Cody Kessler Could Be a Draft-Day Bargain for the Cleveland Browns
Whenever a new team starts to employ analytics heavily into its decision-making, it's easy to fall into the trap of blindly adoring every move they make.
The Oakland Athletics traded for an aging closer with a $10-million contract? They must have found something in him.
Chip Kelly cut his star wide receiver? He never fit the scheme, anyway.
Sam Hinkie -- former Philadelphia 76ers general manager and lover of process -- called a hot dog a sandwich? The debate is settled!
The fact remains that -- even with the heavy use of analytics -- these teams and officials can make dumb moves, and they can be flat out wrong about what makes a food item a sandwich. We have to work hard to avoid assuming that, just because they did it, they're right.
Because of this, I've been trying really hard to hate the Cleveland Browns' plan of attack in addressing the quarterback position in this year's NFL draft. I just really can't find a single reason to do so.
In trading out of the second overall pick and waiting until the third round to select quarterback Cody Kessler, the Browns not only acquired ever-so-precious draft capital, but they also got a guy who compares favorably to some of the top names in the class. No matter what your level of skepticism, it's hard not to fall in love with that.
Let's take a deeper look at Kessler to see why exactly this move was so swoon-worthy. Then, we'll put him head-to-head with the other quarterbacks drafted before him to see whether or not this move was one that should make us toss aside our reservations and embrace the analytics.
A Quality Collegiate Resume
Some may be quick to call Kessler's time at Southern California a failure due to a lack of team success. But when you look at his efficiency numbers in his time with the Trojans, you see a dramatically different tale.
Over the course of three seasons as a starter, Kessler attempted 1,261 passes; only 19 of those resulted in interceptions, or one pick every 66.4 attempts. Second overall pick Carson Wentz -- whom the Browns could have selected had they not traded down -- managed to throw 14 picks in 612 attempts at North Dakota State, or one every 43.7 attempts. When it came to protecting the pigskin and maintaining possession, Kessler was a pro.
This allowed Kessler to profile as one of the most efficient passers in the entire country in 2014, his second to last year at USC. He was tied for third among all qualified passers in Passing Efficiency Rating at 167.1, trailing only that Marcus Mariota guy and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett.
His adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) was tied for fourth. Considering that those two stats are two of the best at predicting whether or not a quarterback will be successful in the NFL, you'd think Kessler would have a bit more draft buzz than a third-round pick. His senior year may have played a role in that.
Kessler's efficiency took a dip during that final campaign with his Passing Efficiency Rating tumbling to 151.7 and his AY/A dropping to 8.5. If that was all the information we had on Kessler, it would make sense he'd be closer to a mid-round pick. But this regression on Kessler's part has a logical explanation outside of his control, and that would be the circus that was USC's head coaching position this fall.
Things started to unravel for USC during their fifth game of the season, after which Athletic Director Pat Haden asked head coach Steve Sarkisian to take a leave absence before eventually firing him later in the week. There's a pretty definitive split in Kessler's performance centering around that fifth game.
The table below compares Kessler's first four games with how he did once the brown stuff started to hit the fan. We can't say definitively that the coaching situation caused Kessler's disappointing season, but the drop off isn't for the faint of heart.
|First 4 Games||15||1||11.1|
|Final 10 Games||14||12||6.1|
The quick rebuttal to this would be a split in the level of competition, but that's not entirely an accurate representation. Kessler's first four games included tangoes with Stanford -- the eventual Rose Bowl champion -- and Arizona State. His Passing Efficiency Rating was higher than 180 in both games even though they were conference foes.
That game with Stanford was the first of two times the teams faced each other that year, and the difference between the two would add more fuel to the narrative that Kessler's struggles were a product of turmoil within the program.
This is the same defense in both instances, but Kessler's performance was wildly different. As with the splits above, we can never definitively say that the coaching changes spurred the slip, but the numbers do at least seem to lean that direction.
If Kessler's struggles during his final season were outside of his control, then we could look back to what he did prior to his final year to draw conclusions on his collegiate profile. If we do that, then Kessler starts to look like a gem for the Browns, especially in the third round. When we compare Kessler to the quarterbacks who went before him, Cleveland comes out smelling even prettier.
Comparing Kessler to the Top of the Class
Let's start things off by tossing Kessler into the fire using his 2015 stats as they appear over the course of the season. Yes, we just saw that there was a significant decline after Sarkisian's firing, but doing this may further legitimize why Kessler was a bargain.
The table below shows the collegiate resumes of the first six quarterbacks off the board in the draft. The "Games" column refers to the number of games in their collegiate careers in which a player recorded at least 10 pass attempts, another one of the more critical categories in predicting a quarterback's odds at success. All of the other categories are the marks the player posted in his final season at school.
Based on this, it would seem as if Kessler should have been closer to Wentz than he was to Jacoby Brissett. Yet, he almost leaked into the fourth round, and Wentz went second overall.
And all of that is when we include the potentially tainted numbers of Kessler's final season. That should grab your attention.
Changing the scope to career numbers should make Browns fans drool.
As you can see, Kessler dusts the competition when we look beyond just his disappointing senior year, leading in all three of the categories most effective for predicting quarterback success. Our studies on quarterback efficiency have only focused on a player's final season, so it's not definitive whether career numbers would be a better gauge in general, but Kessler's unique situation makes such an examination almost necessary.
Based on all of this, it certainly seems as if Kessler deserved at least to be in the same tier as the draft's other top quarterbacks. Yet, there were five quarterbacks and 92 total picks who went before him, and the Browns were able to scoop up additional picks along the way. Again, it's really hard not to love how this all worked out for the Browns.
This all isn't to say that Kessler is some unquestioned quarterbacking savant who will succeed in the NFL no matter what. You can't say that for any quarterback -- or any player -- before they've played a down in the NFL. And if 31 other teams were comfortable leaving Kessler on the board that long, it likely illustrates some concerns with Kessler's game beyond his performance after Sarkisian's firing.
But the numbers seem to indicate that the Browns handled their search for a new quarterback in an intriguing and potentially fruitful manner.
With the Browns putting their eggs in the analytics basket, it'd be easy simply to praise every move they make. Even when we evaluate their landing of Kessler with an air of skepticism, though, they seem to have operated in an optimal fashion.
Kessler compares well to the rest of his peers in this draft class when we look at the numbers he posted over the course of his career. Were it not for a 10-game slide after some unique external circumstances, Kessler may have run away with the title of the most efficient collegiate passer of the bunch. The Browns get the discount associated with his slide along with the potential to snag the Kessler who was dicing up the competition during his junior season and the first four games of 2015.
In addition to this, the Browns were able to stockpile picks rather than use major draft capital on a quarterback. They could have stayed put at number two and taken Wentz, or they could have tried to get Paxton Lynch later in the first. Instead, they received a boatload of compensation and still got a guy whose numbers put him in that same conversation.
Kessler may not get to flash his potential right away with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown on the Browns' roster, but there is reason for optimism long-term. If Kessler's early-collegiate success is any indication, he has the potential to be a quality starter in the NFL.
And if this move is indicative of how the Browns will be operating in the future, the people of Cleveland may soon be able to smile and bask in what happens when analytics get it right.