This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Last season the Browns did their best 1989 Cowboys impersonation by going 1-15 the old-fashioned way: Focusing on process instead of results. The last time the Browns won a playoff game was 1994, when they were coached by Bill Belichick and were effectively another franchise. They’ve finished fourth in the division the last six seasons and haven’t won the division since 1989, back in the days of the AFC Central. The last time they got double-digit wins was a decade ago — and they still didn’t make the playoffs. They haven’t been to a championship game since 1965, before the Super Bowl existed. That was Jim Brown’s last game. They lost. For head coach Hue Jackson and the Browns, 2017 isn’t about 2017. It’s about a future that looks nothing like the past.
Jackson is an offensive HC through and through. He’s so focused on the offensive side of the ball that he doesn’t even have an official offensive coordinator. He is the OC. Al Saunders, who was the OC in Oakland during Jackson’s one year as Raiders HC, is the senior offensive assistant, and Hal Hunter, who coaches the offensive line, also has experience as an OC (Chargers, 2012) — but this is Hue’s unit.
Historically, Hue’s offenses have been situated at the extremes. They either run a lot or pass a lot — but they’ve never been balanced. He might want them to be balanced, but in seven years of being an OC and/or HC, he’s had three teams top-eight in pass/run ratio and four teams top-eight in run/pass ratio. For as good of a reputation as Hue has, he’s been a bipolar play-caller to this point in his career.
Although Jackson was a college quarterback, he’s risen through the ranks coaching all the skill positions. At Arizona State (1992-95) he coached both quarterbacks and running backs (at the same time). After a year (1996) at California as the OC/quarterbacks coach, he spent four years (1997-2000) at Southern California as the OC/quarterbacks & running backs coach. When he moved to the NFL, he was the running backs coach with the Redskins for two years (2001-02) before serving as OC for a year (2003). After that he coached wide receivers for the Bengals for three years (2004-06) — during the glory days of Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry — and then he was the OC in Atlanta for the horrible gap year (2007) between quarterbacks Michael Vick and Matt Ryan, when he developed Roddy White into a 1,200-yard receiver.
After Atlanta, Jackson was the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore for the first two years (2008-09) of Joe Flacco’s career, and then he spent two years (2010-11) in Oakland, the first as OC and the second as HC. After being fired in Oakland — because 8-8 in his first season as HC was clearly not good enough — Hue returned to Cincy, where he spent four years coaching defensive backs for some reason (2012) and running backs (2013) and coordinating the offense (2014-15).
In his history there’s nothing that strongly indicates that Jackson tends to prefer the running game over the passing game or vice versa — but it’s probable that Jackson prefers to pound the ball when he has a running back he likes. With the exception of last year’s Browns team — which was almost always in negative game script — it’s been a decade since Hue oversaw an offense that wasn’t top-eight in run/pass ratio and total rushing attempts. In 2003 and 2007 he wasn’t coordinating his offense. He was working under two offensive-oriented college coaches trying their hands at the NFL game: Steve Spurrier, who tried to run the spread offense in Washington, and Bobby Petrino, who didn’t even last a year in the NFL with his college-style West Coast system.
With the Raiders and Bengals, however, Jackson had the backfield tandems of Darren McFadden/Michael Bush and Jeremy Hill/Giovani Bernard, and he funneled the ball to his backs. Last year, though, Jackson had an offense that was 31st in points scored and a defense that was 31st in points allowed. He couldn’t run the ball. Jackson has said that in 2017 he wants to run the ball more, and he’s gone out of his way to highlight the potential of running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Assuming the Browns aren’t as horrible this year as they were last year, I’d expect them to hide their quarterbacks as much as possible via the ground game.
Just don’t expect them to play quickly. Under Spurrier and Petrino, Jackson coordinated offenses that were top-six in neutral pace. Since then, however, he hasn’t had an offense in the top 10. At the same time, he’s only once had an offense outside the top 20 in rate of play. “At a Medium Pace” isn’t just a vulgarly wonderful 1993 Adam Sandler song. It’s also Jackson’s mantra.
Under the ownership of Randy Lerner (2002-11) and Jimmy Haslam (2012-present), the Browns have been plagued by instability. Over the last decade, they’ve had six general managers. Under Haslam alone, the team has had four GMs. It seems, however, that Haslam’s hot hand for firing is cooling down and that he’s bought into the vision that GM Sashi Brown and Moneyball luminary and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta have attempted to sell him.
Part of that vision entails the conflagration of the roster so that it may phoenix-like emerge reborn:
- QB: Robert Griffin III/Josh McCown/Cody Kessler –> Kessler/DeShone Kizer/Brock Osweiler
- RB: Isaiah Crowell/Duke Johnson
- WR: Terrelle Pryor –> Kenny Britt
- WR: Corey Coleman
- WR: Andrew Hawkins –> Ricardo Louis/Rashard Higgins
- TE: Gary Barnidge –> David Njoku/Seth DeValve
- LT: Joe Thomas
- LG: Joel Bitonio/Spencer Drango –> Joel Bitonio
- C: Cameron Erving –> J.C. Tretter
- RG: John Greco/Alvin Bailey –> Kevin Zeitler
- RT: Austin Pasztor –> Shon Coleman/Erving
Gone are the has-beens Griffin and McCown; Kessler and Kizer are competing to be the Week 1 starter as Osweiler is likely to sit on the bench for $1 million per game. The ‘young’ Pryor is now in Washington, D.C., and the ‘ancient’ Britt is taking his place. Also, as of writing, Pryor and Britt are both 28 years old. The drop-off from Pryor to Britt might be nonexistent. Hawkins has retired and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in economics; he’s being replaced by two second-year receivers who were just as unimpressive as he was last season.
‘Breakout Barnidge’ was released the day after the Browns drafted Njoku. Although Barnidge last year was first in pass and run blocking (Pro Football Focus), he should be easily replaced by the tag team of Njoku and DeValve, both of whom have top-quartile SPARQ-x athleticism (PlayerProfiler).
There’s been a lot of turnover on the offensive line — and that’s good. Despite being ranked PFF’s No. 16 unit last year, the offensive line was terrible, finishing 28th in the running game with 3.46 adjusted line yards per carry and 32nd in the passing game with an adjusted sack rate of 10.6 percent (Football Outsiders).
The perennial Pro-Bowler Thomas returns and Bitonio (with his five-year, $51 million extension) looks to be on pace to play in Week 1 after his 2016 ended with a Lisfranc injury in October. Replacing the disappointing former first-rounder Erving is Tretter, who last year was a top-10 PFF center for the Packers and this offseason signed a three-year, $16.75 million deal with the Browns. Also joining via free agency (with a five-year, $60 million deal) is Zeitler, a top-eight PFF guard who is familiar with Hue from their time together in Cincinnati. Pasztor was allowed to leave free agency — he’s still on the market — and the second-year Coleman is expected to replace him, assuming he beats out Erving for the position. Barring injuries, this line should perform significantly better than last year’s unit.
The changes on the defensive side of the ball are even more substantial. After serving as DC in 2013 — when his defense was ninth in yards allowed — Ray Horton returned last year to coordinate a defense that absolutely sucked: 31st in yards, 30th in points, and 30th in takeaways. You have to hand it to Horton: Few people can do a job well, get fired in under a year, return two years later, do horribly, and once again get fired in under a year. Replacing Horton at DC is Gregg Williams, a long-time and well-traveled coaching veteran whose knowledge of the game (one might say) is bountiful: #NailedIt.
With Williams now on the staff, the defense is switching from Horton’s 3-4 to Williams’ scandalous 4-3 scheme:
- DE: Stephen Paea/Xavier Cooper/Carl Nassib –> Nassib
- NT: Danny Shelton/Jamie Meder –> Shelton
- DE: Meder/Emmanuel Ogbah –> DT: Meder/Desmond Bryant
- OLB: Joe Schobert/Cam Johnson –> DE: Myles Garrett
- MLB: Christian Kirksey –> MLB: Tank Carder/Schobert
- MLB: Demario Davis –> OLB: Kirksey
- OLB: Jamie Collins
- CB: Joe Haden
- CB: Tramon Williams/Briean Boddy-Calhoun –> Jason McCourty/Boddy-Calhoun
- SCB: Jamar Taylor
- SS: Ibraheim Campbell/Derrick Kindred –> Jabrill Peppers/Calvin Pryor
- FS: Jordan Poyer/Ed Reynolds/Tracy Howard –> Reynolds/Kindred
While Nassib, Shelton, and Meder are holdovers transitioning to new-ish positions on the defensive line, the No. 1 pick Garrett is stepping into a role he knows well: Rushing the passer. At the combine Garrett displayed phenomenal athleticism (4.64-second 40, 41-inch vertical, 33 bench reps) to go along with his impressive size (6’4″ and 272 lbs.). With the skills to be an elite edge player, Garrett is an instant upgrade to the defense, even if he’s raw in his first year.
