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Drafting Josh Allen Would End the Browns’ Analytics Era

The numbers indicate that the quarterback shouldn’t be taken anywhere near the top pick, but that hasn’t quieted the Allen-to-Cleveland talk

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For two years, Cleveland was home to the NFL’s version of the Sixers’ #Process. During Sashi Brown’s tenure as the Browns executive vice president of football operations from January 2016 to December 2017, the franchise made a bevy of trades—including deals with the Eagles in 2016 and the Texans in 2017 in which Cleveland passed on potential franchise passers in Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson—that made Cleveland the Fort Knox of draft picks. It was a simple strategy grounded firmly in analytics: that it’s best to have as many rolls of the dice in the draft as possible. Like Sam Hinkie’s Sixers hoarding second-round picks, the Browns built their draft capital with an eye toward the future.

And, like Hinkie’s Sixers, the Browns maximized the potential of their native draft picks by losing … a lot. The team had just one win with Sashi before he was ousted in favor of John Dorsey, a traditional GM expected to bring a more old-school approach to Cleveland. Dorsey has a parting gift from Sashi to work with—a treasure chest of assets that adds up to the most value a team has had in the draft since the early ’90s. That includes the first and fourth overall selections and three second-rounders in this month’s draft. It’s the type of haul that could turn the team around, and Dorsey has already put it to work, trading picks for Jarvis Landry and Tyrod Taylor.

That March trading frenzy was already a declaration of intent, and now it appears the Browns are ready to slam the door on their short era of analytics-first team-building. Per NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and’s Lance Zierlein, Cleveland is seriously considering using the top overall pick on Josh Allen. It’s always difficult to tell which draft rumors are real and which are just smoke—and the Cleveland front office still includes analytical types in Paul DePodesta and Ken Kovash—but the Allen-to-Cleveland talk has gotten loud. If he is indeed selected with the top pick, it would signal a massive U-turn for the Browns.

Allen is the embodiment of an old-fashioned, “stats are for losers” approach to evaluating prospects. While draftniks like Mike Mayock and Mel Kiper Jr. rave about Allen’s prototypical size, arm strength, and raw potential, Allen’s production in college gives no indication that he will be a franchise quarterback in the pros. As far as statistical models go, there isn’t a single one that projects Allen as even a first-round pick, much less the top overall player in the draft. And it’s not just his much-maligned completion percentage—let’s take a look under the hood.

Every year, Football Outsiders puts together a model, called QBASE, that uses stats—mainly completion percentage, adjusted yards per attempt, and team passing efficiency, with an adjustment for talent on offense and strength of schedule—to project the careers of the NFL’s top quarterback prospects. FO has run the model back to 1996, with a decent amount of success; the top 10 all-time scores belong to Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb, Baker Mayfield, Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Marcus Mariota, Byron Leftwich, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich is a miss, Mariota is still developing, and Mayfield isn’t in the NFL yet, but the rest of those passers are franchise guys.

Allen doesn’t just fall short of that top tier—he’s the lowest-graded passer in 2018 and owns one of the worst scores, at negative-83, ever handed out to a first-round pick. As far as first-round picks go, only Mark Sanchez (negative-430) graded worse than Allen. First-round picks with scores similar to Allen’s are mostly busts like Patrick Ramsey (negative-78), Kyle Boller (negative-42), and J.P. Losman (negative-25). In a best-case scenario, Allen would be an outlier like Matt Ryan (134) or second-round pick Andy Dalton (132), but, though neither of those passers scored well, they still graded much higher than Allen.

This year, Football Outsiders published an alternative to QBASE created by researchers Jeremy Rosen and Alexandre Olbrecht. This model emphasizes the importance of a QB’s “functional mobility,” and ranks Allen fourth in this year’s crop of passers after Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Mayfield. Read deeper, though, and you’ll see that slight optimism has nothing to do with Allen’s on-field performance at Wyoming, but with how that model weighs the grades of scouts. As Rosen and Olbrecht explain: “Without scouting grades, he would get our lowest projection.”

A couple of Pro Football Focus writers—Eric Eager and George Chahrouri—looked at how “NFL throws” to receivers with a step or more of separation might be useful for charting NFL success. By that metric, Allen ranked fifth out of the top six prospects.

