|By Shawn Childs, Wednesday, November 29, 2023|
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. Unfortunately, poor quarterback play and an injury to Baker Mayfield led to an 8-9 record the following year. The Deshaun Watson investment backfired in 2022, leading to another losing schedule (7-10). 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 bumped to 18th in points scored (361), 12 points higher than in 2021. They finished 14th in yards gained. Since 1988, Cleveland ranked in the top 10 in scoring only once (2007 – 8th).
Alex Van Pelt returns for his fourth year as Cleveland's offensive coordinator after spending the previous six seasons as the quarterback's coach for the Packers and the Bengals. He's been a coach in the NFL since 2006.
Cleveland fell to 14th in yards allowed (5th in 2021). They gave up 381 points (14th), a decline of 10 points from 2021 (371).
Jim Schwartz takes over as the Browns' defensive coordinator. He worked as the defensive assistant for the Titans over the past two years. The Lions gave him five seasons to prove his worth as a head coach, but Schwartz went 29-51 with one winning year (10-6 in 2011). He has coached in the NFL since 1993 while holding a defensive coordinator job for 14 seasons.
The Browns moved on from DE Jadeveon Clowney (FA) and DT Taven Bryan (IND) while adding DT Dalvin Tomlinson, DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, S Juan Thornhill, and S Rodney McLeod to their defense. Cleveland needs Tomlinson to clog up the middle of the line vs. the run while offering value in sacks. Thornhill has plenty of winning and playoff experience with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he did show scoring risk in coverage in 2022.
Cleveland didn't bring back RB Kareem Hunt (FA) and Jacoby Brissett (WAS).
With no selections in the first or second of the 2023 NFL Draft, the Browns started rebuilding with WR Cedric Tillman and DT Siaki Ika in the third round. Cleveland gave Deshaun Watson a big wideout (6'3" and 213 lbs.), hoping that Tillman could develop into some form of DeAndre Hopkins. He checks the physical and hands boxes while needing to clean up his route running and release. His draft stock fell last year due to an early-season ankle injury.
Ika is about power and owning his small piece of the football field. He has surprising quickness off the snap, with the vision to create early wins. His range will be limited, and Ika must improve his positioning to avoid losing leverage on some blocks.
The Browns added T Dawand Jones and DE Isaiah McGuire in the fourth round. Jones is an absolute beast of a man (6'8" and 375 lbs.) who was projected to go in the first or second round. He'll win with power in the run game and handle himself when attacked by a bull rush. His challenge is staying above his feet to keep his balance when working outside his framework. McGuire has the feel of a player who wants to win his small battle on the field at the team's expense at times. He attacks with power and fight that works much better in late downs when offenses are forced to throw. His quickness isn't edge while needing to play with more discipline to earn more playing time.
Cleveland's insurance at quarterback came in the fifth round with Dorian Thompson-Robinson. His running style allows the Browns to groom him to run the same offense as Deshaun Watson. He must improve his mechanics, timing, and reads to develop into a starting quarterback in the NFL. Thompson-Robinson has game management skills, aided by his wins with his feet.
With their last two selections in the fifth and sixth rounds, the Browns took fliers on CB Cameron Mitchell and C Luke Wypler.
Mitchell earns his edge through his physical play, allowing him to handle press coverage and run support. His transition when matching pass routes with top receivers can leave him a step late in coverage while lacking the makeup speed to overcome his mistakes. Mitchell should handle his assignments better in the red zone, where the short field is his friend.
Wypler brings an interesting combination of quickness and strength to the center position. He must improve his base to handle bull rushers, along with his rhythm and timing hiking the ball. Wypler has a mobile style of play, giving him a wide range of blocking chances on the move.
The Browns dipped to 6th in rushing yards (2,490) while scoring 19 rushing touchdowns and averaging 31.3 rushes per game. Their ball carriers gained 4.7 yards per rush with 21 rushes of 20 yards or more.
The offensive line allowed 44 sacks (11th most total in the league). The Browns finished 23rd in pass yards (3,710) with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
LT Jedrick Wills played an entire season for the first time in his three-year career after Cleveland drafted him 10th overall in 2020. He continues to allow too much pressure on the quarterback, and his run blocking remains below par.
LG Joel Bitonio has a long career of playing at a high level in all areas while being at his best over the last three seasons. C Ethan Pocic missed four games last year with a knee issue. The move to the Browns led to the best season of his career. He'll compete with Luke Wypler for the starting job.
