Why the Browns are All-In on Analytics Heading into the NFL Draft

Apr 27, 2016

When it comes to the draft, owner Jimmy Haslam may have to referee between the old-football philosophy of Coach Hue Jackson and the 'Moneyball' espoused by Sashi Brown and the rest of the front office.
Credit WKSU

The Browns head into Thursday night’s draft with the No. 8 overall pick and a whole lot of questions about a new front office and a new philosophy on building a team.

WKSU commentator, Terry Pluto, notes that three Harvard grads with a love of stats – defecto GM Sashi Brown, former baseball guru and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and VP of player personnel Andrew Berry -- are calling most, but not all of the shots.

  “And then your fourth guy is Hue Jackson, the new coach who’s an old line football guy, coach at Oakland, long time offensive coordinator. Just looks like football, sounds like football. I would really love to sit in meetings with Hue Jackson with the old football way and then the new guys with all their spread sheets, and listen to how this goes.

So owner Jimmy Haslam “is going to have to sometimes play referee.”

Avoiding another train wreck
Pluto was talking with DePodesta about the analytics approach and says its true strength may be stopping a team from making colossal mistake -- as the Browns did in picking Johnnie Manziel. The stats guys had red-flagged him as trouble before the draft – and well before Manziel’s personal and professional collapse. Which is why the Browns – again – need a quarterback, and why Cleveland’s trade of the No. 2 overall pick for 5 lower picks raised eyebrows.

Be the Mr. Big Volume of the NFL draft

Pluto says quarterback picks often don’t pan out and not just for the Browns.

Questions of quantity and quality
“Here’s where your analytics come into play. The first quarterback picked in the draft, whether he’s picked No. 1 or No. 3 – in the last 10 years, seven of them have become starters. The second quarterback picked in the draft, only two out of 10.

“So another approach is this pile up of picks. Be the Mr. Big Volume of the NFL draft.

“I was talking to Sashi Brown … and he says, ‘I’d rather have four bets down on the table then just one. … I said to him, ‘Well Sashi, if you keep trading indefinitely you could own the entire sixth round.’”

Pluto says Brown laughed, but told him the team’s looking for the point where quantity and quality intersect.

Once again, asking Browns fans for patience

Analytics -- as a rule -- doesn't value running backs as highly, but Pluto says Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliot is special.
Credit YouTube

  “But this is not a quick fix approach. Analytics doesn’t like older players. They like drafting a whole bunch of guys. They’ll wait for a quarterback, as opposed to just drafting a quarterback high because we need a quarterback.”

Pluto hopes the Browns take Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot, though taking a running back high runs counter to analytics’ logic.

“I think he’s an impact player. … And whenever you get a quarterback, I want him to have someone to hand the ball to who can actually run with it. Help him out a little bit. And I want to see them get some relievers.”

So the holes are numerous, and “that’s why they want 12,000 picks.”

Pluto says it will likely be three years before it’s clear whether the Browns’ all-in on the “Moneyball” approach is a good move “unless they draft some guys who are disasters.”

Old-school skepticism
“I can tell you this, though. You can expect that there will be a lot of criticism and second-guessing of the Browns draft. Most of the NFL thinks Jimmy Haslam is out of his mind with this front office. A lot of them are old-line football guys. They don’t want to see this ‘Moneyball’ approach work because frankly it goes against their gospel.”

But Pluto says the approach, which is grounded in baseball, is being integrated into other sports.

The Cavs GM David Griffin “started in the public relations department of the Phoenix Suns. He began studying statistics. (The Indians) Chris Antonetti, and his front office – statistics and analytics.”

A surprising adherent
And even in football, New England’s “Bill Belichick has had this shadowy figure named Ernie Adams called ‘director of research.’ … This guy’s been doing analytics way before anybody else. Belichick has been trading down and adding draft picks way before other teams. … So while Belichick will scoff at analytics publicly, he’s got a guy locked away in the office doing it and he’s had a guy doing it for many, many years.”

“I’d rather see them try this than some of the junk they’ve been doing. I don’t know if it’s doing to work (but) I’m intrigued by it.”

Pluto's thoughts on the Cavs first-round playoff strength and what happens next: