The Cleveland Browns had a disastrous quarterback situation in 2016. The past two decades have been much of the same, but 2016 was especially cruel. Robert Griffin III was signed during the 2016 offseason and was quickly locked in as the team’s starting quarterback. Griffin started Week 1, but he suffered a shoulder injury late in the game and missed the next eleven games. Prior to Griffin’s return in Week 14, the Browns cycled through Cody Kessler and Josh McCown as starting quarterbacks. Kessler started eight games to McCown’s three. The Browns also endured 24-attempt games from both Kevin Hogan (Week 7) and Charlie Whitehurst (Week 5) due to injuries to Kessler and McCown. The circus of quarterbacks combined for 15 passing touchdowns and 14 interceptions on the season.
Despite appearances from a handful of veterans, the best Browns quarterback in 2016 was third-round rookie draft pick Kessler. He was a three-year starter at USC, who had been sold throughout his draft process as a low-variance, efficient backup. Browns fans have longed for a competent rookie quarterback, but Kessler was hardly the expectation.
Kessler was the only quarterback who could keep the Browns offense on schedule. Griffin’s loss of arm strength and confidence often lead to the offense becoming constipated, while McCown was simply not good. Kessler, as advertised, provided stability in the short passing game and threatened the defense with the ability to extend plays. He was not a consistent playmaker, but he could complete the easier throws, avoid a sack here and there, and flash accuracy down-the-field. Kessler did enough to give the Browns competent quarterback play.
Once the season was over, the question then became whether or not Kessler can be good enough to move forward with. It’s clear he can do the simple things and avoid turnovers, but the ceiling of the offense was severely capped when Kessler was on the field. Kessler doesn’t have the arm strength or consistent confidence to be a difference maker at quarterback. His value as a backup and situational starter is excellent, but a team can only go so far with his skill set at quarterback.
The question about Kessler’s standing had to be followed up with how the Browns should have handled their quarterback situation. The Browns had three options this offseason: stick it out with Kessler, select a quarterback with a premium pick in the upcoming draft, or bring in a veteran quarterback. Somehow, the Browns managed to do all three, more or less.
Brock Osweiler was traded from the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns seven weeks before the draft. As a Texan, Osweiler was miserable. He struggled to string together successful drives, let alone complete games. Osweiler was inaccurate, skittish, and overall ineffective. Osweiler had looked decent when he was with the Denver Broncos from 2012 to 2015, though, and the Browns are hoping they can get that version of Osweiler. Even if he joins Kessler in the situational backup category, the Browns got a second-round pick for eating Osweiler’s contract. The Browns walked away with assets, regardless of Osweiler’s success with them.
Seven weeks after the trade, it was draft weekend. Most everyone predicted the Browns would take a quarterback with their 12th overall pick or trade back into the first round to secure one. A quarterback was selected 12th overall, but not to the Browns. The Texans again did business with the Browns and traded up to the pick to secure Deshaun Watson. The Browns then selected safety Jabrill Peppers with the 25th overall pick that they received from Houston. Shortly thereafter, the Browns traded up to the 29th overall pick, but again, it was not a quarterback. Tight end David Njoku was the pick.
The Browns headed into the second day of the draft without addressing their quarterback situation seriously. Options were running thin, too. Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson were all selected in the first round. The only particularly desirable quarterback remaining after the first round was DeShone Kizer, but with teams in need of a quarterback prodigy, like the Saints, Giants, Chargers, and Cardinals, all with earlier picks than the Browns, it appeared they would be out of luck. Lo and behold, each of the aforementioned teams passed on Kizer and allowed him to slip to the 52nd overall pick, where the Browns pounced.
Kizer was a two-year starter at Notre Dame. He has immense arm talent, a strong NFL build, and impeccable command of the pocket. Kizer has every tool that could be desired of a pocket passer, in addition to having the athletic ability to be a mobile threat and a weapon in the running game. However, Kizer lacked consistency at Notre Dame. Too many of his passes went awry for no good reason. Furthermore, Kizer wasn’t able to elevate a desolate Notre Dame team in 2016, ultimately ending in a 4-8 record for the Fighting Irish. Kizer is a gifted quarterback who never seemed to have it all together in college.
It is now Hue Jackson’s turn to see what he can get out of the Notre Dame product.
