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Team Previews

Browns Fantasy Preview

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: July 24, 2020, 5:50 pm ET

2019 Stats (Rank)

Total Offense: 5,455 (22nd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 37 (19th)
Offensive Plays: 973 (26th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 580 (20th)
Rush Attempts: 393 (22nd)
Unaccounted for Targets: 64 (26th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 0 (32nd)

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Coaching Staff

Almost any new hire was going to be a noticeable upgrade over Freddie Kitchens, but I’d argue that Kevin Stefanski has more promise than your average guy off the street. First off, I have loved his press conferences this offseason (definitely a “process” guy) and the fact that he’s actually reading analytical pieces from Twitter, but secondly and most importantly, he turned a Kirk Cousins-led offense into the sixth-highest scoring offense per drive last season. The two easiest ways Stefanski will help the Browns in 2020 will be by increasing their play-action usage and offensive pace. Last season, Cousins was fourth in play-action rate (31% of his passes) and was second in quarterback rating on those plays, while Baker Mayfield ranked 32nd in quarterback rating on passes without play-action. The Vikings also played at the 10th-fastest neutral-situation pace, while the Browns ranked 26th. Stefanski has yet to meet most of his team in-person, but I’m buying Browns stock because the offense should be more mature with this new coaching staff.

 

Passing Game

QB: Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum
WR: Odell Beckham, KhaDarel Hodge
WR: Jarvis Landry, Taywan Taylor
WR: Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones
TE: Austin Hooper, David Njoku

 

Baker Mayfield was bad in 2019. There’s no getting around it. He was 23rd out of 31 qualifiers in expected points added per play (EPA) and 28th in completion percentage over expected (CPOE), two of the most predictive metrics out there. The coaching staff, offensive line, and tight end upgrades will help him, especially if they use more play action as expected, but Mayfield himself needs to play better to reach the back-end QB1 conversation in fantasy. Because he doesn’t add value as a scrambler (career 9.1 rushing yards per game) and because he plays in an offense that I project to be sixth-most run heavy, Baker’s margin for error as a passer is extremely thin, which likely means he’ll be a mid-range QB2 in most weeks. That still would be an improvement over Baker’s QB27 per-game fantasy finish from last season. For reference, Kirk Cousins (a much better player than Baker to this point) was the QB18 per-game with Stefanski as his play caller a pandemic ago.

Between Kitchens’ game plans and his own sports hernia (an injury Odell claims to be one of the worst of his football career), I’m definitely willing to toss out Odell Beckham’s career-low 64.7 yards per game average from last year. He’s already back to 100% following a successful offseason rehab and gets a head coach whose scheme fits beautifully with his play-making ability. Stefanski’s projected uptick in play-action attempts will allow for more Odell deep targets (a segment of the field where Odell is a positive regression candidate) and Odell was already third in air yards among all receivers last season. If he and Baker can get on the same page timing wise and if he rebounds in the red zone (Odell only converted 1-of-11 red zone targets into scores last year), Odell could get back into the fantasy WR1 conversation in 2020. For now, I’m viewing him as a high-end WR2, although it certainly helps that he faces the third-easiest strength of schedule based on opponent win totals.

If we only looked at last year’s WR11 per-game usage and WR19 pre-game receiving production, Jarvis Landry’s current average draft position (WR29) doesn’t make much sense, but I think it’s justifiable the more I look into it. Landry’s 26% team share of targets is likely to slide back a few points with Odell healthy, Kareem Hunt active for a full season, and Austin Hooper in the building, and Landry’s 10.1 average depth of target is too close to the line of scrimmage to afford to lose too many targets. Landry is also unlikely to rank third in the NFL in red zone (20) and inside-the-10 (11) targets like he did last season with more two-tight end sets in the Browns new playbook. Overall, Landry is a fine fantasy WR3 in PPR leagues, but I project him to take a minor step back from last year’s career-best 73.4 yards per game. I’m more inclined to bet on an Odell rebound between the two Cleveland receiver options.

