Hue Jackson has gone 1-31 as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, which, to be clear, is considered quite bad. His team ranked last in the NFL in scoring in 2017 and next-to-last the year before. Jackson has had five different starting quarterbacks over his two seasons in Cleveland, including two rookies. All five of those QBs are now gone. If you’re wondering where they went, maybe check the bus under which Jackson keeps throwing his players.
This year, Coach Jackson will be working with the sixth and seventh starting QBs of his Browns tenure, one of whom was the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Cleveland’s offense has an abundance of talent at the skill spots, so there’s no reason this team shouldn’t make a significant leap. Jackson has used a variety of motivational gimmicks to this point in the offseason, which presumably can’t hurt. But eventually he’s going to have to reverse this team’s recent tradition of never, ever winning football games.
For now, Jackson remains in charge in Cleveland. The Browns hired former head coach and longtime offensive coordinator Todd Haley back in January, and it’s expected he’ll have complete control of the offense. The team also traded a third-round pick for veteran QB Tyrod Taylor prior to the draft, so we have a short-term position controversy to deal with as we consider the Browns’ fantasy potential.
There’s no way Baker Mayfield holds a clipboard all season
Taylor zealots are everywhere, and their commitment to him is, to a certain extent, understandable. He’s fine. Over the course of his three seasons as Buffalo’s quarterback, he was good if not spectacular as a passer, completing 62.6 percent of his throws at 7.2 yards per attempt. Taylor was risk-averse to a fault, which naturally led to a low interception rate (1.3 percent). That trait also led him to finish near the bottom of the league last year in deep attempts per game (3.8) and air yards per game (108.1), per Player Profiler. He’s a talented and productive runner (career 5.5 YPC), which boosts his fantasy appeal in no small way. For however long Taylor lasts as Cleveland’s starting quarterback, he’ll have a place in the fantasy conversation.
But here’s the thing: Baker Mayfield is going to play. It would be highly unusual, in this era, for Mayfield to sit beyond mid-season. Fourteen different quarterbacks have been selected first overall in the draft over the past 20 years, and those guys have averaged 10.3 starts per season. Four of the past five have started all 16 games. Mayfield is the future of the position in Cleveland and he’s already 23 years old. He was widely considered one of the most field-ready QB prospects in his draft class. He. Will. Play.
Taylor is an excellent placeholder for the Browns and he’s entering the final year of his deal. It’s already decided that he’ll open the season behind center for Cleveland. But it would be stunning if Mayfield isn’t playing by November. The first time Taylor has an unproductive half for the Browns, the countdown to Baker will begin.
Mayfield produced monstrous stats at Oklahoma, as most of you know, completing over 70 percent of his throws in each of the past two seasons, averaging 318.2 yards per game and an astonishing 11.3 per attempt. It helps of course that he played his games in the Big 12, where tackling is largely unknown. He was often throwing into mile-wide passing windows. But his numbers were simply insane. It’s also worth mentioning that many of the early concerns about Mayfield were erased during the pre-draft process. Scouting reports once listed arm strength in the “weaknesses” column, but he threw with the second best velocity at the combine (60 mph), just a couple ticks behind Josh Allen.
Again, Mayfield is gonna start games for the Browns — and when he does, he’ll let it fly. He has a clear shot at fantasy relevance as a first-year QB, because…
Cleveland’s receiving corps is suddenly legit
Jarvis Landry was one of the big offseason adds for the Browns, and he’s an easy fit in any offense. He had one of the highest target shares among all NFL receivers last season (27.4 percent), yet averaged only 3.1 air yards per chance. He became just the fourth player in league history (and first wide receiver) to catch over 100 passes yet finish with less than 1000 yards. Cleveland may not use him in precisely the same way Miami chose to, but he seems particularly well paired with a short-range passer like Taylor. It would be a small surprise if those two fail to click in the early weeks. Landry’s targets will likely dip this season — he saw 161 last year — but he’s a near-lock to make a leap in terms of efficiency. There’s minimal risk attached at his current ADP (61.4, WR25).
You don’t need a fantasy expert to tell you that Josh Gordon is a fantastically talented choose-your-own-adventure of a player. He closed his 2017 season with a 115-yard effort, which is clearly a promising sign. He’s had glowing things to say about Taylor and Mayfield, and the quarterbacks have been plenty excited about him. Everyone loves everybody else in the Browns family right now. Confidence is exceedingly high…
Reporter: “Hey Jarvis, Josh Gordon just told us the Browns have the best receiving corps in the league.”
Jarvis Landry: “He ain’t lying.”
