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Sharp Team Previews

Cleveland Browns are Poised for a Run in 2021

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: July 27, 2021, 4:01 pm ET

Kevin Stefanski rightfully won coach of the year last year.

He was a rookie head coach during a pandemic, who also calls offensive plays, who was without an offseason/preseason to install a totally new scheme. But that didn’t stop the Browns from winning double-digit games and making the playoffs. 

In the COVID offseason, Stefanski turned around a team that hadn't posted a winning record since 2007 or made the playoffs since 2002.

One of the biggest changes Stefanski implemented was a much higher rate of 12 personnel. In Mayfield’s first two years as a pro (2018 and 2019), the Browns passed from 12 personnel on 156 plays combined. In 2020 alone, the Browns passed from 12 personnel on 169 plays.

It was the most efficient personnel grouping for Mayfield in his first two years, and he averaged 8.2 YPA, 51% success, and 0.14 EPA/att. Stefanski used it more often and with even greater efficiency in 2020, particularly when the Browns were trying to build a first half lead: 8.1 YPA, 55% success, and 0.23 EPA/att. All three metrics were stronger in 2020 than they were in 2018/2019 in the first half of games.

But it wasn’t just “use more heavy sets and we’ll be a better offense.” Stefanski got a ton out of Mayfield in 11 personnel as well. In 2019, Mayfield averaged 6.5 YPA, 39% success, and -0.18 EPA/att in 11 personnel in the first half of games. In 2020 that waw up to 6.9 YPA, 51% success, and 0.17 EPA/att.

While the offense was much better from 11, the increase from 12 was substantial, so it made sense for Stefanski to call over twice as much 12 personnel in 2020 as compared to 2019. 

Stefanski also turned 12 personnel into a passing set rather than a rushing set. In 2019, when the Browns were in 12 personnel, they ran the ball on 61% of plays on early downs in the first three quarters. In 2020, that flipped from 61% run to 63% pass (NFL average is 52% run). They changed from the sixth most run-heavy team to the second most pass-heavy team in one virtual offseason.

Baker Mayfield also improved across numerous measures to target depth and drop type. The largest improvement came on Level 2 throws, which are throws that have up-and-down trajectory (usually over LBs and in front of DBs, as defined by Sports Info Solutions). Look at the splits from 2019 to 2020:

2019: 37% success, 6.9 YPA, -0.09 EPA/att on 118 attempts
2020: 52% success, 11.0 YPA, 0.40 EPA/att on 88 attempts

Mayfield improved on both three-, five-, and seven-step drops with numbers that don’t even come close to resembling what he was doing under Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens. He was also far better against man coverage in Stefanski’s scheme (54% success, 8.0 YPA, 0.37 EPA/att) than in 2019 (49% success, 6.6 YPA, 0.01 EPA/att).

Other coaching improvements came with more usage of pre-snap motion and play-action. In 2019, 60% of the Browns’ passes were without pre-snap motion or play-action. In 2020, 60% of the Browns’ passes featured either pre-snap motion, play-action, or both. The Browns increased their usage of pre-snap motion from 28th most to 11th most.

Additionally, Stefanski increased the rate of shotgun passing and got a lot more out of Nick Chubb.

But it’s not as if everything is gravy in Cleveland. Remember, a key reason we bet on them heavily was the schedule they faced in 2020. Against that easy schedule, the Browns still had to go 7-2 in one-score games, +5 in turnover margin, and +12 in sack margin to go 11-5. Cleveland went 3-3 in games decided by double digits. They went 4-0 in games decided by a field goal or less. This could have been a very different season from a win-loss perspective. 

In fact, the Browns went only 6-10 (37.5%) against the spread in 2020. Of the 13 teams that finished with a winning record in the NFL last season, no team had a worse ATS record than the Browns. When favored by over three points, The Browns may have won seven of eight games, but they only covered the spread in two of the eight, winning 5 of 7 by 5 points or less.

So what do the Browns need to improve on in 2021? There are a variety of things.

In 2020, the Browns improved in most every statistic across the board as compared to 2019. But on third down and long, they still ranked 29th, identical to 2019. Certainly this offense, with a top-10 rush and pass offense, shouldn’t face extremely long third downs. The lone teams with great offenses that tend to face longer third downs are those offenses that are super pass-heavy. Such great offenses bypass third downs frequently. But because these teams rarely run the ball, they may find themselves, after incompletions or sacks, in third and very long. But it’s unusual for a team like the Browns to rank so poorly with a NFL-average 54% pass on early downs in the first half of games and such a good run and pass offense.

