The Cleveland Browns’ Secondary Was Historically Bad in 2016

The Browns got beat all over the field by opposing quarterbacks in 2016.

If you’ve ever been in middle school, you’ll remember the class jerk tacking those “Kick Me” signs on the backs of one of your classmates and laughing in glee as the poor kid, bewildered, was pummeled by random feet all day.

For the Cleveland Browns, the 2016 season must have been like showing up to school every day with a handful of shiny quarters for lunch and getting back on the bus with empty pockets and a noogied head.

For a year that held such promise, that of a new era dawning under head coach Hue Jackson and an analytically-minded front office, 2016 kicked the Browns in the teeth and dragged them down to a 1-15 swirly. It wasn’t just the offense (though that was absolutely a joke) the Browns’ defense -- particularly the secondary -- was absolutely terrorized by the rest of the NFL this year.

This wasn’t any ordinary beatdown either. The 2016 Browns’ secondary was historically bad.

Sticks and Stones

Putting an unfortunate situation in context often helps us minimize it with perspective, but in this case, it really magnifies it. Facts are facts: among the 542 unique team seasons since 2000, the Cleveland Browns had one of the worst years defending the pass ever.

We at numberFire measure a team’s effectiveness (or, in this case, lack thereof) by both standard statistics and an analytic we call Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to a team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

With this value helping us combine all of the factors of not just how bad a team was on the field, but how poorly they played in each situation, we can see just how futile the Browns’ 2016 season was on the backend. The table below shows their season ranks in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play, in terms of total, Passing, and Rushing.

Time Team Year Def. NEP/P Rank Def. PNEP/P Rank Def. RNEP/P Rank
Season CLE 2016 0.16 31st 0.28 32nd 0.05 27th

Whew. Not good. Only three teams finished in the bottom quarter of the league in both adjusted Defensive Passing and Rushing NEP on a per-play basis: Cleveland, San Francisco, and Indianapolis.

It’s the former of those metrics that most interests us, however, as the catastrophically rough season through the air for Cleveland was not just because quarterback Robert Griffin III threw just two passing touchdowns. No, the Browns were a solid 0.042 adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play worse than a league-average team -- or nearly 35 percent worse than league-average on each passing play.

Let’s put this in the context of a bigger picture than 2016: just how bad were the Browns when we look at history?

We have reliable play-by-play data, and therefore NEP results, going back to the year 2000, so we can see where this year’s Browns line up in the new millennium. The table below shows the exact same data as above, but put in comparison with the 542 unique team seasons since 2000.

Time Team Year Def. NEP/P Rank Def. PNEP/P Rank Def. RNEP/P Rank
Since 2000 CLE 2016 0.16 540th 0.28 539th 0.05 477th

Yowza. That’s the third-worst overall season by adjusted Defensive NEP per play and it was due to the fourth-worst by adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Ever.

Remember, too: this isn’t overall value. It’s not like teams threw 900 passes against the Browns and ran up the score like a Breaking Madden game. No, this was a per-play rate that helps to compare the quality of a defense on the average.

Rubber and Glue

So, what actually went wrong for the Browns? The table below breaks the passing defense down in terms of per-attempt passing yards allowed, touchdowns allowed, interceptions, sacks, etc.

Tm Year Comp% Rank Pass Yd/Att Rank Pass TD% Rank Int% Rank Sack% Rank
CLE 2016 63.90% 446 7.36 483 6.63% 532 1.84% 480 4.79% 501

In every category, they ranked in the bottom-100 team seasons since 2000, but were particularly abhorrent at preventing scores (11th-worst touchdown rate) and generating pressure (43rd-worst sack rate). The Browns need to stop trying to play “bend-don’t-break” defense and invest in physical cornerbacks who make plays as well as premium pass-rushers to stop opposing quarterbacks from having all the time in the world to dice them up.

Not a single facet of their passing defense, from the rush to the defensive backs, clicked this year. That’s why they’re sitting at 1-15 and that’s why their plight is so dire if they plan to play NFL football in the near future.

Teacup, Saucer, Out

The Browns have (easily) sewn up the first overall pick in this spring's draft and are likely going to use it on Texas A&M edge-rusher Myles Garrett, possibly a historic talent on the scale of fellow Aggie Von Miller. His presence will help the pass-rush and therefore improve the 2017 Browns’ production in adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.

But where else do the Browns have to find answers?

Pro Football Focus uses a 0-100 grading scale to rate every player’s play (not just production) in the NFL, and we can pinpoint the weaknesses in their defense by using these grades.

The linebacking corps and nose tackle positions are perhaps the two settled areas, as inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, edge rusher Jamie Collins and defensive lineman Danny Shelton all rank within the top-50 at their respective positions.

Former superstar cornerback Joe Haden, while injured this year, has slipped to the 96th-best ranking among corners this year, while Tramon Williams has also busted and been benched. Only Jamar Taylor is a respectable top-20 in this position group.

The defensive ends have some upside, but the Browns need to add impact to Jamie Meder and Carl Nassib, who are both outside the top-100 at their position. Finally, the safeties have been atrocious: Ed Reynolds and Ibraheim Campbell rank 48th and 86th, respectively, among all safeties this year.

There's no doubt about it: the Browns will need to plug holes in the defensive back group all offseason, be it through the draft or free agency. This unit has allowed the Browns the first overall pick and a place in history as one of the worst secondaries in the modern era.