Preseason - 2021 Cleveland Browns Outlook
Cleveland Browns Outlook
Cleveland brought in Kevin Stefanski to take over as the head coach in 2020. He seized the most of his opportunity by going 11-5, giving Browns' fans their first playoff experience since 2002. They bowed out in the division round of the postseason to the Chiefs 22-17. Over the previous 14 seasons, Stefanski worked in the Vikings' system with various coaching jobs. In 2019, he ran Minnesota's offense for the first time, leading to his promotion to the Browns.
The Browns improved to 14th in points scored (408), which was a jump of 73 points from 2019. They finish 16th in yards gained. Since 1988, the Browns have ranked in the top 10 in scoring only once (2007 – 8th).
Alex Van Pelt returns for his second year as Cleveland's offensive coordinator after spending the previous six seasons as the quarterbacks' coach for the Packers and the Bengals. He's been a coach in the NFL since 2006. Van Pelt now has two years of experience as an offensive coordinator.
Cleveland inched up to 17th in yards allowed. They allowed 419 points (21st), which was 26 more than they allowed in 2019.
Joe Woods gets a second crack as the defensive coordinator. In 2019, he held the defensive back coach and passing game coordinator jobs for the 49ers after running the Broncos' defense in 2017 and 2018. Woods worked in the Vikings' system from 2006 to 2013.
The Browns added four players (S John Johnson, DE Jadeveon Clowney, CB Troy Hill, and DE Takkarist McKinley) to the defense via free agency in the offseason.
Johnson delivered over 100 tackles in his last two full seasons with the Rams while also being on a productive pace in 2019 (51 over six games). His play in coverage graded well thanks to Los Angeles having a dominating pass-rusher (Aaron Donald) and a talented secondary.
Clowney continues to underachieve in the pass rush (32 sacks in 83 career games) while making his fourth franchise change since 2018. Over the last two seasons, he missed 13 starts. His game does play well in run support.
Hill saw his game improve after making a switch to slot corner for the Rams. His challenge will come when asked to cover elite physical receivers on the outside.
McKinley continues to fade against the run while losing in the pass rush over the past two seasons (4.5 sacks in 18 games – 13 over his first 31 starts with the Falcons). He is a former first-round draft pick (2017) who missed 12 games last year due to a groin issue.
The top four players lost off last season's defense were CB Terrance Mitchell, DE Olivier Vernon, LB B.J. Goodson, and DT Larry Ogunjobi.
Mitchell set a career-high in tackles (65) in 2020 while also picking up 13 defended passes and three forced fumbles. His downside came from allowing big plays and some damage in touchdowns allowed. When keeping a receiver in front of him, Mitchell tends to give up a low completion rate.
Vernon saw his 2020 season end in early January due to an Achilles injury. He finished with nine sacks and 36 tackles over 14 contests. Over his first seven seasons with the Dolphins and Giants, Vernon posted 51 sacks in 103 starts. He remains unsigned, which will come after recovering from his injury.
Goodson earned a starting job for the Browns over 14 games in 2020, thanks to his success in run support. He finished with a career-best 91 tackles while offering almost no pass rushing value (one sack over his last 44 games). Goodson remains a free agent in mid-May.
Over the last three seasons with the Browns, Ogunjobi had 148 combined tackles and 13.5 sacks. He will pressure the quarterback, but he tends to underachieve in sacks. His run defense has regressed in back-to-back seasons, suggesting his ceiling is a league-average player.
Cleveland didn't add any offensive players in the offseason.
Improving the defense was the Browns' theme in free agency, and that continued with their first two selections (CB Greg Newsome II and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah) in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Newsome brings the foundation skill set to cover all over the field. He shows the ability to win vs. press coverage while owning the panic button when beaten off the line, leading to some impactful penalties. His play in run support is favorable, along with his technique in following receivers out of their breaks. Newsome can get in trouble when seeing an oncoming pass play develop, creating a lag in his timing to break up some passes.
