Nick Chubb Is the Only Fair Fantasy Football Value on the Browns This Year
No team caused more fantasy heartbreak in 2019 than the Cleveland Browns.
According to Fantasy Mojo's archive of 2019 Bestball10 ADP, Baker Mayfield was going as the QB4, Odell Beckham was the sixth wide receiver off the board, Nick Chubb was the eighth running back, David Njoku was TE9, and Jarvis Landry was WR28. In other words, we expected this to be an elite offense, and obviously that failed to occur.
Instead, Mayfield was largely irrelevant in single quarterback leagues, Beckham finished the year as just the 25th-best receiver, and Njoku was injured only to drop off the face of the Earth when he eventually returned. While Landry finished as the 12th-best wide receiver, it was largely due to compiling, and it's a good bet that no fantasy manager truly thought of him as a WR1.
Chubb alone brought joy to those who drafted him, and even he had Kareem Hunt problems in the second half of the year.
Still, the term post-hype sleeper exists for a reason, begging the question: Can the Browns' offense as a whole be considered a post-hype sleeper? Well, there's reason for optimism, but not necessarily in a way that will make fantasy players happy.
What Went Wrong?
While the fantasy community was expecting a second-year breakout for Mayfield, what it got was a sophomore slump. Mayfield fell from a promising Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back of 0.11 in 2018 to just 0.01 -- a figure well below the league average of 0.10.
Mayfield doesn't solely shoulder the blame, however. Beckham had the worst season of his career despite what was supposed to be a quarterback upgrade, the Browns rotated in different tight ends and third receivers, and the offensive line provided one of the league's worst protection rates (according to Player Profiler). Oh, and for some reason Freddie Kitchens ran a draw play on fourth and nine.
The good news is at least some of those problems have sorted themselves out.
Kitchens saw his coaching tenure cut short after just a year. He was replaced by former Minnesota Vikings play-caller, Kevin Stefanski, a coach with flaws but one who at least improved Kirk Cousins' efficiency in his lone season with the Vikings. Cousins improved from 44.85 Passing NEP to 111.82. That's despite 219 fewer drop backs.
However, the rub lies in those 219 fewer drop backs. Stefanski opted for the less efficient path, relying on the run game more often than all but three play-callers, rushing on 48% of plays according to Team Rankings.
The saving grace is that Stefanski designed an effective passing game when he did go to the air. This was in no small part due to play-action attempts making up 29% of Cousins' attempts, one of the highest figures in the league.
Stefanski could run just as much (or even more) play-action without running as much, as there is no evidence that rushing success correlates to play-action success. Still, it's better than a run-heavy attack without play-action. It's possible Stefanski was appeasing Mike Zimmer's old school mentality, but the likelier answer is that Stefanski believes in running the ball.
One change Stefanski will certainly bring is in personnel packages. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Browns ran a majority (57%) of their plays from 1-1 personnel (3 wide receivers, 1 running back, 1 tight end.) That figure is right in line with the league average 60% figure.
The team that deviated from this the most? Stefanski's Vikings, running just 25% of their plays in 1-1 personnel. The lack of a consistent third receiver should be a problem of the past for Cleveland if for no other reason than they won't be on the field. Look for Njoku and newly acquired Andy Janovich to take many of these snaps, as the Vikings ran 55% of plays in either 1-2 (2 tight ends, 1 running back, 2 wide receivers) or 2-1 personnel (1 running back, 1 fullback, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers).
Beyond that, the Browns added a pair of offensive tackles in Jack Conklin via free agency and Jedrick Wills via the 10th overall selection in the draft. Paired with Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter on the interior, this offensive line should now be competent if not outright good.
Perhaps most interesting to watch will be Beckham, who will play a similar role to what Stefon Diggs did a year ago. Under Stefanski, Diggs bounced from just 0.50 Reception NEP per target to 1.05 -- the league's third-best mark among receivers with at least 50 targets. His average depth of target jumped from 9.3 to 15.0, too.
It's an unrealistic expectation for Beckham to necessarily see that level of improved efficiency, but after posting a career-low 0.61 Reception NEP per target in 2019, it's something that bodes well that he might return to his usual productive self.
Unfortunately, Diggs was largely a fantasy disappointment in spite of his efficiency.
Because of Stefanski's run-heavy nature, the necessary volume simply eluded Diggs, and he just wasn't the fantasy option many hoped. Beckham being a victim of lacking volume seems either a possibility or a probability, depending on your personal inclination towards optimism.
Caveats like these are a recurring theme with the 2020 Browns. Landry appears capable of an Adam Thielen impression, but if Beckham returns to form, Landry's value will decline. Hooper is changing teams and will struggle to repeat either his target share or overall volume. Mayfield may play better actual football, but his lack of rushing leaves him unable to use the coveted Konami Code.
Chubb seemingly faces the fewest questions among fantasy assets on the roster, but so long as Hunt remains, his upside is capped. Hunt is interesting in his own right, as he may provide standalone value and offer enormous upside should Chubb miss time.
Best Laid Plans
Of course, this is assuming Stefanski ports his system over from Minnesota intact. Projecting coaches is drastically different from projecting players, and we are completely subject to Stefanski's whims here.
Maybe things would be different if any of these player were going at significant discounts, but according to Bestball10's May ADP, none of these players are coming at a value.
Beckham is going as the WR9, and while he offers ceiling, that upside requires many more lucky breaks than D.J. Moore (WR10) for example. Hooper is going as TE9, but you're better off looking for a tight end who isn't changing teams in a likely low-volume offense. Meanwhile, guys like Ryan Tannehill, Gardner Minshew, and Joe Burrow are going later than Mayfield with higher rushing ceilings.
Landry isn't the worst value at WR30, but he's somewhat of a roster clog, and you may be better served chasing upside there. Even stating that Hunt offers some potential value, it's lessened by his RB31 price tag.
That leaves Chubb as the lone reasonable value. He's going 10th overall and 8th among running backs, but that's the going rate for premium running backs. numberFire's projections back this up, ranking him as this year's RB7.
Outside of Chubb, our projections actually disagree with me and mostly back up those ADPs, but they also tend to take the optimistic approach to Cleveland passing volume, giving Mayfield 558 passing attempts. Should Stefanski keep his approach from last year, those projections will go down.
Those predisposed towards drafting Browns can take some solace in what our projections say, but a drastic decrease in passing volume will remain a specter for this offense and can't be outright dismissed. Ultimately, the recommendation here is to avoid Cleveland players unless they're Chubb or can be had at value.