Over at SB Nation, Bill Connelly designed an approach to help identify a quarterback’s NFL ceiling by analyzing a passer’s success rate in college. Allen ranks terribly there, with a 43.3 percent success rate that puts him in a historical tier that includes Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker.

In March, Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko shared Sports Info Solutions’ Independent Quarterback Rating, which “accounts for events out of the passer’s control, including dropped passes and dropped interceptions.” And yup, you guessed it—Allen ranked ninth out of nine quarterbacks evaluated.

Though not designed for projecting success in the NFL, other advanced metrics paint Allen in a poor light. His final-year QBR (a stat which goes back to the 2004 season) of 52.6 would be the worst-ever for a first-rounder, with Jake Locker (56.1) and Blaine Gabbert (59.6) being the only other first-rounders with final-year QBRs under 60. Meanwhile, Wyoming had a passing S&P+ (a metric measuring efficiency in the passing game) of just 81.3 in 2017. Allen missed two games last season, but that absence hardly accounted for the low grade: It’s by far the worst in the history of the stat (since the 2005 season) among QBs selected in the first three rounds. It’s nearly 10 full points worse than the second-lowest number, Drew Stanton’s 90.9 recorded in 2006. Only Stanton, Sean Mannion, Christian Hackenberg, C.J. Beathard, and Josh Freeman have scored below 100 and gone on to be selected in one of the first three rounds.

Whew. That’s a lot of numbers—let’s boil them all down and look at how the top quarterbacks in this draft rank in each of these metrics in an easy-to-digest table. Just to hammer this point home, I’ll even throw Luke Falk—who likely won’t be selected before the fourth round—into the mix:

Comparing 2018 QB Prospects

Player QBASE DYAR Projection Rosen-Olbrecht PFF "NFL Throws" Bill Connelly Success Rate IQR Final-Year QBR Passing S&P+
Player QBASE DYAR Projection Rosen-Olbrecht PFF "NFL Throws" Bill Connelly Success Rate IQR Final-Year QBR Passing S&P+
Baker Mayfield 1st 3rd 2nd 1st 1st 1st 1st
Sam Darnold 4th 1st 1st 2nd 6th 4th 2nd
Josh Rosen 3rd 2nd 4th 6th 5th 5th 5th
Mason Rudolph 5th 6th 3rd 3rd 2nd 3rd 4th
Lamar Jackson 2nd 5th 6th 5th 4th 2nd 3rd
Luke Falk 6th 7th N/A 4th 3rd 6th 6th
Josh Allen 7th 4th 5th 7th 7th 7th 7th

While Allen may be a stat head’s nightmare, he’s an old-school scout’s dream. He’s tall, athletic, and has a SpaceX rocket for an arm. I mean, it’s ridiculous:

This number doesn’t correlate with NFL success, but Allen had a measured ball velocity of 62 mph at the NFL combine. No player had ever gotten above 60 since the NFL began keeping the track in 2008. As far as arm strength is concerned, Allen is a generational talent.

When it comes to prototypical quarterback traits, few quarterbacks ever rank as highly as Allen. But when it comes to analytics, few rank worse. That dichotomy means that virtually any team that drafts him is making a statement about the importance of unrealized potential vs. on-field performance. This is an especially poignant litmus test for the Browns, not just because they’d be using the top overall pick on such an undeniably gifted but also impossibly flawed quarterback, but because it would signal the definitive end of the analytics era in Cleveland.

Compounding the potential risk of drafting Allen is a scenario in which the Browns take Saquon Barkley with the no. 4 selection. Stat-based analysis reveals that NFL running backs are declining in value, and it takes a special talent to make a tailback worthy of a first-round pick. To be fair to Barkley, he’s widely regarded as a sensational talent who may be worth the gamble at no. 4, but his selection could still help to create the most ironic erasure of Sashi Brown’s legacy with the team: a mountain of assets acquired through an analytical approach spent on a project quarterback and a running back.

And to be fair to Allen, while the advanced stats don’t look great, no one can say for sure whether he’ll pan out or be a bust. Stats may not be for losers, but no one would argue that numbers alone make an NFL quarterback. If Allen can piece together his immense talent, he could be the next Brett Favre. If not, he’ll be the next Jake Locker. But in order to draft him no. 1 overall, the Browns would have to ignore every statistical analysis imaginable. As far as analytics go, it’d be the end of the Process in Cleveland.