The Browns turned to new leadership last year to get the most out of a well-built roster. Stefanski brought over an offensive identity built on a strong running game, a perfect fit for this roster. The offense is predicated on a strong running game headlined by Nick Chubb. This surrounds Baker Mayfield with a strong supporting structure featuring play action.
The defensive side took a bit more adjustment. Joe Woods came over from coaching defensive backs on San Francisco’s elite 2019 defense. The front office did a good job bringing the pieces together. Myles Garrett is an elite pass rusher and anchor of the defensive line. The secondary had Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, and Grant Delpit as early picks in recent drafts. They brought in more reinforcements with Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in this draft. They now have a deep, talented roster that won’t be limited by the same health issues that plagued 2020.
2021 SCHEME NOTES
There is some debate around the defense Joe Woods will run next year. In 2020, his defense looked extremely similar to the 49ers unit he had just left. They ran a standard four-man front with a heavy proportion of 3LB usage (25%). This was accompanied by a traditional base nickel defense with two high safeties. In previous seasons as Denver’s defensive coordinator, he explored a lot more usage of single LB packages with dime defense. He has said he’d like to transition to this style as a base defense, which would put Cleveland alongside only a couple of other teams to predominantly run single LB looks.
The actual scheme Woods runs will have massive implications for IDP relevancy. More investment in both the linebacker and safety positions further reinforces the ambiguity. These personnel moves don’t telegraph the direction Woods will take this year. I’d like to take Woods at his word, but a drastic philosophy shift takes longer to install successfully. This will be the top storyline to watch during the preseason.
Garrett is a superstar. He’s had three straight years of double-digit sacks, despite missing eight games over the past two years. Last year he tested positive for COVID in November and reportedly struggled through playing at the end of the year. He still managed 2.5 sacks over those final five games, though that was far from his dominant pace to start the year.
Garrett has now had months to recover from his COVID limitations. He’s just entering his prime at 25 years old, and one of a few elite pass rushers that aren’t subject to the typical rotations on the line. More snaps leads to more opportunities for IDP production. By putting together a high snap count and leading the league in pass rush win rate, Garrett could easily lead the league in sacks.
His track record of production paired with his elite talent makes him debatably the top dynasty DL. With positional scarcity factored in, there is an argument he could be the top overall dynasty IDP asset.
Clowney has built a reputation as a player that can make huge plays but takes others off. As a previous number one overall pick, he hasn’t lived up to expectations of becoming a consistently dominant force. Clowney is still an asset to a team, and he is known as a good run defender.
Clowney carries around a stigma associated with the lack of pass rush production. He is associated with odd stats like never reaching double-digit sacks in a season or having zero sacks last year. But before leaving Houston and bouncing around the league, Clowney finished with 18.5 sacks in 30 games. This came playing alongside J.J. Watt in his prime in 2017 and 2018. Now he’s going to line up opposite prime Garrett, who was second in the NFL in sacks created. Clowney was still good at earning pressures, which correlates well to sack production, suggesting that 2020 was an anomaly. Going to Cleveland could result in a major bounce back and perhaps his first double-digit sack season.
JOK is a unique player, and his role at Notre Dame doesn’t fit traditional positional descriptions. He was a hybrid-style player similar to Jeremy Chinn and Isaiah Simmons, a true Joker for the defense. The impact he had all over the field is reflected by stuffed stats in every category. This highlights his value to a defense. JOK can sack the quarterback, or get in the backfield to disrupt outside runs. He has the athleticism to be a defensive counter to offenses attempting to create mismatches. He can stick with speedy running backs out of the backfield, athletic tight ends, and shifty slot receivers. And he has good instincts sideline to sideline to sort through traffic and meet the ball carrier against the run.
JOK’s strengths also lead to his largest question marks. While Cleveland brass insists he’s a linebacker, the reality is more nuanced. At 215, he is undersized at the position. He is best used in a versatile role, where he lines up at safety and in the slot. But how does that fit in with their personnel packages? He may be employed as a specialist instead of an every-down player. Joe Woods wants to run a position-less defense, and JOK is the perfect piece to help implement that vision.
Walker signing with the Browns has gone under the radar in fantasy circles. It’s easy to get excited about the projected upside of young prospects, but it’s often veterans that earn more snaps. As an example, last year this job was filled by B.J. Goodson instead of their recent draft picks. Anthony Walker is better than Goodson and is coming into a situation with no established roles.
