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2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,791 (18th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 41 (17th)
Offensive Plays: 1,054 (20th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 569 (26th)
Rush Attempts: 485 (Ninth)
Unaccounted for Targets: 233 (5th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 22 (25th)
Kevin Stefanski’s crew have done an admirable job porting late-era Kubiak-ism to Cleveland, but he’s now faced with his toughest challenge as a coach. Not a single soul on this planet knows what the NFL’s punishment for Deshaun Watson will be and how long it will last. Stefanski has spent his offseason-to-date adding more of Watson’s preferred plays (empty sets) to the offense and now may have to double back and head right back into the vault in training camp. While we’ve seen plenty of talk about Baker Mayfield getting traded and not ever wanting to set foot in Cleveland again, nobody actually knows how the dominos will tumble at this point. Anyway, I get to write a preview about a situation that could turn umpteen different ways by the time the preview gets posted and when training camp starts. Kinda feels pointless! I asked the editors if I could post a picture of a question mark and received a large electrostatic current for my troubles.
There is no situation in the NFL with quite this much up in the air, and nothing that means quite as much to fantasy lineups as the status of Watson. He changes everything for this team. He changed everything for this team. Stefanski’s a pretty good football coach and the Browns have been hiding Mayfield’s flaws for years, but it’s tough to change gears on a dime and that may be the task this year.
Joe Woods enters his third year as defensive coordinator with a unit that returns almost every starter outside of the interior line. Cleveland’s defense gelled towards the end of the season and allowed just two of their final eleven opponents to score more than 24 points, holding seven of them under 20. Health permitting, the only weak link this unit has is run defense. (One of those games over 24 points was allowing the Patriots to gut them on runs for 45.) New addition Taven Bryan was the main attempt at an answer inside. The Browns feel like they’re a good nose tackle short of something great on that side of the ball. They’re an interesting D/ST sleeper in a rough division for that sort of thing.
Watson took a major step forward in his final active season in Houston, throwing just one interception from Week 6 to Week 16 – one that Kenny Moore effectively bullied away from Brandin Cooks at the catch point. 18 months could have changed a lot, and Watson has reportedly thrown some picks in OTAs and minicamp. But the smart money is on Watson playing like a franchise quarterback whenever he is actually allowed on the field. The people who spend time saying things like “Watson only won four games in 2020!” missed the part where he was playing with one of the worst running games in modern history and throwing to Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen. Watson’s ADP has deflated as recent reports have come out, and he’s gone from being a gamble QB1 to a wait-and-feel-bad-for-it QB2. Whenever he plays, he will return fantasy value. Your guess on when that will happen is as good as mine, but most fantasy analysts had baked in a six-to-ten game suspension before recent reports.
With Baker Mayfield more likely to be traded or released than start games for the Browns per all current reporting, let’s focus on Jacoby Brissett, who the Browns brought in to replace Case Keenum and save some cap space. Brissett wanders into a situation that feels much like his last full starting opportunity with the 2019 Colts; the running game will be accentuated and looks to be good, but there aren’t many noteworthy targets outside of Amari Cooper (playing T.Y. Hilton in this case). Brissett threw 18 touchdowns and was picked six times that season, adding another four touchdowns on the ground. He has superflex value, but don’t expect major splash weeks.
Cooper’s a great fit for the offensive system as a wideout who feasts on zone coverage and was a steal compared to where the wideout market wound up going after he was acquired. Matt Harmon over at Reception Perception (subscription required) notes that Cooper has been below the 37th percentile in success rate against man coverage in each of the last three years. He’s a good No. 2 receiver who will be asked to work as a No. 1. As long as the Browns stay play-action heavy – they were middle of the pack last year with their quarterback injured from Week 2 on – Cooper will be a major beneficiary. If Brissett starts, Cooper’s target share will be fine but his volume will likely suffer. He’s probably best-suited as a WR3 at this point.
If you follow the money in the skill position corps, the second-most targets should go to Njoku. That’s weird! Njoku has never had more than 56 catches in five years in the NFL, and he hasn’t been fantasy-relevant since that year – 2018 – where he also played 80% of the snaps for the only time in his career. However, between the $28 million in guarantees, the fact Brissett’s most-targeted receiver in 2019 was Jack Doyle, and the gaping hole that is “the idea of a fantasy TE1,” Njoku certainly is a worthwhile gamble on one. My personal belief is that he’s going a little overlooked in early drafts.
