When uttered together a few months ago, the team name “Cleveland Browns” and word “Analytics” sent shockwaves throughout the NFL. Since then, hundreds of articles have been written and hundreds of television and radio interviews have been conducted—but nobody has definitively been able to explain just how analytics are going to be utilized to rebuild the Cleveland Browns.
Even when the team let veterans Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson, Travis Benjamin, Craig Robertson and Johnson Bademosi walk in free agency, the new Browns front office did not come out and confirm “this was analytics in action.” Not even after they followed letting those players walk by cutting Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner a few weeks later, did they offer any tie-in to what they were doing with analytics.
When the front office did not offer any explanation that tied to analytics, the media continued to speculate. “Here comes more Moneyball” was a phrase uttered more times than I care to hear ever again. Though many of those uttering the phrase probably could not tell you more than what they saw in the movie featuring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in regard to exactly what Moneyball really is.
So here we are less than a week after the 2016 NFL Draft, and I think we finally got a glimpse of how analytics are going to be used to rebuild the Cleveland Browns.
No, I am not just talking about SPARQ and drafting productive, collegiate athletes—though that is part of the equation. To me, the way the Browns are going to utilize analytics is taking a look at where these veteran players were found in the draft before, their production at the NFL level and evaluate the amount of money they will have to give them to keep them from leaving in free agency. Then they will compare that value and amount of money potentially given out to the “replaceability” level these players have with other players, either through the draft or free agency.
For those of you who do pay attention to baseball, it is similar to Wins Above Replacement, which is more commonly known as WAR. WAR is defined by Fangraphs as, “…an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic.” Fangraphs goes on to provide an example, “…If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?”
Now, I am not going to create some advanced statistic for everyone that will suddenly explain all of the Browns moves. Nor do I know if that is actually true, but when you look at how the team addressed replacing those players they let walk in free agency, it starts to make sense.
Let’s begin with Schwartz, who signed a five-year deal worth $33 million with the Chiefs ($20.7 million guaranteed).
When the Browns let Schwartz walk in free agency, many (including this writer) were confused in regard to what they were doing. After years of dealing with “growing pains” Schwartz, the 2015 season was one in which fans finally got to see him grow into the player the organization drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Cal. At just 26-years old (turning 27 in June), it seemed like a given to retain a guy some media pundits have dubbed as the top right tackle in the league for just over $6 million a year. The move just did not make sense, until now.
In the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft with pick No. 76, the Browns selected Shon Coleman out of Auburn. Then in the fifth round with pick No. 168, the Browns selected Spencer Drango out of Baylor. Many fans do not have a clue who either of these players are, but to be fair—not many knew who Schwartz was coming out of Cal in 2012 when the Browns gave him a four-year deal worth just north of $5 million after selecting him No. 37 overall.
When you look back to the 2015 NFL Draft, the investment made in the No. 76 overall pick (Chris Conley, Kansas City Chiefs) was a four-year deal worth $3.1 million with just over $700,000 guaranteed. The investment in the No. 168 pick (Michael Burton, Detroit Lions) was a four-year deal worth $2.4 million with just under $200,000 guaranteed.
If the numbers are similar for those in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Browns just added two potential right tackle candidates to replace Schwartz for around a combined total of $5.5 million over four years with not even $1 million guaranteed. When you compare that to the $33 million with $20 million guaranteed given to Schwartz by the Chiefs, this is where you start to see analytics in action for the Cleveland Browns.
Sure, Schwartz is a better player right now than Coleman and Drango are. But you probably would not have been willing to say that a year ago today, and that is the point here.
The Browns new front office and coaching staff feels they will be able to mold one of these two rookies into a level of replicability for a combined investment of just under $28 million less. And we are not talking about replacing Schwartz with two seventh-round picks either, Coleman was taken less than 40 picks after Schwartz was in the draft and is a very talented blocker when you turn on the film, who already has shown more aggression than Schwartz did in his collegiate career.
