2020 NFL Team Previews: Cleveland Browns
2020 NFL Team Previews
By Professor MJ
The Browns were a darkhorse candidate to make it to the Super Bowl last year. They were a pretty common sexy pick among experts. Things didn’t go as planned, to say the least.
Despite the big-name acquisitions, including Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt, the Browns finished the season with a disappointing 6-10 record.
The season even involved a shameful incident. In Week #11, star defensive end Myles Garrett ripped off Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and hit him with it in the head, a very dangerous move. Garrett got suspended for the rest of the year.
The good news is head coach Freddie Kitchens got fired at the end of the regular season. I think he did a horrible job. The team never looked like a team, but rather a bunch of individuals thinking about their own personal success. Cleveland hired former Vikings offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski. We’ll see if he can lead this talented group to the promised land or not.
Fun fact: the Browns have had just three winning seasons over the past 30 years. That’s unbelievable.
2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)
Baker Mayfield regressed noticeably in 2019. After an impressive 27-to-14 TD-to-INT ratio as a rookie, Mayfield threw 22 touchdown passes versus 21 interceptions. And that was despite having a better surrounding cast! He recorded the second-highest number of picks in the league, only behind Jameis Winston.
One of his problems seems to be between his ears. He must stop doing and saying stupid stuff. He admitted putting his foot in his mouth a lot last season. Stop talking and focus on football, man. I hate seeing talent wasted by off-the-field issues.
I love the signing of backup QB Case Keenum, who is clearly a huge upgrade over Drew Stanton or Garrett Gilbert. I admitted a few times last year in my write-ups presenting my weekly picks that I might be one of the few people believing Keenum is an adequate NFL quarterback.
In Keenum’s first four seasons in the league, he compiled 24 TD passes compared to 20 interceptions. Since then, over the three most recent seasons, he has 51 TD passes versus 27 picks. Just focus on last year: despite a mediocre supporting cast in Washington, he still managed to complete 65% of his passes, while getting an 11-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio.
I’m not saying Keenum can lead the Browns to a Super Bowl, but in my opinion he can definitely keep their head above water if called upon. With a nice talented group around him, he can certainly rack up victories. He’s a very good insurance policy.
2.2 Running Backs (RBs)
The Browns are loaded at this position. They are fielding the guy who finished as the top running back in the league according to PFF rankings: Nick Chubb. Entering his third year as a pro, the future is bright for him.
After missing the first eight games because of a suspension, Kareem Hunt shined in Cleveland. Can you believe he was targeted 5.5 times on average per game? Despite missing half the season, he finished with the third-most receptions in the team with 37 (on pace for 74 over a full 16-game season). He was a good third-down back and received great marks from PFF.
2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)
No changes here either, as the team will keep riding with their top two wideouts, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Expectation were high with Beckham, which made his 74-1,035-4 stat line a bit of a disappointment. He graded as the 60th-best WR out of 122 qualifiers on PFF. Granted, he played through a core muscle injury throughout the year. He underwent surgery during the offseason and should be fine for 2020.
Jarvis Landry also played through injuries, but he turned out to be one of the few bright spots on offense. He caught 83 passes for 1,174 yards and 6 TDs. The receiving yards were career-high for him and he’s entering his prime at 27 years old. However, be aware that he underwent a major hip surgery, which makes him questionable not only for training camp, but he also Week #1. Keep that in mind, especially if you are involved in fantasy football!
2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)
The two tight ends that caught the most passes last year, Ricky Seals-Jones and Demetrius Harris, are both gone. They only caught 14 and 15 passes respectively, though, so we’re not talking about huge losses.
As a matter of fact, the TE position will see a big upgrade this year. First, the team acquired Austin Hooper from Atlanta. He posted career-highs in receptions (75), receiving yards (787) and touchdowns (6) despite missing three games! The Falcons attempted the most passes in the league, but those are still very nice numbers. Hooper got the 8th spot among 66 TEs according to PFF rankings.
More good news for Cleveland: David Njoku will be back in action in 2020. He was probably one of the happiest guys following the firing of head coach Freddy Kitchens. After missing most of the year with a wrist injury, he was a healthy scratch for two of the final four games.
