A few years ago the Cleveland Browns embarked on a mission to destroy themselves. They had gotten quite good at self-destruction over the past 15 years, but this time Cleveland wanted to be bad on purpose. The theory was the Browns had dug themselves into a deep hole they wouldn’t be able to climb out of, so they had to aim for rock bottom, hit it the right way, and bounce so high that they’d land on a previously unreached perch. From 2016 to 2018, they lost, though that was the easy part. Now they have to stick the landing, and last year’s 6-10 season was a faceplant.
This plan was not for the faint of heart. Owner Jimmy Haslam was told the team would be so bad that he shouldn’t come to any games for two years, according to ESPN’s Seth Wickersham. But the plan had success stories. Cleveland, led by then–executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, used the tanking mold created by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and MLB’s Houston Astros, who traded everything not nailed down for draft picks, endured years of historic losing that guaranteed them high draft picks, and then used those picks to rebound into title contenders. But while the 76ers and Astros based their approach on the ideas in the book Moneyball (and a dash of Enron), the Browns went out and hired Paul DePodesta, one of the key figures from Moneyball.
“I think you need to be aware of where you are in your organization’s life cycle,” DePodesta told The Ringer’s Michael Baumann last year. “You only have so many chances, or windows of opportunity, and when those windows are open it requires a certain mind-set. Our goal is not to be a consistent 9-7 or 10-6. We’re reaching higher than that.”
Acquiring the picks was only one step of the Process. The next step was choosing the right players, and the first player Cleveland chose in the modern NFL’s most ambitious rebuilding plan was Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. Three years later, Garrett and the Cleveland Browns are negotiating a contract extension that would make him among the NFL’s highest-paid defenders, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported last week. Just like Garrett was the first pick of Cleveland’s rebuild, his extension is the first of many to follow. The draft picks long seen as future assets are now real, human football players with names like Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb who will soon want raises, and the Browns will have to decide whether they want to keep this core together. Cleveland’s carefully curated, cost-controlled rebuild is at a crossroads now that the team has Super Bowl aspirations and is being led by the youngest GM in NFL history. And the next step begins with Garrett’s extension. Cleveland is trying to leap out of its hole before this version of the Browns gets buried.
Garrett, who is 24, is nearly halfway to the Browns franchise record of 62 sacks, with 30.5 in his first three years, the most any Browns player has had in any three-season stretch since sacks became a statistic in 1982. He did this despite missing 11 games in that time. Cleveland’s not-so-illustrious history aside, Garrett is also one of seven NFL players with 30 or more sacks in their first 37 games. Two of the six players ahead of him—Derrick Thomas and Reggie White—are Hall of Famers. A third, Von Miller, will surely be enshrined after he retires. But sacks aren’t the only way to measure a pass rusher’s production. Quarterback hits also capture disruption, and since they started being tracked in 2006, the only NFL player with more quarterback hits in their first 37 games is Houston’s J.J. Watt. Last year, Garrett tied as the fourth-most-efficient pass rusher by PFF’s pressure rate (minimum 300 snaps). There are explosive pass rushers, and then there is Myles Garrett doing box jumps with 40-pound weights in each hand.
Totally normal human being Myles Garrett effortlessly doing box jumps with 40lb dumbbells.— Nicholas A. Kovach (@TheKovach) July 2, 2019
If I tried this there’s an 80% chance I’d rip both arms completely off my body. pic.twitter.com/F96r6gDWxs
Garrett’s next contract will likely pay him an average of more than $20 million annually, according to Fowler’s report. To put that in perspective, here is the current list of the NFL’s highest-paid pass rushers.
- Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago: $23.5 million
- Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: $22.5 million
- DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas: $21 million
- DeForest Buckner, DT, Indianapolis: $21 million
- Frank Clark, DE, Kansas City: $20.8 million
- Von Miller, OLB, Denver: $19 million
- Trey Flowers, DE, Detroit: $18 million
Since Donald and Buckner don’t really play the same position that Garrett does, let’s just look at defensive ends and outside linebackers, who are true edge pass rushers.
- Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago: $24 million
- DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas: $21 million
- Frank Clark, DE, Kansas City: $21 million
- Von Miller, OLB, Denver: $19 million
- Trey Flowers, DE, Detroit: $18 million
Garrett had five more sacks than DeMarcus Lawrence despite playing six fewer games last year, giving Garrett a real case to leapfrog Lawrence’s $21 million salary. But Garrett may not surpass Khalil Mack, who won Defensive Player of the Year before he became the league’s highest-paid defender. Garrett has made only one Pro Bowl in his three seasons. Taking all of this into account, it’s reasonable to expect Garrett will sign a deal averaging somewhere between $21 million and $24 million annually.
Paying a defensive player $20 million a year sounds wild. But Garrett’s current contract is a bargain. NFL players are most valuable to teams on their non-negotiable rookie deals, which sharply underpay players. For example, Patrick Mahomes made roughly $2 million last year, but Forbes estimated that the Chiefs’ franchise value went up $200 million after Mahomes’s MVP season in 2018. The value of rookie contracts is one of the main reasons smart teams have begun to hoard draft picks. They don’t just want young talent—they also want cheap talent. “For me, the draft is largely about trying to find some longer-term solutions to your roster,” Browns GM Andrew Berry told reporters in April, “because you do have these players under contract for multiple years at a pretty cost effective amount.”