RG Wyatt Teller was a beast in the run game in 2020 and 2021 while sliding closer to the league average last season. RT Jack Conklin struggled with injuries over the past two years (10 missed games). In 2022, he had a step back in play in run blocking, something he excelled at over his first six seasons. His pass protection skillset remains in a favorable area.
This offensive line has enough talent to be much better this year, especially in sacks allowed. Deshaun Watson must regain his previous form to create more scoring chances and allow the Browns to control the clock on the ground.
QB Deshaun Watson - Solid/Safe Pick
Over his final three seasons with the Texans, Watson went 25-22 with two winning years (11-5 and 10-5). His completion rate (68.7) and yards per pass attempt (8.3) were exceptional, but he ranked below the league average in pass attempts per game (32.9). Watson had his best fantasy season in 2020 (led the NFL in passing yards – 4,823) while delivering 36 combined touchdowns. He was active in the run game from 2018 to 2020 (99/551/5, 82/413/7, and 90/44/3). His most significant obstacle to success came via sacks (62, 44, and 49) during this span.
The Browns ranked poorly in passing attempts (539 – 19th, 501 – 28th, 520 – 28th, and 540 – 21st) and passing yards (3,847 – 22nd, 3,701 – 27th, 3,619 – 27th, and 3710 – 23rd) over the past four seasons.
Watson wasn't worth the investment by Cleveland last season, putting their coaching staff on the hit seat in 2023 if they don't make the playoffs. He had 31 or fewer passes in five of his starts, leading to fewer than 170 yards passing in four games and only two matchups with more than one score. Watson held form in the run game (36/175/1) but had weakness in his completion rate (58.2 – 67.8 over his previous 1,748 pass attempts) and yards per pass attempt (6.5 – 8.3 before 2022).
Fantasy Outlook: Cleveland upgraded their wide receiving corps in the offseason by trading for Elijah Moore and drafting Cedric Tillman. Amari Cooper (78/1,160/9), Donovan Peoples-Jones (61/839/3), and David Njoku (58/628/4) played well in 2022, giving Watson plenty of firepower to move the ball. His career path suggests that 4,500 combined yards and 30 touchdowns are a reasonable floor. If Tillman and Moore play well, Watson should beat his early draft ranking at quarterback (9th).
Injury Status: Injured Reserve
QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson - Not Draft Worthy
Over his 49 games in college, Thompson-Robinson passed for 10,695 yards with 88 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. He helped his value with his production (471/1,828/28) on the ground. His completion rate (69.6) moved to an elite area in his senior year at USC. Thompson-Robinson scored 39 times in 2022 with a combined 3,801 yards over 13 starts.
Other Options: Joshua Dobbs, Kellen Mond
RB Demetric Felton - Not Draft Worthy
Felton played 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. His pass-catching grades better at running back until he develops better route running. With more strength added, Felton could find a home working out of the slot.
Over his last two seasons at UCLA, Felton 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.
Fantasy Outlook: Felton suited up for 24 games for the Browns over the last two seasons. Cleveland gave a better opportunity in 2021 (7/24 with 18 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns). He gained only four yards with two catches on three touches last year.
Other Options: John Kelly, Nate McCrary, Hassan Hall
UPDATE: FELTON WAS RELEASED BY THE BROWNS. JEROME FORD IS THE RB2 TO TARGET IN CLEVELAND.
RB Nick Chubb - Stud (low risk)
Over five seasons with the Browns, Chubb has been a phenomenal running back based on his yards per rush (5.2, 5.0, 5.6, 5.5, and 5.0). He was a workhorse back in 2019 (334 touches), leading to 1,772 combined yards with eight touchdowns and 36 catches.
Chubb missed seven games in 2020 and 2021 while also losing touches to a second rotational back. He averaged 17.7 touches in 2021 (17.2 in 2020) while ranking him 13th in running back scoring (216.30) in PPR formats. Surprisingly, Chubb was a much better player on the road (810 combined yards with six touchdowns and 11 catches over seven games). He gained more than 100 yards rushing in five matchups (once at home).
Last season, Chubb posted the best year of his career (282.40 fantasy points – 6th), leading to new tops in rush attempts (302), rushing yards (1,525), and touchdowns (13). He gained more than 100 combined yards in 11 games, with seven of those outcomes coming over the first eight games. His season ended with no rushing scores over six consecutive matchups when Deshaun Watson took over at quarterback. Cleveland gave him less than half of their running back pass-catching opportunity (27/239/1).