Njoku could create big mismatches this season, especially with opposing defenses already having to cover Beckham, Landry and Hooper. Don’t forget Njoku was a first-round pick and he posted nice numbers in 2018 (56 catches, 639 yards, 4 TDs). I think he’s an interesting prospect and he can certainly contribute.
2.5 Offensive Line (OL)
The Browns offensive line was widely regarded as being bad, but they finished in the middle of the pack in terms of sacks allowed (16th out 32 teams).
Two guys received great marks from PFF: center J.C. Tretter (10th out of 37 centers) and Joel Bitonio (11th out of 81 guards).
The other bright spot is the signing of the top tackle on the market, Jack Conklin. He played 94% of the snaps with Tennessee, while receiving an 80.5 grade (tenth-best out of 81 tackles). He’s a very reliable right tackle.
Blindside play was awful for the Browns last year. That makes the #10 overall selection, Jedrick Wills, a very smart decision. Most people thought he was the top tackle in the draft, but the Giants’ surprising decision to snatch Andrew Thomas instead left the door wide open for Cleveland.
Wills allowed just one sack across 970 college career snaps. That’s impressive! Even though he played RT all of his high school and college careers, he is likely to slide to LT at the pro level since Conklin is much more comfortable on the right side.
Greg Robinson, Eric Kush and Justin McCray were let go by the team, which is not necessarily bad news since they didn’t perform very well.
Cleveland also has Chris Hubbard, who was horrific last year after three decent seasons. Wyatt Teller is another possibility. He played roughly half the snaps in 2019; his play was below-average. You don’t want him as a starter, but can be a viable option as a backup.
2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE
In theory, all the pieces are in place for a nice forward leap.
Baker Mayfield is more likely to improve over his 2019 numbers than to regress, and the team addressed the backup QB position well by inking Case Keenum to a three-year contract.
Also, there is no reason to believe the RB position won’t be as dangerous than last year. Both Chubb and Hunt are young, and the team missed Hunt for half the season.
At wide receiver, Beckham’s body should be healed, but Landry’s status is more uncertain. As for tight ends, the Hooper-Njoku duo is much more threatening than Seals-Jones & Harris.
Finally, the OL didn’t lose any good player, while acquiring a key guy in free agency with Jack Conklin. And don’t forget the Browns took Jedrick Wills in the draft, whom many thought was the top tackle available.
No more excuses. It’s time to execute. I do believe the Browns will have a great offense in 2020.
They finished 22nd in points scored last year and I project them to be around the 10th echelon. But I wouldn’t fall off my chair if they finished 5th (is that too bold of a call? We’ll see!).
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)
The interior of the line is anchored by Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi. They did a fine job, both against the run and as rushers. They racked up 3 and 5.5 sacks, respectively.
The team added some needed depth at the position by signing Andrew Billings, who played his first three years in the NFL with the Bengals. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but he does an adequate job defending the run. A smart move that strengthens the position.
Jordan Elliott was a good value pick in the third round of this year’s draft, as many experts rated him much higher. He has good pass rushing moves, while providing adequate play against the run.
3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)
The Browns are in great shape here.
Myles Garrett obtained 10 sacks in 10 games before missing the rest of the year with a suspension. He’s one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, period. Much like Baker Mayfield, he needs to get his head on straight. Message to Myles: you are ultra-talented, please don’t waste it, you are so much fun to watch!
As if having Myles Garrett wasn’t enough, the Browns have two more dangerous guys: Olivier Vernon and newly-acquired Adrian Clayborn.
Vernon missed 6 games last season. He posted his lowest sack total of his career with 3.5. During the previous six seasons, he averaged 7.9 sacks per year.
As for Clayborn, he’s getting a bit older 32 years old, but he’s a good backup to spell Garrett or Vernon at times. He can easily rack up 3-5 sacks over the course of a season. His addition won’t hurt the team for sure.
3.3 Linebackers (LBs)
Losing Joe Schobert hurts to some degree. He did play 99% of the snaps and clearly led the team with 133 tackles (Mack Wilson finished second with 82). However, the team made no effort to re-sign him. He regularly racks up a high number of tackles, but he wasn’t effective against the run. He received a 47.1 grade from PFF in that aspect of the game.
