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2018 NFL Preview: Browns try something new, actually invest in a quarterback

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

At the NFL scouting combine, long before Baker Mayfield knew he’d be the Cleveland Browns’ top overall pick — a few weeks before the Browns themselves knew — Mayfield took on the challenge that will define his career.

“If anybody is going to turn that franchise around it would be me,” Mayfield said.

Good luck, Baker. He landed on a team that is 2-41 since Oct. 11, 2015 and has fielded so many terrible quarterbacks, it’s a running NFL joke.

However, there’s reason to believe this time is different. Mayfield is unlike any other quarterback the Browns have acquired this century.

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The Browns’ never-ending run of quarterback play is nearly impossible in the modern NFL. Aside from Derek Anderson’s 2007 season (3,787 yards, 29 touchdowns), the Browns haven’t had a quarterback reach 3,400 yards or 19 touchdowns in a season since their NFL re-entry in 1999. Over the past two NFL seasons, there were 35 instances of a quarterback hitting 3,400 yards and 19 touchdowns. The strange part about the Browns’ quarterback ineptitude is they never truly invested in the position.

Mayfield is the first quarterback the Browns have drafted higher than No. 22 overall since Tim Couch, the franchise’s first pick in 1999. Since then there were desperate mid-round picks (Charlie Frye! Colt McCoy!), later first-round picks (Johnny Manziel, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden all went 22nd overall) or discount free-agent pickups like Robert Griffin III who predictably fell flat. Despite almost two decades of failure at quarterback, the Browns never paid up to fix it.

The ROI for quarterbacks in the draft drops quickly. Waiting to pick a quarterback until the late first round is little more than a hopeful dart throw, and mid-round picks are often wastes. It’s rare to hit the Russell Wilson/Dak Prescott lottery. The Browns never seemed to understand that. With the Mayfield pick, they finally are paying to get off the hamster wheel.

For all the bloviating about the inaccurate nature of the NFL drafts, No. 1 overall picks at quarterback during the Super Bowl era almost always become solid players:

1970: Terry Bradshaw, Hall of Fame
1971: Jim Plunkett, two-time Super Bowl champ
1975: Steve Bartkowski, two-time Pro Bowler
1983: John Elway, Hall of Fame
1987: Vinny Testaverde, two-time Pro Bowler
1989: Troy Aikman, Hall of Fame
1990: Jeff George, bust
1993: Drew Bledsoe, four-time Pro Bowler
1998: Peyton Manning, future Hall of Fame
1999: Tim Couch, struggled with expansion team
2001: Mike Vick, four-time Pro Bowler
2002: David Carr, struggled with expansion team
2003: Carson Palmer, three-time Pro Bowler
2004: Eli Manning, two-time Super Bowl champ
2005: Alex Smith, three-time Pro Bowler
2007: JaMarcus Russell, bust
2009: Matthew Stafford, one Pro Bowl
2010: Sam Bradford, bust
2011: Cam Newton, three-time Pro Bowler
2012: Andrew Luck, three-time Pro Bowler
2015: Jameis Winston, one Pro Bowl
2016: Jared Goff, one Pro Bowl

That’s a good list. Of the 22 quarterbacks taken No. 1 in the Super Bowl era, 16 made at least one Pro Bowl. Plunkett didn’t, but he helped the Raiders win two titles. Two of the bad picks were thrown to the wolves on expansion teams, so they should get a pass. That leaves Bradford (who has an injury excuse, and has had some good moments), George and Russell. And George ended up with 27,602 yards and 154 touchdowns (spoiler alert: I have nothing positive to say about Russell). If Mayfield ends up like all the other sorry Browns quarterbacks, it will be an upset. When you pay up for a quarterback, it usually works out to some extent.

Mayfield deserved to be No. 1. It would have been just like the Browns to ignore the analytics (the numbers mostly love Mayfield), get scared off by Mayfield’s height and take a lesser quarterback who fit the traditional mold of a No. 1 pick. But the Browns said they knew after a private workout on March 22 that Mayfield was the one.

“I personally knew when I walked away from the Norman, Oklahoma, workout,” Browns general manager John Dorsey said, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. “I just kept it to myself for a while. I kind of knew, but that was the moment that I said, ‘Maybe, you know, that’s the guy.’”

If Mayfield is The Guy in Cleveland – finally – what the Browns have put together elsewhere looks pretty good.