Owusu-Koramoah doesn't have the size (6'2" and 220 Lbs.) to be a power linebacker when matched up inside with beefy interior lineman. He will fly to the ball with an attacking style to create plays for losses and sacks. I could see Cleveland using him behind Myles Garrett in the pass rush, where his playmaking and speed will shine. The Browns expect him to support the run, but Owusu-Koramoah will have more success if given a clear path to ball carriers. His game should translate well in coverage. To reach an elite ceiling, he needs to add patience to his play, get stronger, and improve his vision.
Cleveland made their first offensive investment with WR Anthony Schwartz in the third round. His elite speed will test defenses over the long field, but his hands will limit his ability to develop into more than a one-dimensional deep threat. The Browns will run the ball well, giving Schwartz chances to get open on play-action passes. If he catches the ball, his window for playing time will increase. Schwartz may earn shots close to the line of scrimmage on easy completion to see if his speed can beat a defense in the open field.
In the fourth round, the Browns selected T James Hudson and DT Tommy Togiai.
Hudson will need time to develop his technique, but his ceiling looks exceptionally high if he is willing to put in some hard work. Hudson has a short resume while offering the foundation to develop into a starting tackle. He needs to get stronger while also improving his pass protection skills. His feet and hands set the tone for his success once Hudson develops a better plan after the snap.
Togiai relies on his power and his first step to make plays at the point of attack. Most of his sack production in the NFL will come from his drive or beating his man to the punch. He plays hard with no plays off but limited range.
Cleveland took fliers on LB Tony Fields, S Richard LeCounte, and WR Demetric Felton with their final choices in the fifth and sixth rounds.
Fields is a second undersized dart thrown by the Browns at linebacker. He understands his role and responsibilities well while playing with the restraint to stay in position to slow down the run game. His challenge comes when faced solid blocking by offensive linemen with some questions about his tackling in space. Fields must get stronger and turn his thoughts on play development into aggressive wins.
LeCounte will fire when attacking the line of scrimmage supporting the run despite being undersized for his position. His game has risk in pass coverage over the long field when matched up with speed. He does have playmaking ability off the ball, with a good feel for play development. LeCounte loses value when asked to change direction in chase mode.
Felton played both running back and wide receiver in college while also returning kicks. The Browns may use him out of the backfield on some passing downs to create mismatches and take advantage of his open-field ability. Felton's underdeveloped route-running may preclude him from opening his career as a wideout, but a few snaps out of the backfield could be attained. Eventually, with more strength added, Felton should find a home working out of the slot.
The Browns climbed 3rd in rushing yards (2,374) while pushing the ground total in touchdowns to 21. Their ball carriers gained 4.8 yards per rush for the second straight season. By winning more games, Cleveland moved to fourth in rushing attempts per game (30.9).
The offensive line allowed 26 sacks (8th lowest total in the league). Fewer pressures on the quarterback also came from the 28th ranking in pass attempts (501). The Browns finished 27th in pass yards (3,793) with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
LT Jedrick Wills
The first player added in last year's draft was Wills. He has an attacking style in the run game with the quickness to make plays in space. His hands grade well, but Wills doesn't engage long enough at times. He plays with power and fights with the movements to handle his pass blocking.
With Cleveland, Wills minimized the damage in pass protection while falling short of expectations in run blocking. He made 18 starts in his rookie season, with growth expected in 2021.
LG Joel Bitonio
Bitonio ranked highly for his position in pass protection in six of his seven years with the Browns. His only sack allowed came in Week 1. The addition of a better left tackle led to his best play in the run game. Bitonio hasn't missed a game in four seasons.
C J.C. Tretter
Tretter started all 66 games for the Browns over the last four seasons. The best part of his game continues to be his pass blocking, which reached a higher level in 2020. His run blocking was the best of his career last year.
RG Wyatt Teller
In his second season in Cleveland, Tretter missed six games with a calf issue and ankle injury. The Browns ran the ball well up the middle, leading to his run blocking ranking near the top of the league for his position, despite being a liability over his first two years. Late in the season, defenses forced him into more pressure, possibly tied to the health of his ankle.
