Are the 2016 Browns the Least Talented Team in Modern NFL History?

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Are the 2016 Browns the Least Talented Team in Modern NFL History?
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns are putting together a historically untalented roster this offseason. Maybe the least talented roster we've seen in the modern era. 

That's a bold claim, but it's not a big leap. The Browns were 3-13 last year—not exactly gushing with talent in the first place. They lost several of their best players to free agency last week—Tashaun Gipson, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin—while only making minimal additions. Recent drafts have brought top picks like Johnny Manziel, Justin Gilbert, Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Barkevious Mingo, players who are either already gone or haven't shown much. There don't appear to be many, if any, budding superstars lurking on the roster.

Yes, the Browns may add Colin Kaepernick, and they pick second and 32nd in the upcoming draft. But some rookies and a baggage-laden veteran will only improve the situation slightly. The Browns are shockingly weak at just about every position on the depth chart.

So are they the least talented team in modern NFL history?

To find out, let's measure up the 2016 Browns, as they now stand, to some of the least talented teams in modern NFL history.

Here are the challengers:

The 2008 Lions were the only team ever to finish a season 0-16.

The 1992 Patriots finished 2-14 and were in the midst of an ownership boondoggle that kept them at the bottom of the standings for half a decade.

The 1982 Colts finished 0-8-1 in a strike-shortened year and were burdened with owner Robert Irsay, who was: A) pinching pennies so he could move the team out of Baltimore and B) drinking so heavily that his problems often spilled into the locker room or onto the sideline.

The 1980 Saints were the legendary "Aints." They finished the season 1-15, with their fans wearing bags over their heads.

The 1976 Buccaneers went 0-14 in their expansion season. The team's original ownership group was legendarily tight with money.

These teams were selected because of their famous futility and the troubles they had acquiring talent; teams that were obviously in the process of rebuilding (like the 1989 Cowboys, who went 1-15 but already had Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin on the roster and made the Herschel Walker trade during the season) or collapsed due to injuries or age (the 2-14 2011 Colts) did not make the cut.

Let's size these teams up one-by-one and position-by-position to see how they stack up to the 2016 Browns. We should start with an in-depth look at the 2016 Browns:

 

2016 Cleveland Browns

Quarterback: Josh McCown is a 36-year-old career third-stringer coming off an injury-marred season. While Austin Davis and Connor Shaw are currently the backups, either Kaepernick or a rookie like Carson Wentz is sure to arrive to beef up the depth chart.

Running backs: Duke Johnson is a quality prospect coming off a decent rookie year. Isaiah Crowell is a stopgap with a gift for producing eight-carry, nine-yard stat lines.

Receivers: The star of the group is 30-year-old tight end Gary Barnidge, who spent six seasons as a backup. Career No. 2 receiver Brian Hartline is the No. 1 receiver, with the crispy remains of Dwayne Bowe and tiny 30-year-old Andrew Hawkins high on the depth chart. Terrelle Pryor and Josh Gordon are still around for the wishful thinkers.

David Richard/Associated Press

Offensive line: Joe Thomas is the best player on the roster by a wide margin, and guard Joel Bitonio is a solid young player. Undistinguished veterans Alvin Bailey and Austin Pasztor are slated to replace Mack and Schwartz. This is a cobbled-together unit. It's also the strength of the team.

Front seven: The big names include Karlos Dansby, a 34-year-old coming off a so-so year; Paul Kruger, a 30-year-old pass-rusher who had 2.5 sacks in 2015; Mingo, a former first-round pick who rarely plays; Danny Shelton, a promising defensive tackle prospect who struggled as a rookie; and Desmond Bryant, a 30-year-old who notched a career-high six sacks last year. The Browns allowed over 2,000 rushing yards and generated just 29 sacks last season and have not upgraded so far this offseason.

Secondary: Joe Haden is a Pro Bowler whose 2015 season was lost to injuries. Donte Whitner and Tramon Williams are capable but aging. The projected starter at strong safety is Jordan Poyer, a career backup.

Specialists: Punter Andy Lee is somewhere between the second and fifth best player on the roster. Kicker Travis Coons had an acceptable rookie year. With the losses of Benjamin and special teams ace Johnson Bademosi, even the return and coverage units are looking gutted.