With no need for two starting inside linebackers, the Browns traded Davis to the Jets in June. Kirksey and Collins are slated to man the outside while Carder gets a chance to start in the middle. Collins should benefit from a full year with the team after being traded to the Browns from the Patriots in the middle of the season, and Kirksey is a top-25 PFF linebacker, but Carder is an unproven depth player who’s contributed mainly on special teams in his five-year career. Overall PFF ranks this front-seven unit only 24th.
Once an elite shutdown corner, Haden was 87th last year with a PFF coverage grade of 45.5 — but at least he wasn’t as bad as Williams, who was 101st. A longtime Titan, McCourty replaces Williams and should be a marginal upgrade. Stepping in at strong safety is the first-round Peppers, who has good size (5’11” and 213 lbs.) and athleticism (4.46-second 40, 35.5-inch vertical) and is a versatile player who saw action at safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker at Michigan. The Browns will likely use him across the defense as something of wildcard.
One note: On July 30, Reynolds suffered a knee injury in practice and is expected to miss “significant time.” In his place Kindred is likely to see the majority of the snaps although Pryor (acquired from the Jets in the Davis trade) could get action at free safety. This is a situation to monitor. Be sure to keep an eye on our NFL Matchups Dashboard as well as our NFL News feed to see how these units take shape and to track any injury updates.
The world doesn’t need three blurbs on the Browns
quarterbacks ‘quarterbacks,’ but that’s what it’s getting.
Cody Kessler, QB
As a rookie, Kessler started eight games last year, completing 65.6 percent of his passes and averaging 7.2 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), both of which are exceptional marks. The only rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to start at least one game and outperform Kessler in both categories are:
- Charley Sarratt (1948): He started one game in the NFL dark ages and attempted only one pass.
- Kordell Stewart (1995): He started two games — I think at wide receiver. He attempted only seven passes all season.
- Dak Prescott (2016): He is the gold standard. Part of why Kessler’s 0-8 season seems inconsequential is that it happened while Dak was setting the world ablaze on his way to 13-3.
- Robert Griffin III (2012): He was clearly the best quarterback in the league as a rookie . . .
- Kirk Cousins (2012): Although maybe RG3 wasn’t better than the other rookie quarterback on his team.
- Ben Roethlisberger (2004): He handed the ball off to his bruising running back, targeted his No. 1 wide receiver to the exclusion of almost everyone else, and took sacks at a high rate. Sound familiar?
Kessler’s performance in limited action doesn’t mean he’s going to have a strong NFL career — he might not even start in Week 1 — but it’s possible he’s #notbad.
A third-round selection last year out of Southern California, Kessler rocked out for three seasons as a collegiate starter, never averaging lower than a 65.0 percent completion rate or less than an 8.5 AY/A — and that’s despite the disruptive coaching carousel of Lane Kiffen (2013), Ed Orgeron (2013), Clay Helton (2013, 2015), and Steve Sarkisian (2014-15). From 2013 to 2015 he was third in the Football Bowl Championship with 10,330 yards passing.
Consider this: Kessler was good enough to make Nelson Agholor (104/1,313/12 in 2014) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (89/1,454/10 in 2015) look like no-doubt first-round talents when they were catching his passes.
Still, Kessler has flaws. He’s not athletic (4.89-second 40, 7.32-second three-cone), and he’s also not mobile. Last year he had 11 rushes for 18 yards. In college, where sacks count as run attempts, he ‘rushed’ 158 times for -425 yards. Behind Cleveland’s porous offensive line last year, Kessler’s immobility was a problem — especially since he had the league’s second-highest time to throw at 2.89 seconds (Next Gen Stats). At the same time, he was third in the league with a 42.0 percent completion rate under pressure, so it’s not as if he crumbled with bodies around him. He just got pummeled.
