Reclamation projects are quite common in the NFL. Teams are always in search of ways to add talent to their rosters without sacrificing money or draft capital. One way to do this is to sign former high draft picks who have flamed out with their original teams. These players were drafted high for a reason, but have not been able to put it all together at the NFL level.
However, the success rate of this method is fairly low. Recent examples include the Steelers trading for Browns CB Justin Gilbert (only to cut him five months later), the Browns trading DeMario Davis to the Jets for safety Calvin Pryor (who was released in three months), and the Bills and Patriots taking short-lived chances on another Browns bust, WR Corey Coleman.
Still, the appeal is there, and occasionally, a diamond is found in the rough. After catching 11 touchdowns in four seasons with the Detroit Lions, Eric Ebron has 12 thus far in 2018 for the Colts. The Browns finally hit on a project, as they have turned maligned Packers CB Damarious Randall into a Pro-Bowl caliber free safety.
Browns on the rise
Randall is not the only instance of this method working for Cleveland this season; both left tackle Greg Robinson and wide receiver Breshad Perriman have played important roles in the Browns’ recent hot streak and look like they could be a part of the team’s long-term future.
The 2014 NFL Draft is filled with missed opportunities. Some very good players were not even drafted, including Malcom Butler, Cameron Brate, Trey Burton, Isaiah Crowell, and Andrew Norwell, the NFL’s second highest-paid guard. Pro Bowl linebacker Telvin Smith lasted until the fifth round, and Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, and Jarvis Landry, three of the league’s top receivers, lasted until the late second round.
Things only get worse closer at the top of the draft. The Houston Texans owned the first pick, and rather than taking the risk on the electrifying Heisman Trophy-winning hometown QB Johnny Manziel, they instead chose pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, hailed as the best prospect in years. Clowney has been an excellent player and would normally be classified as a great pick, were it not for the players who were taken behind him. Khalil Mack was selected fourth overall and has 50.5 career sacks in 75 games, compared to Clowney’s 27 in 59 matches.
A total of 13 Pro Bowlers were selected in the first round, yet there were also some major busts, the first of which came right after Clowney. The St. Louis Rams decided to take their franchise left tackle, drafting Greg Robinson out of Auburn. Robinson was regarded as one of the best offensive line prospects of the decade; he had the perfect blend of size, strength, and athleticism to dominate in the NFL. His technique needed refining, but Robinson had been a starter for only two years, so that was to be expected.
He was given three seasons of starting with the Rams before being shipped to Detroit in exchange for a sixth-round pick. Robinson’s inconsistency and extraordinarily high penalty rate made him the definition of a bust. He was flagged five times in six games with the Lions, 15 times in 2016, 16 in 2015, and 11 in 2014.
Robinson signed with the Browns this offseason and looked like he was destined to be the team’s backup swing tackle at best, and there was a chance he would not even make the roster if rookie Desmond Harrison outperformed him and guard Joel Bitonio moved to left tackle.
Harrison won the starting LT job out of the preseason, and while he displayed flashes of brilliance, he struggled mightily. Over the eight games that Harrison started, Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield were sacked 33 times, and through six weeks, the Browns ranked second in the NFL in QB hits allowed with 49. The team was giving up a full sack more per game than they did in 2017, when they were the fifth-worst pass blocking squad.
A change was needed, and Harrison was benched in favor of Robinson. Since the switch, the Browns have gone from allowing 4.1 sacks per game to 2.8, and that average falls to 0.3 over the past three games. The Kansas City Chiefs, with a potent pass rushing including Dee Ford and Chris Jones, managed only two sacks on Mayfield.
Since that game, the Browns have allowed just one sack, and a total of four(!) QB hits heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Denver Broncos. The next closest team has allowed 19. That stretch includes 60 minutes against the Houston Texans, who boast Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and J.J. Watt.
New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens is getting the ball out of Mayfield’s hands quicker than Todd Haley, and that change in philosophy is responsible for much of the improvement in pass protection. However, Robinson’s contribution cannot be overlooked, and it appears as if Cleveland has found at the very least a serviceable offensive lineman off the streets.
While he has undoubtedly improved since last season, Robinson is far from perfect. He is still penalized far too much and struggles in the run game, especially when he is out in space ahead of the ball carrier. His performance thus far should not dissuade the Browns from looking to shore up the LT spot this offseason, but Robinson has at least given Cleveland some stability at the position, something they haven’t had since Joe Thomas left the field for the final time in Week 7 of 2017.
New beginning for Perriman
Robinson is joined by Breshad Perriman as former busts making new names for themselves in Cleveland. The Baltimore Ravens have had top tier defenses for years, but since their Super Bowl victory in February of 2013, Baltimore has been to the postseason only once.
A major reason for that lack of success is their subpar offense, and specially their WR corps. GM Ozzie Newsome attempted to solve the problem in 2015 when he selected Perriman 26th overall. Perriman entered the draft after averaging 20.9 yards per catch during his junior season at UCF. His 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame made him an ideal prototype, and his blazing 4.24 speed gave him elite potential.
Unfortunately, Perriman missed his entire rookie season due to an injury. He caught only 33 passes in 2016, and just 10 in 2017. The Ravens gave up on him after the 2018 preseason, and Perriman spent five days with the Washington Redskins before being released again.
Cleveland signed Perriman in the middle of October and began slowly integrating him into the offense by necessity. At one point against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Browns had only three healthy receivers. Perriman wasn’t expected to be more than a depth player; after all, he had been consistently injured throughout his career, and when he was on the field, his hands were anything but consistent. After his injuries, it was unlikely that Perriman still had his record-setting speed, which left him with really no outstanding traits.
But every now and then, Perriman would make his way into the lineup, and make a nice catch here and there. His hands appeared much softer and stronger than they ever were in Baltimore. Perhaps Perriman could be salvaged after all.
Then, on the Browns first play from scrimmage against the Carolina Panthers, Baker Mayfield wound up and fired a rocket over 50 yards down the field right into Perriman’s hands to set Cleveland up with a first and goal. This what what he was drafted to do; stretch the field and make big plays.
What made the play even more impressive was that Perriman had completely burnt Panthers rookie Donte Jackson, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine with a time of 4.32 seconds. Perriman’s game-breaking speed is still there, which is encouraging for his future with the team.
More than a pass-catcher
Perriman’s impact has gone beyond catching the ball. Even when he isn’t being targeted, he is clearly the biggest WR on the team, and is faster than even Antonio Callaway. He is the best at creating separation and driving his defender away from the ball.
His run blocking has been excellent, and when the Browns run a double TE set with a fullback, Perriman is the lone receiver on the outside. His effort has also been outstanding, as he was blocking for Callaway on a near-touchdown against Houston. After Callaway fumbled inside the five, Perriman ran down the Texans defender.
At this point, it isn’t realistic to expect Perriman to develop into the elite #1 WR he was drafted to be, but it seems he definitely has a role with the Browns moving forward, proved again at the beginning of Saturday’s game in Denver:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 16, 2018
Both Robinson and Perriman are former busts who look like they have found homes in Cleveland. They are 26 and 25 respectively, so they fit the Browns’ timeline perfectly. Successful reclamation projects aren’t too common, but the Browns investments on these two players has certainly paid off. As a team, Cleveland is defying odds, and Robinson and Perriman are two great examples of that.