The Browns nailed getting draft picks. Cleveland went 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 in 2017, the worst stretch in NFL history. Their awfulness ensured their own picks were valuable, and the front office found creative trades and moved back in the draft—including passing on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson—to give Cleveland a stupendous amount of picks. In the three drafts from 2016 to 2018, the Browns made a combined 15 draft picks in the first three rounds, including seven choices in the top 35 and the first pick in back-to-back drafts.
But the players chosen with those picks will be on cost-effective contracts for only so long. Garrett was the first pick Cleveland made to begin this rebuild, and he will be the first of many hard decisions looming on Cleveland’s to-do list now that their draft picks have turned into employees who want raises. Quarterback Baker Mayfield will be eligible for a contract extension after this season, as will cornerback Denzel Ward, whom Cleveland selected with the no. 4 pick in 2018. Running back Nick Chubb, who was drafted 35th in 2018, has two more years under contract and will surely seek a larger deal after avoiding more tackles than any other runner since 2018. Mayfield, Garrett, Ward, and Chubb will have a combined cap hit of under $30 million in 2020. A few years from now, that could more than double. That doesn’t mean the Browns won’t be able to build a contender around this group in the future or that any of these players are not worth paying, but it does mean that fielding a Super Bowl–caliber team around this group will only get harder as time goes on and there is less money and lower draft picks to plug the holes on their roster.
Last year seemed like the year Cleveland would make The Leap, especially after the team traded for Odell Beckham Jr. We spent an entire week talking about Cleveland’s come-up here at The Ringer (we’re sorry). But the Browns were crushed under the weight of their own expectations—and the decades of organizational incompetence that were not magically fixed in one offseason. Head coach Freddie Kitchens was overmatched as a leader, a play-caller, and a situational coach. Cleveland’s offensive line couldn’t protect Mayfield, and his promising play from the second half of 2018 evaporated. Beckham had a sports hernia that was mishandled by the team’s medical staff (which Mayfield himself revealed). The defense, expected to be a strength, took two steps back and was below average. Cleveland’s 2019 was already disappointing, but the season reached its nadir on Thursday Night Football in November, when Garrett swung a helmet at Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s unprotected head in a brawl. Garrett was suspended the rest of the season but reinstated in February; three days after his reinstatement he told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that Rudolph called him “a stupid N-word” before the brawl began. Rudolph tweeted that Garrett’s story was “1000% false” and a “bold-faced lie.”
The Browns finished the season 6-10, earning them a spot in the Hall of Overhyped along with the Dream Team Eagles, the Steve Nash Lakers, and Marco Rubio’s takeover of the Republican Party.
But the Browns seem to have learned from their mistakes. Or at least the mistake of setting expectations too high. Last year Mayfield had a Progressive commercial on during seemingly every commercial break, which got awkward quickly. Don’t expect that this time around.
“It’s just time to work, do our thing, instead of talking about it,” Mayfield told reporters in May. “This is the first media thing I’ve done, just because there’s no need to be talking about it. It’s just time to go do it.”
Cleveland’s front office also knows now is the time to do it, which is why they have thrown money and high picks at their problems. Former GM John Dorsey traded for Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. to bolster their receiving group. New GM Andrew Berry signed tight end Austin Hooper after a career year in Atlanta. Hooper could reduce David Njoku, a 2017 first-round pick, to a role player. Berry also remade Cleveland’s left and right tackle spots, which were turnstiles in 2019. Berry signed Titans right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency for $14 million a year in March and drafted Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. no. 10 in April to protect Mayfield. On defense, Berry has reportedly offered $15 million per year to free agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (Clowney’s agent, Bus Cook, also represents Garrett). New head coach Kevin Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator who replaced Kitchens, will be Mayfield’s third head coach in three seasons.
This aggressive spending on outside players like Beckham, Landry, Hooper, Conklin, and maybe Clowney is a sign the Browns understand their next round of spending will be on keeping their own players. But even that is a new problem for the Browns.
Since the Browns were reincarnated in 1999, they have not had anything that could be described as a “core.” In that time, they’ve had just three players start 100 games for them. For comparison, the rest of the AFC North—the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals—averaged 16 such players in that time. Aside from longtime left tackle Joe Thomas jelling with a good offensive line and standout cornerback Joe Haden, Cleveland has never had a group of young, talented players to build around.
Part of that is merely the effect of the Browns’ commitment phobia. In the last 21 years the team has had two controlling ownership groups, 10 general managers, 11 coaches, and 30 starting quarterbacks. Garrett, who has been in the NFL for three seasons, is halfway to cracking the top 12 in all-time starts for the reincarnated Browns and already on his third head coach (or fourth, counting Gregg Williams’s interim stint) and third general manager. Sashi Brown, the GM who spearheaded this rebuild, was fired in 2017 despite being abundantly clear about how bad the team would be. Brown’s successor, Dorsey, was fired after just over two years on the job. Now Berry, one of Brown’s top lieutenants, will have to see the job through. Owner Jimmy Haslam spins Cleveland’s revolving door so fast that it is more of a hamster wheel. But retaining this group of players would represent a stability Cleveland has not had since this version of the organization has existed. The Browns are on the rise, and they need to land high enough to never drop back down to the depths they’ve plumbed.