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Cleveland Rocks (Finally!) - What To Do With the Browns Offense


Sound the alarm. The Browns have won three in a row! After being invigorated last year by the insertion of Baker Mayfield into the starting quarterback spot, the Browns came into this season with oversized expectations. Despite starting the year 2-2, their second win was a 40-25 beatdown of the Ravens, which kept optimism alive. Then the Browns lost four in a row, and everybody began to question everything in Cleveland: the legitimacy of Mayfield, the hiring of Freddie Kitchens, the roster-building of John Dorsey, etc.

Yet, as is typical of mercurial sports fandom, the Browns have won three in a row, Kareem Hunt and David Njoku have been activated, and now everybody is excited in the Dawg Pound again. So it falls to me to take a deeper look at how real this Cleveland resurgence is. Can you trust any of these guys for your fantasy playoffs? Let's break it down player by player to see what you can expect.

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Baker Mayfield

Over the last three games, Mayfield has completed 64% of his passes for 758 yards on seven yards per attempt, with seven touchdowns and one interception. Two of his opponents during that span, the Bills and Steelers, are currently ranked 2nd and 11th respectively in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, which makes the numbers seem more impressive. Baker threw for 238 and two touchdowns against the Bills and 193 and two touchdowns versus the Steelers, saving his biggest performance (327 yards and three touchdowns) for the Dolphins.

A few things stand out to me here. The first is that seven yards per attempt are fairly average in the quarterback landscape. It puts him in range of Kyle Allen and Jacoby Brissett (6.8), Tom Brady (6.7), and two quarterbacks who get a lot of value from their legs: Josh Allen and Kyler Murray (6.9). Since Mayfield doesn't really run and has 64 fewer passing attempts on the year than Brady, his three-game stretch puts him in more of the Brissett category.

Additionally, the team has begun leaning more on Chubb and getting Hunt involved, which has led to an increased emphasis on the ground game. The Browns have run the ball 30.3 times a game over this three-game stretch, which is an increase from the 21.5 times per game they ran it earlier in the season. Mayfield has still thrown the ball 34.7 times per game over this stretch, but he was throwing the ball 33.9 times per game in the first eight games and that includes a 22 pass game against San Francisco (it's 35.6 passes per game without that one). So it's fair to say he's throwing the ball around the same amount as before, despite the more favorable game scripts.

In addition, he hasn't really seen a dramatic rise in passing yards over this latest stretch either, as evidenced by his yardage totals against the Bills and Steelers which were part of this stretch where he's been a much better quarterback. He averaged 245.4 yards per game before and 252.7 during the past three games, so there's no tangible difference. The biggest difference has been that he's been throwing for more touchdowns. Now, that could continue in the Weeks 14 and 15, the first two weeks of the playoffs, against Cincinnati (26th vs QBs) and Arizona (last vs QBs), but I wouldn't recommend Mayfield in Week 13 against the Steelers (11th vs QBs) or Week 16 against the Ravens (5th vs QBs).

The overall level of play hasn't improved dramatically enough to make him anything more than a streamer in plus matchups.

OUTLOOK: Streamer Only

 

Nick Chubb

There's no need to be long-winded here. People were worried that Kareem Hunt would cut into Chubb's fantasy value, but it hasn't happened. Over the past three weeks, Chubb has seen snap counts of 70%, 70% and 75%, which is exactly in line with his pre-Hunt usage. He's also gotten an average of 22.7 carries per game, which is better than before Hunt. Chubb also had four targets in both the Bills and Dolphins games, which is only slightly below his pre-Hunt numbers. Despite tough matchups against the Steelers and Ravens in upcoming weeks, Chubb deserves to be locked into starting lineups.

OUTLOOK: Remains a Must-Start

 

Kareem Hunt

Before we get too excited about Kareem Hunt's re-emergence, it's important to note that he's averaged 9.2 fantasy points per game in half-PPR leagues during his three games since being activated. That number does jump to 11.3 in full-PPR leagues, but he's not exactly taking the fantasy world by storm. Additionally, he's only been on the field for 38%, 39% and 43% of Cleveland's snaps and has seen four, six, and eight carries, totaling 79 yards on 18 rushes.

What this means is that Hunt makes his impact in the passing game, but that's where Cleveland's easier schedule might actually hurt him. In close games against the Bills and Steelers, Hunt received nine and eight targets, respectively. In the blowout of the Dolphins, Hunt only saw three targets. The saving grace of his fantasy day in that game was a rushing touchdown, which won't come around that often.

