The Process, NFL Style

“The Process” is a team-building strategy famously coined by Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2010s. Philadelphia underwent their process when they fell into a treacherous four-season stretch from 2013-2016. After missing the playoffs in 2013, Sam Hinkie — the new GM at the time — decided it was time for some change under his regime. He began to trade away any capable player on the roster for future draft capital. The roster was stripped clean and began to lose and lose more. Over the four-year stretch, they won just 75 games — good for a winning percentage of .229.

During this stretch, the common perception around the NBA was that they were purposely losing. This could have been the case, as Hinkie continuously passed up the opportunity to sign veteran free agents that would improve the roster. Instead, the front office stuck with the roster they had and leaned on building through the draft, trying to get production from the rookies they selected. The rookies they drafted should have contributed sooner but some suffered injuries — delaying the winning even more. As a front office, the Sixers were stacked with picks and had a litany of young players that included four top-three picks in a row.

As all of the losing went on, the strategy of the 76ers was truly a process of patience, waiting for all the future assets to pay off. After years of struggling, the team finally turned it around. While they have not won a championship yet, they have been winning. The 76ers have had four straight winning seasons – with a .631 winning percentage. Hinkie was not able to be there for the boom of his master plan, as the losing did take its toll, but his impact on the roster is known.

“Trust the process” has now grown into a lifeline phrase for any organization that loses a lot of games. Some call it tanking. In reality, whatever form the process takes, it is still a purposeful strategy. The process may be different for every team.

At the 33rd Team, we thought of it as a team trading away valuable assets, sacrificing talent on the current roster to plan for the future. This does not mean the team is not trying to win, moreso the front office is purposely putting its team at a competitive disadvantage in the present to win games in the future.

After the 76ers fell short in the 2021 NBA playoffs, we were inspired by the discussions of whether or not their process was a failure. As a result, we looked at the NFL equivalent of the process, the teams that did it, and how it has worked out for them.

To undergo the process and completely reset the roster, a GM must be awarded patience from ownership. Hinkie held the GM title for four years despite the abysmal record. In the NFL, holding GM and coaching jobs are more and more difficult, and it is hard to see a situation where a GM would hold a job if their team struggled that much in four years. This could only happen if the ownership and front office agreed with the strategy and awarded the promise of patience for an extended period.

Historically, there have certainly been teams that struggled before eventually getting better through the draft. That said, it is unclear if many of those teams had torn apart their roster to do so, or just were not very good over that time. To identify with the process, we did not just look at teams with a bad record, but rather teams that traded current players for additional draft capital or cut established veterans to clear cap space, while making their roster even worse, and losing games as a result. For this study, we looked at teams that endured “the process” from 2015 to the present.

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns are, perhaps, the most popular example in today’s NFL. They endured years of losing due to both coaching and personnel decisions while also jettisoning their roster year after year, making them perennial contenders for worst record. We looked at the Browns’ team-building strategy over this time, by examining their draft classes and personnel decisions.

The Browns had struggled for a while before 2015, despite having high picks. Cleveland had already shown some signs of a process taking head, as they traded back in multiple different first rounds for additional picks. In 2015, they held two first-round picks, three day two picks, and 12 total picks. However, they decreased their win total by two wins, finishing just 1-15 the next season (2016). In the 2016-2017 offseason, they held the second pick, right in line to get a franchise-changing type of player.

However, Cleveland felt they needed to add a lot of players, and traded back to get more picks again. For the second time in three years, the Browns moved back from a top-four selection. The 2016 draft class featured one first, four day-two picks and 14 total picks.  John Dorsey was brought in during the 2017 season to be the new GM, inheriting a lot of cap space and many valuable picks.

Dorsey inherited a 0-16 Browns team despite having the #1 overall draft pick in Myles Garrett added to the roster.

In Dorsey’s first draft, which featured the top selection, he made two first-round selections, three day-two picks and 9 total. Two back to back first overall picks, the Browns found more success finishing with a 7-8-1 record. Dorsey was active in the trade market to start this offseason. Like Hinkie, Dorsey traded former draft picks from very recently for draft capital. Leading up to the 2018 draft in late April, they traded Danny Shelton, DeShone Kizer, Jason McCourty and QBs Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan. By doing so, Cleveland gave itself a lot of late-round picks, increasing their chances of finding value there. Following the draft, they made more trades, sending Jamar Taylor, Corey Coleman, Josh Gordon and other players to new teams for more capital.

