Learning From the Cleveland Browns' Past Mistakes in Drafting Quarterbacks

The Cleveland Browns have drafted four quarterbacks in the first round since 1999, and none has seen success in the NFL. What can we learn from their mistakes?

Here we go again.

It's February in an even-numbered year, meaning we're discussing the possibility of the Cleveland Browns selecting a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft. Clearly, if this is such a trend, something in their process has gone horribly awry.

That would be an understatement.

Time after time, the Browns have drafted a quarterback in hopes that the player would be able to turn their franchise around and escape the woes that had ailed them in the past. Consistently, their top choice has fallen short of that hope.

The question, though, is what is this misstep that has led to over a decade's-long search for a franchise quarterback? Thankfully, because the Browns have swung and missed so often, we sort of have a usable sample size to work with here that can help us answer that.

Let's take a look back at the ghosts of first-rounds past to see what exactly went wrong and what the Browns should do this year to combat that. We may not be able to fix the Browns' quarterback situation, but we can at least try to learn from what has hurt them previously.

Evaluating the Browns' Former First-Round Picks

Since the franchise reassembled in Cleveland back in 1999, the Browns have drafted four quarterbacks in the first round. Because masochism is neat, let's take a look at how these guys have done in their time with the Browns.

We'll do this using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of players and teams with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.

Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, a team has an expected number of points it will score on its current drive. If a quarterback slings a seven-yard completion on 3rd-and-6, that number will go up. If he gets sacked, that number will go down. NEP tracks these fluctuations in expected points over the course of the season.

Our NEP data goes back and references everything to 2000, meaning we'll miss Tim Couch's rookie season. Considering he threw 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, I don't think he would have met our qualifications anyway.

This chart shows how the four quarterbacks performed in each season in which they had at least 200 drop backs (attempts plus sacks). The rankings were based on Total NEP (which includes both Passing and Rushing NEP) out of all quarterbacks who had at least 200 attempts in that specific season. There were generally between 35 and 40 quarterbacks qualified during each season, and these guys were on the lower end of that scale.

QuarterbackTop-10 FinishesTop-15 FinishesTotal SeasonsBest Finish
Johnny Manziel00131st
Brandon Weeden00228th
Brady Quinn00223rd
Tim Couch00423rd

Not great, Bob!

It isn't just these four guys, though. The Browns haven't had a top-10 finisher in Total NEP since the franchise came back in 1999. Their best finish came from Derek Anderson in 2007, when he logged an 11th-place finish and led the team to a 10-6 record. Outside of that, it's a whole lot of nothing.

So, we've established that the Browns' quarterbacks were, in fact, just as putrid as perception. Now, let's see what happened to cause this borderline impressive ineptitude.

The Quarterbacks' Collegiate Profiles

A few weeks ago, we looked back at the collegiate statistics of former first-round picks to see if their college statistics could be used to evaluate them as prospects. We found that there was a correlation between collegiate efficiency stats and top-10 and top-15 finishes in Total NEP, meaning we can glean something by looking at the statistical profiles of their former first-round picks.

Let's do exactly that, comparing the four quarterbacks head-to-head. As a note, games played is based on the total number of games in which the player attempted at least 10 passes in college. "AY/A" stands for adjusted yards per attempt, which factors touchdowns, interceptions, and yards per attempt into one formula. All of the efficiency stats are based on the player's last season in college.

QuarterbackDraft PickGames PlayedPass Efficiency RatingAY/A
Johnny Manziel2225172.910.0
Brandon Weeden2227159.78.6
Brady Quinn2248146.78.2
Tim Couch126153.37.8

Solution! Don't draft quarterbacks with the 22nd overall pick. Who knew this would be so easy?

The interesting thing about that is that the Browns actually did have a higher pick in the draft each of those years, yet they decided not to select a quarterback with those picks. One of those picks was left tackle Joe Thomas, which turned out superbly, but the other two have been Trent Richardson and Justin Gilbert. Now, they did spin Richardson into another first-round pick, but that pick was then used to trade up for Johnny Manziel. Welp.

There's something troubling about this strategy of waiting until later in the round to snag a quarterback. From 1995 on, there have been 17 quarterbacks selected 12th or later in the first round of the draft. Those quarterbacks have recorded at least 200 drop backs in a combined 49 seasons. That has only resulted in 13 top-15 Total NEP finishes, a hit rate of 26.53 percent. For quarterbacks taken 1st through 11th, that number jumps to 52.24 percent.

This would look even worse if it weren't for two players -- Aaron Rodgers and Chad Pennington -- propping things up. Those two players have combined for 11 of the 13 top-15 finishes. Of the 17 quarterbacks selected in the range, 13 never had a single season in the top 15 of Total NEP. If you want a quarterback, it's best to commit, pay up, and take that puppy early.

The other thing that sticks out here is the games played category. I didn't weigh this enough two years ago when Manziel was coming out.

When looking at the collegiate stats of the 2014 draft class, I ranked Manziel right behind Teddy Bridgewater. I took this a step further by writing, "it could have gone either way" on ranking those two, which looks completely idiotic in retrospect. It's something I've tried to learn from when shaping my process going forward.

Of the 52 quarterbacks taken in the first round from 1995 through 2015, Couch, Manziel, and Brandon Weeden all rank 38th or worse in games played. There have been success stories from that range (specifically Cam Newton), though those successes are rare. The bust rates at this level of experience are frightening.

That leaves us with Quinn, who is third highest on the list of games played behind Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers. What happened with him?

Going back to our investigation of collegiate efficiency stats, Quinn falls short of the benchmarks we created both for Passing Efficiency Rating and AY/A. The average AY/A of quarterbacks who have finished in the top 10 in Total NEP in half of their qualified seasons was 9.5, and Quinn was sitting down at 8.2. His experience may make him more defensible than some of the others, but he still had some extreme red flags coming out of college.

The thread here seems to be missteps in where the Browns drafted their quarterback and the levels of experience for those quarterbacks. How can we apply this to the 2016 draft? Turns out this is a bit easier than it may seem.

Looking at the 2016 Draft Prospects

The good news for the Browns is that they likely won't have to worry about the draft pick concern as they sit second overall this year. Which quarterback makes the most sense there?

Based on what we've seen, it seems like Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch would be the best fits for Cleveland. Goff graded out higher in our breakdown and had better efficiency stats than Lynch, though Lynch's collegiate profile is still acceptable.

Not shockingly, a lot of the buzz for the draft has centered around the Browns selecting Carson Wentz, including in Mel Kiper's most recent mock draft, which he released Thursday. The problem? He fits the same mold as the Browns' previous mistakes.

In fact, our top comp for Wentz earlier this winter was none other than Weeden. Wentz attempted at least 10 passes in only 23 games during his career at North Dakota State, putting him even lower than Weeden, Manziel, and Couch. This isn't to say that Wentz can't be a great NFL quarterback, but the risk here -- statistically -- appears significantly higher than it would be with Goff or Lynch.

Obviously, the Browns' scouts are going to have a better idea of which quarterback is the best fit for their team than we will. If they deem Wentz to be the best option, then they should probably select him. If they decide to learn from their past mistakes, though, a reevaluation of their process and prioritizing experience and efficiency would likely lead them elsewhere.