Hue Jackson spent his first year as the Browns head coach last season. Before accepting the job, Jackson was the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals for two seasons. Jackson’s offense in Cincinnati blended efficiency with explosiveness. They could run the ball at will and turn to superstars, such as A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, in the passing game. The perennially mediocre Andy Dalton looked like a different quarterback under Jackson than he ever has in his career.
Those Bengals offenses relied on running the ball and calling shot plays off the back of the running game. Jackson’s Bengals ranked 28th (52.41%) in the NFL in passing-play percentage in 2014, only to climb a couple spots to 26th (54.20%) in 2015. The Browns could not follow suit in 2016, though. Jackson’s Browns offense ranked 4th (64.39%) in the NFL in passing-play percentage. Jackson’s use of the passing game jumped roughly 10% between his 2015 Bengals season and his 2016 Browns season.
The difference was not the quality of the running game. Cleveland has one of the best running back duos in the league in Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, and the offensive line was a solid unit. The Browns had the second-highest yards per carry average in the NFL, but the team wasn’t built to run the ball. Cleveland’s defense ended the year giving up 28 points per game and ranked 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It was not so much that Jackson wanted to throw the ball more, it was that the Browns had to throw to stay in games.
Regardless of the forced run-pass balance, Jackson’s concepts and goals remained largely the same. Jackson calls an aggressive, creative passing offense. Jackson wants to be able to attack the intermediate and deeper parts of the field, but without being able to assert dominance in the ground game and without having a quarterback who could threaten down-the-field, the offense couldn’t be what Jackson wanted it to be. Kizer can change that.
Kessler had his moments last season, but he was averse to testing the middle of the field. He lacked the bravado and arm talent to consistently stick the ball in tight windows. On both of these plays, Kessler takes a look at a ‘dig’ route over the middle and cowers away from it. Neither route was blatantly open, but had Kessler fully understood where the underneath coverage was on each play, he shouldn’t have been scared to give his receiver a 1-on-1 shot.
Jackson’s offense thrives on intermediate-deep combinations like the ‘dig’/’post’ combination in the first play. Quarterbacks must have confidence, a strong arm, and clear vision over the middle of the field in order to make those types of concepts work. Kizer checks all three boxes. In fact, Kizer is at his best when throwing to the intermediate and deep sections of the field. He’s not afraid to hang in the pocket for as long as he needs to, nor is he afraid to test windows and give his players a chance. Kizer’s arm is phenomenal, too. He can generate velocity just as well as he can provide a feathery touch. Most importantly, Kizer grew in college to become a much better decision maker over the middle of the field. He saw the field better as time went on and learned how to avoid crucial mistakes.
Kizer’s confidence and arm talent also lends to him being a master in the red zone. Jackson’s offense plays aggressively in the red zone. Instead of leaning toward run-after-catch plays and chipping away at defenses, Jackson likes to let his quarterbacks get at it and attack the end zone directly. This will bode well for Kizer.
Jackson called for mirrored seam routes to the front of the end zone. With the cornerback on the left playing in off-zone with an outside shade, the receiver to that side had the advantage by alignment. It was then on the quarterback to trust himself and his receiver in a tight spot. Josh McCown rifled the ball to his receiver as pressure nearly got to him from a B-gap blitz and the Browns came away with a touchdown.
Kizer excels in these situations. He can and will fit tight windows in the red zone, whether they be over the middle of the field or toward the back corner. With a quarterback of Kizer’s skill set and bravado, the playbook in the red zone opens up and gives the Browns more potential for a quick touchdown once they reach the red zone.
In addition to throwing the ball aggressively, Jackson wants to be able to use his quarterback as a rushing threat. Jackson made Dalton a functional runner in Cincinnati and was able to replicate that with Griffin in Cleveland, but the Browns lost that spark when Griffin wasn’t on the field. While Kizer isn’t the same athlete that Griffin is, he is a thick, powerful runner who can be a legitimate part of the running game.
Few offensive minds in the league are as brilliant and adaptive as Jackson is. Jackson has found massive newfound success due in part to how well he can bring the college game to the NFL and add minor wrinkles to the same concept. The two plays above are essentially the same read-option concept, but the first is an end-read and the second is a tackle-read.