The 2018 season was a turning point for the Browns. Although it had its ups and downs, they were much improved from years past and looked as if they were headed in the right direction. They got contributions from many of their core young players. However, the trading of former draft picks did not stop, as they traded Duke Johnson, Emmanuel Ogbah and Austin Corbett in 2019. The Browns looked like they wanted to contend and made moves to do so, trading for Odell Beckham Jr. and Wyatt Teller. Their process had been in full swing for years and finally looked as if they would start to win games. However, the 2019 season would not go as planned for several reasons. As a result, Head Coach Freddie Kitchens and GM John Dorsey lost their jobs. Dorsey jump started the process, getting the key pieces of the roster in place during his regime..

In 2020, under new coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry, the Browns won 11 games and went on an inspiring playoff run to finish the season. Although the Browns fell short of the Super Bowl, they accomplished a lot and set the bar high for future performance. Going into 2021, their process allowed them to draft a lot of really good players over the six-year span. Their roster is among the best in the league in large part due to those draft picks.

The Browns’ process took longer than expected, as they struggled to hit on their picks, often trading back but not getting the right player. But, after the 2017 and 2018 off-season’s, the roster continued to change over, getting the right pieces in place, and the wins followed. It is hard to say if their process has worked because the team has just recently come together and is trying to contend, but it is safe to say that their team has come a long way from the latter half of the 2010s.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Next up, we looked at the Jacksonville Jaguars and the hangover they faced from their storied playoff run in 2017. From 2008 to 2016, the Jaguars had five different head coaches and picked in the top 10 nine times, missing the playoffs each of those years. Like the Browns, the Jaguars had a hard time hitting on the valuable picks they had. From 2014-16, GM David Caldwell hit on a few picks to establish a young foundation.

With that in place, the Jaguars inked deals with many high-priced, explosive players, specifically on the defensive side of the ball in 2016 and 2017. While it had been a long time since the Jaguars were competitive, their roster was finally ready to compete. The 2017 season saw their team perform well, thanks largely to the defense, returning to the playoffs and winning their division. They fell just short of a Super Bowl berth in the playoffs, as well.

Following the season, they continued to add and bolster their roster to set themselves up for another run. In addition, they also reached an extension with QB Blake Bortles, a move that proved to be detrimental. The 2018 season did not go as planned. The defense was still impressive, as they were still ranked seventh in DVOA, as opposed to second in 2017. However, the already league-average offense (15th in DVOA in 2017), finished an abysmal 30th in DVOA, due to injuries and lack of talent. As a result, they dropped to just five wins, looking like a shell of themselves from the previous season. With a talented front seven, and in a losing streak, the Jaguars began to slowly tear down part of the 2017 roster, trading former third overall pick, Dante Fowler to the Rams for future day two and three picks.

Fowler was the first piece of the puzzle, as many poor contracts put the team in a compromising position. In addition to giving an extension to struggling Blake Bortles, as mentioned earlier, they were shelling out the most money in football to their DL, while also investing high draft capital in that unit. While it was one of the best groups in football, the large allocation of picks and cap left other groups, particularly on the offense, weaker. According to Spotrac, the Jaguars were using more than $50 million on eight defensive linemen, paying around $6.4 million per player. This was the highest in the league by a good margin, almost $1.5 million per player above the next closest team, in the Bucs.

After the 2018 season, the process began to take hold for the Jaguars. This was not the first time they were undergoing a period of struggle, but it happened just over one year from a time when they once looked like the team to beat for years to come in the AFC. In the offseason, they started to blow it up, releasing several key starters on both sides of the ball. The list of players was very long, including Blake Bortles, Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gibson and Carlos Hyde, all clearing a large amount of cap space for the future. Telvin Smith also announced his retirement.

Once the 2019 season was underway, they made their biggest move yet, and largest indication that the process was fully underway, by trading their best player, All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey, to the Rams in exchange for some valuable draft picks down the road. In the 2019 season, with a much less talented roster than the two years past, they struggled again, winning just six games. Their strategy was in place and they would continue getting rid of anybody they had left from a few years ago. The offseason began by trading away A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell and Nick Foles, who they had just signed a year earlier. In addition to some other releases, they released Leonard Fournette and reached a deal to send Yannick Ngakoue to Minnesota in exchange for draft capital. In the 2020 draft, the Jaguars had two first-round picks and 12 total picks, giving them a good chance to add talent to their roster.

It was clear the 2020 season was going to be difficult for the team due to all the roster moves, getting rid of starters for picks, and clearing cap space. They struggled even more in the season, finishing with the league’s worst record and the number one overall pick. Head coach Doug Marrone and GM David Caldwell were both let go. In the 2021 offseason, with a new coach and GM in place, the Jaguars signed a lot of players in free agency who did not necessarily demand contracts that would break the bank to fill out their roster. The real improvement in their roster should come from the draft, where they held the first overall pick, in addition to another first and three day-two picks, making nine total picks.