He’s small (6’1″ and 220 lbs.) — especially in comparison to Kizer (6’4″ and 233 lbs.) — but of the two Kessler has the significantly stronger arm (55 mph ball velocity vs. 52). The problem, though, is that the team gave Kessler a shot last year, he went 0-8 in his starts, and then the team drafted Kizer in the second round.
Kizer took an increasing number of snaps with the first unit in offseason practices, Jackson has publicly stated that Kizer is progressing well, and beat reporter Nate Ulrich believes that Kizer is the “better bet” to start in Week 1 (Akron Beacon Journal). If some sportsbooks are still taking action on which Browns quarterback will be the Week 1 starter, I wouldn’t blame you for not betting on Kessler.
Monitor preseason action to see how this camp contest unfolds.
DeShone Kizer, QB
What defines Kizer is his raw potential, which is perhaps best represented by his age: 21. It’s rare for quarterbacks to enter the league at 21 years of age. Normally when they do, they’re taken in the first round — and they tend to be good NFL quarterbacks. Occasionally you get a Jared Goff, Johnny Manziel, Blaine Gabbert, or Josh Freeman in the group — but in general first-round quarterbacks drafted when 21 years old tend to have good careers. Here’s an admittedly cherry-picked list:
- Jameis Winston (2015)
- Marcus Mariots (2015)
- Matthew Stafford (2009)
- Aaron Rodgers (2005)
- Alex Smith (2005)
- Michael Vick (2001)
- Drew Bledsoe (1993)
- Dan Marino (1983)
And of course who can forget about Hall-of-Famer Y.A. Tittle (1948). But what about 21-year-old draftees outside of the first round? The history isn’t good. Occasionally you get a Brett Favre (1991), Fran Tarkenton (1961), or Joe Theismann (1971) — but more often you get guys who are either forgotten in a couple of years or who are so bad they’re remembered forever.
Kizer was just drafted in the second round with the No. 52 pick overall. I’m not even joking: The last two second-round quarterbacks to enter the NFL at age 21 were Christian Hackenberg . . . and Osweiler.
My totally unprovable theory: 21-year-old quarterbacks who aren’t elite (selected in the first round) tend to have high upside but also some indefinable quality that hinders their ability to succeed. When they face challenges in college, instead of overcoming them, they falter — and thus drop out of the first round. And then instead of staying in college and proving themselves (with their play) to be NFL-caliber quarterbacks, they enter the NFL early and bypass the opportunity to improve prior to becoming professionals — and then teams overdraft them because of their potential. In short, most of them seem to take the easy way out or to have special circumstances that make it ‘unreasonable’ for them to stay in college.
Does that sound like Kizer? After taking over for the injured Malik Zaire as a redshirt freshman and leading Notre Dame to a 10-3 record in 2015, Kizer had a disappointing second season as a starter, completing only 58.7 percent of his passes for just 2,925 yards on his way to a 4-8 record and a few benchings. In the running for the No. 1 overall pick when the season started, by the end of it he had dropped out of serious first-round consideration.
That said, Kizer wasn’t that bad last year. In his breakout 2015 season, he had an 8.5 AY/A; in 2016, 8.4. He also improved his touchdown and interception rates from 6.29 and 2.99 percent to 7.20 and 2.49. As a rusher, he was comparable on a per-game basis: 10.4/40.4/0.77 (2015) vs. 10.8/39.3/0.67 (2016). Kizer wasn’t great last year — he didn’t progress the way a potential No. 1 pick ideally would — but he was good: When using the play action, he had the highest passer rating (154.7) in the country — and he was 21st with a 59.5 percent adjusted completion rate against pressure, 16th with a 68.9 percent adjusted completion rate against the blitz, ninth with an 11.0-yard depth of target, and fifth with a 47.6 adjusted completion rate on targets of 31-40 yards (PFF).
Kizer has only 23 starts on his résumé — he’s inexperienced and needs to learn how to read defenses — but of all the quarterbacks in this year’s rookie class he’s the one who most looks like an NFL passer.