Fantasy Outlook: With Kareem Hunt off the roster, Chubb looks poised to push his stats higher. His ceiling will remain limited in the passing game, and Deshaun Watson will snip some rushing scores. On the positive side, a better quarterback should lead to more offense by the Browns. Let's shoot for 350 touches for 1,850 yards with 14 scores and 30 catches. Chubb is the seventh-ranked running back selected in the early draft season in the high-stakes market.
Jody Smith: Chubb is poised to post top-5 fantasy numbers if he sees the expected increase in passing targets due to the departure of Kareem Hunt. He comes in as my RB5 in my initial projections.
RB Jerome Ford - Deep-league Only
Cleveland added Ford in the fifth round in 2021 after having his best season (215/1,319 with 21 catches for 220 yards and one score) in college. He had a limited opportunity over his first three years (696 combined yards with 11 touchdowns and ten catches).
His speed is better than the league average at the running back position. Ford runs with an upright style with the ability to sidestep defenders and break tackles. He will take what the defense will give him while having a gear to finish long runs with scores if given a winning lane. With more experience, Ford will develop into a better runner.
Fantasy Outlook: The backup running back position is up for grabs in 2023. Ford is the front-runner to take over the Kareem Hunt role in the Browns' offense, but he doesn't have his ceiling or ability in the passing game. Without an injury to Nick Chubb, Ford can still be a spot starter with modest production, however with an injury to Chubb, he'd be a weekly fill-in starter, leading the backfield in both catches and carries.
RB Pierre Strong Jr. - Sleeper (undervalued)
The Browns acquired Pierre Strong from New England. Although Strong saw few touches as a rookie, he did break a long run and has shown some decent pass-catching skills.
He's behind Nick Chubb and Jerome Ford on the depth chart, but Strong has some sleeper appeal as a kid who can contribute in the even that Chubb missed time.
WR Amari Cooper - Stud (low risk)
Cooper proved to be nothing more than a tease in 2021 after an explosive Week 1 (13/139/2). Over the next 13 weeks, he had three catches or fewer in eight games while sitting out two contests with a Covid-19 issue. Dallas gave him six targets or fewer in eight matchups. His second-best game (8/122/1) came in Week 8 while offering reasonable fantasy value over his final four starts (7/85/1, 3/18/1, 5/79, and 6/64/1). Cooper didn't look healthy at times during the year.
Over his previous two seasons with the Cowboys, he ranked 10th (79/1,189/8) and 15th (92/1,114/5) in fantasy scoring in PPR leagues. Cooper has never been at his best late in the year when fantasy championships are on the line. Overall, he has been a disappointment in four of his nine years in the NFL.
In his first season with Cleveland, Cooper posted a better output (78/1,160/9 on 132 targets) than expected, considering the quarterback play. He gained more than 100 yards in five matchups (9/101/1, 7/101/1, 5/131/1, 8/113/2, and 3/105/2), leading to him ranking 10th in wide receiver scoring (247.00) in PPR leagues. On the downside, Cooper scored fewer than 10.00 fantasy points in seven games.
Fantasy Outlook: Cooper has a lower wide receiver ranking (17th) in 2023 than his finish last season despite better-expected quarterback play. He should have the most targets in his career, and Watson will get him the ball in tight coverage downfield. Cooper runs excellent routes but seems to be at his best when given easy releases on crossing patterns. Next step: 85 catches for 1,250 yards with eight to 10 touchdowns.
WR Elijah Moore - Sleeper (undervalued)
The Jets caught a break when the speedy WR Elijah Moore made it back to them in the second round in 2021. He projected as a slot receiver with the ability to test a defense in the deep passing game. Moore will be a zone-buster while possibly struggling against physical corners in tight coverage. His release looks favorable with the hands to win in close quarters. Moore continues to improve while offering a sneaky ceiling. His reported 40-yard time (sub 4.40) put him in range with the top receivers in his draft class.
New York gave Moore minimal chances over his first six games (15/146 on 32 targets) in 2021, with most of his action coming with Zach Wilson at quarterback. Over the next six weeks, with Mike White and Joe Flacco making five starts, he turned into a starting fantasy player (34/459/5 on 51 targets), highlighted by three games (7/84/2, 8/141/1, and 6/77/1). Unfortunately, his season ended in Week 14 with a quad issue.
Last year, Moore fell out of favor with the Jets' coaching staff, leading to a disappointing season (37/446/1 on 65 targets). He only posted two games (2/64/1 and 6/60) with more than 10.00 fantasy points.
