I’m not sure we can name another sports franchise that has caused their fans more grief than the Cleveland Browns. Ever since their return to the NFL in 1999, we’ve seen a carousel of failed quarterbacks, coaches, and front office management all trying to turn this franchise around. The result has been only three winning seasons in this millennium. Last year’s team brought them their first playoff win since 1994 when they beat Pittsburgh in the Wildcard Round. There is reason to be excited about this Browns team going into 2021. Is Cleveland the real deal or are we setting ourselves up for disappointment again?
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The 2018 quarterback prospect debate was fascinating to follow. The media speculated on who the Browns would choose as their QB of the future with the first overall pick. It was between Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, or Josh Allen. After all the smoke and mirrors throughout the process, they went with Baker. If you were to ask anyone after the 2018 season, they would say Mayfield was the best choice. He set the rookie record for touchdown passes (in 14 games) and was pegged as the franchises’ savior going into his second year.
Unfortunately, the Freddie Kitchens experiment failed horribly. The new head coach was brought in to continue Mayfield’s development. Instead, he never seemed to have control over the team and was a terrible play-caller. Baker took a step back from his rookie season, throwing 21 interceptions in the new offense. Kitchens was fired after a 6-10 record and the Browns’ hype train derailed. It’s a tough scene when your team’s quarterback has more TV commercials than wins on a season.
After a humbling 2019, Mayfield had an attitude adjustment to go along with a new coach in Kevin Stefanski. This proved to be just what he needed and Baker had a much better showing in 2020. The overall numbers don’t really stick out because they didn’t attempt a lot of passes. However, he was the most efficient that we’ve ever seen him play in the NFL. He achieved his career-high in average yards/attempt and QBR while lowering his interception rate to below 2.0-percent. He also improved his deep ball accuracy by completing 46.6% of his passes over 20 yards (sixth-best in 2020). It appears that Mayfield has finally found his footing at the NFL level.
Between Weeks 8-11 (they had a Week 9 bye), Cleveland played a rough stretch of bad weather games. That made throwing the ball nearly impossible and negatively skewed Mayfield’s end-of-season stats. After they were clear of monsoon season, he finished Weeks 12-17 as the QB8. Baker should be drafted as a mid-tier QB2, but he has shown us a top-10 ceiling. His first QB1 finish could very well come in 2021.
The Browns have been one of the more productive backfields in all of fantasy football since pairing Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. Hunt has turned out to be an excellent complement to Chubb, as both running backs finished in the Top 12 for the position last season. Chubb was much more efficient in his path to RB1 status, while Hunt got there based on touchdowns and increased volume during Chubb’s injury absence.
Despite missing four games due to an MCL injury, Nick Chubb still managed the seventh-most rushing yards on the season. Many would argue that he’s the best pure runner in the NFL, as his efficiency metrics are elite across the board. Chubb was a top-5 running back in yards per carry, breakaway run rate, yards per touch, and juke rate. Only Derrick Henry had more 20+ yard runs in 2020. Usually, running backs that don’t catch a lot of passes lack a ceiling for fantasy, but Chubb is an exception. Since he is so efficient and often breaks long runs, I have no problem considering him a high-end RB1 while he cedes most of the passing downs to Hunt.
Kareem Hunt is coming off his second year with Cleveland, which was his best since his rookie season in Kansas City. He received a nice boost in volume during Chubb’s IR stint from Weeks 5-8. Hunt was the RB11 during that span while he operated as the team’s lead back. Once Chubb returned in Week 10, Hunt took a backseat. Kareem went from averaging 17 touches per game through the first eight weeks to just 12.8 from Weeks 10-17. He was also just the RB30 in points per game during that second-half stretch. Hunt remains one of the best handcuffs in fantasy, but those expecting another RB1 performance in 2021 will likely be let down. He’s no more than a decent flex option while Chubb is healthy.
Even though the Browns have plenty of talented wideouts on the roster, their production is limited by the overall lack of pass volume. Only four teams had fewer pass attempts than Cleveland last season. This is partially due to the stretch of extreme weather games mentioned earlier. I expect them to be closer to the average NFL team in pass attempts this year, similar to the previous two seasons. Jarvis Landry played most of the season banged up and finished with his lowest yardage total since his rookie year. Odell Beckham Jr. was hoping for a bounce back after his disappointing debut in Cleveland. Unfortunately, his season was ended when he tore his ACL in Week 7.
As I mentioned before, this is not a high-volume passing offense, but we saw both Landry and Beckham receive over 130 targets each in 2019. In fact, going into 2020, Landry had earned 130 or more targets in five straight seasons. He doesn’t have top-10 WR upside but has been one of the best floor players for fantasy throughout his career. When Mayfield and the offense found their groove towards the end of 2020, Landry was WR10 in PPG through Weeks 12-17. He’s only 28 years old, so still within his peak physically. If back to full health, we should expect low-end WR2 production again.
Fantasy managers have been chasing the former greatness of Odell Beckham Jr. for years now. Yet, we continue to be let down after each season. Before he went down in Week 7, Mayfield and Beckham were still struggling to get on the same page. Beckham had his career-worst catch percentage, yards per game, and yards per target. Some will credit Beckham’s absence for Mayfield’s breakout in the second half of the season, but as I said before, things seemed to click internally for Baker around Week 12
We can never know what they would have looked like with Beckham still around. I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have made them even better. With another year to gel with Mayfield and the offense, Odell could certainly make a comeback into the mid-WR2 territory. We also have to recognize his floor. He is a WR3 if he continues to struggle to find his place in the Cleveland offense or the knee is not back to 100%.
There will be an interesting camp battle for the number three wide receiver spot. Rashard Higgins has filled that role for the past few years and has flashed in moments. Last year’s sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones also came up with some big catches for them down the stretch last season. It’s a small sample size of only 14 receptions, but 21.71 yards-per-catch is an impressive showing of his big-play potential. The most recent addition to the receiver room is Cleveland’s 2021 third-round selection out of Auburn, Anthony Schwartz. His college production won’t blow anyone away, but his speed will. Schwartz is a track star with a 4.26 40-yard dash speed that will attract any defense’s attention. None of these guys should be drafted in redraft leagues. They are worth keeping an eye on in case Landry and/or Beckham run into health issues again this year.
The Browns targeted the tight end position fifth-most in the league in 2020. It would seem like a highly productive position in fantasy. The problem is those targets are split between three different players. Austin Hooper serves as the lead tight end, coming over as a free agent after posting back-to-back top-10 TE finishes in Atlanta. Not only did he share time with David Njoku and rookie Harrison Bryant, but he was also inefficient with his 70 targets. The 6.21 yards per target and 9.46 yards per reception will not get him anywhere near the Top 12 tight ends. Especially when he is the third option (at best) of a run-heavy scheme.
Njoku and Bryant each had several weeks as the leading tight end for Cleveland. They were never consistent enough to feel confident in starting them but took enough work from Hooper to relegate him to being a “spot-start” only option. Unless one of these players is traded or goes down to injury, I would be looking for other tight end options in 2021 drafts.