Which Browns Quarterback Will Help the Offense More in Fantasy Football?

With two quarterbacks battling for the starting job in Cleveland, which one helps the team most from a fantasy perspective?

Listening to the “90’s Pop” station on Pandora Music is like walking through the hallowed halls of the One-Hit-Wonder Hall of Fame. No one is going to mistake the stylings of Semisonic for classical artistry, The Proclaimers for lyrical masterwork, or OMC for high-brow social critique. But they each have become timeless in their own way: “Closing Time”, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, and “How Bizarre” are burned into the collective consciousness of anyone born before 1995.

Another single-shot superstar, the rap artist Black Sheep -- who previously worked with bigger hits De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest -- put out a 1991 single called “The Choice is Yours”, whose hook goes, “You can get with this, or you can get with that/ I think you'll get with this, ‘cause this is where it's at.”

It’s catchy.

And it also describes two quarterbacks who have been NFL one-hit wonders themselves. The Cleveland Browns are going into training camp with former second overall selection Robert Griffin III and journeyman Josh McCown in contention for their starting job under center. The truth is that neither is a star who should have a team built around them anymore, and so we aren’t particularly interested in the fantasy prospects of these two by themselves. However, they have extremely different skill sets and can influence the fantasy value of the Browns’ skill position players in very different ways.

This, or that: which Browns quarterback is where it’s at for fantasy football?

I’ll Be There For You

The Cleveland Browns have watched bust after head case after over-the-hill veteran flame out under center for them over the past decade and a half. If McCown starts eight games in 2016, he would be just the fourth Browns’ passer to do so in back-to-back seasons since 2000, and stability is a good thing.

Yet, Robert Griffin III has infinitely more upside if he’s healthy and has developed as a passer.

Which quarterback should fantasy owners want to see under center?

Since they both haven’t played for the same team until now, we can’t make a perfect comparison of their production with the same receivers and running backs around them. What we can do -- thanks to the Rotoviz Game Splits App -- is compare the performances of the Browns’ fantasy options with and without McCown last year. This isn’t an exact approximation of Griffin’s influence on the offense, but we can see whether these players would be best suited by McCown, or someone new.

The comparisons below will show how each player did in targets and rush attempts per game, rushing yards per attempt and receiving yards per target rates, and touchdown rates.


First and foremost, let’s look at the number-one wide receiver in the offense. For the 2016 Browns, that will be Corey Coleman, and the closest 2015 comparison for Coleman’s diminutive size and blazing speed is Travis Benjamin. Was McCown a good support for the deep game?

Quarterback Targ/G Catch% Rec Yd./Targ Rec TD%
Josh McCown 9.25 55.41% 7.78 4.05%
Other 6.38 52.98% 7.65 3.92%

This dataset paints a very clear picture: under McCown, the speedy deep threat Benjamin got significantly more targets per game, in addition to a slightly better efficiency in all of the value metrics. Griffin, however, has a reputation for being money on deep throws. In fact, from 2012 to 2014, Griffin had a 45.6 percent completion rate on deep passes (15 yards or more) -- the sixth-best mark among quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 of these passes in that time (per Pro Football Reference). McCown completed just 39.1 percent of these passes last year. If made the starter, Griffin could potentially tap even further into the deep-ball connection between two former Baylor players.

The next-biggest target for each team is the tight end. Gary Barnidge returns in this role in 2016 for the Browns. The physical presence of a tight end can be a quarterback’s best friend, but which quarterback will be the best for this specific tight end?

Quarterback Targ/G Catch% Rec Yd./Targ Rec TD%
Josh McCown 8.62 66.67% 9.29 8.70%
Other 7.00 58.93% 7.18 5.36%

McCown afforded a ton more volume to this position as well, but the quality disparity was even more expansive here. Griffin preferred to avoid Jordan Reed in 2013 to 2014: when they played together, Griffin tossed the tight end just 5.56 targets per game.

Let’s change the pace: the quarterback also affects the run game, whether we think about it or not. We’ve explored how quarterbacks affect the run game in the past on this site. How will quarterback affect Isaiah Crowell -- the Browns’ early-down pounder -- and was Crowell better with McCown than others?

Quarterback Att./G Rush Yd./Att Rush TD%
Josh McCown 10.38 2.77 0.00%
Other 12.75 4.67 3.92%

This one isn’t even close in terms of effectiveness. The study linked above confirms our hunch here: if Griffin is back to his old rushing ways, Crowell should see a major uptick in efficiency, and a less stable short passing game will leave more opportunity for the running back to establish the short attack on the ground. In Washington, bell cow Alfred Morris had a 1.01 yards per carry and a percentage point of touchdown rate better with Griffin than without. Advantage, new guy.

Versatility isn’t important for just the quarterback; it’s a valuable skill for his supporting cast as well. That’s why Browns running back Duke Johnson is such a valuable asset as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Will McCown be able to unlock Johnson’s skillset in 2016, or could Griffin be a better fit?

Quarterback Att./G Rush Yd./Att Rush TD% Targ/G Rec Yd./Targ Rec TD%
Josh McCown 6.38 3.20 0.00% 5.50 8.05 2.27%
Other 6.62 4.08 0.00% 3.88 5.84 2.27%

By nature, McCown -- as a pocket passer -- will throw the ball more times on average than a quarterback who also has designed runs called for him. This means that an offense utilizing McCown will likely benefit Duke Johnson’s receiving numbers more due to volume. On the flip side of the same coin, the mobile quarterback’s effect on the efficiency of rushing shows itself here as well. It’s safe to say that this one is a toss-up depending on your format.

Steal My Sunshine

Due to the likely sheer volume of passing attempts, McCown is probably the quarterback that fantasy football players who own Cleveland pass-catchers will want to root for. It’s also clear that he consolidated targets more than average -- Benjamin and Barnidge each averaged about nine targets per game last year -- which is beneficial for knowing where the ball will go each week. Still, that means that fantasy options in the offense will be limited to likely the top receiver and the tight end; Brian Hartline averaged 2.75 more targets per game without McCown last year, which doesn’t bode well for Terrelle Pryor, rookie Jordan Payton, or Andrew Hawkins.

In addition, the effect of a running quarterback on running back production is documented and notable. If Griffin is fully back and healthy, the fantasy players who roster Crowell and Johnson won’t be too disappointed. If he is diminished as a runner -- and our projections certainly seem to suggest he is -- this effect could be blunted, or non-existent.

Griffin is riding back into the studios on a fantasy football comeback tour, but this time it’s in more of a producer role than as a pop sensation himself. He and the veteran McCown could both facilitate fantasy hits in their own way, but it appears that the steady hand of McCown on the mixing board might be a more stable future for the Browns' fantasy chances.