Anderson worthy of a long-term investment by Browns

Without a doubt, Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson has been one of the biggest surprise stories of the 2007 season.

Anderson had to watch the Browns draft Brady Quinn in the first round last spring after giving up future draft compensation to acquire the 22nd overall pick. Then Anderson got beat out during summer camp by Charlie Frye, while Quinn held out looking for a big contract. Frye started in Week 1, getting sacked five times in his first 15 pass plays.

The Browns were already at an all-time low, and it was the first half of the first game of the year. Quinn wasn't ready to play, the offensive line couldn't pass block and the head coach was already on the launch pad to be fired. Essentially, the Browns were forced to play the third-year Anderson, and it was only viewed as a short-term answer until Quinn was ready. It looked like a lost season.

Well, the rest is history. The 6-4 Browns are in the playoff hunt and only a game out of first place in the AFC North. Now the question is this: What should the Browns do with Anderson for the long term?

I visited this subject after Week 6 when the Browns were 3-2 with Anderson as the starter. When the subject of Anderson was broached with general managers, the best-case response was, "You might consider the high tender for a restricted free agent next year." The worst news was, "I know Anderson and he will start to make bad decisions sooner or later, and Quinn will be in before you know it." Well, both evaluations now appear to be wrong.

I hear opinions that the high tender will not guarantee Anderson will remain in Cleveland, and that he is much better than the quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. One head coach said, "I would take him right now and they can have my first and third picks." It sounds like the Browns are going to have to get serious about getting Anderson under a long-term deal before the 2008 offseason even begins. Now the question is simply, which deal can the Browns make that makes the most sense?

To determine just where Anderson stacks up around the league, I took a look at the things he does as compared to other quarterbacks. I started with his production vs. other third-year quarterbacks. Anderson easily separates himself from Alex Smith and Jason Campbell. He has 20 touchdown passes, while Smith and Campbell have 11 combined. Anderson has 33 completions over 20 yards, while Smith and Campbell have 31 combined. He has been sacked eight times; the other two have been sacked a combined 31 times. The Browns are 6-4 behind Anderson, while the Redskins are 5-5 and the 49ers are 2-8 -- two teams that were supposed to be better than Cleveland this season.

Off the field, Campbell and Smith both make a lot more money than Anderson, but they may not even be the benchmark for the Cleveland quarterback.

It's pretty clear Anderson can play. He may truly be a top-16 quarterback, and that puts him up where the big money is. Any deal for Anderson may need to guarantee upwards of $20 million. That may be difficult to comprehend, but when first-round draft picks get $30 million in guarantees, no one knows if they can play. They typically aren't ready to play until their second season, at the earliest, which makes Anderson a bargain. But let's go a little deeper to establish his value.

Anderson also meets or is better than the league average in areas beyond the standard categories. Looking at how often he is on the field for drives that end in a touchdown, he has accomplished it on 31 of 122 drives (25 percent). The NFL average for starting quarterbacks is 18 percent. He meets the NFL average for drives that end in a field goal, at 14 percent (17 of 122 drives). The numbers show that 39.3 percent of the drives Anderson has led end in points, ranking him in the top half of the league.

Many NFL people will tell you about the importance of scoring right before halftime. It has a psychological affect on a team and its opponent. Anderson has delivered 33 points in the last two minutes of the first half of games this season, easily in the top 10 of the league. The average NFL starter has generated 18 points in the same situation.

What about managing the game and minimizing mistakes? The Browns have four illegal formations and just four delay-of-game penalties, with no illegal motions and just two illegal shifts. Anderson can get his team lined up and function very well. Not every team has a guy this efficient under center. Not to mention that once the ball is snapped, Anderson is sacked once every 33 pass attempts, which is also in the top half of the league.

Teams naturally want to blitz and pressure young quarterbacks but have had little success against Anderson. At least four of his touchdown passes -- and only one interception -- have come against the blitz. He is cool under the heat. He also has three game-winning drives under his belt, outstanding for a young player. Anderson's third-down production has led to a success rate of 45 percent in that critical situation, which ranks ninth in the league.

There's no argument that Anderson is a talent. Do the Browns know more about him than the Texans knew about Matt Schaub when they traded for him? Yes. Is there less risk with Anderson than a first-round draft pick? Yes. Can he make all the throws, manage a game and make a special play with his feet? Yes.

Remember that the great Tom Brady was a late-round pick and threw 18 touchdowns and was sacked 41 times in his first season as a starter. The next season, he threw 28 touchdowns and was sacked 31 times. Anderson is on pace for 32 touchdowns and 13 sacks in 2007.

The longer the Browns wait, the more he will cost. But it looks like he's worth it.

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