— Zac Jackson (@AkronJackson) June 12, 2018
Gordon has experienced a full, uninterrupted all-football offseason for the first time in forever. That’s a big deal, yet easy to overlook. Gordon is still only 27 years old, gifted with a rare combination of size, speed and explosiveness. He’ll be a restricted free agent in 2019, so he won’t lack motivation. His fantasy ADP doesn’t leave much room for profit (29.8, WR11), but he deserves his status as the first Browns player off the board.
If we assume that a healthy Landry and Gordon will combine for something like 250-270 targets, then it’s going to be tough for supporting players like Corey Coleman and tight end David Njoku to consistently produce. Both can be drafted in fantasy as bench decorations, but neither projects as an ideal starter. Coleman is a burner who’s had trouble staying healthy in his two seasons, appearing in just 19 games. Haley has already put Coleman on notice, expecting things to click in his third year as a pro. Njoku is a hyper-athletic player who’s looking at an uptick in snaps and opportunities after seeing only 60 targets as a rookie. He has all the traits you’d expect from a dominant red-zone weapon, so it’s reasonable to eye him as a deep redraft flier.
Cleveland traded up to land Florida receiver Antonio Callaway in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, and he definitely deserves a spot on dynasty cheat sheets. Callaway’s recent off-the-field history is complicated and problematic, but his raw talent and athleticism are exceptional. He’s a terrific punt returner, too. Callaway could eventually push Coleman for opportunities.
The Browns’ backfield is stuck in committee
Cleveland’s two leading rushers last year were Isaiah Crowell and quarterback DeShone Kizer, and both relocated during in the offseason. Duke Johnson averaged just 5.2 carries per game last season (4.2 YPC), so he wasn’t a significant factor on the ground. Johnson was an extremely productive receiving threat, however, catching a career-high 74 balls for 693 yards on 93 targets. He agreed to a three-year, $15.6 million extension earlier this month, a strong indication that he remains a major piece for this offense. Johnson is a great bet to deliver another 70-plus receptions and 900 or more scrimmage yards. Draft accordingly.
This team added Carlos Hyde to the mix back in March, signing him to deal that looks a lot like Johnson’s, then used an early second round pick on Georgia’s Nick Chubb. So Cleveland’s backfield does not lack weapons. Hyde has had issues with health and availability over the years, though he played all 16 games for San Francisco in 2017. Chubb is a big back who had a stellar collegiate career (6.3 YPC, 48 TDs) and he impressed at the combine (4.52 speed, 38.5-inch vert). The obvious hole in Chubb’s game is his lack of involvement as a receiver; he caught only four passes last year and five the season before.
Ultimately, we can expect a three-man backfield committee in Cleveland, with Johnson having the clearest role. Hyde and Chubb are a fun early-down tandem, but it’s tough to forecast either back for more than 170-180 carries. In reality, this is a deep and talented backfield. For fantasy purposes, it’s messy. Hyde is going well ahead of Chubb in early drafts (ADP 66.1 vs. 90.5), which makes the rookie the better value by far. The intended distribution of carries has not yet been decided, according to Haley:
“I do not really have a philosophy. I have done it both ways. We led the league in rushing in Kansas City [in 2010] in a two-back, almost a two-and-a-half back system. Then in Pittsburgh, obviously, when Le’Veon Bell was playing, he was playing. [Here it] will really be determined by those guys, what they are capable of handling on a down-in, down-out basis and really who gives us the best chance to win. Yet to be determined would be the best answer.”
Sorry, gamers. Johnson is a bankable PPR asset, while Hyde and Chubb are flex-worthy pieces. We probably have to give Taylor at least a five percent chance to lead this team in rushing, which further complicates the Cleveland backfield projection.
The Browns have several interesting names on defense — Kirksey, Collins, Ward, Garrett, et al — and veteran coordinator Gregg Williams is making decisions. We should clearly expect growth from this group, but Cleveland’s D isn’t playable in standard fantasy formats. Last year, this team ranked last in the league in takeaways (13) and next-to-last in points allowed (25.6 PPG).
In a nutshell, this is a team with fun personnel led by a head coach with a brutal track record. It’s tough to do anything but improve after an 0-16 finish, so we have to assume the Browns will be better. The franchise hasn’t won a postseason game since the days of Testaverde and Hoard; let’s hope the Mayfield era is a success.
2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 14.6 (32rd in NFL)
Pass YPG – 201.8 (22)
Rush YPG – 107.1 (18)
Yards per play – 4.9 (24)
Plays per game – 63.0 (16)