Browns hope ‘Moneyball’ approach translates to NFL

April 21, 2017

Ivy League educations, Moneyball concepts and an experimental approach to NFL roster-building are about to be put to the test.

The Cleveland Browns have embraced the unconventional philosophy and strategies advocated by former Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians scouting executive Paul DePodesta.

DePodesta is a Harvard graduate portrayed by actor Jonah Hill in the baseball film, “Moneyball,” as the A’s assistant general manager who persuaded general manager Billy Beane to buy into a reliance on analytics and financial-value based decisions to build a contender while utilizing sophisticated sabermetric principles.

Now working for the Browns as a chief strategy officer operating in tandem with coach Hue Jackson and Browns vice president Sashi Brown, a former corporate lawyer who also attended Harvard, DePodesta has been hoarding assets by stockpiling draft picks.

The Browns have plenty of ammunition in this draft with 11 selections. They acquired the Texans’ 2018 second-round draft pick for quarterback Brock Osweiler. His $72 million contract was unloaded in a classic salary dump unseen before in the NFL.

Stockpiling picks

It was a bold, revolutionary move as the Browns essentially purchased a valuable commodity, a prize draft pick, for a disappointing athlete who was treated like a depressed piece of stock. As part of the trade, the Browns gave the Texans their fourth-round draft pick this year for a sixth-round pick.

They have five picks within the first 65 selections this year, including the top overall pick, the 12th, 33rd, 52nd and 65th overall picks.

Yes, the Browns have communicated to NFL teams Osweiler is available for trade. And the Browns, who entered free agency with a league-high $102 million in salary-cap space and now have $61 million available, are willing to pay at least $10 million of his guaranteed $16 million base salary.

“When they hired Paul DePodesta, everyone wondered how that would translate into football, what their strategy would be, and we’re starting to see it unfold,” said Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles executive who teaches at Penn at the Wharton School of Business and writes for Sports Illustrated. “We’re starting to see the stockpiling of picks and the NBA, MLB concept of assets and values. We’ve yet to see it pay off with star players. They passed on (Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) Carson Wentz last year to stockpile more picks. At first blush, it looks like they passed on a potential star player who could be that player that puts them in position to be really successful.

“Teams like the Browns are comfortable taking the long view. Some teams feel that windows are constantly closing, and they’ve got to win now. I get the sense with the Browns that there’s no hesitation to play for the future. In Green Bay, we were always willing to trade down to get more picks to get more bites of the apple. I’m a fan of what they’re doing because I’m a fan of different and outside-the-box thinking. It’s a different business model.”

New-look regime

This Browns’ new-look regime is a firm believer in trading and acquiring more picks. It’s akin to how coach Jimmy Johnson operated when he was running the Dallas Cowboys. The Browns have consulted with Johnson about his ideas.

DePodesta has acknowledged that he’s learning how to apply his baseball concepts to football.

“I knew I was literally at ground zero when it came to working football knowledge,” DePodesta told reporters. “Baseball had become my world, and to leave that all behind to embark on something new and different was a little scary at first.”

Osweiler the trigger

The Browns traded the second pick in the draft last year before eventually selecting Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman after trading down again. They haven’t retained free agents like Alex Mack, Travis Benjamin, Terrelle Pryor and Mitchell Schwartz. They’ve upgraded their offensive line by signing guard Joel Bitonio to a long-term deal along with free-agent blockers Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter. They replaced Pryor with wide receiver Kenny Britt.

It was the Osweiler trade that sent shockwaves around the NFL.

“When the Browns made that trade for Osweiler, I was like a little schoolkid. I was giddy, because I thought, ‘This is Moneyball, this is really happening,’??” Brandt said. “Trading a bad contract for draft picks happens all the time in the NBA, and now it’s happening in football. It’s a unique situation because it’s rare to have future guarantees in contracts.”

Normally, an NFL franchise would give a player with such a hefty financial investment more time. The Texans had seen enough from Osweiler, who was erratic, prone to interceptions and repeatedly clashed with coach Bill O’Brien. Hence, he was shown the door.

“That was really creative,” said former Browns and Rams scout Russ Lande, the Montreal Alouettes’ director of college scouting. “For Houston, it clearly wasn’t going to work out for them with Osweiler. Very few teams are willing to admit their mistakes. Rather than stay with, they admitted they completely missed on the guy and it wasn’t a good fit. I give the Texans an enormous amount of credit for that. And the Browns are big believers in building through the draft, so they got what they wanted even though they had to spend a lot of money to do so.”

Payoff time

The Browns have said they are unlikely to trade the first overall pick and are expected to draft Texas A&M pass rusher extraordinaire Myles Garrett with that pick. They are expected to try to draft a quarterback at No. 12 overall, perhaps North Carolina one-year starter Mitchell Trubisky or Clemson star DeShaun Watson.

“We feel really good about picking at one, and I’ll leave it at that,” Brown told reporters this week. “That would surprise me if we trade down in that fashion.”

The Browns haven’t found any success on the field yet, though. They went 1-15 last season and there were plenty of thinly veiled allegations of tanking in NFL circles. The biggest move they made last season was trading for New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins.

The Browns have 10 draft picks in 2018, including three second-round picks and a pair of fourth-rounders, and are looking to add more.

But the question hanging in the air: Do the Browns really know what they’re doing?

They have plenty of at-bats coming up in the draft to provide tangible evidence of whether they are good at more than piling up draft picks.

“You can have all the picks you want, but, if you don’t hit on them, nothing else matters,” Lande said. “That’s why I think analytics mitigates your risk. You have a chance to get an elite player with the first pick. I would go for Myles Garrett. I don’t think he’s as good as Joey Bosa was, but he’s a really good prospect.”

“At 12, they can get a quarterback. Whether it’s Trubisky or Watson, no doubt they will consider a quarterback. Hue Jackson is a brilliant guy. They can make this thing work if they hit on the right guys.”

Perhaps the Browns are finally onto something.

At least they’re trying something different to quell the tide of losing every year.

“The Browns have the draft picks, now they have to be able to deliver,” Brandt said. “Our motto in Green Bay was ‘Trust your scouts.’ We’re going to find out how good their scouting is to go along with all the maneuvering. It’s going to be very interesting to watch.”