The Cleveland Browns are three weeks away from the most important decision of their entire rebuild under Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown. The one saving grace of their frustrating 1-15 season is that they got the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. While Cleveland would love to have that selection in a draft with a clear franchise quarterback available, this draft doesn't have that.
That isn't to say the Browns won't have exciting options. Regardless of what they do with the choice, Cleveland should be able to add a significant asset (or two) with the first pick. The organizational braintrust has already spent months laboring over its options, but it's worth putting those options into perspective. If you're looking for an answer on what the Browns should do with the top choice in the draft, the best response is: "It depends."
Option 1: Draft Myles Garrett
The default choice for the Browns seems to be holding onto their selection and picking the class' consensus No. 1 prospect. Virtually every mock draft has the Browns nabbing Garrett, and even the most skeptical observers couldn't fault them for doing so. Garrett, a Texas A&M product, racked up 31 sacks over three seasons in the SEC and then had an excellent showing in the combine. No prospect is a lock, but Garrett profiles as a superstar edge rusher.
No decision in football offers any higher upside than the possibility of finding a franchise quarterback on a cost-controlled rookie contract. It's an enormous competitive advantage versus most of the other top teams in football, who have star quarterbacks but have to pay them a salary commensurate with their performance history. Consider that even shots in the dark such as Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler make $15 million or more on the free market, whereas a genuine star such as Andrew Luck is making $25 million per year over the first three seasons of his new deal.
You can make a case that Dak Prescott is the most valuable asset in football, given that he appears to be an above-average quarterback who is signed for the next three years for less than $2 million total. Even picks at or near the top of the draft offer an enormous savings: Carson Wentz is responsible for just over $7 million per year on Philadelphia's cap over the next three seasons, and Jameis Winston comes in at $7.5 million over the two remaining years on his deal. Each has a team option that will still come in far below the quarterbacks' true market value if they develop into even average starters.
What does all of this have to do with Garrett? Well, the league doesn't quite regard dominant pass-rushers to be as valuable as transcendent quarterbacks, but it's close. No edge rusher is matching the Luck deal, but consider that the 2015 extension Cam Newton signed before his MVP campaign paid him $61.2 million over its first three seasons and $77.7 million through four years. One season later, the Broncos gave star rusher Von Miller $60.5 million over the first three seasons and $77.5 million over the first four years of his extension. A similar story holds for Russell Wilson ($56.6 million through three, $72.1 million through four) and Giants pickup Olivier Vernon ($53.3 million through three, $68.5 million through four).
Let's work with the contract Chandler Jones just signed to stay in Arizona. The Cardinals gave Jones $67 million over the first four seasons of his deal. If the Browns choose Garrett with the first overall pick, his contract will initially be four years and somewhere around $30 million. Cleveland would be paying $7.5 million per year for a player whose upside is closer to $17 million per season. That's not quite the savings you would get on a star quarterback, and there aren't any guarantees Garrett will turn into a star edge rusher, but it's enough upside to justify drafting Garrett with the first overall pick.
Option 2: Draft a quarterback
On the other hand, the math might be so heavily in favor of drafting a quarterback that the Browns could have a credible case for picking one, such as Deshaun Watson or Mitch Trubisky, with the first overall pick. If they're right, and Jackson can mold the player they choose into a league-average starter, the Browns can create in excess of $10 million per year in surplus value with their new addition under center. They could try to wait and draft one of those guys with the 12th pick, but given how teams fall in love with quarterbacks, if the Browns see a passer they really want, it probably behooves them to go after a passer with the first pick.
Most organizations have only one shot at acquiring their quarterback of the future at the top of the draft; if that guy doesn't work out, the general manager and/or head coach usually get fired and the team spends years recovering. The Browns aren't most organizations, though, and their most similar comparable from the past also ignored that rule. The last team to amass this sort of draft capital over a multiyear stretch is the Jimmy Johnson-era Cowboys, who used the Herschel Walker trade as the centerpiece of their strategy to go after as many picks as possible.
In 1989, Johnson took over a 3-13 team and used the first overall pick in the draft on UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, passing on running back Barry Sanders and linebacker Derrick Thomas in the process. Three months later, Johnson used the first pick in the 1989 supplemental draft on Steve Walsh, his quarterback at Miami. In doing so, Johnson knew he was sacrificing Dallas' first-round pick in the 1990 draft as part of the equation; that pick would have been the first overall selection and given the Cowboys the opportunity to take Jeff George or perhaps Junior Seau.