If the Browns figure to be playing from ahead against the Cardinals and Bengals, then Hunt's role will likely diminish. In Week 16, the Browns will likely be playing from behind against the Ravens, but Baltimore's defense has been so good that it's tough to see Hunt finding the end zone or much running room. Additionally, the upcoming Steelers game also figures to be a grind-it-out affair, especially after the last game ended in a brawl, so I wouldn't expect either team to really open up their offenses. The last time they played, Hunt caught eight passes for 46 yards. That's not starter-worthy in anything outside PPR-leagues.

Since Hunt receives very few high-value touches - only three total opportunities inside the red zone - he will need to rely on catching lots of passes or ripping off chunks of yardage to have fantasy value. With some tough defenses ahead and fewer games that will require him to be an active part of the passing game, I think Hunt can be left alone except as a high floor option in deeper PPR formats.

OUTLOOK: Flex-Worthy Streamer in 14+ team PPR Leagues

 

Odell Beckham Jr

Even as the Browns have woken up over the past three games, OBJ hasn't really caught fire at the level many of us were hoping for. He's seen a team-high 30 targets over that span and led the team in receiving against the Bills and Dolphins; however, he's hauled in fewer passes than Jarvis Landry (15 to Landry's 23) and seen only two red-zone targets to Jarvis Landry's six over the same span. In half-PPR leagues, OBJ has averaged 10.8 points per game. That's still not living up to his draft expectations.

While he does get a soft matchup against the Cardinals, who are 26th in fantasy points allowed to WRs, he will also face the Steelers (13th), Bengals (10th), and Ravens (17th - although much better since getting Marcus Peters). Only one of those matchups, against the Cardinals, screams explosion for OBJ. Sure, he's talented enough to make plays against any defense, but the Browns are running the ball more, lowering their yards per passing attempt, and featuring Jarvis Landry more in the red zone. All of that means that OBJ will need to make his fantasy value by ripping off yards after the catch, hauling in one of a limited amount of deep passes, or securing enough of his plentiful targets to add PPR-value.

He's too talented a player to take out of your lineups, and he could go off against the Cardinals, but I think you'll find more WR2 numbers in the other matchups, even low-end WR2 versus the Steelers and Ravens, than you will the WR1 numbers you wanted when you drafted him.

OUTLOOK: WR2 for Fantasy Playoffs

 

Jarvis Landry

The Browns resurgence seems to have benefited Landry more than anybody else on the team. After averaging 4.5 receptions per game over the first eight games, Landry is up to 7.7 catches a game over the last three. The 69.4 yards per game early in the season have also jumped to 96 yards per game as the Browns have seemingly moved to shorter passes and Hunt's presence out of the backfield has opened up the middle of the field more for Landry.

Despite everybody getting excited about an OBJ breakout, the matchups seem to set up better for Landry going forward. The Steelers haven't allowed a reception for longer than 47 yards since Week One. They invite offenses to throw the ball underneath. The Cardinals are a team you can throw against, but Patrick Peterson will likely be shadowing OBJ and, while he's had a down year, he still commands attention from opposing quarterbacks. Mayfield will have far more success throwing over the middle of the field.

While Landry isn't likely to break off chunk plays, he's seeing a target share just below OBJ, hauling in more receptions a game, and seeing more red-zone targets. All of that means that he's likely to be equally as valuable for the stretch run; perhaps more so in PPR formats since the throws to him are higher percentage looks.

OUTLOOK: WR2 in PPR Formats For Playoffs

 

David Njoku

The latest actionable news we have on David Njoku is that he took part in individual drills on Wednesday. At the beginning of the week, Freddie Kitchens mentioned that Njoku was day-to-day.

However, if Njoku is able to progress to team drills on Thursday or Friday, it would be a good sign for his availability on Sunday, and he'd come back to a matchup against the Steelers, who rank 24th in the league in points allowed to tight ends. The games after that are also enticing. The Bengals, despite being 15th in total points allowed, give up the highest yards per target to tight ends (9.61) and the 30th ranked completion percentage (74.2%). They're terrible against tight ends, it's just that the rest of their defense is terrible too. In Week 11, they allowed 86 yards and a touchdown to the Raiders, and the week before they ceded 151 yards and two touchdowns to the Ravens.

After that, Njkou would get a matchup against the Cardinals, who are the worst defense in the NFL against the tight end. Even the Ravens, who have an elite defense are 19th in yards per target allowed to tight ends and 18th in catch percentage allowed. If Njoku has returned to full speed by then, he could at least be a low-end TE1 option against them.

Keeping an eye on practice reports is crucial, but with two prime matchups sandwiched between two average matchups, Njoku, if healthy, could emerge as top 8-12 option at the position for the playoffs.

OUTLOOK: Startable in 12+ Team Leagues

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