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Browns' decision with No. 1 pick seems a simple football call, but analytics complicate it

Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.

Here we go again: Which quarterback, and when?

That’s what it boils down to for the New Browns Order in its second draft.

Of so many decisions confronting them, this is the one that – yet again – fills the spreadsheets of the Harvard think tank and scrambles the brain of the head coach.

This decision will either start the clock ticking on this regime or put it off another year.

Yes, the Browns will draft a quarterback – of that we can be assured. But which one, and when, will tell us more about their own timetable for winning.

Will they peg one of the 2017 prospects as the guy to build the team around or will they take one just to bide time and set themselves up for the more quarterback-rich 2018 draft?

These difficult decisions understandably can consume the organization from now until the April 27 draft. Therefore, it’s a good thing that there is an easier decision -- a veritable no-brainer -- to be made with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Usually, how to maximize the No. 1 pick is the pivotal call of a team in this position. But it has been reduced to almost an afterthought because it most assuredly does not involve a quarterback.

It’s easy, right? Use the No. 1 pick on pass rusher Myles Garrett and then go to work on the tougher challenges.

At least it seemed simple, until Bill Barnwell struck again.

Analytics-R-Us: Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com, steeped in analytics, one of the many speakers at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which was held in Boston last month.

His biography on the conference Website includes the tidbit that Barnwell “has served as a quantitative consultant to both MLB and NFL teams.” Although there is no mention that Barnwell has served as a consultant to the Browns, the circumstantial evidence is that he has, or does.

After all, Barnwell, who speaks the language of the Browns’ current regime, using terms like Pythagorean triangulation and Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) systems, apparently was the one who first conceptualized the idea of the NBA-like, salary-dump trade for Houston Texans quarterback bust Brock Osweiler.

In a Dec. 22 column on ESPN.com, Barnwell proposed the Browns take on Osweiler’s $16 million salary as a means of accelerating their rebuilding project.

If the Browns do not employ Barnwell as a consultant, they certainly read him and respect him. For on March 9, they shocked the sporting world – except for Barnwell – by doing what he recommended 2 ½ months earlier. Well, almost exactly what he recommended.

Barnwell’s suggested trade was much more slanted in the Browns’ favor than the eventual transaction that was made.

Barnwell proposed the Browns give up their seventh-round pick in 2017 for the Texans’ third-round pick in 2017 and first-round pick in 2018. The official trade netted the Browns Houston’s second-round pick in 2018, but they had to give up their fourth-round pick in 2017 in exchange for Houston’s sixth-rounder, in addition, of course, to taking on Osweiler and his $16 million guaranteed salary.

At NFL meetings in Arizona, the Browns failed to fully explain the origination of the unconventional trade.

Paul DePodesta, Browns chief strategy officer, said:

“I don’t think there was a moment [when the trade was conceived]. Sashi [Brown, EVP of football operations] and I had a number of conversations about our cap space, about the quarterback position, about the draft. This was a situation where all those things could come into play in one deal.

“We’d been talking about it for a while and ultimately Sashi reached out to Houston to see what their appetite might be. We felt it was an opportunity for both teams be better off at the end of a transaction, which is always what you’re looking for. We thought it had a chance to make sense for all parties involved. It was a combination of all those different factors.”

So it’s not unfair to speculate that the concept originated with Barnwell. Which would mean the Browns are outsourcing major decisions to a football analytics columnist and podcaster with no practical experience in football scouting, coaching or team-building.

Paralysis by over-analysis: In his latest column for ESPN.com, Barnwell analyzes the prospect of the Browns trading the No. 1 overall pick.

He asserts, “History would tell us the best move is to trade the No. 1 pick and acquire multiple selections,” but allows the PR backlash of trading down again – after trading the No. 2 pick last year and bypassing quarterback Carson Wentz – would be a factor to consider.

Barnwell concludes, “Unless they get blown away with an offer, the first overall pick might not be the right place to push the envelope.”

Again, if Barnwell is not an official consultant to the Browns, he obviously has their attention. So we must assume they have, and will, consider trading the No. 1 overall pick.

If they did, I think Jackson would follow through on his promise to jump in Lake Erie and swim away. I am sure both Jackson and new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – “Analytics? Don’t get me started,” Williams said at a recent charity event – favor taking the physically elite Garrett to jumpstart their anemic pass rush.

“I would not like to trade,” Jackson said in Arizona. He quickly toed the company line of collaboration and added, “But if there's something, an opportunity to make our team better, I'm sure we'll discuss anything and everything.”

Asked if he would be in favor of giving up the No. 1 pick for a quarterback – either a draft prospect or, say, New England backup Jimmy Garoppolo -- Jackson cried, “No, no. I can tell you no on that one. No.”

So, what should the Browns do with the No. 1 pick?

I think the overwhelming consensus among football people is to rubber-stamp the pick on Garrett, and then figure out the quarterback quandary.

But Barnwell writes, “Anybody who is certain about what the Browns need to do with the No. 1 pick is more likely to be wrong than the Browns could be.”

Ah, analytics – the very definition of paralysis by over-analysis.