The majority of the offseason press coverage about the other three receivers has gone to David Bell, who has a good chance to be Cleveland’s slot receiver from the jump. I did find it notable that in Zac Jackson’s recent piece on Cleveland minicamp Anthony Schwartz was still running with the ones rather than Bell. I believe in Bell a lot more than I believe in Schwartz, who would seem to fit better as a big outside speedster than in the slot. Schwartz missed a lot of last season with a long-term concussion and five of his 23 targets were in Week 1 with Odell Beckham out. If there’s a player who I think is hurt most by Watson’s absence, it’s probably Peoples-Jones. Brissett isn’t the kind of quarterback who has proven able to unlock his deep targets – he finished with the 11th-lowest intended air yards per attempt in 2021. Meanwhile, 30 of Peoples-Jones’ 61 targets came on passes that qualified for the NFL’s definition of “deep” (15 yards or deeper). If Watson was starting, I’d be of the belief that this passing game could support a third fantasy option. With Brissett, it’s hard to see the path to relevance for any of these players without injuries in front of them.
Backing up Njoku at tight end is Harrison Bryant, who spent almost all of last season as the third tight end behind Njoku and Austin Hooper. Njoku’s 64% snap count last year points to a potential real role for Bryant in the TE2 range for those of you in multi-TE leagues – Njoku did get 53 targets in 2021. If Njoku should get hurt, Bryant’s efficiency and college prospect profile point to somebody who could step in and play at a TE1 level. He’s more of someone to put on the waiver wire speed dial than a guy to stash on your roster in normal formats, but he does have some upside.
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If we were talking about him purely as a running back rather than as a fantasy asset, there’s an argument that Chubb is either 1A or 1B behind Jonathan Taylor. He is the only back in the history of Next Gen Stats’ data to average two yards per carry more than expected on runs against loaded boxes in a single season. And he’s done it in … three of his four seasons to date. With his workload managed and other good pass-catching backs on the roster, Chubb will probably continue to return RB1 value rather than literally being the RB1. It’s the smart move for the Browns to continue to rotate Chubb and hope to squeeze a few extra years of good play out of him down the line. It sucks as someone who wants to see what Chubb would be capable of with a Derrick Henry workload because it would likely blow some minds.
Kareem Hunt dealt with a mid-season calf injury and a Week 14 ankle injury, but other than that his season is right in line with his normal sterling numbers as Cleveland’s RB2. He’ll be on the field in pass-catching situations. There’s been some smoke about him getting dealt as he enters the final year of his contract, but that would probably take a special situation because you rarely see running backs of his caliber switch teams before the season. The last one I can think of is the guy that Hunt replaced: Duke Johnson in 2020. Hunt is a worthy RB3 and a plausible PPR RB2 even if that’s not exciting.
Cleveland’s backfield is littered with guys who could be stars. D’Ernest Johnson averaged 6.64 yards per carry in his start against the Broncos in Week 7, and he almost made it to 100 rushing yards against the Patriots in a game the Browns lost 45-7. It should be noted that Johnson is the guy that ESPN's Jake Trotter projected to be traded in his 53-man roster projection earlier this week. Demetric Felton was extremely impressive as a receiver and an open-field space threat. Jerome Ford on any other depth chart would be a real threat to early playing time. These are good deep dynasty stashes and guys to be aware of if injury hits the Cleveland backfield yet again.
The offensive line is undergoing a bit of turnover, with former Pac-12 first team center Nick Harris taking over at center for NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, who remains unsigned. Harris handled himself fairly well in his first two seasons in spot starts, but the knock on him is more pass-protection related than his ability to scoot in the run game. He shouldn’t hold back Cleveland’s run game in any way. Jack Conklin is coming off a late November torn patella tendon and it’s possible he will start training camp on the PUP list. Chris Hubbard is a capable-if-uninspiring backup at the position, and James Hudson could also push for playing time at right tackle. Conklin’s absence would be at least a bit harmful though, as he’s one of the league’s best in the run game. It’s still hard to imagine a line with Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller not getting a major push in the run game regardless of the other question marks.
PointsBet over/under: Off The Board
You know, it’s interesting that almost every sports book has taken this line off the board entirely. I am being told that if I type any further thoughts about my feelings on this I will have my memory wiped and return to humanity as a 53-year-old architect named Greg who is fairly well-off but bored and in a listless marriage.