The defense wasn’t that bad last season. The offense was bad, drowning in a barrage of turnovers from quarterback DeShone Kizer, who never improved as the year went on. But the Browns will have eight new offensive starters from the beginning of last season. Only the three interior line spots are the same. Tackle Joe Thomas retired, but the other seven changes should be considered upgrades. Eventually, when teams spend a ton of money on free agents and keep picking high in the draft, it should all come together. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars.

There are questions if Hue Jackson is the right coach. He won a power struggle with fired general manager Sashi Brown, but he did a putrid job last season. The Browns weren’t good last season, but they weren’t 0-16 bad either. Jackson needs to quickly prove the Browns aren’t wasting another season with him screwing up some intriguing talent.

All those talented young players – Myles Garrett, Jamie Collins, Jarvis Landry, Kevin Zeitler, David Njoku, Jabrill Peppers, Emmanuel Ogbah, Josh Gordon, Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb, No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward (seriously, the Browns have collected some difference makers) – probably won’t matter if Mayfield doesn’t pan out to some extent. Jackson insists Tyrod Taylor is the starter indefinitely this season, and it’s understandable that a coach on a 17-game losing streak hopes a veteran can win a game before the rookie takes his lumps. But the moment the Browns used the first pick on Mayfield, it became his team. Unless Taylor pulls a Case Keenum and has a great year with a better cast (that’s really strange to say in relation to Cleveland), the Browns will have to answer a lot of questions about why Mayfield can’t win the job.

The Browns have to step out of the quicksand at some point, at the quarterback position and as a franchise. Jackson’s record as Browns coach is 1-31, but it goes deeper than that. Since an overtime win at the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 11, 2015, they have lost 41 of 43 games. Everyone is supposed to be able to turn things around quickly in the NFL. The Browns are the only team that can’t do it.

Mayfield says he’s the catalyst for a long-awaited turnaround. Cleveland prays he’s right.

Baker Mayfield went No. 1 overall, the first time the Browns have used a top-20 pick on a quarterback since Tim Couch. (AP)

When you have more than $100 million in salary-cap space and a stockpile of draft picks, you’ll add a ton of volume. A trio of trades brought on defensive back Damarious Randall, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and receiver Jarvis Landry. Among the probable starters added in free agency were running back Carlos Hyde, offensive tackle Chris Hubbard, cornerback E.J. Gaines and slot cornerback Travis Carrie. Despite misguided criticism, Mayfield was the right pick at No. 1 and cornerback Denzel Ward was a fine pick at No. 4. Nick Chubb could unseat Hyde and be a very good back out of the second round. We can’t ignore that the Browns lost future Hall-of-Fame tackle Joe Thomas to retirement, but they added a lot. GRADE: A-

While the offense flailed around, the defense showed signs of life. Defensive end Myles Garrett battled injuries but still showed flashes of being a star. Safety Jabrill Peppers played a million miles away from the line of scrimmage most of last season, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams felt he had no better option at free safety. If Damarious Randall can play free safety, Peppers can finally make an impact in the box. Denzel Ward should calm down a terrible cornerback situation, and free agents E.J. Gaines and T.J. Carrie will help too. Emmanuel Ogbah and Jamie Collins are disruptive players in the front seven. The defense will keep the Browns in games.

It’s Hue Jackson. I was all for hiring him, and keeping him around after his 1-15 first season with a stripped-down roster. But time and time again last season, it looked like Jackson was in over his head. A debacle at the end of the first half against the Detroit Lions last season summed up how bad the Browns have been coached. Cleveland had 15 seconds left at Detroit’s 2-yard line, ran a quarterback sneak (really, that happened) and ran out of time before the end of the half. It was an amazing sequence of incompetence, even for the Browns. Jackson has had two years, and there’s not one positive thing to say. DeShone Kizer was mismanaged and never progressed last season (Kizer was traded to the Green Bay Packers, and he had to feel like he was given a life raft). When you look at the similarly talent-poor 2017 rosters of the New York Jets and Browns, and realize that Todd Bowles lifted a shaky Jets team to five wins while Jackson couldn’t manage one, you should have serious questions about Jackson. He has not done a passable job. Maybe giving up total offensive control to new coordinator Todd Haley will help. However, it’s surprising he survived for a third season.

Hue Jackson has said Tyrod Taylor will start and there is no competition with Baker Mayfield.

