The brain drain from the Green Bay Packers’ front office this winter was a tough pill to swallow. When Brian Gutekunst was hired as the general manager to succeed Ted Thompson, it spelled a clear end for Eliot Wolf, who was one of the favorites for that job. Wolf left shortly after Gutekunst’s hiring to take a job with the Cleveland Browns and their new GM, John Dorsey — who is also a former Packers executive, having served as the Chiefs’ GM in between.
Wolf brought another top executive with him in Alonzo Highsmith, robbing Gutekunst’s new-look scouting team of two exemplary talent evaluators.
The trio of former Thompson disciples went on to make a big splash this offseason, retooling just about every position on Cleveland’s roster. Here’s a look at what they did in an effort to bring the Browns out of one of the lowest periods any NFL team has gone through in history — winning just one game in the last two years.
Wolf became known in Green Bay as the guy who had connections in other front offices, and was regarded highly for his evaluation of pro talent — more so than college players. Between his arrival and the glut of draft picks left over from the previous administration, it should be no surprise that Cleveland was highly active in the trade market this offseason.
One way or another, the Browns were going to have at least one new face at quarterback in 2018 after DeShone Kizer’s rough rookie year. That was confirmed on March 9th, just days before free agency, when the Browns traded him to Green Bay in exchange for defensive back Damarious Randall and a downgrade in draft picks in the third and fourth rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. Randall was immediately announced as a safety for the Browns, who needed a player to man the deep middle in an effort to bring Jabrill Peppers closer to the line of scrimmage.
Dorsey and company followed that up by acquiring Tyrod Taylor from the Buffalo Bills as the likely starter for the upcoming season. Combined with the top overall pick in the upcoming draft (which presumably would be used on a signal-caller, though running back Saquon Barkley still seemed an outside possibility), the moves threw that position group entirely on its face.
On that same day, Dorsey also acquired franchise-tagged slot receiver Jarvis Landry from the Miami Dolphins for a pair of draft picks. Landry can play the possession receiver role that will effectively complement deep threats Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman. However, Landry remains just that: a possession slot receiver who is entirely incapable of breaking any big plays. He led the NFL in receptions in 2017 with 112, but didn’t crack 1,000 yards because of a horrendous 8.8 yards per reception average.
Finally, a few days into free agency the Browns traded a pair of cornerbacks. First, Jason McCourty went to New England after Cleveland had previously announced his release. That move reunited McCourty with his twin brother Devin, but was perhaps in response to one of the additions the team made in free agency. Then Jamar Taylor went to Arizona for a late-round pick in 2020.
In the trades above, the Browns traded away mainly draft capital that they had accrued under the previous front office regime, plus a quarterback that the GM wasn’t satisfied rolling with as his starter moving forward. That’s no significant loss.
The biggest loss, however, came a few days after the trades. That was the retirement of all-everything left tackle Joe Thomas, who missed snaps for the first time in his career in 2017. Thomas announced his retirement shortly after the onset of free agency in early March.
However, in free agency, the Browns only lost one particularly notable player. Running back Isaiah Crowell signed a three-year deal with the New York Jets early in free agency, robbing the Browns of the thunder to go with Duke Johnson’s lightning.
Free Agency Additions
Dorsey acted quickly to fill the two holes opened up on the offense by Thomas and Crowell’s departures. Using the absurd amount of cap space they had (upwards of $80 million even after the trades), Cleveland signed a starting offensive tackle in Chris Hubbard, formerly of the Steelers, and a bruising running back in Carlos Hyde.
Dorsey also added a few defensive pieces in free agency as well, picking up cornerback T.J. Carrie from Oakland. Carrie is likely to play primarily in the slot, That helped pave the way for McCourty’s release, but Taylor’s departure left notable holes at both boundary corner spots. A few days later, they signed former Buffalo Bill E.J. Gaines, who had spent a few years with the Rams before landing in Buffalo as part of the Sammy Watkins trade.
Late in free agency, the Browns also signed inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who had been released by the Eagles, to help both Joe Schobert in the middle and Christian Kirksey on the weak side.
Cleveland also added a few role players, such as edge rusher Chris Smith, cornerback Terrance Mitchell, blocking tight end Darren Fells, and backup quarterback Drew Stanton. Oh, and don’t forget about special teams ace and Hail Mary legend Jeff Janis.
Heading into draft weekend, the Browns appeared to at least have passable starters at most positions on the roster. The big holes were at a few spots on defense, specifically cornerback and perhaps defensive tackle. However, the first pick still seemed to be likely to go quarterback, since Taylor was clearly going to be a bridge to get to a quarterback of the future who was not on an NFL roster.
Furthermore, Cleveland held both the first and fourth overall picks, thanks to a trade down in 2017 with Houston that netted the Texans DeShaun Watson but sent the 4th pick to Cleveland.
They knocked out the QB with the first pick, taking Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, then picked Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward at four, ahead of the top pass-rushing prospect in the draft, Bradley Chubb.
Ward is practically a physical clone of Sam Shields, as he measured and tested very similarly to the former Packers corner. Perhaps Highsmith saw these similarities and lobbied for Ward; after all, he was largely credited with finding Shields at his alma mater, the University of Miami. However, Ward is far more experienced and was much more productive as a college cornerback than Shields, and his skill set appears perfect for press-man schemes. It may have been a case of prioritizing need over pure value, but if Ward indeed becomes the shutdown corner that many (including this writer) think he can be, it won’t matter. Besides — Cleveland still has a host of talented young pass-rushers already, with Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Carl Nassib all on the roster.
In round two, the Browns drafted a pair of surprises: center Austin Corbett from Nevada and running back Nick Chubb from Georgia. The Browns already have a highly-paid interior on the offensive line, as Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler are all on big contracts. Corbett won’t get playing time early barring injury. Chubb was also a surprise, given the contract Cleveland paid to Hyde, but he still provides additional depth.
Cleveland’s remaining picks will fight for reserve spots as well. They did take a pair of players from Florida schools later on, and perhaps these selections (Miami DE Chad Thomas, Florida WR Antonio Callaway) were Highsmith-influenced picks. The big shock on day three, however, was Callaway in round four. It’s hard to imagine a Ted Thompson team taking a chance on a player like him, given that he was suspended for the entire 2017 season for taking part in a credit card fraud scheme and tested positive for marijuana at the Combine.
All told, there were no defensive tackles in the draft class, which leaves a group of young players to man the middle.
There’s no question that this roster is in far better shape today than it was a year ago. The quarterback situation has a clear path forward with a veteran able to hold the job until the top pick is ready to take over. Although a Hall of Fame tackle is gone, the line should hold up well, and there are offensive weapons for those QBs to throw to.
On defense, the entire secondary got a makeover, with only Peppers returning from last year’s starting lineup — and with Randall in town as the presumed free safety, Peppers can actually play a role more suited to his skills. The front seven remains largely unchanged, with a little bit of added veteran depth, but that won’t be a problem for a team that finished second in the NFL in yards per rush against.
This Browns team won’t go from 0-16 to a playoff squad in one year, but there is plenty of reason to think that they could improve by six wins or more this year. Wolf brought an eye for pro talent and a willingness to work the trade market to the table, while Dorsey threw all of his scouting chips on the table for Mayfield, who was a surprise #1 overall pick.
The construction of this roster reflects the new faces in the Browns front office, and although many of the moves wouldn’t be the types of things that Ted Thompson would do, it seems reflective of the two top individuals with their abilities and ambitions unleashed and working together. I for one will be curious to follow the 2018 Browns to see how these former Packers executives’ decisions play out.