It’s bad enough that the Browns are 0–10. It’s even worse that they are 1–25 over the past two seasons and 2–[insert large number] over however far back you care to torture yourself by thinking about. What makes it even worse is the fact that the Browns entered this season with one goal more critical than winning games. Cleveland was supposed to figure out how many of the young players on their roster would be part of the foundation of their next playoff team, whenever that happens. Ten games in, they’re still figuring it out.
The Browns have five draft picks in the first two rounds next season and as many as 16 altogether if the conditional picks they acquired in trades work out. Add that to the 10 in 2017 and 14 in 2016, the potential is there for an entire roster overhaul that could atone for the miserable drafts that preceded them. If half of the 40 picks in those three drafts are actual NFL players, this could be a formidable team as soon as 2019. But what we have seen thus far provides more questions than answers.
Corey Coleman was the 15th overall pick in 2016, the big piece of the payoff for trading out of the second pick, which ended up being Carson Wentz. Coleman has 45 career receptions thus far, mostly due to injuries. He has caught fewer than half of the passes that were targeted for him. Aside from prodigal Josh Gordon, Coleman is the most talented receiver on the roster, but if he was on the Steelers or Bengals he wouldn’t get on the field. He may still develop, but at this point, the Browns enter the 2018 draft looking for a primary receiver.
Emmanuel Ogbah was making progress until he broke his foot Sunday. He has 9.5 sacks in his two seasons. There’s enough there to consider him part of the solution for the defensive line, but not enough to be certain he is an impact player. Carl Nassib is backing up Ogbah, so he may get a chance to make an impression the rest of this year. Shon Coleman has taken over the starting job at right tackle. He could be the long-term replacement for Joe Thomas at left tackle. For a third-round pick, that counts as a success story. The Browns are trying diligently to build a roster in which Cody Kessler never sees the field again. Cleveland drafted receivers Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Lewis, and Jordan Payton in the late rounds in 2016. They have 69 career receptions between them. Payton has already been cut. If any of these guys are getting playing time next year it’s a bad sign. If Seth DeValve is playing it means David Njoku didn’t pan out. Joe Schobert and Derrick Kindred are starting, which is not bad for fourth-round picks. Spencer Drango is filling in for Joe Thomas. Trey Caldwell has been cut.
So out of the 2016 draft, Ogbah and Shon Coleman look like long-term answers. Corey Coleman is a maybe, and Drango, Schobert, and Kindred might be role players. DeValve might be a third tight end. The over/under for total Pro Bowls for these 14 picks is two. Take the under. This means nothing happened in the 2016 draft that moves a team closer to the playoffs unless there’s a late bloomer. Even if a couple of these guys get better, will it happen before the end of their rookie contract, or will some other team benefit?
The Browns had three first round picks in 2017. Myles Garrett has only played four games, but he looks like a stud. Jabrill Peppers looked like a steal with the 25th pick, and has been a starter most of the season, but has not made the splash plays he was known for at Michigan. Njoku is still learning at tight end. Larry Ogunjobi has seen some playing time, but not enough to make a judgment. The rest of the picks from this year are still trying to find the training table. There might be something there, but we’ll have to wait to find out.
That leaves DeShone Kizer. If the Browns accomplish nothing else this season, they absolutely have to decide whether Kizer is an NFL quarterback. For most of their 16 picks next season, the Browns will (or should) simply take the best player available. They have enough holes that they will find a place for anyone who has enough talent to help. But quarterback is different. Cleveland will only draft a quarterback if they expect him to play. And by definition, if they expect the new guy to play, they don’t expect Kizer to. So if they draft a quarterback, they are declaring the 52nd pick in the 2017 draft to be a dud. They won’t carry two developmental quarterbacks more than a year, so if they bring in a new guy you can start the clock on Kizer’s time in Cleveland, and he won’t have enough on his resume to get anything of value in return.
Add to that the fact that if they draft a quarterback, it will probably be with the number one overall pick. That raises the stakes precipitously. That pick has to make a huge impact on the franchise to achieve its goals. If they draft a quarterback and he sits, even if it’s because Kizer turns into Aaron Rodgers, the opportunity cost of not optimizing the pick is enormous. On the other hand, if they draft at another position and give Kizer another year, they may miss out on the guy who…well, we know what that feels like.
Complicating all of this is the fact that the draft-eligible college guys who looked like franchise quarterbacks haven’t played up to that level this year. Sam Darnold has shown enough to merit consideration for the number one pick, but he’s made enough mistakes to put a whisper of doubt in minds. Josh Rosen and Josh Allen are still mostly potential. Behind them, there’s a bunch of guys who look like second and third round picks. With guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blaine Gabbert starting NFL games this week, and with a bunch of teams starting quarterbacks whose 30th birthday is a fading memory, it’s safe to assume that even the draft sleepers will be gone by the third round. That means that deciding not to draft a quarterback early is tantamount to deciding not to draft one at all.
Once or twice a game, Kizer will make a throw that only about eight NFL quarterbacks are capable of making. More frequently, he will make mistakes that remind you he is 21 years old, younger than many of the guys who might be drafted to replace him. Kizer’s college coach and every draft analyst said he would need some time to become an NFL quarterback. Not only did he not get that time, but he has been surrounded by personnel that gives him little chance of success. Will the mistakes go away as he matures? Is his ceiling that of a guy who can elevate a good team into something special? If it’s not, do you gamble that Darnold or Rosen or Allen is, especially when the price of that gamble is passing on Saquon Barkley or another game-changing player? Will Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson be around long enough to make any of these decisions?
If the current Cleveland rebuild is going to work, we should see some signs of it in the next year or so. Of all the draft picks they have stockpiled, enough need to make an impact in that time to form the core of a good team. If that doesn’t happen, especially at quarterback, the franchise is looking at another five years in the abyss. The choices that are made in the time will define the future of this team.