At one time, the Cleveland Browns just could not settle on a starting quarterback. It wasn’t that they didn’t try to find the right guy. From the birth of the “New Browns” in 1999 until Baker Mayfield took control under center, Cleveland used 29 different starting quarterbacks.
But, let’s back up a bit. The date was April of 2017. The Browns owned the Number 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. That slot would be followed by San Francisco, Chicago, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Rams.
Cleveland had just gone 1-15-0 under new head coach Hue Jackson. The guy he replaced, Mike Pettine, went 3-13-0 the year before quarterbacked by Josh McCown. Jackson used a platoon of quarterbacks including rookie Cody Kessler, plus veterans Robert Griffin, III and McCown.
None of the signalcallers used by Coach Jackson in 2016 were seen as the quarterback of the future. The 2017 NFL draft could change all that.
It was assumed that Cleveland would take Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the first overall selection. As much as they needed a stud pass rusher, that wouldn’t solve their QB dilemma.
The Browns needed their own franchise quarterback. Kessler played great and then not-so-great as a rookie third-round pick. RG3 was just getting a paycheck and McCown was simply trying to extent his professional career and the good money it provided.
The 2017 quarterback draft class was viewed as exceptional.
Deshaun Watson was at the top of this class. He was a three-year starter for Clemson who won one National Championship and played in another. He was a talented athlete, great runner, shifty, a leader, and a proven winner.
Sports Illustrated ranked the Top-10 quarterback draft prospects for 2017:
The Browns were in a great spot. They had two Number 1 draft picks that year. Not only did they own the first overall spot, but also Number 12 originally owned by the Philadelphia Eagles. Cleveland received this pick from a trade in the previous draft when they swapped the second overall slot to the Eagles so that they could draft QB Carson Wentz. Philly’s first-round choice in 2017 was part of that deal.
Before the draft, it was predicted that the Top-4 quarterbacks listed on the Sports Illustrated board would be taken in the first-round. The good news for the Browns was that from pick Number 2 down to pick Number 11, very few clubs needed a quarterback. So, it was logical that either Watson, Patrick Mahomes, DeShone Kizer or Mitchell Trubisky would be sitting there at the 12th slot.
Cleveland could take the stud pass rusher, and then nab one of the blue chip signalcallers and finally nail down their franchise quarterback.
The quarterback the team coveted
Coach Jackson was known as a quarterback guy. A former player, he had the reputation that he could develop young talent and transform them into premier quarterbacks.
Watson would be the safe bet. Mahomes came from a shoot ‘em up offense and was just as talented. Kizer was listed on some Big Boards as the best of them all. Trubisky had a great season his final year at North Carolina, but the knock on him was that it was just one great year.
Draft site experts who rank things like quarterbacks all had a difference of opinion of which of the four was the best bet. The Top-3 were considered locks. The Wild Card was considered to be Trubisky.
The Browns and the Chicago Bears would become the coaching staffs for the 2017 Senior Bowl. That meant their entire coaching staff, scouting department and all player personnel would be involved in the game plus the practice week. Six quarterbacks are always involved in the Senior Bowl. The North Team, coached by the Bears, featured C.J. Beathard (Iowa), Sefo Liufau (Colorado) and Nathan Peterman (Pittsburgh) who was ranked sixth on the Sports Illustrated list. The South roster, coached by the Browns, had Antonio Pipkin (Tiffin), Josh Dobbs (Tennessee) and Davis Webb (Cal). Both Dobbs and Webb appear on the Sports Illustrated list as well.
This meant that the Browns staff had first-hand access and knowledge on six of the nation’s quarterbacks; of which three appear in the Top-10.
A month before the draft, a rumor began to swirl.
According to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, he stated the Browns “are in love” with Trubisky and were “honing in” on the North Carolina star.
“The team has put significant time and resources into finding its long-term solution to its ongoing quarterback problem in the 2017 draft. With the college season winding down, multiple sources said the team’s scouts and brass are very high on Trubisky.”
It stands to reason that if Coach Jackson was really enamored with getting one of the four best quarterbacks in this draft, it really didn’t matter what any of the other club’s scouting reports ranked them. And there would be the distinct possibility that a guy like Trubisky could very well be sitting there at the 12th pick since Watson and Mahomes were ranked as the better two quarterbacks ahead of him.
However, the rumor did not focus on the 12th pick, but the first overall slot.
Did the Browns imagine that Trubisky would not last until the 12th pick? Would then-GM Sashi Brown be inclined to take him first overall instead? Could the franchise really pass on one of the best pass rushers to surface in a decade?
