2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Cleveland Browns
September 4, 2015 | Chet
The Browns suffered their seventh consecutive losing season in 2014, but on the positive end, their 7 wins were the most the franchise has had since 2007. In hindsight, their wins came against teams that sported an overall record of 40-70-1, so that positive may be a false building block to latch onto. With just two winning seasons since returning to the NFL 16 years ago, will we finally see Cleveland get on track in 2015?
2015 Browns Schedule
It’s alright to look at the season schedule as long as you keep things in the proper context. When looking at the Cleveland schedule, things have a positive start as their opening three games are against teams that went a combined 9-39 last season. That’s about the end of the potentially feel good feelings though as 12 of their final 13 games come against teams that won eight or more games last season.
The Browns schedule looks like a potential nightmare and unless they see an uptick in offensive output this season, a potential defensive streaming dream for owners to target. After just one season, Cleveland allowed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan out of his contract and replaced him with John DeFilippo. DeFilippo has never called plays at the NFL level, last serving as the Raiders quarterbacks coach for the past three seasons. While his resume doesn’t evoke a ton of confidence, the Browns offense also doesn’t have a high bar to raise in comparison to their 2014 production.
Brown and Blue Offense
The strength of this offense will center on the strong offense line Cleveland has put in place. With Joe Thomas, second year guard Joel Bitonio and center Alex Mack, the Browns have one of the best center to tackle left sides in terms of run blocking across the league. The key will be this unit staying together again as once Mack was lost for the season after five games due to a broken fibula, the elite success this run game was having completely evaporated.
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With Mack lost, Cleveland ran for the worst yards per carry mark in the entire league after gashing teams over their first five games. It’s possible that sample is too small to judge accordingly, but the Browns did run all over Pittsburgh (who ranked sixth in the league in rush defense) twice and held water against the top ranked rush defense in Baltimore over that span. Shanahan will get some of the credit himself, although his mark has historically been overstated and he’s now gone, but the best chance this team has of staying in games relies on their ability to run the football.
If the line is good and potential volume exists, this should be a backfield that attracts us, but unfortunately, the situation is still muddy today. Between the coaching staff seemingly operating on a week to week basis with Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West’s usage and now infusing that backfield with another draft pick at the position makes this one of the remaining ambiguous backfields in the league this late in the summer. After trading up in the third round to select West, it was the undrafted Crowell who actually performed at the highest level in this backfield in terms of fantasy efficiency.
Both suffered after Mack was lost as illustrated above. Crowell seen his YPC mark go from 5.4 to 3.6 yards post-Mack injury while West dropped from 4.4 to 3.7 yards. On a success rate basis per carry, Crowell also gained an edge on West. West got stuffed less frequently, but also failed to generate any consistent runs or explosive gains.
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Even with Crowell more being more effective than West, it was still West who got the lion’s share of scoring opportunities in terms of touches. West had 16 touches to Crowell’s seven inside the 10-yard line. Crowell still doubled West’s rushing touchdown production since he was able to generate splash plays. Five of Crowell’s eight rushing scores came from outside of five yards while four came outside of 10. West relied on those layups to get his scores as four of his five total touchdowns came within two yards of the end zone. If he loses those opportunities, he’ll be all but worthless for fantasy purposes.
Although performing at a better clip than West, Crowell still didn’t do enough to close the door on him as West has started in the preseason twice already to this point. Nor did Cleveland feel good about going forward with the backfield as it was to close 2014 as the Browns used their third round selection on running back Duke Johnson who our Chad Scott profiled for the draft.
Johnson is an explosive runner and he showed up first in a study I did on Tevin Coleman and long touchdown runs coming at a high rate. Per Football Study Hall, 46.3 percent of Johnson’s yards were generated on explosive gains from his own abilities, which ranked as the sixth highest rate in the country for all backs with 200 or more touches. Crowell was already slightly in the boom and bust category of running styles, so Johnson adds another playmaker in that backfield.
The easiest way Johnson can start cutting into possibly pushing Crowell or West for rushing work is that he should have a role locked up already in the passing game as he’s an excellent receiver. Cleveland backs caught just 32 passes all season in 2014 and West and Crowell combined for just 77 yards on 20 third down touches. Last season at Miami, Johnson accounted for 19 percent of the team targets in passing situations. That target share of his team’s passing offense in those spots ranked second in the country for all running backs behind Arizona State’s D.J. Foster as Johnson caught 20 of 28 targets for 243 yards in those game conditions. For the season as a whole, Johnson’s 58 targets ranked ninth out of all college backs.
