Photo: Michael Conroy/AP

Reaction to the Cleveland Browns’ surprising trade with the Houston Texans for Brock Osweiler Thursday ran the gamut from fulsome praise to “Bill Polian Yells At Cloud.” Cleveland indeed waded into new territory (for the NFL) by using its extraordinary surplus of salary cap space to essentially trade for a higher draft pick, with Osweiler serving as simply a means to an end. It’s the latest chip in the Browns’ protracted effort to amass draft capital, and while it’s certainly an innovative approach, it’s still just an early step.

First, a look at the terms:

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  • Cleveland receives: Osweiler, 2017 sixth-round pick, 2018 second-round pick
  • Houston receives: 2017 fourth-round pick, $10 million in cap savings

Osweiler sucks and is due $16 million in guaranteed salary, for which the Browns are now on the hook. The trade gave the Texans an easy escape from the laughably bad contract they gave Osweiler last year while also providing them with the flexibility to pursue another experienced starter, most likely Tony Romo. It was quickly reported that Cleveland intended to release or trade Osweiler—moves that would require the Browns to eat all or a significant portion of his 2017 salary—but even that’s in keeping with the grander plan.

When chief operating officer Paul DePodesta and general manager Sashi Brown were hired in January 2016, they made no secret of their intention to take a quantitative approach to Cleveland’s rebuild. DePodesta and Brown began their project last year by letting several in-house free agents (offensive linemen Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, wideout Travis Benjamin, free safety Tashaun Gipson) walk before twice trading down in the first round of the draft. The Browns were rewarded with four compensatory picks (a third-rounder, two fourths, and a fifth) to add to their boatload of draft choices.

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All told, Cleveland now has 11 picks each in this year’s and next year’s drafts. That haul includes five of the first 65 overall selections this year and four picks in the first two rounds next year. The Browns also maneuvered to set themselves up with a whopping $102 million in salary cap space this year, right when the timing was perfect. The league’s cash-spending rules require teams to spend 89 percent of the salary cap, but only in cumulative, four-year increments. And this is the first year of the latest increment, which runs from 2017 to 2020.

What the Browns did, insofar as Osweiler concerns them, is use some of that surplus cap room toward a sunk cost (Osweiler’s $16 million in guarantees) that allowed them to obtain Houston’s 2018 second-round pick in exchange for flipping late-round picks this year. It’s an NBA-style move that’s drawing comparisons to what Sam Hinkie did with The Process in Philadelphia. ESPN’S Bill Barnwell went deep to try to gauge the relative value of the assets the Browns swapped, in addition to the gray areas of whether a trade like this is even permitted by the NFL, which prohibits dealing players straight up for cash. But the larger question is this: What will Cleveland ultimately do with all these draft assets? They’re worthless unless some of them are used to obtain good football players.

Stockpiling draft choices is not a novel strategy, even for the stodgy-ass NFL. As Barnwell noted, the Jimmy Johnson-era Cowboys of the late 1980s and early ‘90s did it by trading running back Herschel Walker. The Packers and Patriots have been doing it for years. And from 1996-2014, the Ravens hoarded 41 compensatory picks, more than any team in the league. As Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta told The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas:

“We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player. When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else. It seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players.”

All of the above are success stories, but it doesn’t always work out that way. In 2014, then-Jets GM John Idzik wiped the team’s cap slate clean and entered the draft with 12 picks—a deliberate attempt to mimic the Ravens’ strategy. Idzik was canned at the end of that season in part because he and head coach Rex Ryan had been so horribly mismatched, but also because nearly every one of those 12 picks (Jace Amaro in the second round, Jalen Saunders and Shaq Evans in the fourth, to name a few) turned out to be a dud. The Browns have (in theory) set themselves up nicely with a fresh approach into an old system. Actually getting players is when the hard part begins.