Here is the 2017 scouting report on Trubisky on Pro Football Focus:
“Despite being a one-year starter, Trubisky is very polished as a passer playing with good balance and consistent mechanics, which leads him to throw with great accuracy in the short/intermediate passing game. Although he comes from a version of the spread in his college offense, he was asked to do many full field progressions and showed he can click from receiver to receiver quickly and efficiently. Has very good pocket instincts and ability to keep eye level up to see receivers down the field while moving within the pocket. His three-quarters release may lead to more batted balls at the LOS but is likely not a huge issue at the next level. Will need to work on hitting his deep shots with more consistent accuracy to keep defenses from sitting at the break point. Shows all of the tools to develop into a very solid NFL starting quarterback and appears to be the safest option of the 2017 quarterback draft class.”
The QB whisperer needed a QB
Think about it. Coach Jackson was a supposedly quarterback whisperer. His team had just gone 1-15-0 in his rookie campaign. The QB the Browns drafted for him, Kessler, did not pan out like the franchise believed. It was Jackson’s reputation on the line as “the guy” with quarterbacks. Apparently, he needed to prove to everyone that he could take a quarterback - a very good quarterback - and make him into a superstar who would one day be presenting him as a gold jacket recipient.
And with the first overall pick in his pocket, this was the opportunity to take any quarterback the team desired. No questions asked. No waiting around to see if “their guy” would drop to the 12th spot. No going through the first-round without one of the top four guys and having to once again deal with the Kessler/RG3 debacle as McCown was now with the New York Jets.
“The franchise, which uses a heavy reliance on analytics, has strong grades on (Trubisky),” La Canfora wrote.” And it’s not a secret in the scouting community how highly the Browns rate him. They love him. Trust me, they love him.”
Add the fact that since the college football season had ended, Trubisky and Kizer were the two QBs that had been elevated in the draft process and were suddenly seen as franchise guys.
It is true that different NFL team’s Big Boards reverberate different philosophies regarding the quarterback position. Within each organization there is a separate criteria for what makes to truly groom a great quarterback.
Trubisky grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. With that info added to La Canfora’s article and projection, the storyline just went berserk. Pro Football Focus ranked Trubisky as their Number 2 quarterback in the category of “adjusted completion percentage under pressure.” The overall consensus was that Trubisky was alarmingly accurate plus had a completion ratio of 69.7 percent.
If there is one thing that Coach Jackson loved in a quarterback, it is accuracy. And unlike the quarterback he drafted in Kessler, Trubisky could throw the deep ball.
With Trubisky’s stock rising quickly, the inner workings of the Browns front office wondered if any of the prized QB prospects would be gone at pick Number 12 despite there not being more than two clubs involved with slots #2-#11 that needed a quarterback. What if Trubisky was gone? What then? Another season of Kessler?
There aren’t any words to describe how bad the 2016 season was. If Coach Jackson expected to keep his job, he needed an ace under center and hopefully one that was taken early. Only then can the beginning of rebuilding actually commence.
The Browns front office was sold on taking Myles Garrett with the first overall pick; however they were also sold on taking Mitchell Trubisky with the first overall pick.
An offensive guy, Coach Jackson wanted Garrett. There was a divide between who to take. Jackson’s thoughts were there were many quarterbacks that should be taken in the first-round, just not worthy of the first overall selection. Perhaps take Trubisky with the 12th pick? Jackson just knew they needed somebody else running the offense.
Garrett was viewed as a “generational player.” Trubisky was considered a “franchise quarterback. “ The Browns needed both.
Cleveland was in excellent shape to move up with all the picks they had stockpiled with various trades from the previous years. That would allow the Browns to position themselves higher than the 12th pick in order to take Trubisky.
The first club that may have taken a quarterback were the Jets sitting at the Number 6 slot despite now having McCown who was on the wrong side of 30. That would mean the Browns would need to jump to Number 5 and work out a trade with the Tennessee Titans.
Two plans made the most sense which would require an exchange of equal value.
One design was to exchange the 12th pick and give up a third-round selection plus another third-round pick in the 2018 draft for the fifth spot. Another plan was a bit more costly with the Titans getting the 12th spot plus a second rounder which that year was the 52nd slot.
The Browns had acquired quite a few draft picks just for an occasion such as this – to not only add players, but to add the right players. Here was an opportunity to make a move if they believed Trubisky was the right guy in a definite “need” position.
But if they truly believed he was not going to be there at Number 12, they would have to be assertive and make the call.
“At 6-feet-3, Trubisky has the arm strength to play in the adverse conditions of the AFC North,” La Canfora accessed. “Sources said the Browns have done extensive work on the native of nearby Mentor, Ohio (about a half hour from Cleveland). The Browns had scouts in attendance at his game Saturday and have tracked him very closely.”
