(Photo Credit: Rob Carr / Getty Images)
The Cleveland Browns did something on January 10th, 2021, that they had not done in 26 years- win a playoff game. They beat the Steelers 51-37. Although they wound up losing to the Chiefs, 22-17, one week later, they played an exceedingly good game that went down to the final minutes. Their final regular-season record was 11-5. The question that must be answered in this article is whether this is a precursor of things to come or simply a blip on the radar screen.
For the first half of the season, quarterback Baker Mayfield was mostly a game manager. His role was to keep the team in the game while allowing others to win it. For the season, Mayfield completed 305 passes on 486 attempts (62.8 % completion rate) and threw for 3563 yards and 26 TDs. Both his TD percentage (5.3 percent of his attempts) and interception rate (1.6 percent of attempts) were extremely solid, even if not spectacular.
Though Mayfield was efficient, the Browns did not allow him to showcase his arm talent until the latter part of the season. Over the first eight games, Mayfield only attempted 213 passes (a pedestrian average of only 26.6 attempts per game). He had 15 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions during that stretch.
Over the last five regular-season games, and into the playoffs, Mayfield was allowed more free reign. During that five-game stretch to end the regular season, he completed 125 passes out of 213 attempts (58.6 percent completion rate) but threw for 13 TDs vs one interception. Not counting an abysmal 28-53 in week sixteen vs the Jets, Mayfield completed 97-160 passes(61 percent) in the other four games.
In addition to Mayfield’s solid play at quarterback, both running backs (Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb) had outstanding seasons. Despite missing four games due to an MCL injury, Chubb paced the Browns with 1067 rushing yards and 12 TD’s on only 190 carries, while registering 16 receptions (on 18 targets) for an additional 150 yards. Hunt also contributed 841 yards and six TD’s on 198 carries, while recording 38 catches (on 51 targets) for 304 yards and five more TD’s. The combined efforts of Chubb and Hunt enabled the Browns to have the third-most rushing yards and fifth-most yards/carry (4.8) in the NFL.
While the Brown's wide receivers and tight ends provided limited stats due to a low-volume passing attack, several pass catchers still had an impact. Odell Beckham missed the last nine games of the regular season and the entire playoffs with a torn ACL but still had 23 catches(on 43 targets) for 319 yards and three TD’s on the season. Jarvis Landry led the team in receiving 72 catches(on 101 targets) for 840 yards and three TDs. The other two primary targets were TE Austin Hooper(46 catches for 435 yards and four TD’s) and WR Rashard Higgins (37 receptions for 599 yards and four TD’s).
The unsung hero of last year’s success was the offensive line. According to PFF.Com, the Browns had the number one line in the NFL. Although the Browns’ line finished 2019 ranked 23rd, they drafted LT Jedrick Willis Jr. in the first round of the 2020 draft and added RT Jack Conklin (Titans) in free agency.
In terms of free agency for 2021, the Browns were exceedingly quiet on the offensive side of the ball. The main transaction was re-signing Higgins. Besides Higgins re-signing, all additions and defections occurred within the defense. The Brown's two biggest adds were to the defensive front. Both RDE Jadeveon Clowney (Titans) and RDT Malik Jackson(Eagles) are slated to be game one starters. Three more expected starters were also added. These include 1) MLB Anthony Walker, Jr (Colts); FS John Johnson III (Rams); and CB Troy Hill (Rams).
During the draft, the Browns also concentrated on the defensive side of the ball with five of their eight draft picks being used to develop additional defensive depth. Only one player drafted, WLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramiah, is currently listed as the starter on the depth chart. The only two skill position players that were drafted, WR Anthony Schwartz (Auburn) and RB Demetric Felton (UCLA) are currently listed as a second-string (backup to Landry) and fourth-string respectively. According to NBCSportsEdge.Com, Schwartz is expected to start the season as a special teams contributor.
In regards to fantasy production for 2021, much of the success will depend on how the Browns envision using Mayfield. Beckham is on track to play week one, and the entire offense will return intact. Although both Chubb and Hunt will vulture some success from one another, they proved last year that they could coexist with both being successful fantasy options. Chubb should be viewed as a mid to low-range RB1, while Hunt will be more of a borderline RB2/RB3. It is hard for me to envision Hunt being quite as productive as last year without more missed time from Chubb, but fantasy owners should still consider using Hunt as a potential weekly flex.
In terms of the wide receivers and tight ends, it is hard for me to get overly excited about any of them. According to recent ADP, Beckham is being drafted as the number 29 wide receiver, Landry as the 40th wide receiver, and Hooper as the 20th tight end. Beckham has the upside to be a low-end WR2 if he can stay healthy. In addition, Mayfield has an ADP of the 17th quarterback taken. If the Browns’ coaching staff relies on Mayfield more, he could become a sneaky borderline QB1/QB2 which you can snatch in the later rounds of your draft. If he reaches his potential, Mayfield would be a great fill-in for your struggling or injured starting QB.
Although the Browns’ players (besides Chubb and Hunt) may not be exceedingly consistent fantasy assets, I expect the team as a whole to have a very good season. VegasInsider.Com currently has the over/under win total for the Browns at 9.5. For the Browns to win the divisional crown, the new-look defense will have to gel and become a productive unit.
In a very quirky twist, the Browns and Ravens play each other in back-to-back games (separated by a bye). These games happen in weeks eight and ten. By the slimmest of margins, I will select the Ravens to win the division and the Browns to qualify for a wildcard again.
(Cover Photo Credit: WKYC)