Fantasy Outlook: In the early draft season in the high-stakes market, Moore still rates as the second wide receiving option on Cleveland. He's far from a slam dunk due to the rest of the talent at wideout on the roster. For now, a 60/800/5 season would be a step in the right direction.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
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. He didn't have a game with over 90 yards receiving in his college career. Peoples-Jones will make some plays and score touchdowns, but his opportunity will be minimal early in his career.
In his second season with the Browns, Peoples-Jones made nine starts. He finished with 34 catches for 597 yards and three scores while gaining 17.6 yards per catch. People-Jones gained 20 yards or more on 12 catches (35.3%), with three of those plays reaching the 40-yard mark. Most of his big-play damage came in three games (5/70, 4/101/2, and 2/86/1). His three missed games came from a groin issue.
Last season, Peoples-Jones set career-highs in catches (61), receiving yards (839), and targets (96). He didn't score his first touchdown until Week 11. When at his best, Peoples-Jones score more than 10.00 fantasy points in 10 matchups, with a peak of 19.40 in Week 14.
Fantasy Outlook: His progress in 2022 suggests Peoples-Jones will be a trusted asset for Cleveland this year. Unfortunately, the overall depth and talent of their wide receiving corps points to an up-and-down opportunity. I see a step back in production, with about a tenth round ADP in the high-stakes market.
WR Cedric Tillman - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
Tillman piqued the interest of NFL teams after his 2021 season in college (64/1,081/12 on 90 targets). Last year he played in only six games (37 catches for 417 yards and three touchdowns) due to his battle with an ankle issue. Tillman ended 2021 with an impressive seven-game stretch (7/84/1, 7/152/1, 6/79/1, 10/200/1, 5/100/1, 6/106/2, and 7/150/3). His best showing last year came in his second game (9/162/1).
Fantasy Outlook: There is no doubt Tillman will move up the Browns' wide receiver depth chart this summer. His physical presence and ability to win closely contested balls will catch Deshaun Watson's eye and potentially many of his targets in his rookie season. When I do my early projections for Cleveland, I will give Tillman a WR3 opportunity in this offense while also understanding that I may be understating potential. His ADP in mid-May puts him in the final two rounds in 12-team leagues with 20-man rosters. I view him as a player to fight for in drafts.
WR David Bell - Dynasty Only
Over three seasons at Purdue, Bell caught 232 of his 343 targets (67.6% catch rate) for 2,946 yards and 22 touchdowns. He averaged eight catches for 102 yards and 0.76 touchdowns per game. His calling card should be his route running, but Bell offers below-par speed and short-area quickness. Bell gains momentum off his release and breaks with an excellent feel to get defenders on their heels. His next step is winning vs. tighter coverage in the NFL.
In his rookie season, Bell caught 24 passes for 214 yards and no touchdowns on 35 targets. He had a peak of six targets in one matchup while failing to score more than 7.00 fantasy points in any game.
Fantasy Outlook: Bell should do most of his damage from the slot while grading higher on crossing patterns and busting zones. He'll battle Elijah Moore for snaps while also needing to hold off incoming rookie Cedric Tillman.
Other Options: Anthony Schwartz, Marquise Goodwin, Jakeem Grant
TE David Njoku - Solid/Safe Pick
In 2018, Njoku appeared to be on the rise after success in his sophomore season (56/639/4 on targets). However, an injury the following season led to only five catches for 41 yards and a score on 10 targets. Cleveland used him as their TE2 over the next two years (19/213/2 and 36/475/4). Njoku has a first-round pedigree (2017). In 2021, his only impact game (7/149/1) came in Week 5 while finishing three catches or fewer in 14 matchups.
After a sluggish start to last season over his first two games (1/7 and 3/32), Njoku gave fantasy teams starting stats in seven of his next eight contests (9/89/1, 5/73, 6/88, 3/58, 7/71, 2/17, 5/29/1, and 7/59/1) while missed two games midseason with an ankle injury. He also sat out Week 13 with a knee issue. Over his five starts with Deshaun Watson behind center, Njoku had 17 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns on 28 targets. His catch rate (72.5) for the season graded well. He finished 10th in fantasy scoring (143.80) in PPR formats, about four slots lower than he would have if Njoku had played an entire year.
Fantasy Outlook: The Browns signed him to a four-year deal worth about $55 million in May of 2022. Despite his growth last season, Njoku only averaged 5.7 targets (most of his career). Cleveland has an improved depth at wide receiver, making it difficult to believe their star tight end will see many more looks. I expect him to shine at times with a slight bump in scoring. From 2018 to 2020, Watson had these outcomes in his tight end usage with the Texans – 61/745/4 on 84 targets, 71/767/9 on 106 targets, and 7/881/7 on 97 targets. Njoku will also have to compete with Harrison Bryant (24/238/3, 21/233/3, and 31/239/1) for some looks and snaps. I'll set Njoku's bar at 65/700/6 before trying to squeeze all of the passing stats into the Browns' 2023 projection model.
