Heading into the 2020 NFL season, the Cleveland Browns were record holders. Though, not the good kind. The Browns held the mantle of the longest active playoff drought in the NFL – tied for the longest of all time at 17 seasons. Luckily for the dawg pound, the Browns were able to break that streak and earn a playoff berth in 2020.
The Browns reached the postseason for the first time in 18 years on the backs of their stellar offensive line. PFF ranked them as the best offensive line in football at the end of the 2020 season. The line is also ranked first entering the 2021 season.
The Overall Offense
Behind their road-grating line, the Browns rushed for 2,374 yards, good for third-best in the NFL, and 21 touchdowns, good for fifth-best. Their running backs specifically rushed for 2,126 yards, second-best, behind the Titans and Derrick Henry, obviously. For reference, the NFL average for running back rushing yards was 1,532 last season. Kareem Hunt finished as RB10 in PPR scoring, while Nick Chubb finished as RB11 despite missing four games. The Browns rushing play percentage was 47.48% last year, the fourth-highest in the NFL. It’s safe to say the Browns deployed a dominant running game in 2020.
The passing game, however, struggled at times. Losing Odell Beckham Jr. midway through the season didn’t help matters. The team ranked 24th in passing yardage with 3,539 and threw the ball on just 52.22% of its plays. Baker Mayfield finished the season as QB17, while the only relevant WR, Jarvis Landry, finished as WR33. The big offseason acquisition at tight end, Austin Hooper, finished as the TE21 after missing three games.
Will any components of the Browns passing game be valuable in 2021, or are we only sold on the running game? Let’s take a closer look and figure out how to approach this team in 2021.
Mayfield was good last season, but not great. He played well enough to lead his team to an 11-5 regular-season record but his stats did not pop. He finished the season as QB17, throwing for 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns while limiting his interceptions to eight. Baker did lose his WR1 in week 7, but the passing offense was not any better with Beckham in the lineup. In fact, Baker was QB15 in weeks 7-17 without Beckham, and just QB26 in weeks 1-6 with Beckham.
Entering his fourth season in the league, Baker has lived between 3,563 and 3,827 yards and between 22 and 27 touchdowns. It’s safe to say that this is who he is, a middling QB2, a safe play in 2QB leagues. He’s not going to win you a league or lose it for you either. As a part of a run-first offense, he’s not somebody who I will be targeting, but you could do worse in a 2QB league.
Nick Chubb finished as RB11, one spot behind his backfield mate Kareem Hunt, but Chubb is the clear leader of this backfield when it comes to rushing the ball. He missed four games, caught just 16 passes, and still finished as the RB11 in PPR scoring. Chubb was RB6 in terms of quality starts, according to fantasy pros, which measures a player’s consistency. He scored a quality or great game 83% of the time.
Chubb saw 190 rushing attempts, compared to 198 for Hunt who played 16 games, and still out rushed him with 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns while Hunt finished with 841 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
Chubb is one of, if not the best pure runner in football, evidenced by the efficiency he displayed last year. He finished third in true yards per carry, second in breakaway runs, fourth in yards per touch, third in breakaway run rate, first in juke rate, sixth in evaded tackles, and first in expected points added.
Expect much of the same from Chubb in 2021. With the hope of playing a full 17 game slate this season and running behind one of the best offensive lines in football, Chubb should be around the 1,500-yard mark as he was in 2019.
It has obviously become trendy to trade a young RB after he has a few productive seasons, but I’m not moving off of Chubb just yet. If it wasn’t for his limited pass-catching role, he would be in the conversation for the RB1 overall, but he still remains a strong RB1.
As mentioned, Kareem Hunt finished as the RB10 last season in PPR scoring. And he did so while taking a secondary rushing role, except for the four games that Chubb missed. While Chubb is one of the best runners in football, Hunt is certainly the best “backup” running back in the NFL.
Hunt really excels as a pass-catcher but is a very good runner in his own right. Hunt notched 841 yards and six rushing touchdowns on 198 carries, but also added 38 receptions for 304 yards and five touchdowns.
