The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next
“Fantasy football superstars” and “the Cleveland Browns” haven’t been phrases used together often over the last two decades, but times are changing. Cleveland’s hype entering 2019 is sky-high, and expectations are similarly raised for the team’s players to perform in fantasy this year. Let’s take a look at the five biggest fantasy football questions for the Browns in 2019.
Will Nick Chubb Be a Top-10 Running Back?
Average Draft Position (per Fantasy Pros): 14th (RB10)
The no. 35 overall pick out of Georgia in 2018 entered last season buried on the depth chart behind Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson until a midseason trade sent Hyde to Jacksonville and vaulted Chubb to the starting job. He quickly showed why he was a top pick. In just nine games Chubb racked up 996 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 192 carries plus another 149 receiving yards and two scores on 20 receptions. From Week 7 to Week 16, Chubb was the sixth-best running back in fantasy football behind Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Todd Gurley. Chubb’s 5.2 yards per attempt tied for fifth in the NFL in 2018. According to Pro Football Focus, he led all running backs in yards after contact per attempt (4.5), and he forced 44 missed tackles, one shy of the league lead.
At 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds, Chubb is built, yet he runs like the wind with a speed score (40-yard dash accounted for size) in the 90th percentile, according to Player Profiler. As Odell Beckham Jr. said last week, “I told him, ‘I wouldn’t have thought you were that fast,’ but when he gets moving he’s rolling.” Chubb’s balance sets him apart—he leaves would-be tacklers behind as they fail to affect his center of gravity. Chubb’s legs are always chugging.
The question around Chubb is whether he’ll retain the type of workload he saw at the second half of last season for the stretch run in 2019. In the final 10 games of 2018, the Browns gave Chubb the ball 176 times with their second-leading rusher being quarterback Baker Mayfield (29 rushes for 92 yards) followed by Johnson (21 carries for 90 yards). Johnson was traded to Houston in August, but the Browns signed former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt earlier this offseason. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy in a February 2018 incident in which he kicked and shoved a woman. Hunt is expected to return to the lineup in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills.
Chubb was already facing some potential touchdown regression in 2019, and Hunt’s return in the second half of the season is likely to impact his production. Chubb’s season average may belie his actual performance, which might be as a top-five player for the first half of the year and then a top-25 player for the second half.
Is Baker Mayfield a Top-Five Fantasy Quarterback?
Average Draft Position (per Fantasy Pros): 58th (QB4)
Mayfield is poised to become the biggest personality in the sport, and there is something unquantifiable but joyous about having the league’s most fun player on your team, whether in fantasy or real life. He’s also quite good. In just 14.5 games Mayfield broke the NFL rookie record for passing touchdowns with 27. He was the 11th-best fantasy quarterback once he took over the starting job from Tyrod Taylor in Week 4, one spot behind Tom Brady, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he could be a top-five quarterback in 2019. After Browns head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired after Week 8, and Freddie Kitchens was given play-calling duties, Mayfield was the ninth-best quarterback in fantasy with 19.0 points per game across his final eight contests. The difference in Mayfield’s performances was like night and day.
Baker Mayfield Under Todd Haley vs. Freddie Kitchens
|Under Todd Haley
|Under Freddie Kitchens
|Under Todd Haley
|Under Freddie Kitchens
|Total QBR (Out of 100)
|Yards per Attempt
Cleveland’s offensive coordinator this year is Todd Monken, who, in the same role in Tampa Bay last year, turned Ryan Fitzpatrick into the 2018 leader for passing yards per attempt (9.6) and yards per completion (14.4). Fitzpatrick also finished tied for the fourth-best fantasy quarterback per game (20.7 points) with Deshaun Watson. So not only did Mayfield have an entire offseason to prepare, but he spent it with one of the league’s best offensive minds instead of with Hue Jackson. Plus, Monken isn’t the only addition the Browns made this year…
Is Odell Beckham Jr. a Top-Five Receiver?
Average Draft Position (per Fantasy Pros): 16th (WR5)
When Odell plays, he is as safe a pick as it gets. He was a top-five fantasy receiver in each of his first three seasons, including his rookie year when he played just 12 games. He only played four games in 2017, but in that four-game stretch he was the fourth-highest scoring receiver, and he was top eight last year before his season-ending quad injury. Health aside, the only question is how different those numbers will be in Cleveland, and if he might be even better with Baker.
Beckham publicly acknowledged the elephant in the room last year that Eli Manning’s arm strength had declined and that Beckham wasn’t being fully deployed. He won’t have that issue in Cleveland. Mayfield and Manning attempted almost the same number of deep attempts in 2018, according to PFF (74 for Manning, 72 for Mayfield), and on those throws Mayfield’s adjusted completion percentage, which accounts for drops and throwaways, was the third-best figure in the league (51.4 percent), while Manning ranked 22nd (39.2 percent). Ironically, the league leader among players who threw more than one pass last season was … Beckham, who had two passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns last year.
When he has the ball in his hands, Beckham is too slippery to wrangle. He tied for the sixth-most broken tackles by a wide receiver or tight end last year despite playing just 12 games, and Mayfield will better utilize his speed. Beckham’s abilities may be better served on underneath routes with an offense that has enough talent so that defenses can’t key in on Beckham, though he may see fewer targets per game.
Is Jarvis Landry a Bust?
Average Draft Position (per Fantasy Pros): 66th (WR28)
Landry has been a supporting actor masquerading as a lead man his entire career. Now that he’s reunited with his bestie Beckham, he’ll finally slide into the possession receiver role for which he’s long been suited. Landry has 481 catches in five years, the most ever for any receiver in NFL history in his first five seasons, but his 5,014 yards are 26th-most for a receiver’s first five years. With Beckham in town, Landry can improve on his meh career average of 10.4 yards per catch, but what remains to be seen is how he handles the volume decrease. Landry has had 130 or more targets every year since 2015, but that number may fall closer to 100 in 2019. If Landry fills the slot role Adam Humphries played in Tampa last year, when Humphries had 105 targets, Landry could see slightly less volume but his most efficient year yet—though he may not have many big weeks.
Will David Njoku Break Out This Year?
Average Draft Position (per Fantasy Pros): 101st (TE10)
There was an illuminating moment on Hard Knocks last year when Hue Jackson forced Njoku to catch balls after practice as a punishment. That Njoku, one of the most drop-prone players in football, was forced to work on his biggest area of improvement as a penalty showed just how much Jackson had things backward in Cleveland. Njoku would be better served practicing catching balls all the time, but Jackson reserved it for when Njoku was in trouble. Njoku’s dropping habit ceased as soon as Jackson was fired. In the first half of the season, under Jackson, Njoku led all tight ends in drops (seven) and drop rate (18.4 percent of on-target throws). In the final half of the season, after Jackson was fired, Njoku had just one drop, and his drop rate (3.8 percent) was tied with George Kittle’s for the 10th lowest among tight ends.
Njoku’s talent is immense, and how he fares with a different staff is one of Cleveland’s biggest questions. He made big strides catching 56 of 88 targets for 639 receiving yards and four touchdowns but didn’t live up to his monstrous hype. Monken will be bringing in an offense from Tampa that shone a light on Bucs tight end O.J. Howard, but Njoku is not as natural a route runner as Howard. His best bet to fantasy glory may be developing a chemistry with Mayfield in the red zone while opposing coordinators focus on stopping Beckham, Landry, and Chubb. His role in the offense could secure him as a top-10 tight end, though the leap to becoming even a mid-tier option may not be in the cards this year.