I occasionally have to ask stupid questions for a living. This draft season, particularly over the last six weeks, I have asked multiple members of the Cleveland Browns organization—which owns picks no. 1 and 4, in addition to three second-rounders—what I thought was a very stupid question: Have you considered ignoring all norms and drafting two quarterbacks high in the draft? The answer is yes. The people I asked have thought about it, discussed it, and investigated it.
This is not to say it will happen, but the Browns have considered it. In fact, one person I spoke with could immediately rattle off every previous instance of teams drafting two passers high because he’d done the prep work on the idea.
While it may seem extreme, the benefits of taking two top quarterback prospects are actually pretty clear: In a city where the hit rate at that position has been zero percent, you essentially double your chances at acquiring a successful player at the most important position in sports. The people I spoke with, however, were quick to outline the downsides—not enough practice reps to develop two quarterbacks and the inability to trade a rookie midseason because of a clause in the CBA. One person I spoke with mentioned how many unintended consequences you’d face if you upended the draft in such a way (specifically in the far-fetched scenario in which they took two passers in the top four), but that he’d still thought about it plenty.
That Browns people have even considered this is interesting in itself, and it underscores how many possibilities Cleveland has at their disposal. They came into this offseason with perhaps the greatest bounty of draft picks and cap space of any team in the modern era. After some offseason signings, they still have a league-high $68 million in cap space. They hold five selections in the top 64 picks in the draft, and they had eight picks in the top 123 before losing two choices in trades.
In fact, the Browns still have the most draft capital of any team in the last 25 years, as laid out by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell here. But the difference between these Browns and other teams with comparable stockpiles—the 2008 Chiefs or 1993 Patriots, for instance—is what the rookie wage scale, implemented in 2011, has done to the draft. The 2008 Chiefs signed fifth overall pick Glenn Dorsey to a five-year, $51 million deal that season, common in an era of big-money rookies. Last season’s fifth overall pick, Corey Davis, signed with Tennessee for four years and $25 million. This means that the Browns have an opportunity to get multiple impact players for cheap.
Drafting has always been important, but in the era of the cheap rookie, a critical mass of young contributors wins you a Super Bowl. The 2013 Seahawks—the modern masterpiece of team-building—featured Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, K.J. Wright, Golden Tate, Richard Sherman, and Doug Baldwin all on rookie deals—none made more than $4 million, and six of them made less than a million that year. The most important things about the modern NFL are good quarterbacks and cheap contracts, and the Browns have an incredible opportunity to collect both.
When former Browns executive VP of football operations Sashi Brown was fired in December of last year, he did not get the fawning sendoff fellow long-game specialist and former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie did. No one is holding rallies to honor Brown, as Sixer fans have done with Hinkie, and no chants (“Trust the process”) have developed to keep his legacy alive. However Cleveland fans feel about Brown, they should know that his overall strategy was a sound one. The NFL draft is an inexact science and even the best talent evaluators are often wrong, so maximizing the number of picks you have is the smartest solution to any team’s draft woes.
There were plenty of innovative moves under Brown, too. Remember, the Browns have the 35th pick in the draft because they had the cap space and the idea to take on Brock Osweiler’s terrible contract from the Texans. For some reason the Panthers gave up a fourth-round pick in exchange for a punter, and that pick was then flipped for Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Brown’s pick-hoarding strategy was a good one, but the problem was in the details—for one, I’m skeptical a true long-game rebuild can work in a league that moves so quickly, where contracts are so short and players’ primes are even shorter. But more than anything, the issue with Brown’s tenure is how they got some of those picks: The Browns will pick fourth because they acquired the pick from the Texans when they passed on Deshaun Watson. Their 64th pick is leftover from trading out of the no. 2 slot and passing on Carson Wentz two years ago. Having either of those players would likely be preferable to the pick bonanza the Browns have this year, but the picks are the next best thing. As much as folks poked fun at Hue Jackson for saying “We have a better chance of making a right decision than a wrong one” earlier this week, he’s right. The Browns have maximized their number of opportunities.
Despite an abysmal 0-16 season, it is not as hopeless as it seems in Cleveland with this haul, the cap space, and Myles Garrett on the roster. Young players like cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun look like they could contribute going forward. And if they can even just hit on a handful of picks this year, their march toward respectability should accelerate. Leaving aside the idea that they could take two passers, they could build their team in any number of ways—say, via a quarterback like Josh Rosen and another great pass rusher like Bradley Chubb on the other side of Garrett. There are plenty of examples of teams who’ve turned draft capital into a great team. The 1989 Cowboys traded Herschel Walker for the biggest draft capital haul in history, a trade so important to the team that Jerry Jones thanked Walker during his Hall Of Fame speech last year. The picks turned into Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, and Darren Woodson. The other interesting thing about that team? They spent two first-round picks on quarterbacks, taking Troy Aikman first overall in the draft and then, a few months later, taking Steve Walsh first in the supplemental draft (which meant the team forfeited their 1990 first-round pick). Aikman, obviously, won the job and eventually three Super Bowls. The two-quarterback strategy has been employed a few times since, but normally by taking a top prospect and then a flier on a guy late. (The Colts took a passer with the first and last picks of the entire 2012 draft). Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin III were taken three rounds apart in 2012 for Washington. The Green Bay Packers even took two quarterbacks (Brian Brohm in the second and Matt Flynn in the seventh) in 2008, even though they’d taken a quarterback in the first round three years earlier, some guy named Rodgers.
If the Browns opted for the double-quarterback route, it would be a logistical handful—Jackson has already said that newly acquired Tyrod Taylor will be the starter for the 2018 season and any rookie will sit. But that’s been said about a long parade of veterans who’ve been benched by October and replaced by the rookie.
However the Browns and their new general manager, John Dorsey, execute this, they are staring at a franchise-defining three days next week. They have nine picks—nine opportunities at changing the franchise forever. They may not take nine quarterbacks, they may not even take two. But they are the only team that can.