Seth Wickersham is not a household name, but those that do know of him and his work — at least in New England — probably do not hold him in too high of a regard. Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN and co-authored the infamous From Spygate to Deflategate: Inside what split the NFL and Patriots apart story from September 2015, one that relies mostly on speculation based around accounts from people outside of New England.
But when not piecing together a vague at best story built on hear-say, Wickersham is actually one of the better NFL reporters out there. His latest piece on the Cleveland Browns — The clash of the Cleveland Browns: How Hue Jackson, Jimmy Haslam and Baker Mayfield collided — is an interesting story about the continued fall and possibly coming rise of one of the league’s most storied franchises.
The story is well worth taking a look at, but it is something else that draws our attention to it: an image Wickersham shared that did not make it into his story but was rather shared by its author via Twitter. It shows a basic plan of the do’s and don’ts of the Browns organization between 2016 and 2017 — a time frame over which the club won only one combined game — and how the club’s staff wanted to approach the task:
One day, an entire book will be written about the Browns 2016 and 2017 seasons. This was a small sample of how it was supposed to unfold, on paper: pic.twitter.com/LSn5iP3pn9— Seth Wickersham (@SethWickersham) January 24, 2019
At the first look, most of the points seem rather reasonable and not unlike some of the points the Bill Belichick-led Patriots also would stress: from clear organizational structures to the identification of key positions to acquiring players and picks through the draft. However, it is the left upper corner — one titled “Talent Acquisition - Free Agency” — that illustrates philosophical differences between New England and Cleveland.
The points are defined as follows:
- Don’t Pay for Depth
- Identify Difference Makers; Be Cognizant of Scheme Production
- Factor in Leadership and Toughness
- Build Your Roster and Use FA’s Less and Less
- Age is important
It can be seen that the Browns did not view free agency as equal to the draft when it came to roster building. While the idea is a sound one in theory — use cheap players on rookie deals instead of veterans whose prices are shaped by the open market — it is a difficult approach to use in the real NFL world. Too risky is relying on rookies to develop, too important depth at every position.
Take the Patriots: while they may not have the peak talent other teams have at certain positions, they are usually well equipped to handle with injuries at starting positions. Investing in free agency is a key pillar of this strategy, and one reason why the team is competing for at least the AFC title basically every single year. New England doesn’t handcuff itself to good drafting, but instead explores all avenues to add roster.
Just look at the current team. While a lot of the key contributors have been drafted by the team — Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers, Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty, just to name a few — others have been brought in through free agency to fill starting roles (Stephon Gilmore, Lawrence Guy) or rotational depth spots (Albert McClellan, Adrian Clayborn).
This approach might not be “sexy” but it certainly is effective and allows New England to build a deep roster that has quality down to the third string. The Browns’ “guardrails” as outlined above, put more pressure on hitting the draft, meanwhile. When looking at the last few years, it can be seen which method wins.