By Choosing DeShone Kizer, the Cleveland Browns Are Gambling on Upside

With his solid preseason performance, it's evident that the flashy rookie gives the Browns significant upside behind center.

When the Cleveland Browns open the regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they’ll trot out their 27th different starting quarterback since the franchise reopened operations in 1999.

Who knows if the 27th time is the charm, but at least there's some local buzz around rookie DeShone Kizer, who was officially named the starter by head coach Hue Jackson following Cleveland’s third preseason game. The decision to go with Kizer brings more hope for a franchise than the alternatives, Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler.

Kizer will have the same ups and downs as does any first-year signal caller, but he brings potential to a team that’s trying to take swings on players to see if they’ll hit.

We really only have small samples of what Osweiler and Kessler are as starting quarterbacks in the league, but those samples do seem to provide a pretty good picture for what each brings to the table.

A Notre Dame product, Kizer clearly has the highest upside of the group.

The Competition

By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Osweiler was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in 2016. (If you winced your way through stuff like this last year, those numbers won't surprise you.) Among 39 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times last year, only six had a worse Passing NEP per drop back mark than Osweiler’s clip of -0.04.

None of them had a bigger opportunity than Osweiler’s 537 drop backs -- the next closest was 345 -- and only two will come back as Week 1 starters in 2017, those being sophomore Jared Goff, and Jay Cutler, who was pulled out of retirement to replace the injured Ryan Tannehill.

Kessler, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise. He was decent by Passing NEP per drop back last season -- 17th in the aforementioned subset, sandwiched between Russell Wilson and Alex Smith -- but his upside is limited. Despite the respectable NEP numbers, Kessler threw a touchdown on just 3.1 percent of his attempts last season, which was better than just five full-time starters. Kessler was fine as a transitional quarterback, especially considering 2016 was his rookie campaign, but for a team looking for upside, he’s not the answer.

Preseason Performance

We never want to get too carried away with how players do in the preseason. Typically, it has little to no correlation with regular season performance, but in a positional battle, these numbers matter.

Kizer saw his place on the depth chart rise with each game. He came in as the third quarterback during the first preseason game, was second in during the second contest and started the third. It was also clear his performance brought the most to the table.

PasserComp/Att (%)Yards (YPA)TDINT
Kizer25/49 (51%)351 (7.2)11
Osweiler12/22 (54.5%)67 (3.1)01
Kessler18/27 (66.7%)145 (5.4)00

Much of Kizer’s production came in the first game against second- and third-stringers, when he threw for 184 yards. It also helped that neither competing quarterback really made much of a case over Kizer -- most egregiously, Osweiler, on his 22 passes, barely averaged over 3.0 yards per attempt. That’s how you don’t win a starting job.

Even if there were just glimpses of Kizer's upside and ability, those glimpses were enough. There was the deep touchdown pass on fourth down during the first preseason game, but there were also plays like the one below in the third game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kizer stepped up in the pocket, worked himself on the move into a good angle to hit Corey Coleman downfield and fit the ball right over the cornerback’s shoulder.

Another point for both of those plays is the aggressiveness on third and fourth downs. Some of the league's best quarterbacks are the most aggressive in those situations.

Going Forward

Kizer isn’t a perfect prospect by any means. There are still things the quarterback needs to work on -- he can get fixated on his first read, he relies on the pump fake a little too often, and he can flee good pockets -- but the Browns have built an offensive structure that shouldn’t put too much pressure on a rookie.

One of the fears when first-year quarterbacks are forced to play early are the potential number of hits he'll sustain, and how that will impact his aggressiveness. But with Cleveland’s investment in the offensive line this offseason, it’s unlikely constant pressure will be an insurmountable problem.

There are also weapons who can be assets for a young quarterback, like wide receiver Kenny Britt, who was ninth among 100-plus targeted receivers in Reception NEP per target last season while playing in the offensive abyss of the Los Angeles Rams.

Cleveland also boasts an adequate run game with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson -- last season the Browns ranked 17th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play as a team with little else going on for the offense.

Perhaps the biggest argument for starting Kizer is that in a season that doesn't offer much hope, the Browns brass can evaluate the kid. For as much as Cleveland looks to be taking the next step in their rebuilding process, this is still a team that ranked 30th in nERD, our team production stat, last season, and our metrics have them as the worst team in football entering 2017.

If Kizer falters, it's possible the Browns could again have a high pick in the upcoming draft with a class of quarterbacks on whom many appear to be high. But if the rookie can flash his August skills in September and beyond, drafting yet another quarterback might finally not be necessary for the Cleveland Browns.