Why You Should Invest in the Cleveland Browns' Offense for Fantasy Football
Any time you can invest in the league's 31st-ranked offense, you gotta do it, right? That's where the Cleveland Browns were in 2016. But there's fantasy value to be had.
Only the Los Angeles Rams scored fewer points than the Browns last year, meaning that there should be 30 other teams we'd be more anxious to sniff. And yet, for some reason, the Browns still seem as if they're going too far overlooked.
Behind an underrated quarterback, an overhauled offensive line, and a mountain of draft picks, the Browns could be poised to surprise in 2017. And if they do that, it'll make their current average draft positions look a bit foolish in retrospect. And even if they wind up busting, what do you have to lose?
Let's take a look at three reasons why the Browns are in a good spot for major improvements this upcoming season. Then, we'll apply that thinking to the individual components of the offense to assess how we should handle them as drafts inch closer.
Kessler's Rookie Campaign
Because it's just July, and the Browns seemingly have three quarterbacks vying for the starting job, it's hard to know who will take the first snap in Week 1. But it'll take a pretty snazzy performance to unseat Cody Kessler, who was admirable when healthy as a rookie.
We can illustrate Kessler's competency by turning to numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. NEP shows us the expected points each player adds to a team's total on a given play, meaning a five-yard completion on 3rd and 4 is worth much more than that same completion on 3rd and 6. Add up every play over the course of a season, and you can get a general gauge on how much a player contributed to the offense.
There were 39 quarterbacks who notched at least 100 drop backs in 2016. Among them, Kessler ranked 17th in Passing NEP per drop back, which shows the expected points added on each play while deducting for things such as interceptions, sacks, and incompletions. This may not sound great, but it put Kessler ahead of starters like Alex Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Philip Rivers, and Carson Wentz. For comparison, teammate Josh McCown was 31st, and Robert Griffin III was 35th. All things considered, Kessler was pretty good.
There were some extenuating circumstances that may have limited Kessler's metrics, as well. Kessler appeared in nine games last year, and he had at least five attempts in eight of them. Of those eight games, Corey Coleman was active just three times. That's a fairly significant asset to be lacking, and one of the games with Coleman occurred in 27 mile-per-hour winds.
Additionally, remember that the Passing NEP metrics include deductions for sacks, and not all of the responsibility for that falls on the quarterback. And the Browns took plenty of those, 17 more than any other team in the league.
Let's pretend for just a second that sacks don't exist. If we were to remove them from the equation, where would Kessler rank in Passing NEP? It'll probably increase your desire to invest.
Once we take sacks out of the equation for all quarterbacks, Kessler moves all the way up to seventh in Passing NEP per drop back, right between Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. That's some solid company for anybody, not to mention a guy in his maiden voyage.
Of course, we can't live in this fairy land where sacks don't exist. The Browns were outlierishly awful there last year, and expecting them to even be average is a tall ask. But they did take some steps toward righting that injustice this winter, bringing us to the second point.
Building Up Front
There are a couple of ways to combat a rampant sack issue. First, you can adorn your quarterback with Byzantine-era armor in hopes of cushioning the blow of large humans hurtling themselves into his body. There would seem to be some other ramifications behind this choice, but it's an option.
Second, you can invest in the offensive line, either via the draft or free agency. This is the route the Browns chose, and they did not take half measures.
They brought in guard Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter on multi-year deals that included over $41 million in guaranteed money. They also signed guard Joel Bitonio -- who missed the final 11 games of the 2016 season due to a foot injury -- to a long extension. Two new faces, a healthy Bitonio, and Joe Thomas. That's not a bad unit.
Not only is it not bad, but it has the potential to be one of the best. Pro Football Focus tabbed the Browns as the second-best offensive line in the league last month, citing the additions up front. That type of unit goes beyond helping to keep the quarterback safe; it's going to help anybody associated with the offense.
Kessler showed last year that a quarterback can be efficient in this system when they remain upright. The changes to the offensive line should ensure that happens more often. Even if Kessler doesn't wind up winning the starting job, that should give us hope that this unit can operate in a functional manner, generating more yardage and touchdown potential than they churned out last year.
