’s situation is slightly different than the other two, as he will likely be retained once Peyton Manning decides to retire. Bradford and Cousins have both had their ups and downs, though some will make arguments (not this writer) that they are better options than anyone in this class.
In regard to the backup front if the team decides to completely clean out the QB cupboard, there are a lot of names on the list out there—but none that really stand out above the others. Possibilities are guys like Matt Flynn or Matt Moore, unless the team wants to try and bring in Chase Daniel who has been behind Drew Brees with the Saints and Alex Smith in Kansas City, or give Colt McCoy round No. 2 in Cleveland.
On second thought, McCown or Davis as the team’s backup in 2016 is looking better every time I look up and down the backup options in free agency.
NFL Draft Options
With the Manziel era near its absolute dumpster fire of an end, the Browns are finally in position to take the best overall quarterback in the class with the No. 2 pick—if they think there is a player worth the selection. The draft community is seemingly split on who that player should be, as they debate between Cal’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. Some even feel Memphis’ Paxton Lynch should still be in the conversation, but that seems to be fading at this point.
If the Browns opt out of taking a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick, two names from Big Ten country will stand out to some fans—as Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg are believed to be in play at the top of the second round. After them it is a game of system fit and raw tools, as names like Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), Cardale Jones (Ohio State) and Jacoby Brissett (N.C. State) should turn heads with their live arms and size (Jones is 6’5” and 250 pounds, while Brissett is 6’4” and 236 pounds). Those three players are going to draw intrigue in the mid-rounds of the draft, though any one of them could find their way into round two or three with solid workouts and a GM who believes he can turn them into an NFL starter.
Some seem to think someone out of the Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Brandon Doughty (Western Kentucky) and Brandon Allen (Arkansas) group could develop into a starter one day. But given where they are projected (round five or later), none of them are starter options for the Browns for the 2016 season. However, do not be surprised if one comes off the board as a potential backup or project with one of the team’s late picks—as we all know Hue loves quarterbacks.
Projection for 2016
The narrative for the quarterback position each season seemingly is that the Browns have drafted top QB after top QB for years and they have all been busts, but that just is not the case. The only time the team has selected a QB in the top tier of the draft dating back to 1999 was Tim Couch, and he was part of an expansion team that featured an offensive line in shambles and very few offensive playmakers. Basically, he was set up for failure from day one.
After Couch, the team has selected QBs in the first round but they have been far from the top tier—as Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Manziel were all selected at No. 22. This means they were passed on 21 times prior to the Browns picking, and in all three cases the Browns actually passed on them prior to eventually selecting them.
The Browns have also tried to roll the dice and get lucky in the middle rounds, drafting the likes of Colt McCoy, Charlie Frye and others attempting to catch lightning in a bottle. None of those attempts worked out either. Oh, and before you suggest they go out and sign a veteran who will change the face of the franchise—been there, done that.
Ultimately for the Browns, the time has come to take the top QB prospect in the NFL Draft with the No. 2 overall pick. The team may not be in this position to do so again, as usually that player goes No. 1 overall. For me, that player is Goff—for others it may be Wentz. Either way, it is time to finally invest in a prospect and face of the franchise. The front office knows this, the coaching staff knows this and deep down, Browns fans know this as well.
Goff is an intelligent pocket passer who goes through progressions, has more than enough arm strength to make all of the passes and has an excellent feel for the pocket. Playing behind one of the worst lines in the nation, he put up 12,195 yards, 96 touchdowns and 30 interceptions during his three-year collegiate career. He is the guy I project the Browns to take with the No. 2 overall pick, and though some say he is too “skinny” (insert Teddy Bridgewater comments here) at 6’4” and 215 pounds, ultimately he is the best passer in this class in my eyes.
No matter who ends up as the QB of the Cleveland Browns in this class, it is time for the organization to find a prospect who has his mind clearly focused on doing one thing—being a great NFL QB for a long time. This is how the Hue Jackson era in Cleveland needs to and likely will begin, and it is the only way we can all put an end to pictures of that never-ending jersey in downtown Cleveland as well.