In the first play, the left tackle and left guard pull to the opposite side of the formation. Griffin has to read the free defensive end and decide whether to give the ball to the back or keep it himself. The defensive end slow plays it and stutter steps as he crosses the line of scrimmage, meaning the running back almost certainly won’t be caught from behind by the defensive end. Griffin gives the ball and Crowell follows his blockers for a nice gain.
The second play is hardly different. This time, however, it is the center and right guard who are pulling. With the interior of the offensive line being vacated, the 1-tech defensive tackle is left to his own devices in open space. Again, Griffin has to read the defender and decide what to do with the ball. The defensive tackle moves straight downhill and attacks Griffin, so Griffin hands the ball to Crowell for another solid gain.
By adding the quarterback to the running game, defenses lose the 10-on-11 matchup that they would normally have. Jackson has become well versed in finding ways to make the quarterback a threat, even in the passing game by way of run-pass options (RPOs). Kizer was a key cog in Notre Dame’s rushing attack over the past two seasons and he should be able to immediately translate that ability to the NFL. Kizer can handle all the concepts Jackson already runs and may even open Jackson up to running more quarterback draws and quarterback power plays, seeing as Kizer is a stout athlete.
Slowly, but surely, the Browns are piecing together a functional offense. Last year, the Browns had a fine offensive line, two excellent running backs, and a receiving corps that lacked depth. The Browns weren’t able to take full advantage of their best assets and it stalled the overall production of the offense. There will be more explosive potential in the mix in 2017, though.
The Browns made sure to build the offense from the inside-out. Tackle Joe Thomas and guard Joel Bitonio were already stud offensive lineman on the roster, but they needed some help. The Browns signed center J.C. Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency, both of whom were top free agents at their positions. Tretter was a solid center for the Green Bay Packers for a couple of years, while Zeitler had developed into one of the better guards in the league throughout his rookie contract with the Cincinnati Bengals. In a couple strokes of a pen, the Browns offensive line went from good to great.
There are zero concerns about the Browns running back situation. Isaiah Crowell is a beast of a running back who can work between the tackles and pop off explosive runs. Complimentary to Crowell’s downhill running style is Duke Johnson, a shifty receiving back who can work in space and be a versatile piece all around the formation. Crowell and Johnson are both good runners whose styles perfectly compliment one another. With a better offensive line leading the way, there is no reason to believe the Browns running backs won’t be as good or better than they were a year ago.
Pass catching talent is an unknown for Cleveland. Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor exploded onto the scene last season, but he left in free agency to play for Washington. The Browns signed Kenny Britt as Pryor’s replacement. Britt had an underappreciated 2016 season with the Rams that was undermined as soon as Jared Goff stepped onto the field. Assuming he can summon the same player he was early in 2016, the Browns made a lateral move by signing Britt.
The next best options for the Browns are wide receiver Corey Coleman and rookie tight end David Njoku. Coleman, a rookie last season, erupted in his first two games for seven receptions, 173 yards, and two touchdowns. Coleman broke his hand during practice early in the season and he wasn’t the same player once he returned in Week 9. Coleman should be an impact player if he remains healthy, but the sample size of him being dominant is too small to confidently bank on. Njoku has similar playmaking ability as Coleman. Njoku is a freakish athlete on film and he confirmed that at the NFL Combine. With Coleman clearing out the middle of the field with vertical stems, Njoku could feast over the middle of the field and be a demon after the catch.
It’s tough to feel confident about the Browns’ receiving corps. Britt has never been a consistently great player, and Coleman and Njoku are both young players who need to prove they can be as explosive as they are sold to be. Beyond those three, the Browns receiving corps is a wasteland of middling speed threats and poor hands. It could get ugly if any of Cleveland’s top-three get hurt or don’t produce as expected.
The Player Himself
Like many of the other quarterbacks in this class, DeShone Kizer was a polarizing prospect. His physical tools are magnificent and his mental process blends aggression with rational decision making. Kizer believes in his ability as a passer, but he seldom oversteps his boundaries and plays recklessly. However, Kizer had issues consistently playing to his skill set. He has a tendency to misfire out of nowhere and hang onto the ball too long in the pocket, leading to negative plays he could have avoided.
Kizer’s best traits are the most important for being a successful professional quarterback. Kizer manages the pocket beautifully and plays exceptionally well under pressure. He is fearless in the face of pressure, and he understands how to make subtle movements in the pocket to keep himself clean and in position to throw.