That's a really weak roster: one true All-Pro, some fading semi-stars, massive gaps or questions at some of the most important positions. It's so bad it matches up well against these other legendarily terrible teams.

 

2008 Detroit Lions

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Quarterback: Jon Kitna, 36 years old and coming off two seasons in which he was sacked a total of 114 times, was the incumbent starter, with youngsters Drew Stanton and Dan Orlovsky on the bench. Kitna was shelved with back injuries after four starts. (Daunte Culpepper arrived in November, but for talent-comparison purpose, we will only count players who were with each team at the start of the season.)

Running back: Third-round rookie Kevin Smith and worn-out Bengals plow horse Rudi Johnson shared the load. The Lions had just moved on from Kevin Jones, a former first-round pick whose career went backward after a great start.

Receivers: Calvin Johnson's Hall of Fame argument in a nutshell: He somehow caught 78 passes and 12 touchdowns as a second-year player for an 0-16 team helmed by Kitna, Orlovsky and Culpepper. Roy Williams was traded to the Cowboys after five games. Megatron and Williams, with Mike Furrey in the slot coming off a 98-catch season two years earlier, looked like a formidable receiver corps on paper when the season opened.

Offensive Line: Center Dominic Raiola and left tackle Jeff Backus were Lions lifers. Rookie right tackle Gosder Cherilus was a first-round pick who didn't get creamed when he took the field. This was not a terrible line.

Front seven and secondary: Head coach Rod Marinelli was an assistant for the great Buccaneers defenses of the Tampa-2 era, and he loaded the Lions up with former Buccaneers defenders. Unfortunately, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and John Lynch were unavailable, so he settled for Chartric Darby, Dewayne White, Ryan Nece, Brian Kelly and Kalvin Pearson. The Lions defense looked a lot like the Buccaneers defense in the third quarter of a preseason game.

Specialists: Jason Hanson and Nick Harris were great.

Verdict: It's close, but the 2008 Lions were more talented than the 2016 Browns, by virtue of their receiving corps and the fact that all of those Buccaneers acquisitions at least represented a comprehensible (if mishandled) plan to improve the team.

 

1992 New England Patriots

Quarterback: By 1990, injuries had swallowed the career of former starter Tony Eason, Doug Flutie was in Canadian exile and Steve Grogan was finally sent to that farm upstate, leaving the Patriots with no one to play quarterback. Journeyman benchwarmer Hugh Millen engineered three fourth-quarter comebacks for the 6-10 Patriots in 1991 and earned the starting job. He was beaten to a pulp behind a terrible offensive line, forcing the Patriots to juggle youngsters Tommy Hodson and Scott Zolak, both former mid-round picks with minimal experience.

Running backs: Leonard Russell was a 240-pound bruiser who rushed for 959 yards but just 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie in 1991. John Stephens, another big back and former first-round pick, was still on the roster. This unit looked solid if you ignored the Patriots' fascination with 1970s-style grinder backs in the era of the West Coast offense.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Receivers: Irving Fryar was 30 years old but finally leaving his erratic youth and entering the productive part of his career. Tight end Marv Cook was an established Pro Bowler, and the young Ben Coates was lurking on the bench.

Offensive line: Bruce Armstrong was the Joe Thomas of the early-90s Patriots. A rookie and two second-year players (one of whom, Pat Harlow, went on to a solid career) rounded out a line that allowed 65 sacks.

Front seven: Hall of Famer Andre Tippett was still productive; if Armstrong was the Patriots' Thomas, Tippett was a better version of Dansby. Johnny Rembert had also been a Pro Bowl-caliber defender in the late 1980s. The rest of the front seven was nondescript at best.

Secondary: Cornerback Maurice Hurst was the best player. Ronnie Lippett and Fred Marion, starters for the 1985 Super Bowl team, retired after the 1991 season. The Patriots replaced them with budget-friendly nobodies.

Specialists: Kicker Charlie Baumann arrived from the Dolphins in the middle of the 1991 season, went 1-of-3 on field goals of 30-39 yards the rest of the way, then 3-of-7 from that range in 1992 and never kicked again in the NFL.

