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Three Lessons the Cleveland Browns Should Learn from the Pro Football Focus Top 101 Players

Plus a bonus lesson

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Atlanta Falcons v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

A few days ago, Pro Football Focus released their list of the top 101 players of the 2018 NFL season. Four Browns made the list: 55. Myles Garrett, 75. Baker Mayfield, 82. Joel Bitonio, and 89. Denzel Ward.

As I was reading the list, a few patterns started to emerge with regard to team composition. Especially considering the Browns finally have a quarterback, here are a few things I think the team should take note of:

1. It typically takes an elite talent to thrive as a receiver without a great QB.

Here is the list of wide receivers who made the list without their QB also being on it, their PFF list ranking, and their draft slot:

26. Julio Jones: 6th overall. He’s a dominant receiver but plays with a guy who is capable of making this list in a given year.

30. Adam Thielen: Undrafted. He had a great season. He also plays with a QB who is guaranteed $84 million, finished 7th in the league in targets and had an “insane” target share this season, so he produced when given the opportunity but he had a lot of opportunity.

36. Odell Beckham Jr.: 12th overall. Eli Manning certainly wasn’t great this year, and Beckham is an elite talent.

56. Mike Evans: 7th overall. He saw a lot of success despite ups and downs from the QB position in Tampa.

63. Tyler Boyd: 55th overall. He was a bright spot on a Cincinnati team that was frankly pretty bad. Part of me wonders how much production he had in two garbage time second halves where the Cleveland Browns had already won the game by halftime, but that’s probably just me trolling.

65. Juju Smith-Schuster: 62nd overall. He plays with a future hall of fame QB who probably makes this list in most years, and was the 4th most targeted receiver in the league.

Average PFF rank: 46

Some of these guys (Beckham, Jones, Evans) were simply elite draft prospects who are and have been crazy talents. Others (Thielen, Boyd) seem to have been diamonds in the rough who didn’t need elite physical tools or an elite QB to succeed.

But when you take a step back and analyze this pool of guys, it sure seems like you need to spend a high draft pick in order to find elite production at WR without an elite QB. The average draft position of these players is 65th overall, and there are only three guys in the entire league who were picked outside of the first round and made this list without their QB also making it.

Lets compare that to...

2. You probably don’t need elite receiving talent if you have a great QB.

Here is the list of wide receivers who made this list with their QB also making it, their PFF ranking, and their draft slot:

2. DeAndre Hopkins, 27th overall

6. Michael Thomas, 47th overall

25. Tyreek Hill: 165th overall

33. Keenan Allen: 76th overall

48. Davante Adams: 53rd overall

49. Robert Woods: 41st overall

59. TY Hilton: 92nd overall

84. Tyler Lockett: 69th overall

Average PFF rank: 38.25

I’m not saying the guys on this list aren’t good, they clearly are*.

But these guys who are able to perform at an elite level with an elite QB are not as highly coveted in the draft and are 8 spots better in the PFF rankings on average.

There is only one first round pick on this list (Hopkins), and draft experts were already enamored with his former Clemson teammate Sammy Watkins when he was available. The average draft position of the guys on this list is 71st overall, which is only 6 spots lower than the list above.

But from a volume standpoint significantly more of these guys (7 of 8) were found outside of the first round. And without the outlier (Thielen), the group who performed without an elite QB was drafted an average of 44th overall.

3. We should question our assumptions about game-breaking TEs:

Unlike wide receivers, there weren’t a lot of patterns with the tight end group. And frankly, there weren’t a lot of tight ends, period.

13. George Kittle: 146th overall. He plays in a great offense that targeted him a lot but had an elite season with non-elite QB play any way you slice it.

91. Zach Ertz: 35th overall. He seems to play well with Wentz or Foles at QB.

23. Travis Kelce: 63rd overall. He played with Patrick Mahomes who, ya know, kinda had a good season.

None of these guys were drafted particularly high, though Ertz almost made it into the first round. But it is tough to draw conclusions from a sample size of 3. Instead, I’d focus on the fact that the sample size is so small in the first place.

Are defenses catching up with the athletic tight end? Are offenses moving away from tight ends and putting more receivers and/or pass-catching backs on the field? Are there just very few guys on the planet earth who are big enough to block effectively while being fast enough to serve as elite receiving threats? Whatever the cause, it seems smart to build your offense without relying on dominant TE play; elite TEs aren’t easy to find.

4. Sometimes defensive talent needs time to mature

Some of the defensive players on the list like 1. Aaron Donald or (so far) 76. Darius Leonard have walked into the NFL as legit star players. But many of the defensive players seemingly took a few years to develop. By my subjective and rough estimation, here are some of them:

5. Fletcher Cox. Despite being a first round pick, he put up an AV of 4 his first year and 8 his second, the same average AV as Danny Shelton’s first two years. He’s since become one of the most dominant linemen in football.

9. Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore was not bad in Buffalo, but never eclipsed an AV of 6 in his first four years. He was incredible in New England this year, shadowing the other team’s best WR more than anyone else in the league and playing well as he did it.

11. Akiem Hicks. Hicks has bounced around to three teams in his 7 year career. He never put up more than 4.5 sacks in a year until landing with the Bears in 2016, where he’s blossomed.

15. Chris Jones. Jones more than doubled his career highs in sacks/year and QB hits/year in 2018.

17. Grady Jarrett. PFF ranked Jarrett very highly, while other metrics don’t favor him as much. But Jarrett has put up better numbers every year of his 4 year career, racking up more sacks and QB hits each year.

20. Jamal Adams. In his second season, Adams appears to be on a trajectory to live up to his draft billing. He saw an increase in INTs, Passes defensed, forced fumbles, sacks, tackles, and QB hits in year 2.

24. Calais Campbell. Campbell has spent 11 years in the NFL, and he’s almost been a different player in the second half of his career. He was active for all 16 games as a rookie, but put up an AV of 1 (that’s equivalent to Johnny Manziel’s rookie year if you are wondering). He seemed to be average-ish for the next 5 years, but has been really good for the 5 after that.

Again, this is one person’s subjective analysis, but these are 7 of the first 25 players on PFF’s list. It is littered with guys who didn’t light the world on fire in their rookie seasons but went on to become some of the better defenders in the NFL. Don’t believe me? Check the list out for yourself. When it comes to defensive talent at least, it seems like patience is necessary.

What do you think?

Is there anything else that jumped out at you from this list? As the Browns enter the offseason, what should they be keeping in mind about team composition? Let’s discuss in the comments below.