The future of the Cleveland Browns’ offense now lies in the hand of Deshaun Watson, but it did come with a price. They signed him to a five-year deal worth $230 million. Their future cost came in three first-round draft picks (2022, 2023, and 2024), one third-round selection (2023), and two choices in the fourth round (2020 and 2024). The next question for Cleveland will be the punishment by the NFL for Watson. The Browns continue to have strength at running back with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson. In the fantasy market, the biggest hurdle appears to be rating the value of Cleveland’s receiving corps – Amari Cooper, Donovan People-Jones, and David Bell after the change at quarterback.
Last year Cleveland underachieved passing the ball due to Baker Mayfield battling injuries and accuracy. In addition, Jarvis Landry struggled through the year with a lingering knee issue. The Browns ran the ball 47.5%, slightly down from 2020 (49.7). An upgrade at quarterback should lead to more passing chances and better success in winning games in the fourth quarter.
Over his last three seasons with the Texans, Watson went 25-22 with two winning years (11-5 and 10-5). His completion rate (68.7) and yards per pass attempt (8.3) were exceptional, but he ranked below the league average in pass attempts per game (32.9). Watson had his best fantasy season in 2020 (led the NFL in passing yards – 4,823) while delivering 36 combined touchdowns. He was active in the run game from 2018 to 2020 (99/551/5, 82/413/7, and 90/44/3). His most significant obstacle to success came via sacks (62, 44, and 49) over his last three seasons.
The Browns ranked poorly in passing attempts (539 – 19th, 501 – 28th, and 520 – 28th) and passing yards (3,847 – 22nd, 3,701 – 27th, and 3,619 – 27th) over the past three seasons.
The uncertainty of the number of games expected to play Watson depresses his early fantasy draft ranking (15th quarterback in the National Fantasy Football Championship). When at his best in 2020, he finished fifth in fantasy scoring (427.55) in four-point passing touchdown leagues. Watson makes the players around him better, and he excels in the deep passing game. The Browns' offensive line allowed 49 sacks last season while being much better in this area in 2020 (27).
Fantasy outlook: There is no doubt Watson makes this offense better. He has a history of relying on one elite wide receiver, which should excite the Amari Cooper naysayers. If Watson plays an entire season, I expect him to finish as a top-eight quarterback. However, his ceiling looks restricted by the run structure of the Browns’ offense and Cleveland’s questionable depth at wide receiver.
Health clearly affected the throwing ability of Mayfield in 2021. Despite his issues, he hasn’t been a winning quarterback (29-30) over his four seasons with Cleveland. His completion rate (61.6) came in well below his college career (68.5) while falling to be a difference-maker in touchdowns (92 over 60 games). Mayfield tossed three touchdowns or more in nine of his 59 starts – none over his previous 18 games). His value in the run game (158/571/5) has been minimal in his career.
Mayfield had surgery on his left shoulder in January to repair a torn labrum. He expected to be at full strength by the regular season.
Fantasy outlook: I can’t imagine a positive outcome if Mayfield is still on the Browns on opening day. He has lame-duck status while wanting to be traded. Mayfield would have a challenging time being fantasy relevant this year, even with a new home. At best, a game manager with a lot to prove.
Other options: Jacoby Brissett, Joshua Dobbs, Felix Harper
The Browns running backs gained an impressive 5.3 yards per carry last year despite their top two running backs missing 12 games. Their back scored 47 touchdowns over the past two years. In 2021, they finished with 2,933 combined yards with 23 touchdowns and 82 catches (30.19 FPPG). Deshaun Watson will steal a higher percentage of the rushing opportunity this season, but he will also help this offense extend drives with improved scoring chances.
Chubb has been phenomenal over four seasons with the Browns based on his yards per rush (5.2, 5.0, 5.6, and 5.5). He looked like a workhorse back in 2019 (334 touches), leading to 1,772 combined yards with eight touchdowns and 36 catches. Chubb missed seven games over the past two seasons while also losing touches to a second rotational back. He averaged 17.7 touches in 2021 (17.2 in 2020) while ranking him 13th in running back scoring (216.30) in PPR formats. Surprisingly, Chubb was a better player on the road (810 combined yards with six touchdowns and 11 catches over seven games). He gained over 100 yards rushing in five matchups (once at home).
Fantasy outlook: There is a lot to like about Chubb, but he is easy to misprice in the fantasy market due to his rotational opportunity. The Brown will use another back a minimum of one-third of the time in 2022, and Deshaun Watson will be much more active running the ball than Baker Mayfield. As a result, I will set his bar at 275 combined touches for 1,500 yards with 10 scores and 25 catches or about 240 fantasy points in PPR leagues. In the early draft season in the NFFC, Chubb has an ADP of 21 as the 12th running back drafted.
In his first full season with the Browns in 2020, Hunt finished as the 10th highest scoring running back (218.50) in PPR leagues, just ahead of Nick Chubb (208.70 fantasy points). Over his eight games last year, he gained 560 combined yards with five touchdowns and 22 catches, putting on a pace for 1,190 yards with 11 touchdowns and 47 catches over 17 games (232.00 fantasy points). The Browns have Hunt 14.8 touches per game over their first six matchups. He missed nine games with calf and ankle issues.