RT Jack Conklin
After playing well over four seasons for the Titans, Conklin proved to be worth the investment by the Browns in 2020. He made 18 starts while playing at a high level in the run game. A better supporting cast on the offensive line also led to him playing at his highest level in pass protection. Conklin made an entire season of starts for the second straight year (fourth in five seasons).
Cleveland has four top players on their offensive line with an excellent balance between run and pass blocking. There is something to be said for chemistry built by being on the field for every game. The right guard position isn't on par with the rest of the line, but Teller did show growth last year. The Browns will run the ball well again this year, thanks to a pair of explosive runners and one of the best lines in the league. If Baker Mayfield needs to throw, Cleveland has the talent on the offensive line to extend his passing window.
Winning games led to Cleveland finishing with a balanced offense. They ran the ball 49.7 percent of the time while still being productive in pass yards (3,712/27). The additions in the offseason on defense point to another successful year, with the running game shining through again. If Odell Beckham could ever regain his early-career form, the passing game will be dangerous as well.
QB Baker Mayfield, CAR - Bye Week Fill-in
After underperforming in 2019, Mayfield cut down his mistakes (eight interceptions) last year while developing into an upside game manager. His completion rate (62.8) is below the top quarterbacks in the league, with some of the weakness coming from not using his running backs in the passing game on a high number of chances (60/483/5 on 79 targets).
He finished as the 18th highest scoring quarterback in four-point passing touchdowns leagues despite attempting only 30.4 passes per game. Mayfield posted three impact games (297/5, 339/4, and 366/3) while also passing for fewer than 200 yards in seven of his 18 starts (including the playoffs). Some of his passing upside was lost by the injury to Odell Beckham (nine missed games) and a below-par year by Jarvis Landry (72/840/3).
Fantasy Outlook: This offense will run the ball early and often. Even with a ball-control feel, the Browns did have seven games in 2020 where they scored over 30 points, which leaves plenty of room for Mayfield to push higher in the quarterback rankings. He even turned into an opportunistic runner (54/165/1), adding a couple of ticks to his fantasy value. His next step should be averaging 250 passing yards per game with a push over 30 passing touchdowns. He ranks 17th in the early quarterback rankings. The downside here is Mayfield will be tough to time for a fantasy owner looking for a matchup play. I view him as insurance only while possibly working as a bye week cover. In the end, Beckham is the player that determines his ceiling.
Other Options: Case Keenum, Kyle Lauletta
RB Nick Chubb, CLE - Solid/Safe Pick
The change in coaching staff in Cleveland in 2002 led to a sharp decline in the running back usage in the passing game (60/483/5 on 79 targets – 91/726/1 on 117 targets), which ultimately hurt the value of Kareem Hunt in the fantasy market.
On the positive side, the Browns' running backs attempted 81 more runs, leading 2,209 rushing yards with 19 scores. They gained a combined 2,692 combined yards with 24 touchdowns and 60 catches, which came to 29.58 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues.
Four missed games with a knee issue led to Chubb sliding to 11th in running back scoring (208.70) in PPR leagues. When on the field, he averaged 17.93 FPPG compared to 16.14 in 2019. He set a career-high in yards per rush (5.6) while delivering 12 runs over 20 yards. In his career, Chubb has 11 carries over 40 yards.
His best value came in five games (26.30, 24.00, 26.60, 24.30, 24.50 fantasy points) while gaining over 100 rushing yards in six contests (20/165/3, 20/122/2, 20/131, 20/116, 21/106/1, 15/106, and 17/127/1). The Browns barely used him in the passing (16/150) after making strides in 2019 in pass-catching (36/278). Over 44 career games, Chubb scored 30 touchdowns.