It worked out all right for the Cowboys in the long run. Aikman struggled as a rookie before eventually emerging as a star; Walsh was narrowly better in five starts that year, but Johnson traded him to the Saints during the 1990 season for first-, second-, and third-round picks in future drafts. The Cowboys had so much in the way of draft capital that they could afford to use high first-round picks on two quarterbacks and hand over the job to the better of the two.
I don't think it would make sense for the Browns to draft two quarterbacks, but they have the capital and the cap space to use a first-round pick on one in each of the next two seasons. Let's say they draft Watson with the first overall pick and decide after one frustrating year that he isn't the guy. Cleveland will have a high first-round pick in 2018 to go with three second-rounders and two fourth-round picks. It will have plenty of assets to go after another quarterback to either push Watson or take over, and there probably would be a trade market for Watson even after a disappointing campaign.
Often missing in this discussion when it plays out nationally is the opportunity cost of drafting a quarterback at No. 1 overall. If the Browns take a shot on Watson with the first pick, they miss out on their shot at drafting Garrett, who is projected to be hugely valuable in his own right. Using an additional first-round pick on a quarterback would cost the Browns another player who is likely to be useful.
At the same time, though, it's impossible to ignore the reality of needing a quarterback to win in the NFL. You can get by without one if you have a dominant defense and a great running game, but Cleveland's D is still years away. The Browns also could come out ahead in terms of value even if they have to draft two QBs. Let's say the Browns use the first overall pick in 2017 on a quarterback and then do the same thing again in 2018. They would pay those two quarterbacks somewhere in the range of $16 million per year combined. If one of the two turns out to be an above-average starter, the Browns would still be saving money versus the cost of acquiring a player of similar caliber in free agency, and they would be getting a younger talent in the process. If drafting quarterbacks is a crapshoot, getting two chances to throw the dice might be the best way to solve Cleveland's biggest problem.
Option 3: Trade down
History would tell us the best move is to trade the No. 1 pick and acquire multiple selections. Research suggests that teams aren't capable of beating the draft, and teams who trade out of the top five and acquire additional picks often end up getting the better end of the bargain. If there were a quarterback who was widely regarded as a future superstar, a la Andrew Luck, at the top of the class, the Browns probably would be smart to hold onto the pick, but that isn't the case here in 2017.
The Browns probably would be passing on what looks to be an excellent pass-rush prospect in Garrett if they traded down, but we often fool ourselves into thinking that we have a better read on the available rookies in a given class before the draft. I included a chart in previewing Cleveland's offseason that noted how former unquestioned, no-doubt first overall picks such as Jadeveon Clowney and Courtney Brown weren't even the best pass-rushers from their respective draft classes. In a player pool expected to be deep with pass-rushing talent, the Browns might very well be better off trading down and grabbing a couple of edge defenders before sorting through them at the professional level (alongside 2016 picks Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib).
There are two reasonable arguments against trading down. One is that the Browns have simply amassed so many picks that they might be better off focusing on premium talent as opposed to depth. Coaches can evaluate only so many young players, and there are only so many reps and roster spots to go around. The idea that the Browns will turn a first-round pick into a dozen fourth-rounders and end up trading a dollar for 10 nickels is some sort of anti-analytics strawman, but there is a balance to be struck between simply acquiring as many picks as possible and coming away with the right picks.
The other is a matter of public relations. The Browns are not tanking quite as obviously as teams such as the Astros and 76ers have in their respective sports, and any argument that their braintrust needs to be let go or changed after one year is absurd. But it's also realistic to think fans will get restless if Cleveland continues to trade down year after year and continually pushes for better assets in the future. It's too early to judge whether the Browns were right to trade away the second overall pick as part of last year's Carson Wentz deal with the Eagles, but trading away another top-two pick for something short of a major haul might be too opportunistic.
The Browns will have plenty of opportunities to continue to make smart moves. They'll be faced with chances to trade down for future picks later in this draft and/or in years to come. They will be able to push their advantage and leverage their pick haul. There's also a question of degree. If the Browns can pick up only a relatively small upgrade in terms of draft capital for the first pick, they're probably better off just drafting Garrett and using it as cover fire when they do inevitably make other trades later on during the draft process. As is the case with any organization or team operating unconventionally in a very traditional landscape, the Browns have to pick their battles. Unless they get blown away with an offer, the first overall pick might not be the right place to push the envelope.