Verdict: As the Thomas-Armstrong and Tippett-Dansby comparisons suggest, the 2016 Browns are very similar to the 1992 Patriots, a team that had just been sold by deeply indebted owner Victor Kiam to James Orthwein, who wanted to move the franchise to St. Louis. If these two teams played each other, the Vegas line would be a pick 'em.

 

1982 Baltimore Colts

Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

Quarterback: Bert Jones, a very good quarterback with a very bad shoulder, left the Colts after the 1981 season. First-round pick Art Schlichter lost his starting job to fourth-round pick Mike Pagel in training camp in 1982, then blew his entire signing bonus on gambling losses. Schlichter's gambling problem destroyed his career (and more). Pagel threw five touchdowns in nine starts in 1982.

Running backs: Former Texas A&M superstar Curtis Dickey was coming off a pair of fine seasons as a rusher/receiver. Randy McMillan was also a former first-round pick with solid production. This was a relatively strong unit.

Receivers: Ray Butler, a big-play threat with a pair of solid seasons under his belt, entered camp as the top receiver, though a former undrafted rookie named Matt Bouza ended up leading the Colts in receptions. Tight end Tim Sherwin had two career receptions entering the 1982 season. Pat Beach, later a starter for many years, was Sherwin's rookie backup.

Offensive line: The Colts' starting left tackle was John Sinnott, who was born in Ireland, attended Brown University, spent two years on what used to be called the "taxi squads" for the Cardinals and Giants, replaced injured veteran Wade Griffin in camp despite zero regular-season experience, then left the NFL after the 1982 season to do volunteer work in Haiti. That explains a great deal.

Front seven: The 1981 Colts allowed over 33 points and 424 net yards per game, so it is no surprise that three rookies earned starting jobs in 1982. Linebacker Johnie Cooks, the second player taken in the 1982 draft, went on to a decent career. But this was among the worst front sevens ever to take the field: 163.7 rushing yards per game allowed and just 11 sacks in nine games.

Secondary: Starters included third-round rookie Jim Burroughs and safety Larry Anderson, who won two Super Bowls with the Steel Curtain Steelers...as a kick returner. Free safety Nesby Glasgow had established himself as a prospect and went on to a fine career.

Specialists: Punter Rohn Stark was a rookie. Kicker Mike Wood bounced around three teams before landing in Baltimore in 1981 and never kicked in the NFL again after 1982.

Verdict: The Browns are more talented than this team, which was so dysfunctional that John Elway refused to play for them when the Colts drafted him in 1983, but the fact that it is not an absolute slam dunk should give Browns fans the shivers.

 

1980 New Orleans Saints

Nate Fine/Getty Images

Quarterback: Archie Manning's 1980 season was pretty much the polar opposite of Peyton Manning's 2015 season. No one looked better in more dire circumstances than Archie since the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Running backs: Chuck Muncie, a great running back with lots of personal issues, was traded after four games. But Muncie rushed for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns the previous year (and went on to great seasons with the Chargers), so he qualifies as "talent." Fullback Tony Galbreath was a very good rusher and receiver who had a long career.

Receivers: Wes Chandler had been a Pro Bowler in 1979 and would be several more times after the Saints traded him to the Chargers. Tight end Henry Childs had also been to the Pro Bowl. The Manning-Muncie-Galbreath-Chandler-Childs Saints hovered around .500 in the late 1970s; this was not a bad skill position corps at all.

Offensive line: Even the offensive line wasn't all that bad. Rookie right tackle Stan Brock would go on to play for years. Center John Hill was a veteran. The Saints had a guard named Emanuel Zanders, who sounds like Emmanuel Sanders rebranded for energy drink commercials.

Front seven: So how does a team with Archie Manning and decent weapons go 1-15? The Saints defense was full of creaky players who had hung around the team forever not doing much. This was long before the start of free agency, remember. If a team did not draft well on defense (the Saints usually focused on offense), it was hard to improve on that side of the ball.

Secondary: More old-timers, led by safeties Tom Myers and Ray Brown (who could still play) and supported by rookie cornerback Dave Waymer, who went on to a solid career.