Fantasy Outlook: In PPR leagues, Chubb has a more steady feel due to his role in the passing game. Last he was on pace for 1,623 combined yards with 16 touchdowns and 20 catches or 278.3 fantasy points. His early ADP (12) in the 12-team high-stakes market ranks him as the ninth running back drafted. Chubb has the talent to rush for 2,000-plus yards with a run at 20 touchdowns if the Browns' offense becomes more dynamic.
RB Kareem Hunt, CLE - Solid/Safe Pick
In his first full seasons with the Browns, Hunt gained 1,145 combined yards with 11 scores and 38 catches. He outscored Nick Chubb by 9.80 fantasy points in PPR leagues, which placed him in 10th in running back score. Even with success, Hunt still fell short of potential when adding in that he made four starts.
He looked sensational in a rotational role off the bench over the first four games (317 combined yards with five touchdowns and eight catches on 58 touches). Over this span, Hunt gained 5.5 yards per carry. Over his four weeks as the starter, he struggled to get into space (3.9 yards per rush and 7.1 yards per catch), leading to 315 combined yards with two touchdowns and 10 catches on 18.75 touches per game.
When Chubb returned to the field, his role/opportunity settled into 12.9 chances per week for 503 combined yards with four TDs scored and 20 catches. A good portion of his production came in Week 10 (132 combined yards and three catches) and Week 14 (110 combined yards with two touchdowns and six catches).
Fantasy Outlook: This season, Hunt will be the Browns' third-down back while playing the spoiler at the goal line. He should see one-third of the running back opportunity as his floor while also working as the closer in blowout wins for Cleveland. If the Browns want a more round passing game, Hunt should push over 50 catches. His ADP paints him as a backend RB2 in PPR leagues, but iIf Chubb went down with an injury, Hunt has the potential to be a top-five running back. I would buy the floor of 1,000 combined yards and 40 catches, knowing that Hunt will find a way to score enough to reach over 200 fantasy points. Think safe but explosive.
UPDATE: Hunt is expected to miss multiple weeks but should be back in the fold for the fantasy playoffs.
RB Demetric Felton, CLE - Not Draft Worthy
Over the past two seasons at UCLA, Felton worked in a split role between running back and wide receiver. He flashed more explosiveness at receiver in 2019 (55/594/4) and running back in 2020 (132/668/5). This year, he'll provide pass-catching insurance at running back while Felton develops his skill set in all areas.
Other Options: D'Ernest Johnson, John Kelly, Tre Harbison
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, CLE - Dynasty Only
Over three seasons at Michigan, Peoples-Jones caught 103 passes for 1,327 yards and 14 TDs on 181 targets. His best season (47/612/8) came in 2018 as a sophomore. In his career, he doesn't have a game with over 90 yards receiving. Peoples-Jones will make some plays and score touchdowns, but his opportunity will be minimal early in his career.
Peoples-Jones underperformed his expected upside in college. His route running isn't where it needs to be, and he lacks the wheels to be a deep threat on the outside. People-Jones should gain value vs. zone coverage while lacking the release or quickness to win against press coverage. I expect his hands to shine with the ability to make plays in the end zone and with his legs after the catch.
In his rookie season, he caught 14 of his 20 targets for 304 yards and two touchdowns. His two highlight games came in Week 7 (3/56/1) and Week 13 (2/92/1).
Fantasy Outlook: Peoples-Jones will compete for the WR3 role for the Browns in 2021.
Other Options: KhaDarel Hodge, Anthony Schwartz, JoJo Natson
WR Rashard Higgins, CAR - Deep-league Only
After Odell Beckham went down, Higgins gave the Browns come clutch catches and five meaningful games (6/110, 6/95/1, 6/68/1, 4/76, and 5/88). In 2018 (39/572/4) and 2020 (37/599/4), he posted strength in his catch rate (73.6 and 71.1). Last year 12 of his 37 catches gained 20 yards or more.Fantasy Outlook: Higgins looks to be only a handcuff option for Beckham or Landry in season-long games. His opportunity becomes more valuable in chaser games when the Browns fall behind early.