Crazy … or genius? Making sense of the Osweiler trade

The Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans completed a stunning trade Thursday, and it might be one of the rare moves in which both teams win. Houston hit the reset button on their disastrous decision to sign Brock Osweiler last offseason, sending the embattled quarterback to Cleveland along with a 2017 sixth-round pick and a second-rounder in the 2018 draft for a 2017 fourth-rounder. If the math seems off to you, well, you’re not going crazy: A second-rounder is worth more than a fourth-rounder. The debate over how much a second-round pick is worth in a vacuum may be what ends up deciding whether this trade was a good idea.

In December, I suggested the Browns make this exact sort of trade with the Texans in what essentially amounted to buying a draft pick. I won’t pretend that I expected it to actually happen. While this sort of salary dump is common in other sports, there’s never really been an NFL deal that was as nakedly about getting rid of a contractual albatross as this one.

With a deal as puzzling and unprecedented as this one, there are plenty of questions to ask. Let’s get to the key ones and figure out why this made sense for both parties.

Why did the Texans make this trade?

The only way for the Texans to get Osweiler off of their books before the 2018 season was through a trade. Osweiler’s $16 million base salary for 2017 was fully guaranteed, meaning the Texans would be forced to pay Osweiler both $16 million in cash and assign him $16 million of their cap space, regardless of whether Osweiler was on their roster or released. Since base salaries transfer over to another team in the case of a trade, the Texans would only get salary relief if another team wanted to acquire Osweiler and pay the QB that $16 million instead.

Naturally, nobody wants to pay the wildly frustrating Osweiler $16 million in 2017, including the Texans. So, if Houston wanted to clear out cap room to make a run at Tony Romo, they needed to sweeten the pot and make Osweiler part of a more compelling package. Draft picks are the easiest way to do that, which is why they sent out more in picks than they received.

Why did the Browns make this trade?

The Browns love draft picks. The vast majority of decisions the Browns have made since hiring Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer and promoting Sashi Brown to general manager have been about acquiring more draft picks. While this is correctly associated as an analytics tenet, amassing draft picks at the beginning of a rebuild is hardly some newfangled nerd concept. Jimmy Johnson compiled draft picks as he rebuilt the Cowboys in the late 1980s and early 90s, most notably in the Herschel Walker trade. Ted Thompson stockpiled picks as he turned over the Packers roster. Bill Belichick trades for more draft picks than anybody else in football. You get the idea.

The Browns have been more obvious about their interest in picks than even those teams, and they’ve clearly placed value on targeting future selections. They repeatedly traded down and/or for future selections during last year’s draft and let useful free agents like Mitchell Schwartz and Tashaun Gipson leave while grabbing compensatory selections. While they used one of their selections to acquire Jamie Collins from the Patriots, the Browns entered the day with two first-rounders, two second-rounders and two fourth-rounders in this year’s draft and had two second-rounders and two fourth-rounders in the 2018 draft. Here’s where they stand now:

This is right in line with Cleveland’s philosophy, and all they had to give up was money. Sounds simple, right?

Is this a good deal for the Browns?

Well, here’s where it gets tricky. The underlying logic for the Browns — buying a draft pick — makes sense. The specifics aren’t quite as impressive for Cleveland. Let’s start with the value of the picks they acquired. The Browns are likely using a draft chart similar to the one generated by Chase Stuart at Football Perspective, which does a much better job of reflecting actual return than the traditional Jimmy Johnson chart.

Start with the picks. Cleveland sent the 142nd pick to the Texans for Osweiler, the 188th selection, and a 2018 second-rounder. We don’t know where the Texans will finish, obviously, but the fairest assumption would be that they will go 8-8 and hold the 17th pick in the second round, which would be pick 49. Trading 142 for 188 and next year’s 49th pick generates 8.1 points of draft capital, which is equivalent to the 64th pick of the draft. That’s the very last selection of the second round, the worst second-rounder available.

Is the 64th pick worth the $16 million the Browns will have to pay for Osweiler? No. While players like Dwayne Allen and Randall Cobb have been taken with the…