Fantasy outlook: Hunt will start the year at age 27 with relatively low mileage on his legs over the past four seasons. Over his last 24 games, he gained 1,705 yards with 16 scores and 60 catches, making him a viable cheat RB2 in PPR formats (13.60 FPPG). However, his ADP (92) in the high-stakes market in mid-May is lower than his previous two years due to the cloudiness of his health and some belief that D’Ernest Johnson will get in his way this season. I like what Hunt brings to the table, and he does offer RB1 upside if Nick Chubb has an injury. However, I’m lowering his expected output to 900 combined yards with seven scores and about 35 catches, making him a borderline backend RB2.
When given the starting snaps last season, Johnson was up to the task, leading to three strong games (168 combined yards with one score and two catches, 157 combined yards with seven catches, and 133 combined yards with one touchdown and one catch). Over his other 14 games, the Browns only gave him 47 touches with 213 yards, one touchdown, and nine catches. Johnson gained 5.3 yards per carry over his three seasons with Cleveland (49 rushes).
Fantasy outlook: Johnson is a player to keep an eye on again this year, as any injury to a Browns’ running back will create a potential starting fantasy opportunity. His ADP (206) in the NFFC makes him only a low-volume handcuff for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Other options: Demetric Felton, Jerome Ford, John Kelly
The wide receiver opportunity in Cleveland last year was insanely low. They ranked last in catches (145), 31st in receiving yards (1,900), and 31st in touchdowns (6). The Browns’ wideout finished with 44.1% of their completions with a poor catch rate (56.0).
Cooper proved to be nothing more than a tease in 2021 after an explosive Week 1 (13/139/2). Over the next 13 weeks, he had three catches or fewer in eight games while also sitting out two contests with a Covid-19 issue. Dallas gave him six targets or fewer in eight matchups. His second-best game (8/122/1) came in Week 8 while offering reasonable fantasy value over his final four starts (7/85/1, 3/18/1, 5/79, and 6/64/1). Cooper didn’t look healthy at times last year.
Over his previous two seasons with the Cowboys, he ranked 10th (79/1,189/8) and 15th (92/1,114/5) in fantasy scoring in PPR leagues. Cooper has never been at his best late in the year when fantasy championships are on the line. Overall, he has been a disappointment in half of his eight years in the NFL.
Fantasy outlook: Cooper is one of the most intriguing wideouts in 2022 if Deshaun Watson doesn’t miss any time. He should have the most targets in his career, and Watson will get him the ball in tight coverage downfield. Cooper runs excellent routes, but he seems at his best when given easy releases on crossing patterns. Cooper ranks 21st in the early draft season in the NFFC with an ADP of 55. My guts say he set career highs in catches, receiving yards, touchdowns, and targets. Keep an open mind here – 100/1,300/10, especially if he falls to the fifth round in drafts.
In his second season with the Browns, Peoples-Jones made nine starts. He finished with 34 catches for 597 yards and three scores while gaining 17.6 yards per catch. People-Jones gained 20 yards or more on 12 catches (35.3%), with three of those plays reaching the 40-yard mark. Most of his big-play damage came in three games (5/70, 4/101/2, and 2/86/1). His three missed games came from a groin issue.
Over three seasons at Michigan, Peoples-Jones caught 103 passes for 1,327 yards and 14 TDs on 181 targets. His best season (47/612/8) came in 2018 as a sophomore. He didn’t have a game with over 90 yards receiving in his college career. Peoples-Jones will make some plays and score touchdowns, but his opportunity will be minimal early in his career.
Fantasy outlook: The structure of the Browns’ wide receivers points to Peoples-Jones being more of a home run threat again this year. Incoming rookie David Bell projects better to work the short areas of the field. His next step looks to be 50 catches for 750 yards with a handful of scores.
Over three seasons at Purdue, Bell caught 232 of his 343 targets (67.6) for 2,946 yards and 22 touchdowns. He averaged eight catches for 102 yards and 0.76 touchdowns per game. His calling card should be his route running, but Bell offers below-par speed and short-area quickness. Bell gains momentum off his release and his breaks with an excellent feel to get defenders on their heels. His next step is winning vs. tighter coverage in the NFL.
Fantasy outlook: Bell should do most of his damage from the slot while grading higher on crossing patterns and busting zones. If his summer reports are positive, there is enough in his game to respect him as a late-round flier (ADP of 203). Bell has a chance to catch 60 balls for 700 yards with four to six scores. I respect his ceiling more with an entire season of games by Deshaun Watson.
Other options: Anthony Schwartz, Jakeem Grant, Ja’Marcus Bradley, Mike Woods
Cleveland used their tight ends well in 2021, leading to 31% of their team's completions. They ranked 5th in catches (102), 4th in receiving yards (4th), 3rd in touchdowns (10), and sixth in targets (148). The Browns should throw the ball more to their wideouts this year, plus they lost Austin Hooper in the offseason.
