CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson outlines the Cleveland Browns' options at quarterback and superstitious Sooner fans will want to look away.
It's officially the offseason, which for the Browns can only mean one thing: They're in line for a very high draft pick and with that pick they'll almost certainly entertain the idea of finding their next franchise quarterback. History has not been kind to the organization when it comes to quarterbacks. Since returning to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have started 28 different quarterbacks. In those 19 seasons, the team has had exactly one playoff appearance (back in 2002 when former undrafted free agent Kelly Holcomb was the quarterback) and two winning campaigns.
The most recent iteration of the Browns has been the worst. They just put the finishing touches on a winless season, which was preceded by records of 1-15 in 2016 and 3-13 in 2015. Exacerbating their plight; the recently fired front office passed on Carson Wentz in the '16 NFL Draft and did the same with DeShaun Watson last offseason. New general manager John Dorsey won't make that mistake; the Browns have the No. 1 and No. 4 picks in the first round and Dorsey seems intent on fixing the team's biggest issue through the draft.
But with free agency just weeks away, there are other avenues the Browns could pursue. Below, we'll take a look at five ways the Browns could address their quarterback situation this offseason, from most likely to least likely.
1. Draft Sam Darnold with the No. 1 pick
It's early in the pre-draft process, which means that mock drafts are likely to change in the coming weeks and months as evaluators have the combine, pro days and private workouts to get a better sense of where players fit on respective draft boards. But from the perspective of early February, USC quarterback Sam Darnold is the heavy favorite to go first overall to the Browns. In a word, he's safe, something Johnny Manziel wasn't when the team traded up to get him with the 22nd overall pick in 2014. Darnold isn't perfect; he has a hitch in his delivery that has some scouts worried, but as long as we're ticking boxes for pre-draft cliches, the former Trojan also "has a passion for the game" and "looks the part." Darnold's accuracy is also attractive though he struggled with ball security last season.
Darnold isn't the consensus top pick, which is why the Browns could target another passer there. The day after the Browns lost for the 16th and final time in 2017, TheMMQB.com's Peter King wrote this about another likely first-round pick, Wyoming's Josh Allen:
"So in my rounds on the phone over the weekend, I heard this from a veteran college scout, a man who was one of the first to trumpet Carson Wentz as a high first-rounder during his final season at North Dakota State, on the fate of the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and on what Cleveland GM John Dorsey might do: "I believe there is no way Cleveland, at number one, will pass on Josh Allen. This is Wentz reincarnated. Allen's a perfect Dorsey quarterback. Just watch."
Again, that was five weeks ago, so a lot could have changed -- especially since Allen didn't have a great college season despite passing the eyeball test (size, arm strength, etc.).
2. Draft Baker Mayfield with the No. 4 pick
Mayfield isn't your prototypical NFL quarterback. At 6-1, 220 pounds, and with a demeanor that can sometimes rub people the wrong way, he has drawn comparisons to Johnny Manziel. Mayfield is understandably bothered by this. Whether it's enough to scare away Dorsey and the Browns is another matter, particularly since the team's new draft consultant, former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan, has been a huge Mayfield fan for some time.
On Monday, Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot noted that McCloughan publicly praised Mayfield before joining the Browns, telling the Doug Gottlieb Show in October that Mayfield was his top quarterback in this year's class. But McCloughan, who was once a scout with the Packers, wasn't done.
"He reminds me of a shorter version of Brett Favre," he said. "Tough guy. He can throw it. And he's very confident, and he's not afraid whatsoever, whatsoever. He's a battler. I know saying Brett Favre's a big name, and I was around him for a while, but this guy has talent."
Unfortunately, Manziel also drew comparisons to Favre four years ago, from Jon Gruden, who was an assistant in Green Bay, and from Favre himself -- though he admitted to not having watched many of Manziel's college games.
3. Target a franchise QB (like Kirk Cousins) in free agency
This would likely upset an embattled, embittered fanbase, one that has seen the strategy of signing or trading for a veteran quaterback fail time and again. The list is as long as it is depressing -- Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Jake Delhomme, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III, Brock Osweiler -- though none of these names arrived in Cleveland as legitimate franchise quarterbacks.
Back in mid-January, before the Redskins had agreed to trade for Alex Smith, TheMMQB.com's Albert Breer said that Kirk Cousins would "seriously consider" playing for the Browns, an outfit that is 1-31 in Hue Jackson's two seasons as coach. But in the days since reports of the Smith trade surfaced, Cousins has made it known that he'd prefer to play for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. That would but the Browns at a distinct disadvantage, even with $109 million in cap space.
So while this seems decidedly unlikely for several reasons, Breer also noted that the Browns would consider going all-in on both veteran and rookie quarterbacks.
But even if Cousins isn't interested the Browns could instead target Case Keenum, who played at an MVP-level for much of the 2017 season. Other, less attractive options could include Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater (whom the Browns passed on in '14 to take Manziel), two players with injury concerns. Beyond these names, the quarterback pickins' are slim, which is why the draft remains Cleveland's best option.
4. Stay with what you got
This one play serves as a microcosm of DeShone Kizer's rookie season:
Dumbest play call of the year goes to Hue Jackson. QB sneak from the 2 with 15 seconds before half and no timeouts. pic.twitter.com/3XMCetOdWG— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) November 12, 2017
But the Browns' offensive ineptitude wasn't all on Kizer, who was the league's worst passer, according to Football Outsiders. In fact, we thought he deserved to be the starter coming into the season for a couple reasons: First, he was the team's 2017 second-round pick. In today's NFL, there's little reason to sit a quarterback drafted early if there's little competition for the job. Brock Osweiler and Cody Kesslerredefined "little competition" during the preseason.
Second, we knew the Browns were flush with high-round picks in 2018 -- including two first-rounders -- and it made sense to see if Kizer was the long-term answer before the team devoted more time and engery into finding a starting quarterback. Kizer was out of sorts and overmatched for almost the entirety of his rookie season, and it's hard to imagine the Browns would ever entertain the idea of sticking with him in Year 2 -- unless Kizer was considered nothing more than a temporary placeholder for whichever quarterback the team takes in Round 1 this spring.
5. Target a veteran free agent to serve as bridge to next franchise QB
This would be the plan if the Browns were of the opinion that Kizer couldn't handle the bridge-quarterback duties. But here's the thing: We can't find anyone who is remotely qualified for this job. CBSSports.com's Will Brinson wrote earlier in the weekabout the soon-to-be free-agent quarterbacks and listed these eight names as "Older guys who fit better as backups":
McCown and Anderson have already served their time in Cleveland. And while Anderson was the last man to lead Cleveland to a winning record, that was a decade ago on a team that had a lot of talent. Also: Cutler in Cleveland would be an unmitigated disaster, even by the Browns' depressing standards.
Brinson also has a list of free agents with "Theoretical upside":
Three names -- Davis, Weeden and Osweiler -- have already taken their turn on the Browns-go-round. As for the four others: No, no, no and no.
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