A New Day in Cleveland

Three words: trust the process.

It’s all happening, guys. Maybe it didn’t feel any different when you woke up this morning (aside from the general fatigue that comes with Daylight Savings), but I promise you everything is different today. We now live in a world where the Cleveland Browns, the NFL’s perennial laughingstock, actually matter.

The Browns announced their return to relevancy in a slew of franchise-altering trades with most of them taking place between a two-hour window on Friday afternoon. The first domino to fall was Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry, who the Browns acquired from Miami in exchange for a fourth-round pick this year and a seventh-round choice in 2019.

In the end, both sides came out winners. The Browns improved their pass-catching corps by adding last year’s NFL reception leader and did the Dolphins a solid by ridding them of an expensive player they never actually wanted. Most found the Dolphins’ decision to franchise-tag Landry ambitious bordering on reckless, especially given the cap nightmare they were in at the time. But GM Chris Grier evaded disaster by finding the perfect trade partner in Cleveland. With over $100 million in available cap space (that number has since dwindled to $82.7 million), the Browns were one of the few teams that could realistically take on Landry’s $15.982 million salary for next season. Back in Miami, Landry’s departure creates an interesting opportunity for Kenny Stills, who should see more time in the slot next season.

Shortly after the Landry swap, the Browns addressed their quarterback need by sending a third-round pick to the Bills in exchange for Tyrod Taylor. Most expected the Browns to pursue the relatively unproven A.J. McCarron in free agency but when Taylor fell in their lap, GM John Dorsey wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Largely underappreciated in Buffalo, the 28-year-old Taylor figures to be a massive upgrade on DeShone Kizer, who clearly wasn’t ready to start last season and seemed to lose confidence as the year went on.

Rather than allowing Kizer to stick around as Taylor’s backup, the Browns shipped him to the Packers in a deal that brought back former first-round pick Damarious Randall. It’s a good landing spot for Kizer, who should benefit from playing behind future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers. Seeking to replenish some of the draft capital they lost in trades with Miami and Buffalo, the Browns concluded their trade bonanza by sending DT Danny Shelton to New England for a third-round pick in 2019.

This is progress, folks. Landry is as flawed (8.8 yards per catch last season) as he is prolific (record 400 catches through his first four seasons) and is certainly no bargain at his current salary. Without a long-term deal in place—the Browns are reportedly working on an extension, though nothing is imminent—it’s entirely possible that Landry will be one-and-done in Cleveland. But for this season, he makes the Browns undeniably better. On paper, Cleveland offers a strong receiving group with Landry now joining the likes of former All-Pro Josh Gordon, 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman and underused tight end David Njoku. Duke Johnson (74 catches for 693 yards last season) also gives the Browns a receiving threat out of the backfield.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood if you don’t have a key to start the car. In other words, a $16 million-a-year wide receiver won’t do you much good without a capable QB. It’s worth debating whether Taylor qualifies as a good or even above-average quarterback, but he’s certainly not a bad one. Taylor was hamstrung by weak pass-catchers throughout his tenure in Buffalo but still showed promise, especially with his legs. Among quarterbacks, only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson averaged more rushing yards per game than Taylor last season. In addition to his remarkable athleticism, Taylor is known to play a clean, mistake-free brand of football. Last year he was intercepted on just four of his 420 passing attempts. Compare that to Kizer who led the league with 22 picks. He didn’t get a chance to show it off much in Buffalo—the Bills’ receiving corps last year was one of the league’s slowest—but Taylor can also throw a mean deep ball, which should come as good news to big-play threat Josh Gordon.

It’s unclear if Taylor is a long-term fix—clearly the Bills didn’t think so—but having him gives Cleveland options. They no longer have to reach for a quarterback with the No. 1 pick and can now use that selection to satisfy another need. After he absolutely dominated the Combine, it would be somewhat of a stunner if the Browns didn’t use the No. 1 pick on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. No back has gone first overall since 1995 but if anyone were to buck that trend, it would be the 21-year-old Barkley, who offers an absurd blend of size (233 pounds) and quickness (4.40 forty). The Giants (No. 2 pick) and Colts (No. 3) both have needs at running back, making it hard to envision Barkley being available for Cleveland at No. 4 if the Browns pass on him with the first pick.

