2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,900 yards (13th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 44 (12th)
Offensive Plays: 1,023 (10th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 612 (11th)
Rush Attempts: 411 (15th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 49 (28th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 135 (13th)
Editor’s Note: If you’re on the hunt for rankings, projections, strategy and advice on how to dominate your drafts, check out the all-new Rotoworld NFL Draft Guide. Now mobile-optimized with a new look and feel, it’s never been easier to take our award-winning advice with you to your drafts for that extra competitive edge! Click here to learn more!
Rather than rock the boat with an outside hire, Cleveland looked within to address its coaching need, staying in house by promoting offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to head coach. Kitchens will succeed short-lived interim coach Gregg Williams, who was handed the clipboard in the wake of Hue Jackson’s midseason firing. The Browns didn’t overthink this one and for once, they got it right. Dan Campbell, Matt Eberflus, Brian Flores, Adam Gase, Mike McCarthy, Josh McDaniels, Nick Sirianni and Kevin Stefanski were all in the running but catering to franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield, who enjoyed an excellent rapport with Kitchens after he replaced Todd Haley as offensive coordinator, always made the most sense.
A former college quarterback and three-year starter at powerhouse Alabama, Kitchens began his NFL tenure as an assistant under Bill Parcells in Dallas before gaining greater notoriety as a position coach for Bruce Arians in Arizona. Kitchens’ presence was felt immediately as the Browns flourished to a 5-3 finish, averaging 395.1 yards (a vast improvement on the 342.4 yards they averaged with Jackson and Haley calling the shots) after his ascension to offensive coordinator. Upgrades at quarterback (It took less than three weeks for Mayfield to dethrone Tyrod Taylor) and running back (Carlos Hyde’s trade to Jacksonville opened the door for second-round rookie Nick Chubb) no doubt made Kitchens’ transition easier, but the 44-year-old still deserves plenty of credit for spearheading the Browns’ quick turnaround.
Not to take anything away from Saquon Barkley, who might already be the league’s best running back, but last year’s Rookie of the Year award should have gone to Mayfield. After all that’s transpired, it’s easy to forget Mayfield was a controversial choice at No. 1 with many comparing him unfavorably to fellow undersized hothead Johnny Manziel. But while Manziel’s improvisational leanings always made him a long shot to succeed at the next level (his reckless off-field persona didn’t help matters), Mayfield took the league by storm with his laser accuracy, lighting up defenses to the tune of 27 touchdown passes, the most ever by a rookie signal-caller. Barkley’s statistical output was off the charts but it didn’t help New York in the win column while Mayfield single-handedly changed the trajectory of an entire franchise. Seemingly overnight, he turned the Browns from a hopeless punchline to a team opponents feared on Sundays.
That’s not to say Mayfield was perfect as a rookie. Unlike other quarterbacks from his draft class (namely Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson), the former Sooner contributed next to nothing as a ball-carrier (131 yards on 39 scoreless rushes) and was still prone to hero ball, attempting a number of daring throws that would have been better left on the cutting room floor (hence his 14 interceptions). But anyone who doubted Mayfield’s NFL legitimacy coming out of Oklahoma was fed a fat slice of humble pie in year one of his Cleveland reign.
Mayfield wasn’t afraid to throw deep as a rookie—his passes traveled an average distance of 9.5 yards, eighth-highest in the league—a trait that should mesh well with Odell Beckham’s downfield prowess. Despite mediocre quarterback play throughout his Giants tenure (looking at you, Eli), OBJ has yet to have a poor year statistically, averaging in excess of 75 yards in each of his five NFL seasons. Even at a smallish, 5’11”/198, the three-time Pro Bowler has had no trouble establishing himself as a red-zone presence, amassing 44 touchdowns in just 59 appearances since arriving on the scene in 2014. Injuries have been a stumbling block for Beckham—he’s suited up for just 16-of-32 games the past two seasons. But when healthy, the 26-year-old is a jaw-dropping talent and one of the few receivers capable of putting an entire team on his back. OBJ’s appetite for extracurriculars and the intense scrutiny he faced as a superstar in the nation’s biggest media market may have spelled his downfall in New York, but it’s doubtful those distractions will follow him to Cleveland (not exactly a hotbed for nightlife).
Beckham has always served in a featured role and that’s not likely to change in Cleveland despite the presence of high-wattage slot receiver Jarvis Landry. If you’re worried about how Beckham and Landry will co-exist, don’t be. OBJ and Landry, of course, were college teammates together at LSU where they compiled gaudy stats as focal points of the Tigers’ Zach Mettenberger-led passing attack. While OBJ’s arrival could potentially put a dent in Landry’s volume, it shouldn’t be a major hindrance to his fantasy prospects. In fact, in some ways, it will probably help. The threat of Beckham, one of the most feared deep weapons in football, should draw attention away from Landry, affording him more space to make plays. The Browns also figure to be one of the league’s higher-scoring offenses with Beckham in tow, which could increase Landry’s touchdown output. Even if Landry is the appetizer to Beckham’s main course, the prolific slot man should still carry enough weight to warrant WR2 usage across all fantasy formats. Landry, who has caught more passes than any receiver in history through his first five seasons (481), remains a PPR staple.