TE Harrison Bryant - Not Draft Worthy
Bryant had experience at offensive tackle before the pros, helping his feel for blocking. His team ran a spread offense in college, leading to him getting a free release outside the hash marks on many plays. He showed a feel for soft zones and the ability to beat his man downfield, especially with no help over the top. Over three seasons at Florida Atlantic, his game improved each year (32/408/5, 45/662/4, and 65/1,004/7). In 2019, Bryant had one impact showing (10/182/1), ending the year with six touchdowns in four games.
Over 48 games with the Browns, Bryant has 76 catches for 710 and seven touchdowns on 108 targets. He set career highs in catches (31), receiving yards (239), and targets (42) in 2022 while being on the field for 48.0% of Cleveland's snaps.
Fantasy Outlook: Bryant remains second fiddle at tight end for the Browns again in 2023. He has yet to take advantage of his 21 career starts to offer playable fantasy stats. At best, a bye-week dart with handcuff value to David Njoku.
Other Options: Jordan Akins, Zaire Mitchell-Paden, Thomas Greaney
PK Cade York - Not Draft Worthy
York made 54 of his 66 field goals (81.8%) in his college career at LSU. He was part of their championship team in 2019 with Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson. In addition, York went 164-for-168 in his extra-point chances.
After making his first eight field goals for the Browns, York lost his confidence and rhythm over his next 10 games (14-for-22). His season ended with a 75% success rate on his 32 field goal tries while going 4-for-7 from 50 yards or more. He must clean up his misses from 30-to-39 yards (9-for-12) to reach elite kicking status. York made 35 of his 37 extra-point opportunities.
Fantasy Outlook: The Browns should convert more scoring chances inside the red zone, pointing to a potential setback in field goal tries. York has an upside leg, with a talent to push inside the top 10 in kicker scoring in 2023 if Deshaun Watson regains his previous form at quarterback.
UPDATE: YORK WAS WAIVED BY THE BROWNS, WHO ACQUIRED DUSTIN HOPKINS FROM THE CHARGERS.
PK Dustin Hopkins - Bye Week Fill-in
Cleveland's offense should be vastly improved with a full season with Deshaun Watson under center. Hopkins was a solid kicker for the Chargers but lost out to Cameron Dicker. We wouldn't target Hopkins as a weekly starter, but he should be an improement over Cade York and offer weekly streaming value.
Cleveland - Bust (overvalued)
The Bengals fell to 25th in rushing yards allowed (2,295), with ball carriers gaining 4.7 yards per rush with 22 rushing touchdowns. Opponents averaged 28.7 rushes against them.
Their pass defense jumped to 5th in passing yards allowed (3,336) with 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Their pass rush only managed 34 sacks (28th).
DE Myles Garrett delivered 16 sacks in back-to-back seasons, half of their team total over this span. He set a career-high in tackles (60) last year while continuing to play well in run support. The Browns acquired DE Za'Darius Smith in a draft-day trade in May to make an effort to beef up their pass rush. He missed all but one game in 2021. Over his last three full seasons, Smith posted double-digit sacks (13.5, 12.5, and 10) each year with up-and-down success vs. the run.
DT Dalvin Tomlinson also moved over from the Vikings' defense after signing a four-year contract ($57.5 million) in March. His value vs. the run has regressed slightly with each year played in the NFL, making him a neutral defender at this point of his career. He averaged three sacks over the past four seasons. The other defensive tackle position needs someone to step forward due to Jordan Elliott failing too many times vs. the run over the past three seasons.
CB Denzel Ward tends to be a top player in coverage, but he did allow too many big plays in 2023. A shorter pass window would help his success. Ward must clean up his tackling and do a better job in run support. CB Greg Newsome holds wide receivers to short yards per catch with minimal damage in scoring. He's still looking for his first NFL interception after getting drafted in the first round in 2021.
Their starting combination of safeties project to be league average players. Cleveland dealt with some injuries at linebacker last year, but their overall corps ranks below the league average, with minimal help added in the offseason.
I'm not excited about the direction of Cleveland's defense. They will have some games where their system matchups up well, but offenses should be able to run on them and take advantage of their weakness at the second level. The Browns rank as a midtier backup fantasy defense with some potential matchup value.