Taylor is young enough to be a franchise cornerstone but only has one year left on his contract. Rather than commit to Taylor long-term, it’s more likely the Browns will employ him as a one-year stopgap while grooming a future franchise quarterback. After ruining Kizer’s confidence by throwing him into the fire too soon, it makes sense for the Browns to give their next rookie quarterback a red-shirt year like the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes. If Taylor uses his year in Cleveland to improve his free agent stock, it will be a win-win for both sides. Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen will be considered if the Browns target a quarterback with the No. 4 pick.

It will be interesting to see how the Bills regroup at quarterback after finally giving up on Tyrod. The free agent market offers some intriguing possibilities: mid-range signal-callers like Sam Bradford and A.J. McCarron could probably be had for $10-12 million annually. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles may also be an option if Buffalo is willing to go the trade route, though it would likely take a first-rounder and more to pry him away from Philadelphia. Another scenario calls for the Bills to select a quarterback in next month’s draft, possibly as early as 12th overall. Buffalo acquired that pick Monday in a trade that sent long-time LT Cordy Glenn to the Bengals.

Randall, who came over in the swap with Green Bay, is another interesting piece. He arrived on the scene as the 30th overall pick in 2015 and while Randall hasn’t quite met expectations, the 25-year-old was at least a viable starter throughout his tenure in Green Bay. The Arizona State alum has shown a nose for the ball with three or more picks in each of his three seasons and quietly earned PFF’s No. 2 run-stopping grade among cornerbacks in 2017. The expectation is that Randall will move to free safety, the position he played in college, upon his arrival in Cleveland. It’s unclear what that might mean for Jabrill Peppers, who started 13 games at free safety as a rookie last season. Regardless of where Randall plays, the Browns must be pleased to be getting a promising young player in return for a quarterback the team no longer needed.

Maybe these moves won’t make Cleveland an immediate contender but with Landry and Taylor, the Browns should at least be competitive next year. That’s a huge step for an organization that’s won just one of its last 35 games.

While new GM John Dorsey deserves credit for turning Cleveland’s draft assets into a trio of proven commodities, the groundwork for Friday’s trades was actually laid by the team’s previous GM, Sashi Brown. Cleveland didn’t win many games under Brown—hence his firing—but the Browns did stockpile a ton of draft picks. The Browns had 10 selections in last year’s draft and even after Friday’s flurry of activity, Cleveland still has 10 picks coming in April’s draft including five in the top 64. On King of the Hill, Boomhauer got a date because he asked 24 women out. It’s the same philosophy here. If you get enough bites at the apple, eventually you’ll come across a Myles Garrett or a Saquon Barkley. Essentially, the picks compiled by Brown have allowed Cleveland to do two things: 1) to improve its current roster by trading picks for known talent like Landry and Taylor and 2) to set the team up for the future by maintaining multiple high-draft picks.

When we think of “tanking,” it usually drums up memories of Sam Hinkie’s heyday in Philadelphia when the 76ers were perennially among the league’s worst teams. Hinkie’s approach to rebuilding the Sixers wasn’t popular among basketball purists and eventually led to his ouster, but we can see now that the movement was successful with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons leading Philadelphia to the postseason this year. Similarly, the Celtics traded their two best players at the time—future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—to the Nets in 2013 for a seemingly endless supply of draft picks. The C’s have put those picks to excellent use, acquiring Kyrie Irving in a trade that sent a first-rounder to Cleveland while also adding up-and-comers Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in recent drafts. The fan-bases had to endure some lean years in both instances but now the future couldn’t be brighter.

This is where Cleveland is headed. I’m not convinced it’s going to happen right away and it might very well take a new coaching staff for this incarnation of the Browns to finally reach its full potential. Jackson’s handling of Kizer last year was misguided to say the least while defensive coordinator Gregg Williams essentially left the middle of the field wide open by putting his safeties 25 yards off the line of scrimmage. Jackson also alienated one of his few productive players by failing to give Isaiah Crowell credit for an impressive 59-yard touchdown run in Week 15. That’s the opposite of good coaching and another lousy season will probably cost Jackson his job. Nonetheless, it feels like the Browns are finally building toward something, and that’s much better than the alternative.

Take off those paper bags, Cleveland fans. The future is here.

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