The Cleveland Browns’ now-fractured franchise was, no shock, split on what to do leading up to the 2017 NFL draft.
They owned the first overall pick (and many more to follow) and were debating how best to use it. Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett was considered the best overall player regardless of position, and he was reportedly the coaches' favored choice. The analytics-driven front office appeared to favor North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Amazingly, there existed the possibility to actually land both. The Browns' pre-draft bounty included five selections in the top 65, including the No. 12 overall pick, as well as four more in the first two rounds of 2018. They had more than enough ammo to take Garrett at one and, if the San Francisco 49ers were willing to move down, Trubisky at two.
Of course, we now know how that worked out. The Browns stuck with Garrett at one. The Chicago Bears boldly moved up a spot from No. 3 to grab Trubisky. So far, the results have been uneven.
The two disappointing teams — and the two talented prospects — will face off Sunday at Soldier Field. The Browns are 0-14, and the Bears appear to be on the verge of a coaching change. These might be the tickets some Bears season-ticket holders gift to the mailman for Christmas.
But there’s still something to play for, especially for Garrett and Trubisky as they try to finish strong as high-profile rookies. It’s safe to say that neither has performed like top-three picks, but it’s also irresponsible to say that both have been truly disappointing either.
Worth noting for context: The Browns ended up bypassing other QB options over their next few selections — and were leapfrogged by the Kansas City Chiefs for Patrick Mahomes, who went 10th overall. Mahomes has sat all year behind Alex Smith, so there’s no way of knowing what the Browns missed out on there.
Instead, the Browns chose to make a deal with the Houston Texans for the 12th pick. There they selected Clemson's Deshaun Watson, a quarterback the Browns never seemed to warm to after he chose not to attend the Senior Bowl practices their staff would be coaching. Watson’s brief brilliance in a seven-game span for the Texans before he suffered a torn ACL shows what the Browns passed on.
Houston has gone into the gutter without Watson playing, falling to 4-9. The first-round selection Houston sent to the Browns could be a top-five pick. Cleveland also likely will draft No. 1 overall in 2018 with its own selection.
Did the Browns take the right approach, selecting Garrett and hoping for their quarterback down the road? We don’t yet know, but we do know that there have been repercussions directly related to their past personnel decisions — executive vice president Sashi Brown, who oversaw the scouting and analytics departments, was fired, replaced by more of a true, old-school scout in new general manager John Dorsey. Dorsey gets to make the selections that Brown and his staff were squirreling away for two years.
And did the Bears take the right course with Trubisky? With Watson flashing franchise-QB ability almost from Jump Street, it’s easy to say Bears GM Ryan Pace could have stuck at No. 3 and not handed over three additional picks (third- and fourth-rounders last year, plus a 2018 third-round pick) to get a game-changing QB.
But that’s also false equivalency in that we don’t know what Trubisky’s ceiling is yet, or what system he’ll be playing in next year that could harness the most from his talent. This time a year ago, all anyone could talk about was how the Los Angeles Rams were fleeced in their trade up for Jared Goff, who played poorly as a rookie. Enter magic-wand-waving head coach Sean McVay, and now all anyone can say is that they're set for years at QB.
“Can we wait a few years maybe before we say?” an NFC college scouting director asked rhetorically. “I know what I thought going into [the 2017 NFL draft], and honestly it hasn’t changed a ton. So much of what you ask of quarterbacks, and what you expect from them, is in who is coaching them and who is blocking [for them] and catching the passes.
“To your point, [Goff] is a great example. [Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson] Wentz, too, I think. Where are they starting from isn’t where they’ll end up. My wife likes to bake, so I like to say they all have different cooking times, they all cook at different temperatures. The bread isn’t out of the oven yet.”
So far, it’s easy to say that Trubisky is ahead of the rookie quarterback the Browns ended up drafting 52nd overall. DeShone Kizer, from Notre Dame, has thrown an NFL-high 19 interceptions, which is the most by a rookie since Geno Smith’s 21 in 2013, and six of them — along with two fumbles — have come in the red zone.
There actually was some debate about whether Kizer would start on Christmas Eve. Browns head coach Hue Jackson, before saying Kizer would start, didn’t exactly give him the warmest of holiday endorsements.
“He has some work to do,” Jackson said following Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that dropped the Browns to 0-14. “I think that’s a fair question if he’ll ever get it. I think he will, but he has to keep working.”
At the very least, Trubisky has been on the rise. He has strung together two of his better games the past two weeks against the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions, even with the latter a 20-10 loss that included three picks. Bears head coach John Fox actually called it “arguably his best game” and that was after Trubisky’s more statistically impressive, turnover-free outing at Cincinnati when he completed 25-of-32 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown pass and a TD run.
“I’ve seen enough,” Fox said, “to think that Mitchell Trubisky’s going to have a heck of a career.”
Since taking over for Mike Glennon, Trubisky has completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 1,822 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in his 10 NFL starts. But he has raised his completion percentage (47.5) and his yards per attempt (6.4) following his first four starts to 64.9 percent and 6.9, respectively, over the past six outings. He could beef up those numbers more against Cleveland, which ranks 21st in passing yards allowed, 24th in yards per pass allowed, 30th in interception percentage and 25th in sack percentage.
Some of that is attributed to the fact Garrett missed the first four games of the season with a right high ankle sprain, missed the London game with a concussion and suffered a left ankle injury in Week 14 that he’s fought through.
When he finally hit the field, Garrett burst out of the gates with a sack on his first NFL snap — and he was up to four over his first three games. But he has only one sack in his past five games. Garrett leads the Browns with five, but the disappointment over his total body of work as a rookie is tangible.
“Eventually, it's going to break through where he gets one of these multiple-sack games because he's due,” Jackson said. “He just has to stay after it and keep playing.''
It’s way too early to say that the Browns or Bears made a mistake this past spring. In fact, they could end up being franchise-changing selections for the better. Jobs have and will be lost for both teams in the interim, though, and right now both franchises are hanging more on hope than results.