Draft Picks Help
The Browns' offense was competent when under Kessler last year, and they improved it this offseason by addressing a major need. This should start to paint the picture behind why the Browns may exceed expectations. Their massive hauls in the draft will further that notion.
During the 2016 offseason, we took a look here on numberFire at the effect having extra picks in the draft had on a team over its next two seasons. Specifically, the cutoff was teams with 10 draft picks to see how much they bettered themselves in the future. It was significant, improving the offense's Adjusted NEP per play by 0.018 in Year 1 and 0.033 in Year 2. That may not sound like a lot, but when you're getting those boosts consistently, it can improve a team in a hurry.
With the Browns, this is now their third consecutive year with at least 10 draft picks. They made 12 picks in the 2015 draft, 14 in 2016, and 10 this year. Not only are they getting the Year 1 boost above from this year's class, but they're still benefiting from their hauls of previous seasons. With 12 of those picks in the past two years being on the offensive side, there's a whole lotta fresh faces waiting to push this team in the right direction.
These three factors -- Kessler's play, the offensive line, and all the draft picks -- would be enough to get us to at least not dismiss the Browns' offense in fantasy. It should only help matters that they're all stupidly cheap, and that further opens the buying window. But how exactly should we be handling the individual components? Let's go through that now.
The Fantasy Implications
We'll start here at the top with the quarterbacks and just work our way down. We still don't know who will start in Week 1, so how on Earth are these guys fantasy relevant?
The answer is that they're probably not. Not yet, at least. As the offseason progresses, we should gain a clearer picture into which guy will be the top dog in the pound. That person -- whether it's Kessler, DeShone Kizer, or Brock Osweiler -- will have a great offensive line and some respectable pass catchers at his disposal. Regardless of their individual talent levels, that situation is one we should covet for fantasy.
Right now, we're in a holding pattern until further clarity comes about. The preference would obviously be for Kessler because he has already shown he can be efficient in the offense, but even Kizer or Osweiler could be streaming options should they win the job. Just monitor this situation once the preseason rolls around and react accordingly.
With the running backs, we come to the one guy in the offense on whom the public is already a bit enthused. That's Isaiah Crowell, who is currently coming off the board as the 14th-ranked running back, a third-round pick in 12-team, PPR formats, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. That's not a small price. But Crowell's fully justifiable there.
The biggest reason not to draft Crowell this year would be concerns around his offense. As we've seen, those concerns may be a bit lesser than perception. But even if you're not convinced yet, check out the three running backs going right in front of him.
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When I think of dependable offenses, my mind immediately races to those led by Jared Goff, Blake Bortles, and either Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson. Crowell may have his warts, but so do the guys right in front of him, and they don't benefit from an offensive line as juicy as Crowell's. He could even be a bit undervalued at his current cost.
Then there's the top wide receivers, Coleman and Kenny Britt. They're pretty even in cost right now with Coleman a 10th-round pick and Britt going a round and a half later. Both are worth more than that, especially Britt.
Britt was in that aforementioned dumpster fire of a Rams offense last year, the only one that scored fewer points than the Browns. He still managed to finish 28th in PPR scoring at the position, despite missing a game. He is now the 52nd receiver off the board.
On top of that, Britt brings upside via his abilities down the field. He added the sixth-most expected points per target on throws at least 15 yards down field last year despite playing with quarterbacks who were firmly sub-Gucci. The deep ball is not a strength of Kessler's, but Britt can at least lend a hand in that department, and it makes Britt even more appealing for fantasy.
Finally, there's the rookie tight end, David Njoku, who is the 24th-ranked tight end in drafts at the moment. Considering the general lack of fantasy success for rookie tight ends, that's justifiable. Still, the catalyst for fantasy scoring for tight ends is touchdowns, and this Browns offense may generate them. It's not bad to keep him on your radar during the season should he see significant snap counts and a healthy market share.
Overall, it's hard to find a component in this offense that isn't worth its current cost. Outside of Crowell, they're all insanely cheap, and you can even make a case for upward movement in his stock. We know this offense has the potential to be much better in 2017, and we should react accordingly by investing while the pricing is still forgiving.