While we saw the Browns process currently paying off, the Jaguars seem to have just put the worst part of the process behind them. With a new front office and roster, they hope to ascend to one of the league’s best teams in due time. The Jaguars had struggled before putting it together in 2017, then struggled again in 2018. This led them to quickly tear their roster apart and begin the long process to turn it around.

Miami Dolphins

In our last example, the Miami Dolphins did things a bit differently than the teams above. That is, they were able to turn themselves around very quickly compared to the others. In 2016, new head coach Adam Gase led the team to a 10-6 record, earning their first playoff berth since 2008. Following the season, the roster was still solid and seemed poised to keep up its momentum. Instead, Ryan Tannehill got hurt and missed the entire 2017 season. In addition, they traded their leading rusher, Jay Ajayi to the Eagles for a future day three pick, midseason. They ended up dropping their win total by four, finishing a disappointing 6-10. Moving to 2018, in addition to having the 11th pick in the draft, they started the offseason by trading away WR Jarvis Landry for two day-three picks. They stayed relatively quiet in free agency and went into 2018 trying to get back to where they were in 2016. The team was still young, suffered injuries, and was just not as talented as they once were, leading to a 7-9 season. After the season, Adam Gase was let go and more change ensued.

GM Chris Grier hired Brian Flores to be their next head coach. Right away, the Dolphins moved on from Tannehill and Robert Quinn, trading both players for late-round picks.  They did not do much else to improve their roster outside of the draft. The first few weeks of September cemented their process and set themselves up very nicely for the future. First, they sent 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and a few picks to the Texans, in exchange for two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and two other players. Just about two weeks later, they sent 2018 first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick and two late-round picks to the Steelers for another first-round pick and two late-round picks. A month later, they also traded their starting RB, Kenyan Drake.

Thoughts circulated around the Dolphins that they were actively tanking. However, for the Dolphins front office, they were just undergoing their version of the process, as they frankly hit the reset button and acquired a lot of picks and cap space. Instead of rolling over and playing completely uninspiring football after an 0-7 start, Flores got his ball club to show fight, as they ended up finishing 5-11. Going into the offseason, it looked as if the Dolphins could use the large number of picks they had to build through the draft while taking it easy in acquiring veterans. However, the Dolphins spent the most amount of money on free agents of any team, specifically investing heavily on the defensive side of the ball. With all of the new talent from the draft and free agency, Miami played to a 10-6 record and just missed out on the playoffs. Miami’s offense lacked a little bit down the stretch, so they sought to improve there in 2021. The Dolphins added a bit in free agency and spent valuable draft picks in the early round of the draft. Going into the season, they look to be more of a well-balanced team that is ready to compete in the division and clinch a playoff berth. In addition, they still have a very young team with a lot of picks leftover for the coming years.

Grier and the Dolphins started off hot in their run but began to falter over the next two years. Following the 2018 season, their process truly began, as their whole roster went out the door. As a result, they acquired picks on picks, as well as cap space. In the past, the process has seen teams blow up their rosters quickly but take a while to build it back up. For the Dolphins, they tore it up, yet improved mightily after just one year, where they were seen to be punting on the season. They have large investments in future draft capital, while also having the luxury of spending money on valuable free agents to win right now. Their process has not reached its head yet but they are still just one year into it and are ready to compete right now.

Who’s Next?

There are a few teams in the current NFL that could be in the early stages of the process, including the New York Jets and Detroit Lions. For the Jets, they have recently traded every first-round pick they made before the 2019 season, including Jamal Adams and Sam Darnold, getting a lot of valuable picks in return. In addition, they cleared cap space by cutting high-priced free agents Trumaine Johnson and Le’Veon Bell. Similarly, the Detroit Lions traded away Matthew Stafford for many future assets and Jared Goff. They also let two key receivers walk this offseason, completely starting over on the offense. Both these teams have struggled in the recent past, but it seems as though they may have a direction, starting by trading key players for picks, beginning their process. It will be interesting to see the end result of these teams going forward.

Above we saw three different teams who have embodied their version of the process. Each team had its own style of how they would tear down and replenish their roster, and each team had its own timeline. The Browns’ process was a long time coming but they now look to be a legit Super Bowl contender. The Jaguars are in the midst of their process and hope that under a new regime, their poor play is behind them. For the Dolphins, their turnaround was very quick, and their roster should only get better. The process requires patience from ownership and true dedication from the front office to hold off on signing big free agents before the rest of the roster is ready to compete. As mentioned above, the process is not continuously losing on purpose because then nobody would have a job; rather, the process is the ultimate version of sacrificing some talent in the present to be more successful down the road.

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