Specialists: The Saints drafted kicker-punter Russell Erxleben 11th overall in the 1979 draft. Eleventh overall, two slots ahead of Kellen Winslow. In fairness, Erxleben was one of the greatest specialists in college football history. But Erxleben suffered injuries in 1979 and was shaky in 1980, so the Saints handed field goals over to Benny Ricardo, who missed three extra points, among other misadventures.

Verdict: The 1980 Saints would crush the 2016 Browns. Manning and Chandler would connect for at least two touchdowns.

 

1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Uncredited/Associated Press
Steve Spurrier didn't enjoy his experience with the 1976 Buccaneers.

Quarterback: Steve Spurrier was a 31-year-old has-been, a former first-round pick who spent nine years as a glorified middle reliever for the 49ers. Rookie Parnell Dickinson earned repeated relief appearances and somehow threw five interceptions in 39 attempts.

Running backs: Essex Johnson had excellent seasons as a big-play rusher/receiver for the Bengals in 1972 and 1973. By the time the Bengals exposed him to the expansion draft, Johnson was pretty much where Maurice Jones-Drew was when he signed with the Raiders a few years ago. A former Raiders backup named Louis Carter opened the 1976 season as the Buccaneers' workhorse and carried 12 times for seven yards in his first game, making him the Isaiah Crowell of the bicentennial.

Receivers: Morris Owens, the Bucs' leading receiver, did not arrive until early in the season, when the Dolphins placed him on waivers. The top receiver leaving camp was J.K. McKay, head coach John McKay's son. Legend has it that Spurrier would overthrow McKay in the middle of the field because he thought the coach's kid was getting special treatment by starting. In fairness to McKay, the Bucs didn't exactly have Lynn Swann stashed away on the bench.

Offensive line: Two rookies started on the line for the 1976 Bucs who would never start another NFL game. The rest of the line was filled out by 30-somethings exposed to an expansion draft. Spurrier endured 32 sacks, Dickinson 14 (in just 39 attempts).

Front seven: Rookie Lee Roy Selmon, a future Hall of Famer, played just six games. He was surrounded by a rogue's gallery of forgettable veterans.

Secondary: Rookies Danny Reece and Curtis Jordan, a third- and sixth-round pick respectively, started at the corners. This worked out as well as you might expect, though Jordan went on to play safety for the great Redskins teams of the early 1980s. Reece scored the first touchdown in Buccaneers history on a fumble return; it happened in Week 4, which tells you all you need to know about the 1976 Buccaneers, except perhaps for the fact that the starting quarterback wanted to injure a starting receiver on purpose.

Specialists: Dave Green was a kicker-punter in an era when kicker-punters were going extinct. He missed three extra points and one kick inside of 30 yards (plus three between 30 and 39 yards) while averaging just 39.3 yards per punt.

Verdict: The 2016 Browns are much better than the 1976 Buccaneers, an expansion team on a shoestring budget from the era before free agency or a salary cap that could only acquire veterans deemed expendable by all the other teams.

 

Where the 2016 Browns Rank

The Browns are clearly better than the 1982 Colts and 1976 Buccaneers. With some free-agent vital signings and a draft class that breaks their way, they should also field a better team than the 1992 Patriots.

But they also clearly do deserve to be mentioned among the all-time least talented teams. They're weaker on paper than the 0-16 Lions or the Aints.

And yeah, maybe you will email this article back to me and laugh when Carson Wentz, Duke Johnson, Danny Shelton and Hue Jackson hoist the Lombardi Trophy together in three years and point to 2016 as "the year that started it all." I would be thrilled to be wrong.

All these teams were just vying for second place, anyway; the real worst team in NFL history was the 1944 Chicago-Pittsburgh Cardinals-Steelers. With all of the able-bodied men fighting World War II, the Steelers and Cardinals cobbled together all the 4-Fs and guys with deferments left on their rosters and muddled through an 0-10 season. Cardinal-Steeler quarterbacks threw eight touchdowns and 41 interceptions (no, that wasn't normal at the time). Most of the team never played before 1941 and would never play again after 1946.

The 2016 Browns would totally wallop those guys. But the Browns cannot blame their current predicament on a wartime shortage.

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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