The Browns Need Offensive Linemen More Than They Need a New Quarterback
Now that the Super Bowl is over, it's the Cleveland Browns' time in the spotlight. Just like every other year.
Coming off of a 1-15 campaign, the Browns are still searching for answers heading into their second season with head coach Hue Jackson. This time around, they've got some bullets to fire in the form of gobs of salary cap space and two top-12 picks in the draft. With all of the needs they have to address, that's a cause for jubilation.
The quick assumption for a top priority would be snagging a franchise quarterback. The Browns used five different players at the position last year (six if you count Terrelle Pryor), and none of them seemed to cement themselves as the starter for 2017. Given the importance of quarterbacks in today's NFL, you'd think they'd need to do whatever it takes to upgrade here. Based on what happened in 2016, though, that may be a false conclusion.
Instead, the data makes it look as if the offensive line should be the team's top priority. They were sacked a league-high 66 times, 15 more than any other team, so this probably isn't too shocking. However, when the alternative is a quarterback, a big man up front would seem a bit trivial.
This need isn't based on that high sack number, though. It's based on what happened when one quarterback -- Cody Kessler -- was able to throw the football. It showed that the system of pass catchers they have in place can make a quarterback successful -- as long as he's given time to throw, that is.
Let's dig in a bit deeper to show why this is the case. We can do so using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. There's a big difference between a three-yard completion on 3rd-and-2 and that same completion on 3rd-and-4, and NEP helps quantify those differences to give us a true read on how well a team is performing.
The Browns have tons of needs heading into the offseason, and quarterback may very well be one of them. But they shouldn't forgo offensive line in pursuit of said quarterback.
Kessler hasn't generated a ton of buzz for being a viable future option for the Browns at quarterback, but he was sneaky good in his rookie season.
Of the 39 players who had at least 100 drop backs this year, Kessler ranked 17th in Passing NEP per drop back, which shows the expected points added on completions while also deducting for incompletions, interceptions, and sacks. Even when sacks are included, he was an above-average passer.
The issue here is that few quarterbacks lost more expected points on sacks per drop back than Kessler. He had the eighth-worst mark in that department, meaning that -- when we look at just what he did on throws he got away -- he should come out smelling pretty snazzy.
To measure this, we can simply subtract the expected points lost on sacks from each qualified quarterback's total this year. This will tell us how many expected points they added each time the ball left their fingers, giving us a number that may have less influence from the offensive line. This makes Kessler look like much more than just some run-of-the-mill back-up.
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Once you omit sacks, the only quarterbacks with better passing marks than Kessler were Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger. None of those guys are battling for starting spots next year. This also put him ahead of players like Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, and Russell Wilson, who all have reputations well beyond that of Kessler.
The issue at hand here isn't whether Kessler is the quarterback of the future (although that's a case you could make based on these numbers). It's to show that, when he had time, he was actually a successful quarterback in this offense as it is currently constructed.
With Pryor, Corey Coleman, and others in place, it's a system in which a quarterback can do well when he remains upright. Now, they just need to get pieces in place to ensure he's upright more often.
It's worth noting that not all of the blame here goes on the offensive line. Kessler had one of the longest release times prior to throws in the entire league, according to NFL.com's Next Gen stats, indicating that he potentially held onto the football too long. However, both Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III had worse Sack NEP per drop back numbers than Kessler's, so it does still seem as if this was more a systemic issue than solely being due to Kessler himself.
The Browns invested heavily in their receiving corps entering 2016, drafting four wide receivers and a tight end. They also saw Pryor emerge as a solid top option. Kessler showed that they have the pass-catchers they need to perform well whenever the quarterback is able to get the ball away.
The next logical step would be to ensure that happens more often by investing in the offensive line.
Some Roadblocks to Change
This isn't all to say that upgrading the offensive line will be some simple task. Especially this particular offseason.
The two main avenues for change at a position are via free agency and the draft. Although the Browns have the capital to upgrade in a big way in the draft, the pool of talent at the position appears to be underwhelming.
ESPN's Todd McShay released his list of the top 32 prospects for the draft last week, and only two offensive linemen made the list. Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk was ranked 15th, and Western Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp was 23rd. That's slim pickings, at least at the top end.
Free agency doesn't appear overly fruitful, either. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal ranked the top 25 free agents set to hit the market this year, and only three of them were offensive linemen.
Two of those players -- Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler and Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang -- play on the interior, with the other being tackle Ricky Wagner of the Baltimore Ravens. There are options, and none of those guys have played their age-30 season yet, but it's not necessarily an abundance of resources.
That could lead you to saying that the team can forgo a weak crop of offensive linemen and instead focus on the quarterback position. While that may partially be true, quarterback is pretty much in the same boat when it comes to finding alternatives.
Going back to McShay's list, only one quarterback made his list. That was North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky ranked 27th, below both of the offensive linemen who made the list. If they go either position with their 1st or 12th overall pick, they'll be reaching, based on McShay's preferences, and it would be a more drastic reach to go with any of the signal callers. The draft -- right now -- would seem to favor the offensive line.
Free agency could provide some hope if either Kirk Cousins or Tyrod Taylor were to hit the market. The Buffalo Bills are reportedly still mulling whether or not to cut Taylor, meaning he may not be available. Washington, meanwhile, reportedly remains certain that Cousins will be back, whether via a new deal or a second season under the franchise tag. If neither of them become available, then things get murky in a hurry.
The only excuse the Browns could have for not investing in their offensive line this offseason would be a lack of available options. However, that same excuse exists at quarterback. This makes it important to weigh the upsides of bolstering each spot, and Kessler made it appear last year as if the offensive line was the area more in need of some assistance.
Truthfully, it's not going to be easy for the Browns to upgrade at either offensive line or quarterback this year due to the restrictions in the draft and free agency. And given their struggles defensively last year, they have plenty of other needs to address. But if they want to allow this offense to improve, finding ways to bolster the line should be a priority.
Kessler showed last year that he can do well within the offense when he gets rid of the ball. He has some restrictions in his arm strength that may sour them on him, but his production is still hard to ignore. If they were to give him a year behind a respectable group up front, it's well within his range of possibilities that he could wind up being a serviceable NFL quarterback.
Even if the team doesn't believe Kessler is the long-term answer, last year showed that the offense will have troubles functioning without improvements up front. Sacks bit all three of Kessler, Griffin, and McCown, and if they keep things the same, sacks will curtail the upside of any newcomer at the position.
The good news here is that the Browns likely have the capital to make changes at both positions without ignoring the defense. However, as they set out in planning for the offseason, it seems clear that strengthening the big men up front should top all lists if they want the offense to take the next step.