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2020 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,913 (Eighth)
Offensive Touchdowns: 27 (13th)
Offensive Plays: 1,022 (20th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 527 (29th)
Rush Attempts: 495 (Fourth)
Unaccounted for Targets: 4 (32nd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 9 (31st)
After a series (roughly two decades) of questionable head coach hires, the Browns appear to have finally found their man in Kevin Stefanski. The former Vikings offensive coordinator led the Browns to their third winning season since rejoining the league in 1999 and their first playoff win since 1994. Stefanski leaned on his team’s dominant rushing attack which was backed by a stout defense. The Browns ran on 47.8-percent of their plays, a rate that was good for fourth-highest in the league. While their run-heavy approach may irk the analytics nerds, Cleveland made the most of every rush attempt they called. Their running backs averaged 4.9 yards per carry and scored 18 times. Both marks were top-five among all teams’ running back stats. When Stefanski did dial up passing plays, he did so in clever ways. Baker Mayfield was sixth in air yards per attempt. According to Pro Football Focus, Mayfield was also the beneficiary of play action on 30.1-percent of his throws. Stefanski used deep passing and fakeouts of his fearsome run game to coax a bounceback year out of Mayfield, who is now beginning to look like a franchise quarterback once again.
With Mayfield rebounding from his 2019 collapse, Cleveland was able to move the ball through the air with ease last year, even if they chose to do so sparingly relative to the rest of the league. The third-year passer found the end zone on 5.3-percent of his throws and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt. Both marks were top-20 among quarterbacks. Most importantly, Mayfield managed to avoid the disastrous plays that plagued his 2019 campaign. He cut his interception rate in half compared to 2019, turning the ball over on just 1.6-percent of his throws. Improvements along the offensive line also allowed his sack rate to dip to 5.1-percent. With little changing in Cleveland, Mayfield should continue sprinkling in spike weeks amidst low-volume games. He was one of just five quarterbacks to throw four or more touchdowns in two separate games last year.
The biggest difference between the Browns in 2021 and 2020 will be getting Odell Beckham for a full season, assuming he can stay healthy. Beckham suffered a torn ACL in Week 7, ending his season before the halfway point. Before that, he wasn’t exactly his usual, dominant self. Beckham was on pace for 851 yards before the injury. His 45.6 receiving yards per game were a career-low. However, there were some reasons to be optimistic that he would have turned things around in the second half of the year. Beckham was still operating as Cleveland’s top receiver and there was a gulf between him and Jarvis Landry. Beckham earned a 25-percent target share and a 38-percent share of Cleveland's air yards before going down with the knee injury. His air yards share would have been eighth among receivers had he kept that blazing pace up. If Beckham, who has been tormented by injuries throughout his time in Cleveland, can regain some of his New York magic, the role is there for him to post his best season in five years.
Landry has been the steady hand guiding Cleveland’s bland passing attack over the past three years. In his tenure with the Browns, Landry has averaged 997 receiving yards per year but his numbers dipped in 2020. The veteran slot receiver caught 72 passes for 840 yards. His most notable play was a 37-yard touchdown pass to Beckham against the Cowboys. Landry’s role simply isn’t conducive to big fantasy seasons. He saw one red zone target when Beckham was healthy and had an average depth of target of 8.2 on the year. With big play and touchdown potential off the table, Landry is a low-ceiling WR4 in PPR leagues.
No tight end posted a notable season for the Browns last year. Austin Hooper was the team’s big acquisition in free agency a year ago and finished the season with just 435 yards. It marked his worst season since his first pro outing in 2017. Hooper missed two games and ceded work to Harrison Bryant at times. Bryant, a fourth-round rookie, picked up 238 yards and three scores in his debut season. Both Bryant and David Njoku averaged more yards per target and scored at a higher rate than Hooper.
With Cleveland’s passing volume sitting near the bottom of the league, none of the options they have to fill the WR3 role project to be viable fantasy players. Rashard Higgins will open the year as the starter in three-wide sets but will face some pressure from Donovan Peoples-Jones, who occasionally operated as the team’s field-stretcher last year, and Anthony Schwartz, a one-trick speedster who will likely spend his rookie season as a special teams player.
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Cleveland’s fantasy appeal will continue to be generated through their rushing attack in 2021. While they have all of the pieces necessary to field a solid passing game, Stefanski will undoubtedly keep his “establish it” mentality rolling this year. To his credit, he has the backfield necessary to justify running the ball more than most teams. Per Pro Football Focus, Nick Chubb has never finished lower than second in yards after contact per attempt (min. 100 attempts). Chubb’s combination of tackle-breaking ability and home run speed puts him among the favorites to lead the league in rushing. He finished third in rushing yards per game last year, one season removed from falling a Derrick Henry 211-yard game short of earning the rushing crown.
The only thing holding him back from being the league’s best fantasy back is a lack of receiving work. Chubb has averaged 1.3 receptions per game in two of his three pro seasons. Since joining the team in the middle of the 2019 season, Kareem Hunt has served as the team’s primary pass-catching back. When both players have been active over the past two years, Hunt has caught 3.3 passes per game.
As a runner, Hunt serves as an auxiliary option to Chubb, averaging just 8.9 carries per game when sharing the field with him. Hunt’s value in fantasy drafts is mainly derived from the role he earns whenever Chubb is hurt. Chubb missed four games last year and Hunt’s volume was elite during those games. Masked by a handful of middling fantasy finishes, Hunt racked up 65 carries and 10 receptions with Chubb sidelined. Even though Hunt logged a lone RB1 week in that four-game span, his volume is that of an obvious top-10 running back should anything happen to Chubb. He remains a viable RB3 option whenever Chubb is healthy because of his receiving role but his inflated ADP comes as a result of the potential for a windfall of carries at any moment.
The Browns’ win total is currently lined at 10.5 wins. Without looking into it, that has to be the team’s highest win total in the past quarter-century. Despite the recent legacy of laughable failure, Cleveland has earned their newfound status as a playoff contender. They made the postseason last year and knocked off Pittsburgh in a brutal blowout. They followed that by coming within a Chad Henne fourth-down of having a final drive to dethrone the Chiefs. This offseason, the Browns added Jadeveon Clowney and a handful of other contributors on defense while consistently finding value in the draft.
While Cleveland is certainly an exciting team to fire an over bet on, the time for optimism may have passed from a betting perspective. Depending on the book, this line opened as low as 9.5 wins. The Browns still have a talent enough talent to get to 11 wins but with sharps hammering the over as soon as it opened, much of the value has already been extracted. Picking Cleveland to win their division (+145) may be the better way to get exposure to them at this point in the offseason.