Mike Braude wants you to ignore Crowell and just move on to Johnson eventually being the back to own and it’s hard to argue that point given that Johnson already came to the team at a similar cost as West and is as explosive of a runner with far more passing game acumen that Crowell. There’s still potential for this to another weekly mess as it was last year and Crowell’s advantage over Johnson is his bigger frame, which could render a lot of Johnson’s touches hallow if reduced to just a between the 20’s cog in the wheel. To tack on to that matter, it may not even matter a ton as Cleveland’s over/under win total is just at just 6.5 games. Backs on teams that are favorites and also projected to score points have a superior edge for fantasy, and this situation may not field many of those opportunities.
That said, I’m still semi-interested in this backfield since their defense and offensive line are good enough to keep the majority of games neutral. I don’t hate Crowell’s RB39 cost, but I also don’t love it, since he doesn’t do much in the pass game. That alone makes me want to leave him strictly for best ball rosters in which I don’t have to absorb any low points playing for touchdowns only. With West being traded, that does me like Crowell’s price point a lot more if it’s still hovering around a similar area. Johnson is still below him at RB41 for the time being and even with his possible concussion, I‘ve been nibbling at that cost in which I already have three backs I’m confident in. When he has to be my third back, that’s when I start to feel uneasy as I want to scoop up his upside without having to need it.
Brown Out Passing Game
Josh McCown has already been named the starter to begin the season as Johnny Manziel reconstructs the beginning of his career to the right path. McCown, now on his seventh NFL team with just 49 career starts over his 12 years in the league will be the 23rd different quarterback (and second McCown brother) to start for the Browns over their 16 year return. After a lofty six game run in Chicago that seen him throw 13 touchdowns to only one interception, McCown landed a starting job in Tampa Bay and returned into the pumpkin we knew him as. In 2014, he came back to earth over his 11 starts to throw 11 scores and 14 interceptions for just 6.7 yards per attempt while completing just 56.3 percent of this throws, He’s hardly draftable in leagues that start two quarterbacks let alone a regular draft even as part of a streaming stable. There’s still a chance we see Manziel again at some point, but if this schedule is as rough as it potentially it looks, then Cleveland may stunt his growth yet again by throwing him into another poor situation.
With the suspension of Josh Gordon and the loss of Jordan Cameron in free agency, Cleveland also needed to retool their depth of pass catchers. At wide receiver, they went out singed free agents Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline to join the returning Andrew Hawkins in forming one of the most touchdown allergic receiving corps in the league.
All three of these receivers have now produced largely hallow seasons on triple digit targets so there’s not much to be excited about. Bowe hasn’t reached 100-yards receiving in his past 39 games played and produced just one top-24 scoring week in all of 2014 as the lead target of another anemic passing game. Since scoring 15 times in 2010, Bowe has scored just 13 times on his past 454 targets over the past four seasons and failed to score on any of his 95 targets a season ago. Hartline and Hawkins have been just as poor when it comes to finding the paint as Hartline has scored just 12 times on 522 career targets (2.3 percent) while Hawkins has reached the end zone just six times on 244 career looks (2.5 percent). Hawkins did have seven top-30 scoring weeks as season ago, but also occupied 22 percent of the team targets, something unlikely to roll over. Hartline also had two top-30 overall seasons, but both came in years in which he eclipsed 130 targets. All three of these players may ultimately best their ADP, but that doesn’t make them targets in drafts as the weekly ambiguity of the situation combined with anticipated low volume is something you can pass on.
The other thing is that all three likely get in the way of seeing a potential breakout from Taylor Gabriel or finding out what Terrelle Pryor has as he transitions to wide receiver. As an undrafted rookie, Gabriel had four receptions for 40 or more yards (as many as Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Evans) on just 36 receptions. He averaged a heavy 17.3 yards per catch, but only found the end zone one time. He offers tactical variance to the receiving unit so he’ll find packages that can suit his ability, but he’s the type of player that needs a healthy target increase to find viability for fantasy. We don’t know what type of receiver Pryor will be, but we should be expecting a slow burn as he learns the nuances of the position. Even on a shallow roster in terms of overall talent, it’s hard to see him pressing for consistent time early on to even warrant a deep swing from the heels.
Things aren’t much sexier at the tight end position as Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray have both run ahead of free agent Rob Housler for most of the summer, sapping us from another inkling of athleticism to latch onto. The duo of Barnidge and Dray has combined for just six touchdowns on 155 targets over their combined 12 seasons in the league.