Brock Osweiler, QB
Since entering the league in 2013, Texans stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been targeted by nine different quarterbacks — all of them different shades of disgusting. Here’s how those quarterbacks have done when targeting him:
- Ryan Fitzpatrick: 83 targets, 11.3 AY/A
- Brandon Weeden: 18, 10.9
- T.J. Yates: 22, 8.8
- Brian Hoyer: 109, 8.1
- Matt Schaub: 54, 7.0
- Ryan Mallett: 60, 6.0
- Case Keenum: 55, 5.9
- Tom Savage: 32, 4.6
- #WOATweiler: 128, 3.7
This isn’t a fluke. No quarterback has attempted more throws to or done worse with Hopkins than the Wiz. If Brock can’t pretend to be competent when slinging it to Hopkins, how’s he going to do if he has to make a start in the city that has seen 26 different starting quarterbacks since 1999?
Isaiah Crowell, RB
Crowell has had a long yet certain road to this point in his professional career. A five-star recruit as a high-school player, he famously held a puppy in his arms while announcing his commitment to Georgia on TV. As an 18-year-old true freshman in 2011, he turned 185 carries and eight receptions into 909 yards and six touchdowns, earning the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year award. In June 2012, though, Crowell was dismissed from Georgia because of felony firearms charges. He transferred to Alabama State in the Football Championship Division and played two years there to finish his career, averaging 15.1 touches per game for 90.6 scrimmage yards per game (YPG) and 1.3 touchdowns per game.
Just 21 years old when he entered the draft, Crowell looked every bit the part of an NFL back at the 2014 combine with his elite size (5’11” and 224 lbs.) — but his athleticism was unimpressive (4.57-second 40, 7.25-second three-cone), which when combined with his off-the-field baggage dropped him down or off team’s draft boards. Amazingly, he went undrafted, but he signed with the Browns shortly after the draft process.
As a first-year player with a cheap contract and no draft capital, Crowell was given nothing, having to battle third-round rookie Terrance West and ‘franchise free-agent acquisition’ Ben Tate for touches. Under those circumstances, he did well to accumulate 694 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns. West and Tate were gone in Crow’s second year, but he had to split touches with the second-round rookie Johnson, who out-snapped him 560-474 and outproduced him (in scrimmage yards) 913-888. But then something wonderful and predictable happened — HC Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer were fired. When the new front office and coaching staff took over, they didn’t view Crowell as the problem child into whom they’d invested nothing. They viewed him as a potential workhorse.
Although the team didn’t give Crowell a ton of carries because of negative game script, he did start every game, out-snap Johnson 568-457, and get a career-high 53 targets. In total, he had 1,271 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns on a team lucky to win one game. Crow was sixth in the league with 1.7 yards after contact per touch and first with 47.5 percent of his yardage coming on carries of at least 15 yards. Last year Crow had nine carries inside the five-yard line; Johnson had just one carry.
Of the non-elite daily fantasy running backs last year, Crow provided perhaps the most value, averaging a respectable 13.69 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with an impressive +5.51 Plus/Minus, 68.8 percent Consistency Rating, 43.0 percent Upside Rating, and low 4.4 percent ownership rate (per our Trends tool). As the lead back, Crow proved himself to be a high-floor producer with the ability to hit his ceiling routinely.
In my article on the top 100 NFL players, I say that Crowell “looks like a cheaper, smaller, less athletic Fournette with a better offensive line and more pass-catching skills.” I’m standing by that. His average draft position (ADP) of 30.4 in DRAFT best ball leagues isn’t too forgiving, but the Browns are likely to do better than 1-15. It will be hard for Crowell not to top 200 carries and 1,000 yards this year.
Duke Johnson, RB
As a rookie, Johnson played more than 50.0 percent of the team’s snaps in nine games. Last year, he surpassed the 50.0 percent threshold only once. Even though the team had no depth at the position after Johnson, the Browns at times used him as a punt returner — which is the kiss of death for a running back: If a team is using a back on special teams, it’s not thinking of him as a potential workhorse on offense.