As productive as he was last season, I do expect Hunt’s numbers to regress some in 2021, at least on the ground. This is all assuming Chubb stays healthy, of course. I expect Hunt to see about half of the carries that Chubb sees and still register over 500 rushing yards. Catching passes is how he will maintain his value, however. There’s no reason he can’t go over 400 yards receiving with a handful of receiving touchdowns. The running back position is as deep as ever, but Hunt should be considered a fringe RB2/3.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Widely considered one of the best wide receivers in the game, Odell Beckham has fallen back down to earth in Cleveland. In 2019 Beckham tallied 1,035 yards and four touchdowns, a disappointment with his sky-high expectations.
If 2019 was a disappointment, 2020 was a disaster. Beckham played in just seven games before tearing his ACL. In those seven games, Beckham registered just 319 yards and three touchdowns while failing to show any type of chemistry with Mayfield.
While Beckham is likely past his prime, we know he is capable of much more than what he’s done so far in Cleveland. I’m not rushing to roster a past his prime wide receiver who will be 29 and plays for a run-first team. But Beckham can still add value to your fantasy team.
With the defense, weapons in the backfield, and a strong offensive line, Beckham projects as nothing more than a fringe WR2/3. It must be stated that he still displays the potential to outplay expectations because of how explosive he is, but don’t count on much more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
While Beckham has struggled to fit in with the Browns, Jarvis Landry playing style is symbolic of Cleveland. Landry is a touch, physical player who is consistently near the top of the league in contested catch rate.
Overall, Landry finished a bit below expectations last year as he notched just 840 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games. More was expected with Beckham missing time. Landry lives between the 800 – 1,200 yard mark playing with the kind of consistency we all want on our team. Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much upside beyond being a WR3/4.
2021 will likely yield the same results for Landry as he looks to finish between 800 and 900 yards with a handful of touchdowns.
THE OTHER WIDE RECEIVERS
There’s not much meat left on the bone of this wide receiver group after Beckham and Landry.
Rashard Higgins set a career-high 599 receiving yards last season with four touchdowns. He stepped into the number two role after Beckham went down. Last year was probably the biggest opportunity share we will see for Higgins. I would expect him to top out at 500 yards in 2021.
Donavan Peoples-Jones is unlikely to see enough work to become fantasy relevant and the rookie Anthony Schwartz has consistently been described as a track star who is trying to play football.
While Hooper secured the bag last year, he didn’t secure much in the stat column. In one of the more puzzling additions, the Browns grabbed Hooper in free agency with David Njoku on the roster and then drafted Harrison Bryant.
Hooper missed three games last season but posted just 435 yards and four touchdowns on 70 targets and 46 receptions. In 2021 I’m projecting Hooper for 500 yards and five touchdowns. With a 17 game season that leaves him as a mostly uninteresting TE2.
THE OTHER TIGHT ENDS
Harrison Bryant popped a little in his rookie year, finishing with 238 yards three touchdowns. Unfortunately, with Hooper and Njoku in the mix, I can’t see him surpassing that in 2021 unless something unexpected occurs.
The same goes for David Njoku, but don’t forget that he is a free agent after the 2021 season. If you have room on your bench, stash him and see what happens. Many young, athletic tight ends don’t break out until they find a new team.
The Browns offense revolves around the running game and for fantasy purposes, the most value lies in those running backs. Chubb and Hunt are a dynamic duo and Chubb is a must-start, with Hunt also being a start most weeks if you need him.
Mayfield and the receivers are good second options, capable of big weeks. But also capable of the type of weeks that can hurt your fantasy teams. Beckham, Landry, and Hooper are guys you will start, and hope they have a great week. It’s also historically tough to rely on these lovable Browns, but sometimes, in fantasy, you just have to roll with it!
Get the Dynasty Nerds app in the Apple store and the Google Play store. Mock drafts for Superflex, 1QB, and Standard. If you are a DynastyGM subscriber, it even syncs with your actual teams so that you can do rookie mock drafts with ALL of your actual picks. Also available on desktop.