Option 4: Trade for Jimmy Garoppolo
The most aggressive choice the Browns could make, of course, would be to swap the first overall pick as part of a trade for New England's backup quarterback. Garoppolo was excellent in a small sample to start the 2016 season, although he separated his shoulder during his second start and has just 94 pass attempts to his professional name. I wrote about Garoppolo at length in September, and the four passes he threw after returning from his injury shouldn't impact that analysis.
It's easier to argue against trading for Garoppolo than it is to argue for it. I mentioned earlier how the Browns would be able to create significant surplus value with a successful first overall pick regardless of whether they drafted Garrett or a quarterback. That won't be the case with Garoppolo, who would have just one year left on his rookie contract with a cap hit of $895,077 after any trade.
Any team trading serious assets for Garoppolo would almost certainly want to sign him to a contract extension, and Garoppolo would have sufficient leverage to extract a deal in the $20 million per year range. That's market value. Unless Garoppolo turns into an All-Pro-caliber quarterback, the Browns would be paying $20 million per season for a quarterback who would be generating what amounts to $20 million per year of value. That's not without merit -- you would rather have a good quarterback making market value than no quarterback at all -- but one of the reasons draft picks are valuable is the opportunity to get talented contributors for a fraction of their true price, allowing you to spend those resources elsewhere.
The other side of that coin is that the floor of a player making serious money is far worse than it is for a draft pick. If the Browns drafted Trubisky with the first overall pick and he ended up being a major disappointment, Cleveland would owe $30 million or so in guarantees over four years. If the Browns traded for Garoppolo and signed him to an extension only to see their new quarterback flame out, they would owe something closer to $40 million in guarantees over two years. It's a lot of money to burn.
The argument in favor of trading for Garoppolo revolves around certainty -- the Browns know more about his professional viability than they do about the players in this draft class or the ones likely to be available in 2018. It's hard to say they know significantly more. ESPN's Brian Burke used a Bayesian approach to find that Garoppolo's 94 career attempts aren't incredibly meaningful.
Burke's research suggests that there's a 64 percent chance Garoppolo is better than a generic first-round pick at quarterback, which is just enough to make Garoppolo tantalizing without representing surefire usefulness. There's also the issue of injury; staying healthy is a skill, and while injuries can obviously happen at random, great quarterbacks are capable of avoiding most hits and keeping themselves as healthy as possible. Garoppolo suffered his shoulder injury when he scrambled to keep a play alive on third-and-long with a 21-point lead. His sprained AC joint could be a case of bad luck or a sign that Garoppolo will struggle to keep himself on the field.
The value proposition for Garoppolo with the first overall pick (let alone the reported additional picks the Patriots are demanding in a Garoppolo trade) just isn't really there. It's hard to find a similar trade in the recent past where a team gave up a significant pick for a player with such little experience. I mentioned Steve Walsh in my column earlier this week, and the Saints did trade first-, second- and third-round picks for a player with 228 pass attempts to his name, but those picks were mid-round selections.
The closest deal I can find is when Buffalo traded the ninth and 101st picks to the Jaguars in 1998 for Rob Johnson, who had thrown 35 career passes in three years after being selected in the fourth round of the 1995 draft by Jacksonville. Johnson immediately signed a five-year deal with the Bills, only to repeatedly struggle with injuries while racking up an absurd sack rate of 14.8 percent during his time in Buffalo, the worst era-adjusted rate in league history. The Jags used the ninth pick on Fred Taylor, who became a franchise icon in Florida.
So what should the Browns do?
There's no right answer. Each of the Browns' options carries meaningful risk and the possibility of significant reward. The safest choice would be to listen to the crowd and draft Garrett, but it's not particularly safe. The most aggressive decision would be to trade for Garoppolo, but his contract to come also would ensure the pick had a relatively low ceiling.
Fatalistic Browns fans or onlookers might assume the Browns will just make the incorrect choice, but that's lazy and overly simplistic. Whatever Cleveland does with the first overall pick is the first step in a broader process. Watson might be a star in a vacuum, but the Browns will need to develop an infrastructure for success around whichever quarterback they end up with. Garrett might be a force of nature under Wade Phillips or Bill Belichick, but Gregg Williams would need to put Garrett in places where he could excel. 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.