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Offseason Team Previews

2021 Browns Offseason Preview

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: March 7, 2021, 12:30 am ET

My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).

 


Browns 2020 Recap

Browns2020

 

Coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme and the offensive line investments were the perfect medicine for Baker Mayfield, who finished 10th in passing EPA per dropback in his first year in the system. 2020 was proof that Mayfield can lead a top-12 passing offense, though it’s worth noting that his yards per attempt is 3.0 yards higher on play-action than on non-PA attempts (only Brady’s difference was larger). Despite Odell Beckham playing just six games, the Browns were on the league’s best deep-ball teams, and they were the best rushing team behind the best offensive line. Essentially nobody is leaving on that side of the ball, so the attention turns to the Browns’ porous defense. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are premiere players at premiere positions, but the rest of the unit needs upgrades. For the Browns to take the next step, the defense will have to climb out of the 20s in passing EPA (22nd) and rushing EPA (21st). 

 


Browns 2021 Offseason

Notes

 

Browns Cap Space

$20.1 million (11th)

Browns Draft Picks

1.26, 2.59, 3.90, 3.92, 4th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, plus compensatory picks

Browns Departures

EDGE Olivier Vernon, CB Terrance Mitchell, WR Rashard Higgins, LB B.J. Goodson, LB Malcolm Smith,  DT Larry Ogunjobi, SS Karl Joseph, FS Andrew Sendejo, CB Kevin Johnson, WR KhaDarel Hodge

Browns Cut Candidates

TE David Njoku ($6.0M cap savings)

 


Browns Depth Chart

Position

Base Offense

Notable Backups

Personnel

11

-

% of Passes

51%

-

QB

Baker Mayfield

Case Keenum

WR

Odell Beckham

 

WR

Donovan Peoples-Jones

 

WR (Slot)

Jarvis Landry

 

TE

Austin Hooper

Harrison Bryant

RB (Early Down)

Nick Chubb

D'Ernest Johnson

RB (Third Down)

Kareem Hunt

 

LT

Jedrick Wills

 

LG

Joel Bitonio

Nick Harris

C

J.C. Tretter

 

RG

Wyatt Teller

Chris Hubbard

RT

Jack Conklin

 

 

Offensive Coordinator: Kevin Stefanski won 2020 Coach of the Year for turning around Baker Mayfield’s career with a heavy dosage of play-action passing (9th), explosive rushing, and an elite offensive line. Stefanski sets up a deep-passing attack (2nd in percentage of passes traveling 15+ air yards) using his wide-zone rushing scheme, and the front office has inserted all the pieces to make it successful; Cleveland’s completion percentage over expected (CPOE) was the best in the league on those deep throws. Nothing should change in 2021 either. Only WR Rashard Higgins is a free agent among last year’s starters, and Odell Beckham will be back after playing in seven injury-filled games. The Browns are candidates to improve upon last year’s No. 14 ranking in points scored.

Passing Offense: Baker Mayfield hit the lotto in terms of surroundings and now reasonably projects for top-10 pass efficiency. The Browns were 7th in passing EPA per dropback and 6th in CPOE last year. Now they get Odell Beckham back into the lineup and possibly a healthier version of Jarvis Landry. Ancillary pass-catchers Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and re-sign candidate Rashard Higgins are plenty good enough for their roles. It’s possible that the Browns climb in raw pass attempts with another offseason to learn the system. Cleveland was 28th in attempts in 2020.

Rushing Offense: The entire offensive line returns, and the unit ranked No. 1 in both pass-blocking and run-blocking grade per PFF. All five players are good to elite, including 2020 first-round LT Jedrick Wills who will presumably improve in year two. Behind the best line in the league and with one of the best coaching staffs in the game, Nick Chubb projects for yet another huge rushing season. He was the RB4 per game (18.8 PPR) on the league’s best efficiency. He averaged 4.7 more PPR points per game than his fantasy usage would suggest. Chubb, 25, is the best pure runner heading into 2021. Kareem Hunt isn’t so bad either. In games with Chubb last year, he averaged 14.0 PPR points and ranked 21st in my efficiency stat overall. It’s an elite situation all around. Cleveland will be running it down defense’s throats again.

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Position

Base Defense

Notable Backups

Coverage

Cover 3

-

% of Plays

28%

-

CB

Denzel Ward

 

CB

Greedy Williams

 

CB (Slot)

M.J. Stewart

 

SS

Grant Delpit

Ronnie Harrison

FS

Sheldrick Redwine

 

LB

Sione Takitaki

Mack Wilson

LB

Jacob Phillips

 

DT (1T)

Jordan Elliott

 

DT (3T)

Sheldon Richardson

 

Edge (5T)

Adrian Clayborn

Joe Jackson

Edge (7T)

Myles Garrett

 

 

Defensive Coordinator: Former Niners DBs coach Joe Woods had a rough first season as DC in Cleveland, largely for no fault of his own. Injuries plagued the secondary and the roster was (and is) a work in progress. Woods said he “would like to transition into a dime system, but it is going to be something that is going to take time...just to create better matchups and be a little bit more diverse in our scheme...where we are putting an extra safety on the field.” The Browns didn’t have the safeties to go this route in 2020, but with SS Grant Delpit’s projected return, it’s possible that Cleveland puts six defensive backs on the field in most passing situations in 2021. Either way, Woods isn’t expected to blitz too often (21%, 30th) and will instead rush with four lineman. Myles Garrett allows this to happen.