In order to compensate for the loss of Schobert, the Browns signed B.J. Goodson away from Green Bay. He is a 2016 fourth-round pick that has totaled 0.5 sack and 150 tackles over four years. He does not seem to be a realistic long-term option for Cleveland.
Mack Wilson saw the field often in 2019; he actually played 88% of the defensive snaps. However, he ranked as the number 83 linebacker out of 89 qualifiers. He was “okay” in terms of pass rushing, but he was a liability in coverage and defending the run.
In other words, the team is weak at linebacker.
3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)
Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams return as starters. Both missed four games in 2019.
Ward has had two good seasons since being drafted fourth overall in the 2018 draft. He is a pretty good corner.
Greedy Williams had mixed results in his first year as a pro (he was chosen in the second round of the draft). He graded out as the 92nd-best CB out of 112 guys. Maybe he’ll improve with one year of experience under his belt.
Slot corner T.J. Carrie left for Indianapolis, but the team immediately replaced him with Kevin Johnson (formerly of the Bills). Carrie struggled last year, while Johnson finally made it through an entire season in which he provided some pretty solid play. He is an improvement over Carrie.
3.5 Safeties (S)
The safety position has been completely revamped. Damarious Randall, Jermaine Whitehead, Morgan Burnett and Juston Burris are out of the door.
Here come Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo.
Joseph is a former first-round pick from the 2016 draft and he has spent his entire career with the Raiders. He has been an average player (not good, not bad). He’s been getting PFF marks varying between 67 and 75 in each of his first four seasons in the NFL. To me, replacing Randall with Joseph is pretty much a wash, or perhaps a mild improvement.
Sendejo is also an average player and he isn’t getting any younger. He will be 33 years old in September. This acquisition was probably made to ease a rookie into the starting lineup slowly.
The rookie in question is Grant Delpit, who was taken in the second round of this year’s draft. His strengths: he has a lot of speed, he is good near the line of scrimmage and he can rush the passer. He is a student of the game. His weaknesses: after being projected as an early first round pick, his draft stock fell down due to numerous missed tackles and poor angles in run support last year.
2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE
Getting Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon possibly for a full season would clearly help. Starting corners Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams also missed some games last year. Hopefully, the injury bug to key players won’t hurt the team as much in 2020.
I see a small upgrade on the interior of the line with the signing of Andrew Billings and drafting Jordan Elliott, but a downgrade with the loss of Joe Schobert at LB (getting B.J. Goodson won’t cut it).
The shuffling at the safety position is a wash to me. However, I value continuity, especially in a shortened training camp situation, so having new faces isn’t ideal under these circumstances.
I came close to rating the defense as a small upgrade over 2019, but finally opted for “stable” instead. The team finished 20th in points allowed; I expect them to be in the 16-23 range this year.
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
4. Regular Season Wins
According to sportsbooks, the Cleveland Browns are expected to win 8.5 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?
I'll answer this question via two different methods.
4.1 Professor MJ's Prediction
I won't go into the mathematical details, but here is a summary of my own personal pick (based on my analysis above and my estimated spreads for the Browns' 16 games):
Tip: Bet UNDER 8.5 wins
4.2 Based on BetOnline's Point Spreads
Here is the methodology I used here:
- Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
- Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
- Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
- Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
- Count the proportion of seasons where the Browns won more or less than 8.5 games.
Here are the results:
Tip: Bet UNDER 8.5 wins
In summary, both analyses recommend betting the UNDER. However, I do not like this play a lot. The numbers are suggesting to bet the UNDER, but my breakdown of Cleveland's offense and defense (see above) likes the Browns' 2020 outlook. To me, they are a darkhorse candidate to make a Super Bowl run.
Here are BetOnline’s point spreads for the Browns’ 16 regular season games:
- HOME: +3.5 vs BAL, -8 vs CIN, -2.5 vs HOU, -1 vs IND, -5 vs LV, 0 vs PHI, -1 vs PIT, -9 vs WAS.
- ROAD: +8.5 @ BAL, -3 @ CIN, +4.5 @ DAL, +1 @ JAX, -1 @ NYG, 0 @ NYJ, +4.5 @ PIT, +4 @ TEN.
Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020.
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