Do the Cleveland Browns Have the Worst Offense in the NFL?
The personnel missteps by the Cleveland Browns over the past few seasons have been frequent and well-documented.
In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Browns made a huge trade with the Atlanta Falcons, moving down from the number six spot and passing on the chance to draft Julio Jones in exchange for pick numbers 27, 59 and 124 that same year along with a first- and fourth-round pick the following year.
The Browns subsequently took that bounty of draft selections and used them to draft Greg Little (whose selection is made even worse when you realize five picks later the Packers would select Randall Cobb), Brandon Weeden, and packaged the next year's fourth-round pick in a trade to move up one spot to draft Trent Richardson.
And while the Browns' recognizing what they had in Richardson and selling high on him for a first round pick from the Colts was actually a wise move, using that extra pick to select Johnny Manziel over Teddy Bridgewater was not. I mean, why spend $100,000 on a report to determine who the best quarterback in the 2014 draft class is, only to disregard the results and pick the sexy name?
I expect that type of move from the Taco in my fantasy football league, but come on, this is supposed to be a professional operation here.
And this isn't just a case of the Browns not attracting or acquiring talent either. Even when good players have shown up, they've been mis-judged and prematurely let go.
(And no, I'm not talking about Trent Richardson. I think we can all agree, he's terrible.)
Prior to last season, the team cut Charles Johnson, who has quickly emerged as perhaps Minnesota's best and most reliable receiver. This personnel decision is rumored to be just one of the reasons former offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan asked to be released from the team earlier this year.
And you know the guy everyone keeps asking about from the Steelers versus Patriots game last Thursday, Dion Lewis? The same guy who racked up 120 yards on 19 total touches that game. Well, he was also cut from the Browns that same year.
Look, nobody's perfect. And not everyone is going to draft as well as the Packers or make personnel decisions as adept as the Patriots.
But at the same time, you can't keep making mistakes like this over and over again and not expect to have a bad offense.
So, just how bad is it?
Current State of Affairs
Here at numberFire we judge teams and players by our signature metric known as Net Expected Points (NEP). In short, NEP measures the contributions of any given play to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. If a play increases a team's chances of scoring above expectation, then it receives a positive mark (as does the associated player(s) making the play), and vice-versa.
So with that being said, according to our metrics, the Browns were downright bad last year.
In terms of NEP per play (adjusted for strength of schedule), the Browns mark of -0.03 ranked them 28th in the league, comprised of the seventh worst Passing NEP per play and second worst Rushing NEP per play.
And while all this didn't rank Cleveland dead-last in terms of offensive efficiency in 2014 -- if you're wondering, that honor belongs to the Jaguars by the way -- with little to no improvement in their offense this offseason compared to the other teams ranked near the bottom with them, all signs suggest that the Browns will be heading that way soon enough.
The Passing Game
Let's begin by looking at the best player in the Browns passing game: Josh Gordon.
In 2013, Gordon racked up 1,649 yards and 9 touchdowns in the air in just 14 games, and his 0.87 Reception NEP per target ranked him near the top of the league.
Well for this season's he's suspended for the year. Again.
Okay, so who's left?
Consider that last season Cleveland was one of nine teams in the league that failed to have a receiver record a Reception NEP per target greater than 0.72 on 50 or more targets.
But while all the other teams on that list have made concerted efforts to improve in this department -- including the Chiefs adding Jeremy Maclin, the Jets acquiring Brandon Marshall, and Raiders drafting Amari Cooper -- the Browns decided to add Brian Hartline to the squad.
Hell, at one point, Terrelle Pryor was the number-four wideout on this team. Yes, the same Pryor that once played quarterback for the Oakland Raiders and admitted in a Seattle Times interview "I don't know how to catch." And that's probably all you need to know about this team's receiving department.
Currently starting at receiver are undersized but speedy slot man Andrew Hawkins (0.58 Reception NEP per target in 2014), Dolphins cast-off Brian Hartline (0.71), Travis Benjamin and free agent Dwayne Bowe (0.72), the latter a distant fourth on the depth chart and who infamously led a receivers corps in Kansas City that failed to record a single receiving touchdown all last season.
And at tight end, after losing the talented but oft-injured Jordan Cameron to the Dolphins and whiffing on their attempt to bring in Charles Clay, the team signed Rob Housler to man the position. But while he started the year off with some promise -- being described as a "fixture" in the team's passing game in OTAs -- due to issues with drops due (he boasts a pedestrian 62.5% catch rate), Housler has fallen to third on the team's depth chart behind Gary Barnidge.
And it gets uglier when we look at who will actually be throwing this group of pass catchers the ball this year.
With Manziel failing to earn the starting job last year, the Browns brought in veteran journeyman Josh McCown. Last season McCown completed just 56.3% of his passes in 11 games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, throwing for 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. To iterate how bad he was in terms of efficiency, he was the third worst quarterback according to Passing NEP per drop back, with his -0.09 mark ahead of just Robert Griffin III and rookie Blake Bortles.
And this past Sunday, playing in place of McCown, who was knocked out of the game early, Manziel led this team to 10 total points with just 182 passing yards to go along with one touchdown and one interception.
Let's just say I won't be holding my breath for a 1,000-yard receiver on the Browns this year.
A Glimmer of Hope With the Running Game?
With the passing game in shambles, the Browns' best bet to move the chains may be with the running game. Indeed, perhaps in recognition of this, Browns' new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has promised a run-heavy attack.
But as I mentioned before, with a run game that was the second-least efficient in the league last year, this team will have its work cut out for them.
The team gets back Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who, alongside left tackle Joe Thomas, will anchor an offensive line that ranked seventh in the league in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus.
For Crowell, while his Rushing NEP per play of -0.03 was far from impressive, it was just in line with the historical average for all running backs over the past 15 seasons.
For Browns' rookie tailback Johnson, coming from a long line of impressive Miami Hurricane running backs, Johnson actually holds the distinction of being the U's all-time leading rusher, with 3,519 yards on 526 carries (6.7 yards-per-carry).
And as I wrote earlier this offseason, with agility scores similar to those posted by some of the league's most elusive backs, including Jahvid Best, Giovani Bernard, and LaMichael James, Johnson may be just the man to take advantage of the zone blocking system DeFilippo is expected to install in Cleveland, which relies on a back's ability to make sharp, sudden cuts to hit holes the moment they become available.
But as our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason has said before, a great passing game often helps increase the scoring opportunities provided to the running game. This makes sense, as a successful aerial attack will take pressure and attention off the backfield. And unfortunately for this team's tailbacks, "The Greatest Show on Turf" this team is not.
It's clear that if the team's running backs are going to find success in the running game, they're going to have to do it on their own as an uphill battle against stacked boxes.
Movin' On Down
Despite the presence of two young and talented running backs in Johnson and Crowell, it's not enough to stave off the three teams who (at the moment) are ranked underneath them in offensive efficiency according to our Power Rankings -- Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Jacksonville.
This is because unlike the Browns, all three of these teams have a nucleus of good, young core players that could propel these offenses past Cleveland in 2015.
From all this it's obvious that, through several mistakes in the draft and free agency, the Cleveland Browns have built what will be the league's worst offense in 2015.