Austin Hooper became the highest-paid tight end this offseason (4-yr, $44M) after posting career highs in targets (97), receptions (75), yards (787), and touchdowns (6) last season. That receiving line made him the TE3 on a per-game basis. Even with coach Stefanski bringing over a two-TE offense (53% of plays in 2019), Hooper is unlikely to see the volume he saw in Atlanta playing on the Browns -- the Falcons were 1st in pass attempts (684), Cleveland was 19th (539) -- and Mayfield isn’t nearly as good as Ryan in the shallow and intermediate areas. A David Njoku trade would slightly increase his floor and ceiling, but Hooper is most likely destined for borderline TE1 production in this run-heavy offense, especially if Odell rebounds to pre-injury levels.

The rest of the pass-catchers can largely be forgotten about in redraft fantasy leagues. David Njoku has the best opportunity to sneak into fantasy consideration because of his athleticism (4.64 speed and 37.5-inch vertical) and the fact that the Browns are likely to implement a two-tight end base offense, but the Hooper signing put any Njoku post-hype sleeper appeal to bed. Njoku dynasty holders should be hoping he pulls an Ebron-like resurgence with a new team in 2021, assuming the Browns are unwilling to trade him prior to this season. We hopefully will learn Njoku's 2020 fate shortly. Rashard Higgins (10.8 yards per target in 2018) is probably the best receiving talent on the roster behind Odell and Jarvis, but he’s unlikely to run enough routes or see enough targets to be worth holding onto even in the deepest of leagues.

 

Rushing Game

RB: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt
OL (L-R): Jedrick Wills, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin

 

Nick Chubb is in the conversation for best pure runner in the NFL and with the upgraded offensive line (see below), it’s possible that Chubb posts top-five rushing production once again -- he was second in rushing (1,494 yards) and ninth in scores (8) last season. The issue in PPR leagues is his lack of RB1 receiving production with Kareem Hunt involved. Through the first nine weeks, Chubb was the RB7 overall in adjusted fantasy usage (18.0 expected fantasy points per game), but that number dropped to 15.6 expected fantasy points per game (RB16) from Week 10 through Week 17 when Hunt returned from suspension. During that seven-game stretch with Hunt, Chubb only caught nine passes despite the Browns’ 3-4 record over that span. He has game-breaking ability and the offense should be more consistent with coach Stefanski, but I’m viewing Chubb as a borderline RB1/2 in PPR leagues instead of a locked-and-loaded RB1. I'll take my chances with Joe Mixon, Miles Sanders, and Kenyan Drake over Chubb in PPR leagues.

Kareem Hunt is one of the best mid-round targets in PPR leagues. Following his eight-game suspension, Hunt was the RB25 in expected fantasy points per game from Weeks 9-16, which is actually better than his current average draft position (RB27). He caught 4.6 passes per game and added another 5.4 touches on the ground over that eight-game run in the second half of last season. It’s possible that Hunt pays off his price tag as a weekly flex option even if Chubb were to play a full season, and Chubb’s lengthy injury history certainly doesn’t make that a guarantee. If Chubb were to miss time, Hunt would vault into the top-8 running back discussion. Whenever I’ve opted for a zero RB or modified RB strategy in fantasy drafts, I’ve gone out of my way to land Hunt.

The offensive line should be much better than it has been. The entire interior offensive line returns, plus they upgraded both of their offensive tackles. Ex-Titan Jack Conklin was PFF’s No. 12 overall offensive tackle out of 89 qualifiers last season (5th in run-blocking grade) and LT Jedrick Wills was my seventh-ranked prospect of the 2020 NFL Draft. I expect this offensive line to move defenders in the run game and hold up well enough to set up more deep shots off of play action. This OL unit has gone from a total liability (Thanks, John Dorsey) to a potential strength (Thanks, Andrew Berry).

 

Win Total

Despite a disappointing 6-10 season last year, the Browns’ win total sits at 8.5 games. Given their historical track record, it’s always tempting to blindly bet against the Browns, but this season actually feels a tad different, largely because of the new front office and coaching staff (I will be higher than the market on GM Andrew Berry for the next few seasons). Moving from Freddie Kitchens to Stefanksi is worth at least a win or two in my eyes and the offensive line upgrade, plus Odell presumably being healthier, is worth another couple wins, too. Tack on Cleveland’s third easiest strength of schedule according to opponent win totals and you’ve convinced me to lean the over. I think nine wins is their most probable outcome. That just could be enough to sneak into the Wild Card Round.