Now That Josh Gordon Is Suspended, Is the Cleveland Offense a Fantasy Football Wasteland?
The purpose of the content we provide here at numberFire is to provide you with an analytical advantage when it comes to understanding real football and dominating in fantasy football. That means you shouldn't (and don't) come here for hot takes on how long Josh Gordon's suspension should have been. You come here for the football implications.
And with news today that Gordon is done for the year after appealing his ban for substance abuse, it's time for our data to spring into action and give you the information you need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the Browns' offense. Your league mates and friends will spend the next few days moaning about how fair or unfair the suspension is, while you hit the waiver wire or head to the betting window.
So what can we take away from this suspension? How does this impact the Cleveland Browns? Here are some of the highlights.
The Browns Lost a Really Good Player
First and foremost, it’s important to note the ridiculousness of Gordon’s sophomore season.
The start of Josh Gordon’s career has been better than what we saw from Calvin Johnson. And he was performing at this high level with backup quarterbacks throwing him the rock.
Gordon ranked fourth within the Target Net Expected Points (NEP) category last year, which is a pretty impressive feat considering his quarterback situation and the fact that the metric looks at the number of points a player adds for his team on all targets. An interception or incomplete pass will knock a players’ Target NEP, something that Browns quarterbacks did quite often in 2013.
Among the top-25 wide receivers within this metric, only one other player – T.Y. Hilton – was on a passing team (adjusted for strength of schedule) that ranked in the bottom half efficiency-wise last year. But he ranked 15th, while Gordon, on a team that ranked 23rd in Adjusted Passing NEP, ranked fourth.
When it came to just the passes he caught, Gordon was second-best in the NFL according to our Reception NEP. That means in only 14 games, Gordon finished with more production than Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall.
Replacing Gordon will be nearly impossible for the Browns, which we discussed earlier this offseason on multiple occasions. Earl Bennett was, at one time, seemingly one of the best options to step up and fill in for Gordon, but he's been let go, leaving Miles Austin and potentially Nate Burleson to handle the duties as the outside receivers for Cleveland.
And as Brandon Gdula pointed out, Burleson was one of the worst receivers in the league last season. He's now moving to an offense with a less competent quarterback, which doesn't bode well for his chances to help compensate for the loss of a superstar at receiver.
How Do the Browns Cope?
One thing that's been true all along of the Cleveland Browns offense, with or without Josh Gordon, is that running the ball is going to be a bigger part of their offense in 2014. After finishing 2013 with the most passing plays in the NFL, new head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan want to run the football.
We've heard the same from local media in Cleveland. And even if you don’t believe reports like that, to expect a Browns squad that added two running back pieces over the offseason to be pass-heavy would be foolish. Let alone the fact that their quarterback situation isn't very trustworthy.
Pettine is a Rex Ryan disciple, and will want his squad to resemble the run-heavy, hard-nosed teams his old boss used to make deep playoff runs every year. And Shanahan has a history of favoring the run as well. His Redskins offenses were usually at or below league average for pass-to-run ratio, as were his Texans offenses prior to his time in Washington.
He's never led an offense with a pass-to-run ratio even close to the 2.11 the Browns had last year, and that figures to continue with his some pressure from his boss to run the ball and control time of possession.
So there will be fewer passes to go around in Cleveland, which is a good thing considering the lack of targets.
And of those looks, a majority will likely go to tight end Jordan Cameron, who is the only returning Browns pass-catcher with more than 18 targets (if we don't consider running back Chris Ogbonnaya, who will struggle to see the field this year, a "returning pass-catcher"). He was also the second-most productive receiver on the team, earning a third-place finish among NFL tight ends in Reception NEP.
Cameron is now a safer pick than ever, as he's the most legitimate target the Browns have on offense. Miles Austin's health and age-related decline in skills combined with Burleson's general inefficiency make the tight end a sure bet to lead the team in receptions and targets, assuming health. If he's not, the Browns offense is wasting their best weapon.
And while a lot of fantasy owners might be ready to jump on the Andrew Hawkins bandwagon with this news, you might not want to follow suit. Hawkins was fifth-worst out of 33 receivers with 40 to 60 catches in 2012 according to our per-target data, and his small sample size in 2013 doesn't reveal a huge step forward.
So in other words, the Browns will almost have to rely more on the running game, whether they wanted to or not, because they're criminally poor at wide receiver at the moment. None of their top options out wide are even average NFL players, so expect heavy doses of running plays and tight end throws this season from Cleveland.
Miles Austin is the best talent at receiver, and is worth your fantasy consideration. But his age and health will make starting him a headache. You'd be better off taking a flier on a backup for another team, and not investing in what could be the worst receiving corps in the league.
And you should stay far away from the quarterback situation here, and only consider Johnny Manziel once he's named the starter (and even then, don't expect all that much). Manziel will only be worth your time because of his legs, and his current cost is so high that you probably won't have him on many rosters unless he's released between now and his eventual ascension to starter.