The Browns Are Making the Right Moves in Free Agency

By signing Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter, the Cleveland Browns have solidified a top-tier offensive line.

One of the oldest stock story plots is that of the “Ugly Duckling”. Most of us know the old children’s tale: a duckling is called ugly and laughed at by the other ducks. Only when they all grow up do they realize the ugly duckling was a beautiful swan all along.

This trope has been repeated ad nauseam in films: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Princess Diaries (1 and 2), Dirty Dancing, Harry Potter; the list goes on and on. But for one NFL team this offseason, fiction became reality.

The Cleveland Browns’ ability to overhaul their entire offensive line in free agency would even have Eliza Doolittle singing that they were “loverly”.

The Browns spent big to fortify their offensive trenches, just as we suggested they might need to, but is this really a smart move for the frumpy Browns? Or will their orange helmets turn back into pumpkins when the clock strikes midnight?

How much have the Browns been able to transform their offensive line?

The Rain in Spain

Let’s start with how dire the situation was.

Our own Jim Sannes dug into the idea of why -- if the value was right -- the Browns should be drafting offensive linemen instead of a new quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft. No lineman is high enough to justify spending the first or 12th overall pick on them, but the Browns clearly needed to replace the unit that allowed the most Sack Net Expected Points (NEP) in the league last year.

For reference, NEP is an metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their 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.

Yes, you heard that right: the Browns delivered a league-worst -112.26 Passing NEP on sacks -- which was nearly four touchdowns worth of lost value in the passing game more than the second-worst team. The table below shows the value lost relative to the league average, as well as the Browns’ Passing NEP per drop back when adding the lost Sack NEP value back in.

Passing NEP per Play With Sacks Rank Without Sacks Rank Avg. Sack NEP/P Rank vs. With Sacks
Browns 0.02 26th 0.20 21st 0.10 19th

Yes, the Browns’ Sack NEP per drop back was far worse than the league average, so much so that if they simply had an average pass-blocking line, their Passing NEP per drop back for the year would have been 19th-best.

But it wasn’t just the pass protection.

The Browns’ run blocking was also appreciably below average in 2016. With -0.02 Rushing NEP per attempt and a 39.07 percent Rushing Success Rate, the Browns were 19th and 20th in the league, respectively, in these metrics.

When we subtract any stuffs -- negative yardage rushing plays -- from running backs, however, a different story is told.

The table below shows the production of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson both with and without stuffs, and their ranks among the 67 running backs to top 50 carries with the same team in 2016.

Rushing NEP per Play With Stuffs Rank Without Stuffs Rank Avg. Stuff NEP/P Rank vs. With Stuffs
Isaiah Crowell -0.01 30th 0.16 18th 0.11 19th
Duke Johnson -0.04 42nd 0.13 29th 0.11 25th

Crowell and Johnson lost a combined 39.63 Rushing NEP on blown run plays this year, putting them each in the top 15 of most value lost per-play on stuffs. Even if we gave them just an average Stuff NEP per play lost, they’d still have hiked up into the top-25 running backs in 2016.

The proof is in the pudding; the Browns’ line was bad. But how good can they be now?

Mainly in the Plain

The Browns of today get a lot of undue stick for the franchise’s past blunders, but this front office is looking to move up from being the flower sellers of the NFL with these moves. A flurry of offensive line signings last week led to guard Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter joining the group, as well as the Browns locking up their one of their own, guard Joel Bitonio, to an extension.

Bitonio, as Jim mentioned in his piece, was a key cog at left guard early in 2016 before he went down with an injury in Week 5. Through those games, Crowell had a 0.15 Rushing NEP per attempt and 50.00 percent Success Rate. From Week 6 onward, Crowell’s Rushing NEP per attempt plummeted to -0.28 with a 40.00 percent Success Rate -- as did the entire team’s.

Bitonio’s loss was especially felt on runs up the middle, where Crowell generated 0.18 Rushing NEP per attempt and a 51.85 percent Success Rate, and -0.29 Rushing NEP per attempt and a 38.30 percent success rate after.

Adding Zeitler and Tretter will add even more strength to the middle of the Browns’ offensive line in 2017. The table below shows the Cincinnati Bengals’ and Green Bay Packers’ (their former teams, respectively) Rushing Success Rate by lead backs last year, divided directionally. Tretter was injured in Week 7, so this data reflects just the first seven weeks of the Packers’ season.

Rushing Success Rate Left Middle Right
Zeitler (CIN) 35.37% 44.00% 36.07%
Tretter (GB)* 37.04% 57.89% 33.33%

Though things are a bit murkier for the Bengals, there is a clear favoring of the middle of the line for Rushing Success Rates by both backfields. The Packers’ Eddie Lacy even plunged for 0.18 Rushing NEP per attempt up the middle in Weeks 1 to 7 last year, showing the value of Tretter as a road grader.

As far as their pass protection prowess, Tretter’s Packers and Zeitler’s Bengals were virtually tied for the 10th-least Sack NEP allowed on a per-play basis. In 31 games over the last three years (just 10 starts), Tretter allowed only three sacks and committed two holding penalties. In Zeitler’s last 32 games over the previous two seasons (32 starts), he allowed three sacks, committing three holds and four false starts.

Contrasted with last year’s starting center and right guard, Cameron Erving and John Greco, these are huge improvements; Erving allowed five sacks and five penalties in just 13 games last year alone, and Greco posted four sacks and three penalties in 12.

The Browns are committing to rebuilding their offense, but are taking an approach not many would have expected: in today’s passing league, they are eschewing finding a franchise passer until they can ensure that they will be able to protect that passer. With a premier line in place, they will be able to plug in offensive weapons to thrive -- just like the Dallas Cowboys did with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

Finding trench maulers isn’t glamorous, but these Browns aren’t looking like ugly ducklings for much longer. Soon their offense will be able to spread its wings and take off.