“Tyrod’s our starting quarterback. Baker’s our No. 1 pick,” Jackson said, according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “He’s our quarterback of the future. I’ve said that since this happened. I don’t think that will change.”

That is a bit odd. Just because a coach says something to the media doesn’t make it a contract, but it seems Jackson is serious. It would go against recent history. Since 2007, when JaMarcus Russell didn’t start Week 1 because of a holdout, five of six No. 1 picks at quarterback started Week 1. Jared Goff was the exception, but the Rams had a terrible coaching staff (feel free to draw your own comparison to the 2018 Browns). The Browns traded an early third-round pick for Taylor — I don’t like trading a valuable pick for a short-term bridge quarterback, but whatever — and it seems like they want to get something out of their investment.

Myles Garrett didn’t disappoint as a rookie, at least when he was healthy. Garrett played 11 games and was fantastic. He had seven sacks and played the run well too. According to Pro Football Focus, Garrett had 37 total pressures and he graded out as their No. 12 edge defender. That’s great for a rookie who missed five games. It’s early but he looks like the type of star the Browns can build a defense around.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Josh Gordon’s fantasy potential is similar to his unknown number of abs: rock solid. Last year, off a two-year disappearance from professional football, he showcased world-class skills. Over five games, he enticed 26.4 percent of the target share, averaged a ridiculous 2.09 yards per route, 17.5 average depth of target (second among WRs) and chipped in 11.5 fantasy points per game. Extrapolate his 18-335-1 line over 16 games and he would’ve finished at 58-1072-4, nearly the same number of total fantasy points in .5 PPR as T.Y. Hilton. Again, that’s nothing to scoff at considering the forced vacation and his horrendous quarterback play. Keep in mind, he finished 86th among receivers in catchable targets percentage. DeShone Kizer, who would miss the Lake Erie from five yards out, overthrew him routinely.

“With mouths to feed, Gordon won’t repeat his massive target share form 2017, but less could lead to more. Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield are enormous upgrades. Remember, Gordon tallied godlike numbers in 2013 with the likes of Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer under center. Keep stealing him at his average draft position of 43.8 (WR19).”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Browns.]

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According to Pythagorean expectation, which uses points scored and allowed to figure what record a team should have had, and Football Outsiders’ expected wins, the Browns had a profile of a 3.3-win team. They won zero. No other team in the NFL was more than three wins off either Pythagorean expectation or FO’s expected wins. Not to keep harping on Hue Jackson, but the Browns should not have gone 0-16.

CAN THE BROWNS TRUST JOSH GORDON?

Gordon has earned all of the skepticism that comes his way. There hasn’t been any bad news about him in a long time, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he gets in trouble again. He showed late last season why the Browns kept the light on for him through multiple suspensions. In five games he had 335 yards, averaging 18.6 yards per catch. That’s with terrible quarterback play. He’s still just 27 years old. There’s no question that if he stays out of trouble, he can be a No. 1 receiver. But, caveat emptor.


When you look up and down the roster, you can talk yourself into a breakout. Maybe it’s just because we want the Browns to emerge as a fun story, but they have good players at just about every position group. If Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield are competent at quarterback the Browns could hover around .500, though it’s still hard to believe a team that has lost 41 of 43 can compete for a playoff spot.

I’d hope a team with this much talent won’t go 0-16 or 1-15 again, but they shouldn’t have gone winless last season. This coaching staff has to do a better job. This process has to show progress.

“Let’s just be honest, this is where we are,” Jackson said this offseason. “We’re a 1-31 organization over the last two years. I think it’s time to win. I think our fans deserve to see something different. I think our organization deserves to do something different. I think our players should expect to be different and play different.”

You want to believe in something better for Cleveland. But would it shock you if they’re picking first overall again in 2019?

The Browns won’t end up as the worst team in the NFL. Their win total in Las Vegas is about 5.5, and they could go over that. Yet, they have to be No. 32 in our Power Rankings until they prove otherwise. Even a 6-10 season is a staggering improvement; it’s hard to improve by six wins in the NFL. I figure the Browns should break this miserable losing streak somewhat early, perhaps against the New York Jets on a Thursday night in Week 3. If they’re winless by Halloween, it’s impossible to imagine Hue Jackson will still be their coach. Let’s predict some progress with five or six wins – led by a nice Baker Mayfield rookie season – to give Browns fans hope that better days are coming. Being a playoff contender might be a couple years off, but that’s where Cleveland should be trending by season’s end.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!