Of the 10 teams with the longest yards-to-go on third downs, the Browns were the only team to have an above average conversion rate. We know that third down conversion rate on a team-level is less stable than the conversion rate based on yards-to-go, so we should expect the Browns to regress on these plays making it more important to reduce the yardage required.

Another area the Browns need to improve in are Baker’s 0/1-step drops. In 2019, Baker wasn’t very good in 0/1-step drops (44% success, 6.2 YPA, 0.02 EPA/att). But in 2020, he was even worse (49% success, 5.3 YPA, -0.05 EPA/att). 

The Browns primarily used 11 and 12 personnel last year, but they also used a diverse set of other heavy packages including 13, 22, and 21 personnel. They called a total of 329 plays from those various heavy sets. 

Yet, they were terrible from these sets. They averaged -0.15 EPA/att on these plays and 45% success. If you remove late-game playcalls in the fourth quarter that may have been runs to bleed clock, and look at just the first three quarters, there was some improvement, but still poor performance in 206 plays (-0.06 EPA/att and 47% success). They went 59% run on these plays and those runs recorded only 4.0 YPC, 46% success, and -0.04 EPA/att. Passes had higher YPA when thrown, but Mayfield was pressured on 27% of dropbacks, sacked on 8%, and pass plays netted -0.08 EPA/att. The Browns need to clean up their usage of these non-12 personnel heavier sets.

This year, the Browns face the third-toughest jump in schedule difficulty of opposing pass defenses in 2021. After playing the third-easiest schedule in 2020, I project them to face a league-average schedule in 2021.

On the positive, the Browns are projected to face the second easiest schedule of opponents based on forecast win totals and the seventh easiest schedule based on total efficiency. The Browns also have luck on their side from a schedule timing perspective. They have the 11th best net-rest edge of any team in the NFL. They have the NFL’s fifth best prep ranking, with their opponent having less than a week to prepare for them in three games this year. The Browns rank 11th in rest ranking, with a net of +1 games more rest than their opponent.

I really loved what this team did defensively, both in 2020 with a scheme shift and then this offseason. In 2019, the Browns defense ranked fourth in rate of rushing 5 or 6+ defenders, and fourth in blitz rate (35%). In 2020, the Browns ranked 28th in rate of rushing 5, 24th in rate of rushing 6+, and 28th in blitz rate (17%). They blitzed half as often. They also drastically increased the rate of base defense, playing base on 26% of plays, double the rate (13%) in 2019. We will cover the details of their defensive offseason overhaul elsewhere, but suffice it to say, there will be plenty of new and better faces in 2021 for DC Joe Woods to work with.

What is crazy about the Browns this season is they have the NFL’s most expensive offense, by FAR, and yet they still have a quarterback on a rookie deal. The Browns’ 2021 offensive cap hit as of the time of this publication is $141.8 million. There is not another team north of $130 million. The next closest team is Dallas (who just paid Dak Prescott) at $126 million. After them, the Bucs are at $118 million. To have a quarterback so cheap (Mayfield is QB15 based on cap hit, clocking in at $10.6 million) and yet an offense so expensive, it tells you one thing: the Browns are trying to buy themselves a shot to win it all, and they know they have a short window to do so before they pay Mayfield too.

While it’s not a trivia nugget you want to be known for, if you’re going to meet the first criteria, you might as well try to meet the second. In 2020, the Browns became the only team in NFL history to go from a losing record for over 10 straight seasons to winning over 10 games in a season.

Now, this team is poised to take a deeper run to the playoffs and prove that last year was not just a one-year wonder. The question that deserves to be asked, however, is if my and others' loud support for the Browns caused them to be viewed too kindly by the public and betting markets.

The Browns are favored in 13 games this season. Before last season, they were favored in nine games. The Browns were favored in 11 games last year but went only 4-7 ATS. Time will tell if the 2021 Browns are worthy of the praise we’ve bestowed on them for months this offseason. But one thing is certain: if they want to reach their goals, they can’t rest on the laurels of 2020, they must improve in several key aspects to continue to raise efficiency.  While they are slotted to finish in second-place in the AFC North, they are very close to the Ravens in odds to win the division (+145 at PointsBet).  If they get defensive improvement thanks to personnel and offensive refinement thanks to more time in the system, the Browns could be on their way in 2021.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub.  For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.