Passing Defense: 2020 second-round SS Grant Delpit missed his entire rookie season with a torn Achilles, and 2019 second-round CB Greedy Williams missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Williams reportedly had nerve damage but is feeling better now. His backup Terrence Mitchell is a free agent, as are SS Karl Joseph and FS Andrew Sendejo. The Browns need major help in the secondary outside of CB1 Denzel Ward, and the front seven is in a similar position with EDGE Myles Garrett and little else. Both EDGE Olivier Vernon (torn Achilles) and DT Larry Ogunjobi are free agents. Fixing the pass defense is priority No. 1 for the front office. They were 22nd in passing EPA and 19th in adjusted sack rate last season.

Rushing Defense: The Browns are one of the analytically-driven teams that will prioritize pass defense over stopping the run. If Woods transitions to more dime and nickel, then the Browns will have more defensive backs in their run fits instead of thumping linebackers. Still, Cleveland desperately needs a starting-caliber linebacker. 2019 third-rounder Sione Takitaki, 2019 fifth-rounder Mack Wilson, and 2020 third-rounder Jacob Phillips best project as rotation members. The Browns also need dudes of up front. DT Larry Ogunjobi is a free agent, leaving a one-tech replacement at the top of the wish list. 30-year-old DT Sheldon Richardson is in the final year of his contract, too. Essentially, the entire run defense will look different after the offseason. Cleveland was 21st in rushing EPA last year.

 


Browns Team Needs

1. Edge Rusher - Myles Garrett is one of the league’s best, but if DC Joe Woods wants to rush with four and not blitz (30th), Garrett needs a running mate. 30-year-old EDGE Olivier Vernon is a free agent and tore his Achilles late in the year. The Browns were 19th in adjusted sack rate last year.

2. Linebacker(s) - The scheme will push safeties into the linebacker position in certain situations, but the Browns still need a legit starter at linebacker. 2019 third-rounder Sione Takitaki, 2019 fifth-rounder Mack Wilson, and 2020 third-rounder Jacob Phillips are all rotational players only. Just one addition would do the trick.

3. Defensive Tackle(s) - Larry Ogunjobi is a free agent, and 30-year-old three-tech Sheldon Richardson is in the final year of his contract. The Browns need to get younger and better at defensive tackle. A one-tech is the main priority, but finding the eventual Richardson replacement is also on the bucket list. The Browns were 21st in rushing EPA last year.

4. Free Safety - Cleveland is set to lose FS Andrew Sendejo and SS Karl Joseph this offseason, and there’s room for an upgrade over 2019 fourth-round FS Sheldrick Redwine. The Browns were a single-high defense last year featuring Cover 1 man (28%) and Cover 3 zone (28%) looks, so a true ball-hawking deep safety is what’s needed. Both Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison are strong safeties. The team could use three safeties often in 2021.

5. Slot Corner - 2018 third-rounder M.J. Stewart was released after two tough seasons in Tampa, and he was equally picked on with the Browns in 2020. Perhaps the Browns find ways to get their strong safeties involved instead of having a true slot corner. Either way, there’s room for improvement here. The Browns were 22nd in passing EPA.

 


2021 Fantasy Football Rankings

Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.

Nick Chubb (RB1) - With Hunt expected back, Chubb doesn’t project for the elite workload of other fantasy RB1s -- he was the RB22 in fantasy usage per game last year -- but he arguably is the best runner in the NFL and the entire Browns’ No. 1 run-blocking offensive line returns in 2021. The scheme is beautiful. The talent is beautiful. It’s worth investing in Chubb as an outlier. He was the RB4 per game last year (18.8 PPR).

Kareem Hunt (RB2/3) - Hunt is paid like a true contributor ($5.0M), not a backup. He’ll be involved even with Chubb dominating. Last year, Hunt averaged 14.0 PPR points on 13.9 expected PPR points per game with Chubb healthy (full splits column). He’s a boom-bust RB2/3 when both are active and an RB1 when Chubb misses. The combination of the two had Hunt as the RB20 per game (14.2 PPR).

Odell Beckham (WR3) - Since turning 25 in 2017, Beckham has played 39 of 64 possible regular season games (61%). He’ll be ready for training camp coming off his ACL, but there is injury risk given his history. In six healthy games last year when the offense was sketchy, Beckham averaged 14.4 PPR points (WR26) on 13.9 expected PPR points. With another year in the system, Beckham has some post-hype appeal at a discount. He’s a better player and scheme fit than Landry if close to full health.

 

BrownsSplits

 

Jarvis Landry (WR4) - As shown above, Landry was far more involved without Beckham last year. He only averaged 8.8 expected PPR points with him compared to 14.6 without him. The Browns Offense showed more late in the season, however, so there’s room for both receivers to have every-week fantasy appeal in 2021. That’s just a big ask, and I’m more willing to roll the dice on an historically-explosive player in this play-action offense.

Austin Hooper (TE1/2) - Hooper’s routes run dropped from 511 in Atlanta to 369 in Cleveland. Despite having a brutal defense, the Browns finished 28th in pass attempts last year. This, combined with Hooper’s career-low 6.2 YPT, led to a TE20 per game ranking in his first year. With Beckham back, his forgettable usage leaves him, at best, on the TE1/2 border.

Baker Mayfield (QB2) - It was a rollercoaster ride to get there, but Mayfield finished as the QB25 per game (15.5) in his first season with coach Stefanski. Getting Odell Beckham back and having another offseason to iron out the system gives Mayfield a better chance of breaking into the QB2 range in 2021, although his ceiling is maxed by Cleveland’s No. 20 neutral pass rate and No. 21 neutral offensive pace.