Another position this mentality was used on in a big way was at wide receiver, where the team let Benjamin (a player we were talking about cutting prior to the 2015 season) leave for San Diego on a four-year deal worth $24 million with $13 million guaranteed.
So how did the Browns use that money to add receivers to their roster? Let’s start with a much more dynamic player in Corey Coleman, taken with the No. 15 overall pick. Last year, Melvin Gordon went No. 15 overall and received a four-year deal worth $10.6 million which was fully guaranteed.
After selecting Coleman, the Browns drafted three more wide receivers. You can find their names, pick number and the salary of last year’s pick in the same position below.
Ricardo Louis, No. 114: Last year’s pick was Jamil Douglas of Miami, four-year deal worth $2.7 million and $518,565 guaranteed.
Jordan Payton, No. 154: Last year’s pick was Tyeler Davison of New Orleans, four-year deal worth $2.4 million and $217,225 guaranteed.
Rashard Higgins, No. 172: Last year’s pick was D.J. Alexander of Kansas City, four-year deal worth $2.4 million and $166,254 guaranteed.
What does all of this mean? For the $24 million and $13 million guaranteed the Chargers just gave to Benjamin—a former fourth-round draft pick who never had more than 18 catches in a season prior to last year—the Browns got four wide receivers to completely rebuild their depleted wide receivers corps.
For those of you who wanted to dish out all of that money for Benjamin because of one season, let’s think about this for a second in terms of production. In four years with the Miami Hurricanes, Benjamin caught 131 passes for 2,146 yards and 13 touchdowns. In four years in Cleveland, Benjamin caught 109 passes for 1,683 yards and 10 touchdowns (68 of those catches for 966 yards and five touchdowns in 2015).
How did those four receivers the Browns just drafted with his money fare in college?
Coleman: 173 catches, 3,009 yards, 33 touchdowns
Louis: 98 catches, 1,338 yards, 8 touchdowns
Payton: 201 catches, 2,701 yards, 14 touchdowns
Higgins: 238 catches, 3,648 yards, 31 touchdowns
To do the math for everyone out there, the Browns just added 710 receptions, 10,696 yards and 86 touchdowns in college for the same amount of money given for a guy with a collegiate line of 131-2,146-13.
To take this further, one could argue that every single player the Browns just added to their roster is more polished of a receiver than Benjamin was coming out—in fact, I will be the person to say that every single one of them is better now than Benjamin was coming out of Miami.
By now I think you get the point.
While many thought the Browns were just being cheap and letting veteran players walk in the name of analytics, it is a more calculated action than that. As you can see with Schwartz, they have the opportunity to have one of two players they invested $28 million less in emerge as just as good of a player—if not better—than Schwartz was early in his career. And with Benjamin’s $24 million, they just added four receivers who were more productive and are more polished. Oh, and they are only paying those four receivers a total of just over $18.1 million over four years with under $12 million guaranteed.
When you look at the overall plan of analytics in action, it is easy to see what the front office is doing. It is not just about the roster getting younger and letting veterans walk for big money because you do not want to pay that player.
It is about determining a level of replicability with these players by studying their film and factoring in the cost, and if the team feels they can replace that production with cheaper, younger players—they will. But also, the realization of a player’s value is just as important, because there will come a time when this front office hopefully has highly productive players who are worth their value on the open market—and they will pay accordingly.
This use of analytics will not go over well with a fanbase that wants to remain loyal to an aging, non-productive player, but it should excite a fanbase that wants to build a long-term winner. The Browns are assembling a roster of players with a history of production at the collegiate level to replace those they let walk out the door, and their hope is the coaching staff can get that same production out of them at the NFL level.
No, this isn’t a group of nerds who are running around to prove to the “football people” that their way has been wrong. It is a group of intelligent individuals utilizing both football and analytics to calculate player value and build what will hopefully be a sustainable roster and eventual winner for years—and that is something to truly get excited about.