Walker managed just 91 tackles last year alongside Darius Leonard, but he eclipsed 100 each of the prior two years. He peaked at 123 in 2019, and also contributed a few splash plays over his time in Indianapolis. Walker may not be versatile enough to play every snap, as there are other LBs on this roster that can contribute in specialized ways. But, Walker is most likely to lead the position in snaps, and thus also tackles. We know who Walker is as a player at this point, limiting his upside to an LB3. Walker can give a solid baseline floor of production, but I often find more value in other players around his ADP.
Phillips was taken on day 2 with the 97th pick in last year’s draft. Phillips was a highly recruited prospect and first made an impact as a sophomore for LSU. As a junior, he led the team in tackles on their national championship run, before declaring for the 2020 draft along with many of his teammates.
Phillips brings athleticism to the position. A COVID abbreviated adjustment period led to slow acclimatization as a rookie. Injuries also prevented steady progress. He struggled to pass Goodson on the depth chart last year and now has to jump a better player in Walker. Still, he worked his way onto the field as a part-time player by the end of the year. Phillips took advantage of his biggest opportunity in week 17 when Goodson was out. He played 100% of snaps and racked up 10 tackles, giving a glimpse into the upside if he is able to win the job as a full-time player.
Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson came to Cleveland together in 2019 as third and fifth-round picks respectively. Despite the later draft capital, Wilson was the one who made a greater impact in year one. He was the first to fill in for the oft-injured Christian Kirksey, and patrolled alongside Joe Shobert for 922 snaps, racking up 81 tackles. Takitaki only managed 105 snaps and 21 stops. Schobert departed following that season, leaving the lead role up for grabs. Neither player seized the opportunity and journeyman Goodson earned most of the snaps. Takitaki edged out Wilson last year in production, but both were part-time role players. Again, Cleveland is going into the season with no established starter. Time is running out for Takitaki and Wilson, as the Browns have continued to bring in new options to play over them. This is likely their last opportunity.
John Johnson III
John Johnson III was a beast in LA, coming on strong late in his rookie year before bursting into the top echelon of DBs in 2018. He 118 tackles that year while adding four INTs and finished as a top-5 DB. Despite starting 2019 with strong numbers, his quality of play started to suffer until a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season six weeks in. He was productive for a full season last year, with 105 tackles, but his spot as a top dynasty DB was murky as he headed into Free Agency.
Cleveland signed him to a huge 3 year, $33 million contract with an out after next year. The front office likely signed Johnson to give Woods the flexibility to bring three safeties onto the field more often. Johnson is a versatile defender who can play well in the box but also excels in a deep coverage role. With so many talented and versatile pieces on this defense, it is hard to project a full set of snaps for any player. The money handed out to Johnson as well as his play style gives Johnson the best chance at reaching a full-time role.
Similar to Jacob Phillips, Delpit was a standout player for LSU’s championship team who decided to declare early for the NFL draft. He made impact plays on the field, and many expected him to get to the first round. But well-noted tackling issues led him to fall into the second all the way to Cleveland at pick 44. An Achilles injury during training camp prevented Delpit from seeing the NFL field. This leaves some uncertainty with his role in this defense and how well his talents could translate to game day. Unfortunately, an Achilles rupture is a difficult injury for athletes that rely on explosion and suddenness. There are now additional questions around if Delpit is the same explosive player we saw at LSU. There is significant upside, but a lot of risks should keep you from overpaying for the name.
Harrison was only a full-time player for a few games last year. He came over from Jacksonville in a late preseason trade. After taking a few weeks to pick up the scheme, he played full-time from weeks 7-10. In those three games, he put up 58 fantasy points. The team was better when Harrison was on the field, averaging under 20 points allowed when he played full time, as opposed to over 28 points in games where he didn’t. PFF graded him ninth at the position, albeit on limited snaps. Unfortunately, injuries prevented him from maintaining his mid-season momentum, but he could be a surprise 2021 breakout.
The uncertainty around the philosophy for Joe Woods going into this year makes forecasting this defense difficult. Cleveland is one of the defenses to closely follow this preseason in order to understand how the roles are playing out. I expect this defense to evolve as the year goes on as well.
Woods has discussed using JOK as a versatile weapon for any situation but also cautioned that he doesn’t want to overwhelm him. Delpit may have to slowly work his way into playing time as he makes his way back from his Achilles injury. The young pieces of this defense may come along slowly but could provide a major lift towards the end of the season. Keep tabs on the local beat all season long and you might be able to pick up a dynasty gem before they break out.