Two days before the draft, GM Brown had made the decision to take Garrett first overall. The plan to go up and get Trubisky was tabled until draft day. Coach Jackson was all-in on taking Garrett from the start, but everyone knew that a key quarterback would make the Cleveland Browns’ draft.
Since becoming the “New Browns”, one of the things that had eluded Cleveland was the instability at the quarterback position. Here in the 2017 draft they had the opportunity to take one of Top-4 guys who were projected as franchise saviors.
There was an excess of draft picks waiting to be bundled and shipped off to another club in order to draft one of the Top-4. If the Browns truly believed Trubisky was their guy, they were going to have to play a wait-and-see strategy and observe what plays out.
Garrett was their guy at first overall. Trubisky was on their wish list. A stud pass rusher and a franchise maker – all in the same draft.
Not only was Jackson’s job on the line with the coming season, but the front office was feeling the heat as well as Kessler showed he was not the answer. Brown had to get this draft correct and right the ship. And not next year – this year. At the very least show some major improvement.
Cleveland was now a heavy analytics franchise. And the grades on Trubisky were very strong. The big question was, how high do the Browns need to go in order to snag him in case the Jets have their eye on him?
“And with the first pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select Myles Garrett, defensive end, Texas A&M.”
It was official. Garrett was coming to Cleveland. Now all GM Brown needed was some old fashioned horse trading in order to get Trubisky.
San Francisco was up next and needed defense just like Cleveland. They had signed QB Brian Hoyer in free agency. The prediction for the 49ers was Stanford DE Solomon Thomas or safety Jamal Adams out of LSU.
The Chicago Bears were in the third spot, but had signed free agent QB Mike Glennon to a three-year deal for $45 million who was considered the starting quarterback going forward as veteran Jay Cutler retired. Then in drafting order: Jacksonville, Tennessee and finally the Jets. Both Jacksonville and Tennessee had young first-round quarterbacks in Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota, respectively.
Then, it happened.
The 49ers traded down one spot, and the Bears took over the second overall spot. In addition, San Francisco received Chicago’s third and fourth-round picks, plus a third-round selection in 2018.
Safety Jamal Adams? Running backs Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey? Receivers Corey Davis, John Ross or maybe Mike Williams?
“And with the second pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears select Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback, North Carolina.”
No one saw that one coming – especially Sashi Brown. Now what?
Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes went to the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade with Buffalo at the 10th pick. New Orleans then took CB Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State at Number 11, and next Cleveland did what Cleveland does. Instead of taking Deshaun Watson with the 12th selection, they traded the pick away to the Houston Texans for a king’s bounty of their first-round pick in the 2018 draft. The Texans then selected Watson.
In the end
Cleveland eventually got their quarterback when they selected DeShone Kizer with the 53nd pick in Round 2 of that 2017 draft. He was the last of the Top-4 to be drafted and was hailed as first-round talent taken in the second-round. Kizer would play a single season in Cleveland before he was traded to Green Bay.
Chicago did the Browns a favor by moving up so early in the draft and taking Trubisky; thus eliminating any possibility that GM Brown would perhaps move up ahead of the Jets and let go of some valuable draft picks.
When the Jets’ pick came up, Watson, Mahomes and Kizer were all sitting there. Instead, New York took the safety Adams and then later traded the disgruntled athlete off to Seattle.
The Chiefs moved up and took Patrick Mahomes who has proven to not only be the “franchise quarterback” but also that elusive “generational player” that everyone is so gaga over. He has earned an NFL MVP, already taken the Chiefs to two Super Bowls and owns one ring, Super Bowl MVP, earned three Pro Bowls, NFL passing touchdowns leader (2018), Bert Bell Award winner, Sammy Baugh Trophy winner, First Team All-Pro plus was Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year in 2020. Not to mention the 10-year extension he signed in 2020 worth $503 million. Mahomes is the very first professional athlete in any sport to have inked a half a billion dollar contract.
Deshaun Watson proved to be an exceptional player on the field with multiple issues off. Whether his time in Houston is over or not is still pending.
And Mitch Trubisky proved to be exactly what he was coming out of college: he had a great season his final year at North Carolina, but the knock on him was that it was just one great year. Pro Football Focus’ assessment of him was legions from being accurate when they concluded their analysis with “......Shows all of the tools to develop into a very solid NFL starting quarterback and appears to be the safest option of the 2017 quarterback draft class.”
Trubisky had a rocky career with the Bears with highs-and-more-lows and is now the backup quarterback with Buffalo in an attempt to salvage his career.
One has to wonder if the Bears would have taken one of the top defensive players or another quarterback if the Browns had taken Trubisky first overall. Garrett would have ended up in San Francisco without a doubt.
And then Trubisky’s name would have been Number 30 of the names of the different starting quarterbacks since 1999 that the “New Browns” would have employed.