Nevertheless, Johnson actually had a promising campaign. For the second year in a row he had 74 targets, and the only backs with more targets than his 148 since he entered the league are David Johnson (177), Theo Riddick (166), Devonta Freeman (162), and Darren Sproles (154). Plus, he was wonderfully efficient, second with a 35.4 percent juke rate, third with 6.9 yards per touch, fifth with an 8.1 percent breakaway run rate and 1.9 yards after contact per touch, and 15th with 0.99 fantasy points per opportunity (PlayerProfiler).
With a DRAFT ADP of 127.4, Duke has standalone value as a pass-catching back with a 50-reception, 800-yard floor and 1,400-yard ceiling if Crow should suffer an injury.
Kenny Britt, WR
Britt’s 105.1 DRAFT ADP is still too low. He’s a strong pivot play on the wide receivers being selected two to three rounds ahead of him. A big-bodied (6’3″ and 218 lbs.) former first-rounder who flashed early in his career but struggled to stay healthy, Britt has now missed only one game in the last three seasons. Sadly for him, those seasons were with the Rams and their ‘quarterback’ catastrophe of Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles, Case Keenum, and Jared Goff. Nevertheless, Britt averaged 9.1 yards per target with the Rams and last year was 13th in the league with 2.0 yards per pass route run (PFF) on his way to career-high marks in targets (111), receptions (68), and yards (1,002).
Signed by the Browns to a four-year, $32.5 million contract, Britt is likely to replace Pryor as the team’s primary receiver. It might be easy to think that Britt will struggle to replace his dynamic predecessor — but Britt is less than a year older than Pryor and has six more years of receiving experience in the NFL. Additionally, Britt was better than Pryor last season. With fewer targets (111 vs. 140), Britt had similar yardage (1,002 vs. 1,007) and more touchdowns (five vs. four). On a per-target basis, Britt had more air yards (6.3 vs. 5.8). On a per-snap basis, Britt had more fantasy points (0.25 vs. 0.24). Britt isn’t as big (6’5″ and 232 lbs.) and fast (4.38-second 40) as Pryor, so he’s likely to be used differently than Pryor was last year — but Britt could easily be Pryor’s productive equal.
In 2003, Jackson funneled 159 targets to Laveranues Coles in Washington. In 2007, Jackson helped Roddy break out in his third year with 137 targets. In 2011, he oversaw a Raiders offense that fed 115 targets to Darrius Heyward-Bey. In 2014-15, he gave a total of 249 targets to A.J. Green with the Bengals, and then last year he gave 140 targets to a guy in his first full season of action at receiver. Britt has the potential to eat targets the way monsters eat cookies: All the time.
Last year Britt was a top-10 receiver in DraftKings Plus/Minus — and he was at his best as an underdog, averaging 14.53 PPG with a +5.46 Plus/Minus and 72.7 percent Consistency Rating. He was also owned at a low 3.3 percent when Vegas was against the Rams. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players will take advantage of the ownership discount Britt has historically afforded as a dog — which he’s likely to be for most of the season. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Browns each week. If you want to construct Kessler/Kizer-Britt stacks, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Corey Coleman, WR
The first receiver selected in the 2016 draft, Coleman is a burner (4.37-second 40) with a small-ish frame (5’10” and 193 lbs.) but strong record of college production:
- 2014 (rSO, 10 games): 64/1,119/11 receiving, 11/53/1 rushing
- 2015 (rJR, 12): 74/1,363/20, 22/111/0
In his first two NFL games, he turned 13 targets into a 7/173/2 receiving stat line and looked like the second coming of Odell Beckham, Jr., with 19.65 DraftKings PPG — but then he got Clevelanded.
Coleman has never been a sturdy player — he missed games in college and large portions of training camp to hamstring injuries and a sports hernia — and then in a Week 3 practice he broke his hand. He missed the next six games. When he returned in early November, the Browns were 0-8, Pryor had established himself as the No. 1 receiver, and Kessler, McCown, and Griffin were rotating at starter, making it hard for the rookie receiver to develop a connection with any of them.
