By Bucky Brooks March 15, 2019 at 03:58 p.m. Updated: March 15, 2019 at 05:11 p.m.
The Cleveland Browns have created quite the buzz with their accumulation of blue-chip talent, but I believe they're simply following a Super Bowl blueprint laid out by the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams. Simply put, the Browns are stockpiling as many all-stars as possible while their franchise quarterback is playing on his rookie deal. The money saved from having a QB1 on a cost-controlled contract allows a franchise to add a number of top-tier players to the roster, thus supporting and elevating a young starter at the game's most important position.
Just look at how Philadelphia added the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Torrey Smith, Timmy Jernigan, Chris Long and Ronald Darby, among others, on the way to winning Super Bowl LII. Los Angeles didn't hoist the Lombardi Trophy, but the additions of Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks, Sam Shields and Dante Fowler Jr. certainly helped them make a run through the NFC this past season. These two franchises, of course, selected quarterbacks with the first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft: Jared Goff to the Rams, Carson Wentz to the Eagles.
Considering how well that approach worked for Philly and L.A. with quarterbacks in their second and third years, respectively, it's sensible for Cleveland to implement a similar plan with Baker Mayfield heading into his sophomore campaign. The 2018 draft's No. 1 overall pick showed promise as a rookie starter, and you'd expect his performance to improve in Year 2 with a star-studded supporting cast.
This week, the Browns added a supreme talent in Odell Beckham Jr. to an offensive lineup that already boasted Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (who now will officially be eligible to return in Cleveland's ninth regular-season game after serving an eight-game ban for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy). But that's not all! Cleveland suddenly features a defense that can overwhelm opponents, with Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson joining Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi to harass quarterbacks in the pocket. With Denzel Ward emerging as an all-star on the island and Christian Kirksey flourishing as the anchor in the middle, the Browns have the makings of a fine defensive unit under new coordinator Steve Wilks.
"You have to have high-level talent to win in the NFL," a Browns executive told me. "When you focus exclusively on a draft-and-develop strategy, it can breed complacency because guys are secure in their roles and the established pecking order.
"If you want to remain competitive, you need to bring in blue-chip players and let them raise your level of play."
Again, a crucial part of this strategy -- aggressively accumulating established difference-makers -- is not having the massive cap hit under center. Last season, five of the 12 postseason teams (the Bears, Cowboys, Texans, Chiefs and Rams) spent less than six percent of their salary cap on their QB1s. All of those teams have young starting quarterbacks in place who've been flanked with enough talent -- on both sides of the ball -- to win in a variety of ways.
Granted, you will eventually have to pay your QB1 if he wins at a high level and plays to the standard expected of a top pick. But the initial championship window is the four/five-year span when the young signal-caller's still playing on his rookie deal. The cost control on the most expensive position in the NFL enables an astute team builder to put together a roster with enough stud players to compete against the heavyweight contenders in the league.
As a young player in this league, I learned that it takes eight to 10 blue-chippers to win at the highest level. I joined a Buffalo Bills team that had gone to four straight Super Bowls with Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed leading the way. That list doesn't even include the likes of Kent Hull, Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennett and Henry Jones, all of whom played at a high level for Buffalo during that run. In Green Bay, I watched Hall of Fame inductee Ron Wolf build the Packers into a title team behind Brett Favre, Reggie White, Keith Jackson, Sean Jones, Santana Dotson, LeRoy Butler, Desmond Howard and Antonio Freeman. It's not a coincidence current Browns executives John Dorsey, Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf subscribe to the star theory, given their ties to the Wolf-led Pack.
Glancing at Cleveland's new-and-improved roster today, I immediately see 10 players who at least deserve consideration as "blues": Beckham, Landry, Mayfield, Hunt, Garrett, Vernon, Richardson, Ogunjobi, Kirksey and Ward. That doesn't even include RB Nick Chubb, LB Joe Schobert and LG Joel Bitonio, three emerging A-level players at their respective positions.
That said, for this franchise to truly return to competitive relevancy, the Browns still need the chemistry between the stars, role players and coaches to work. Freddie Kitchens has to cultivate accountability, commitment and trust in the locker room, which is a challenge for a first-time coach. Granted, we saw Matt Nagy deftly navigate a similar situation last season in Chicago, earning Coach of the Year honors after guiding the Bears to the top of the NFC North at 12-4. But he didn't have as many A-listers on the roster, especially on offense. Kitchens will have to juggle the touches between OBJ and Landry, while also remaining true to the blue-collar running game and complementary play-action package that made Cleveland's offense a feared unit down the stretch last season.
Still, there's no disputing this team's enticing potential. Dorsey promised to wake up a sleeping giant when he took over as Browns GM in December of 2017. After watching the grizzled evaluator add more blue-chip pieces to the team puzzle, I see a roster that lacks a glaring weakness. The offense should be quite explosive. If the defense can play up to its potential, with the ferocious front leading the way, there's no reason why the Browns can't take over the AFC North and emerge as a viable challenger to the New England Patriots' throne.