Lombardi: Browns now the AFC North's most complete team

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Since owner Jimmy Haslam bought the team in 2013, the Browns have been in search of a franchise quarterback.  They whiffed badly on Johnny Manziel, which ended up costing general manager Ray Farmer his job and giving Sashi Brown the power even though he had zero experience in personnel.  Haslam was desperate to answer the quarterback question and Brown assured him he would.  

In 2017, the Cleveland Browns believed analytics would solve all their problems.  With Hue Jackson as their head coach and Brown running their personnel department, they took a completely different approach towards team building, letting their large statistical-based personnel department guide their decisions. 

The 2017 draft had two quarterbacks worthy of discussion: Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech and Deshaun Watson of Clemson. With the No. 1 pick, the Browns made a great choice in selecting Myles Garrett. Then, with the 12th pick, they did what most analytical departments love: Trade the pick for more picks.  So, Cleveland traded the 12th overall pick for the Texans’ first-round pick in 2017 and their first-rounder in 2018; Houston then picked Watson.  

On Friday, the Browns traded three No. 1 picks (plus others) to acquire Watson, and added more money to his already top-level quarterback contract. My, how the analytics have changed.  In the end the Browns wasted the first pick overall in 2018 by selecting Baker Mayfield, who is a good – not great – player. And now, they paid an additional first-rounder to acquire a player they once passed on.  

Through it all, the Browns collected talent and built a solid team -- even winning a playoff game. In spite of Mayfield’s limitations, they proved they could compete against any team. Now with Watson they have closed the gap.  In the Kevin Stefanski play-action scheme, Watson will be hard to defend.  He will be effective on the move throwing in either direction, and if they get behind in a game, he has the dropback passing skills to lead his team back -- something Mayfield lacked.  With a good offensive line and a great runner in Nick Chubb, the Browns’ talent around Watson will be the best of his career.  Remember, he never had a good offensive line the entire time with the Texans. 

When Watson was available for the draft I felt his leadership skills and culture-building character was something the Browns needed.  In hindsight, my evaluation of character appears wrong based on the 22 civil charges against Watson still awaiting resolution.  Those charges loom large, but they apparently don’t worry the Browns, as they guaranteed his entire contract. If Watson can play all 16 games and Cleveland improves its defense, this Browns team has an excellent chance to win the AFC North and compete for the AFC title.  

With Lamar Jackson in Baltimore and Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, the AFC North has three excellent quarterbacks capable of taking their teams for a deep playoff run, but to me, the Browns now have the most complete team.  Does that mean they’re the best? Only time will tell, but for now they are worth futures wager.  

The 2022 NFL offseason has been a wild ride.  The North and the West look improved and in an arms race.  The Buffalo Bills are not resting on their laurels or staying status quo; they have improved from a year ago.  There are at least eight teams from the AFC that could be serious Super Bowl contenders.  Injuries and quarterback play will determine the eventual AFC champion, but the Browns have significantly improved their chances by acquiring Watson.  

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