Coleman has potential — he was ninth in the league last year with 15.2 air yards per target (Next Gen Stats) — but he’s once again missed time this offseason with hamstring issues, and his quarterback situation is shaky. He’s an upside pick at his 106.3 DRAFT ADP — but Britt is likelier to finish the season with more receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
David Njoku, TE
Behind the 2010 tight end class of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Aaron Hernandez, Dennis Pitta, and Jermaine Gresham, this year’s cohort has a chance to be the best of all time. Drafted 19th and 23rd overall, O.J. Howard and Evan Engram enter the NFL as strong prospects — but Njoku is the real prize as the No. 29 pick. With his size (6’4″ and 246 lbs.) and athleticism (4.64-second 40, 6.97-second three-cone), Njoku is capable of playing on the line and also in the slot, and he was competent as a run and pass blocker at Miami, where he redshirted and then played for a couple of seasons before jumping to the NFL.
Having just turned 21 in July, Njoku was a young player in college, but he was a presence. In 2016, he was the second-leading receiver for the Hurricanes with a 43/698/8 stat line and strong advanced stats (PFF):
- 11.2 yards after the catch per reception (first among draft-eligible tight ends)
- 2.34 yards per route run (third)
- 200 deep pass yards (third)
- 376 slot yards (fifth)
As a 21-year-old tight end with strong receiving skills and elite draft pedigree, Njoku is a highly valuable asset. From the last 20 years, here are the 10 tight ends with the most draft capital to play as 21-year-old rookies:
- Kellen Winslow (2004, No. 6)
- Eric Ebron (2014, 10)
- Tony Gonzalez (1997, 13)
- Todd Heap (2001, 31)
- Rob Gronkowski (2010, 42)
- Maxx Williams (2015, 55)
- Martellus Bennett (2008, 61)
- Jason Witten (2003, 69)
- Jermichael Finley (2008, 91)
- Aaron Hernandez (2010, 113)
Njoku has multiple All-Pro and even Hall-of-Fame upside — but these tight ends sucked as rookies. Not one of them had more than 64 targets in his first NFL season. Collectively, they averaged 3.0 targets per game for a 2.0/22.4/0.2 stat line and 5.50 DraftKings PPG. And the averages are skewed by Gronk and Hernandez. The average number of touchdowns from this rookie cohort is 2.7; the median, 1.0.
Even though Njoku looks to be a starter, he’s almost certainly overvalued at his 171.9 DRAFT ADP. That said, it’s almost impossible to overdraft him in dynasty leagues.
Seth DeValve, TE
Given the Browns’ weakness at the third wide receiver position, they might opt to use more sets with two tight ends. If so, DeValve — a second-year fourth-round player out of Princeton — will play more than the 93 snaps he saw last year. An athletic (4.68-second 40, 6.96-second three-cone) move tight end who’s basically a big wide receiver and/or H-back (6’2″ and 244 lbs.), DeValve was a straight-up ‘analytics’ pick by the Brown/DePodesta regime, which probably could’ve waited another couple of rounds to draft their guy from the Ivy Leagues. A 12-personnel set with Njoku and DeValve could create mismatch nightmares for defenses.
In the futures market the Browns currently have a 2017 win total of 4.5 games with a -115 over and -115 under. They’re also +2000 to make the playoffs and -5000 not to. Since the league instituted the 16-game season in 1978, there have been 10 teams to lose at last 15 games in a campaign. Eight of them won at least five games the following season. On average, they went 6.7-9.3. The exceptions: The 2009 Lions (2-14), who were 0-16 the previous year, and the 1981 Saints (4-12), who were just one in a line of ’80s Saints teams to suck. The 2017 Browns seem different than those Lions and Saints teams. At the same time, only one of these 10 teams made the playoffs the following season, the 2008 Dolphins (11-5), who set the NFL record for greatest single-season turnaround with a 10-win differential. I’m not expecting the Browns to be outliers.
The Browns are currently +20,000 to win the Super Bowl, +10,000 to win the AFC, and +3,300 to win the AFC North. If the Browns make the playoffs, a major contributing factor will likely be the collapse of the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals within the division. If you like the Browns for the postseason, A) you probably aren’t a Browns fan, and B) you might as well take them at +3,300 to win the AFC North instead of +2,000 to make the playoffs: Ride that Blackish-Brown Swan.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Browns Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz and Matt LaMarca contributed research to this article.