Kizer held his eyes up and kept his shoulders squared while dancing away from Duke’s 3-tech. Kizer didn’t have to drop his eyes in the pocket to check where he had room, nor did he have to flip his shoulders away from the line of scrimmage in order to avoid the defender. Throughout the play, Kizer was able to remain in a constant state of readiness. When it came time to throw, Kizer had no issues getting the ball off smoothly, even with a late blitzer crashing down on him. Kizer is years ahead of where he should be as a pocket manager and that should help ease his transition to the NFL.
Confidence can be found beyond Kizer’s handling of the pocket. Kizer is a fearless passer. There is not a single window that he doesn’t believe he can hit. That can lead to trouble for most quarterbacks, but Kizer has the arm talent to make his hubris a net positive.
Throwing a backside post vs Cover-1 press coverage is audacious. The ball has to be placed between the cornerback and the safety, as well as over the top of the linebacker. The pass can’t have too much air under it or else the safety could catch up to the ball, but throwing a low flying line drive would risk the linebacker getting a hand on the ball. The pass has to be absolutely perfect.
Kizer’s arm talent and confidence was not the only thing on display, though. As soon as Kizer pulled the ball from the running back’s belly, he looked at the safety and gave the impression he could open to his right to throw. Once Kizer saw the safety backpedaling away, he turned to his backside receiver, stepped up, and ripped the pass as the receiver was getting out of his break. In moments like this, Kizer feels more like an artist than a quarterback.
In addition to be able to fit windows over the middle of the field, Kizer is a deadly deep passer. The ball explodes out of his hand and the ball doesn’t die on him. Kizer can throw 50-60 yards down the field while maintaining good arc and velocity.
Not only does this ball fly 50 yards from the throw point to the catch point, but the pass travels from the left hash to the edge of the right boundary. This throw is nearly impossible, yet Kizer places the pass inches over the cornerback’s reach. Kizer can make throws that defensive coordinators simply can not prepare for and he can threaten to make an explosive play on any given snap. He has the potential to quickly assert himself as one of the best deep passers in the NFL.
Kizer will thrive in a setting where he can take deep drops, read the field, and fire into tough windows. He can handle the pocket on deep drops, he sees the field clearly, and he has the arm talent to place any throw anywhere on the field. Kizer will need to clean up the simpler parts of his game, though.
Kizer has a lumbering throwing motion. He loads his entire body back before slinging it forward. When sitting in the pocket to throw intermediate and deep passes, Kizer gets away with it because his velocity often makes up for the lost time. In the short game, quarterbacks have to get the ball out quickly, but Kizer struggles with that right now. He takes too long to get through his drop and into his throwing motion, meaning defenders often have an extra step worth of time to play the ball.
Likewise, Kizer simply misses some of the easier throws. His slow dropbacks on quick throws often result in him having to rush his plant step. As a result, Kizer tends to overstep and lean into his throws rather than have the ball pop out of his frame. Kizer will skip passes in the dirt or leave them sailing out of bounds over the head of his receivers. This is hardly an issue when throwing to the intermediate and deep sections of the field, but Kizer can’t control himself when throwing quick passes.
Luckily for Kizer and the Browns, fixing quick game mechanics are easier than fixing mechanical issues that pop up later in plays. Quick game mechanics can largely be fixed by getting the quarterback to speed up his process and play with urgency, rather than asking him to change the way he throws. Hopefully Kizer can take to coaching and clean up his accuracy.
The Browns lucked into the best quarterback in the draft. They did not appear to be too worried about taking a quarterback with a top pick, but when DeShone Kizer fell to them at 52nd overall, they couldn’t pass him up. Kizer fell due to his inconsistency and speculated character issues, though it’s hard to buy anything character related that comes out of Brian Kelly’s programs.
Kizer has the skills to be able to play Week 1, but the Browns don’t have to play him right away. Hue Jackson likes Cody Kessler for what he is and the Browns appear to be giving Jackson a long leash. The Browns aren’t in a rush to win right away, so they can sit and groom Kizer for as long as they deem fit.
Given Kizer’s arm talent, mental prowess, and confidence, it’s hard to imagine he will be held out for too long. He is too talented to sit for the entire season. When Kizer gets his chance is to be seen, but when he does, Browns fans should feel as if they finally have their quarterback.
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