As you’ll notice, Cleveland’s pass-catching corps is a top-heavy unit with a huge drop-off after the dueling talents of Beckham and Landry. Antonio Callaway is still licking his wounds from a drop-plagued rookie year (he earned bleak marks from ProFootballFocus, grading out as their 106th-ranked receiver out of 125 qualifiers) and will likely take a backseat to the law offices of Beckham and Landry. The odds are stacked against him, though it’s obviously way too early to close the book on the ex-Florida Gator. The 22-year-old offers elite downfield burst (4.41 forty) and even amid his early struggles, he still cleared 75 yards on three occasions last year. He’ll be a coveted waiver add if Beckham gets hurt, which isn’t a far-fetched scenario given OBJ’s recent injury struggles. Rashard Higgins enters camp as a distant fourth on the team’s receiving depth chart while Damion Ratley and Derrick Willies are both fringe roster types.
Unless you decide to dip your toes in the Kelce waters or make an early-round investment in George Kittle or Zach Ertz, tight end isn’t one of the more profitable fantasy positions. With that in mind, David Njoku has at least carved a decent floor for himself, achieving 50 or more yards in eight of his 16 appearances last year. You always split eights in blackjack, but last year Njoku was perfectly fine with his eighth overall finish in both catches (56) and receiving yards (639) among tight ends. The 2017 first-rounder is not at all a finished product—he hasn’t made the most of his 6’4”/246 figure (only four touchdowns last season) and still struggles with drops (his eight were the most among tight ends in 2018). But at a dire fantasy position, there are worse ways to go.
Mayfield wasn’t the only Cleveland rookie to make a name for himself last year. Nick Chubb, who at one point shared a college backfield with both Todd Gurley and Sony Michel, stampeded to 996 rushing yards in 2018, most coming after the Browns mercifully moved on from aging bulldozer Carlos Hyde. His rushing output was the third-highest among first-year ball-carriers, a feat made more impressive by the fact that he made only nine starts. The Georgia alum benefited from workhorse usage down the stretch (he saw 18 or more carries in seven of his final 10 games) but was more than a mere compiler, finishing seventh among 49 qualified rushers in yards per carry (5.2). Due to Chubb’s limited receiving role in college (31 career catches), many unfairly pegged him as a two-down thumper. And while Duke Johnson still bore the bulk of Cleveland’s passing-down work, Chubb wasn’t a total flop on the receiving end, snaring 20-of-29 targets for 149 yards and two touchdowns along with three drops.
On the surface, there wasn’t an overwhelming disparity in Cleveland’s backfield distribution—Chubb was in on 57.6 percent of the Browns’ snaps from Week 7 on while Johnson checked in at 41.6 percent. But a closer look reveals the true source of Johnson’s frustration—Chubb out-touched Duke by a drastic 196-54 margin during that same span. Johnson, who deserves loyalty points for re-signing with Cleveland following the team’s winless 2017, kept his distance from the Browns this offseason before reiterating his preference to play elsewhere upon his arrival at mandatory minicamp in June.
Already disgruntled after spending the second half of 2018 as the Pippen to Chubb’s Jordan, Johnson endured another blow to his ego this offseason when Cleveland took a free-agent flyer on Chiefs castoff Kareem Hunt. Eager to build on his breakout 2017 campaign (a year that saw him lead the league with 1,327 rushing yards), Hunt was off to an even better 2018 (14 touchdowns in 11 games) before video surfaced of a domestic violence incident from months earlier, prompting his release. Hunt spent the rest of the year unemployed before getting a second chance with his hometown Browns. It’s not an ideal landing spot for fantasy purposes, not that anyone is counting on him in re-draft leagues anyway—Hunt’s eight-game suspension to begin the year essentially makes him undraftable. The sense is that Chubb will remain the starter upon Hunt’s return, but after the PR hit the Browns took in signing him, the former Toledo Rocket will assuredly occupy an important role in Cleveland’s ground attack. That could throw a wrench in Chubb’s pursuit of RB1 status, though the 227-pound battering ram is still the favorite for goal-line work in Cleveland.
Further complicating what figures to be a talented, albeit difficult-to-predict backfield is Cleveland’s offensive line, a unit that got noticeably weaker with the loss of Kevin Zeitler at right guard. Acquired by the Giants as part of the return package for Odell Beckham, Zeitler was a rock for the Browns last year, garnering PFF’s No. 5 grade among guards. The trade allows Cleveland to fast-track 2018 second-rounder Austin Corbett, but expecting an untested 23-year-old to immediately fill Zeitler’s shoes could be a fool’s errand. Joel Bitonio is coming off an All-Pro season at left guard, but the rest of this unit leaves a lot to be desired.
Most sportsbooks I’ve seen have Cleveland down for nine wins, though FanDuel is a bit more ambitious at 9.5. If you did a double-take reading that, you’re not alone. Putting money on the Browns to win double-digit games seems clinically insane based on their past performance, especially in a division that still features two pretty good squads in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But these aren’t the Browns of yesteryear. Finally equipped with a capable signal-caller and a coach who doesn’t have a laminated “cocoon” card poking out of his wallet—not to mention an ace receiver in Odell Beckham and a stout defense featuring the likes of Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward—Cleveland’s moment has finally arrived. Not only will the Browns go above their projected win total, but I’m also forecasting a playoff appearance for the Dawg Pound, which would end a 17-year dry spell in the rock and roll capital.