In 2018, Njoku appeared to be on the rise after success in his sophomore season (56/639/4 on targets). However, an injury the following season led to only five catches for 41 yards and a score on 10 targets. Cleveland used him as their TE2 over the next two years (19/213/2 and 36/475/4). Njoku has a first-round pedigree (2017). Last season, his only impact game (7/149/1) came in Week 5 while finishing three catches or fewer in 14 matchups.
Fantasy outlook: The Browns expect Njoku to be their TE1 this year while also hoping to sign him to a contract extension. Over his career, he caught 29 passes for 20 yards or more (19.6% of his 148 catches). Based on his potential and improved opportunity, his next step should be 60 catches for 700 yards and five to seven touchdowns. Njoku projects an upside TE2 in the high-stakes market based on his early ADP (163) in the NFFC.
Bryant has experience at offensive tackle, which is a big win for his feel for blocking. His team ran a spread offense in college, leading to him getting a free release outside the hash marks on many plays. He showed a feel for soft zones and the ability to beat his man downfield, especially with no help over the top.
Over the past three seasons at Florida Atlantic, his game improved each year (32/408/5, 45/662/4, and 65/1004/7). In 2019, Bryant had one impact showing (10/182/1) while ending the year with six touchdowns in four games.
Overall, his speed (4.73) is about the NFL TE average while needing to get stronger (13 reps in the bench press at the NFL combine). Bryant runs good routes with an excellent feel for the game. I expect him to do his pregame prep while striving to become a better player. He understands play development allowing him to get open on delays or set passing plays designed for him. Bryant can win jump balls, and he will bounce off defenders at times in the open field, helping his value after the catch.
His stats (21/233/3) regressed in his second year with the Browns while working as their TE3. Cleveland had him on the field for 36.3% of their plays last season.
Fantasy outlook: Bryant is a developing player with sneaky upside and scoring ability. This summer, I would pay close attention to his news and progress as the Browns may feature more two tight end sets in 2022.
Other options: Miller Forristall, Nick Guggemos, Marcus Santos-Silva
Last year the Browns scored 43 touchdowns while creating only 22 field goal attempts. York made 54 of his 66 field goals (81.8%) in his college career at LSU. He was part of their championship team in 2019 with Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson. In addition, York is 164-for-168 extra points. His leg projects well from long range. Cleveland drafted in the fourth round this season.
Fantasy outlook: Cleveland should score well in the red zone, pointing to below-par field goal attempts. York should offer matchup value in the fantasy market this year with a chance to be a buy-and-hold.
Cleveland brought in Kevin Stefanski to take over as the head coach in 2020. He seized the most of his opportunity by going 11-5, giving Browns fans their first playoff experience since 2002. Unfortunately, poor quarterback play and an injury to Baker Mayfield led to an 8-9 season. Over the previous 14 seasons, Stefanski worked in the Vikings’ system with various coaching jobs. In 2019, he ran Minnesota’s offense for the first time, leading to his promotion to the Browns.
The Browns fell to 20th in points scored (349), 59 points lower than 2020. In addition, they finished 18th in yards gained. Since 1988, Cleveland has ranked in the top 10 in scoring only once (2007 – 8th).
Alex Van Pelt returns for his third year as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator after spending the previous six seasons as the quarterbacks’ coach for the Packers and the Bengals. He’s been a coach in the NFL since 2006. Van Pelt now has three years of experience as an offensive coordinator.
Cleveland jumped to 5th in yards allowed. They gave up 371 points (13th), an improvement of 58 points from 2020 (419).
Joe Woods gets his third chance as the Browns’ defensive coordinator. In 2019, he held the defensive back coach and passing game coordinator jobs for the 49ers after running the Broncos’ defense in 2017 and 2018. Woods worked in the Vikings’ system from 2006 to 2013.
The Browns had minimal additions and losses this offseason in free agency. They decided to move on from DE Jadeveon Clowney (FA) and DE Takkarist McKinley (FA), leading to a trade with New England for LB Chase Winovich. Cleveland added Jacoby Brissett for quarterback depth and C Ethan Pocic to compete for backup snaps on their offensive line. WR Rashard Higgins signed with the Panthers.
Cleveland added nine players to their team despite not having a first or a second-round pick in this year's draft. Three of their first four picks came on the defensive side of the ball – CB Martin Emerson (3.4), DE Alex Wright (3.14), and DT Perrion Winfrey (4.3). WR David Bell (3.35), RB Jerome Ford (5.13), and WR Mike Woods (6.24) were the top skill players added to their offense. In addition, the Browns upgraded their kicker position (Cade York – 4.19) plus investing in DE Isaiah Thomas (7.22) and C Dawson Deaton (7.25).
The Browns dropped one notch to 4th in rushing yards (2,471) while scoring 20 rushing touchdowns and averaging 28.5 rushes per game. Their ball carriers gained 5.1 yards per rush with 18 rushes of 20 yards or more.
The offensive line allowed 49 sacks (6th most total in the league). The Browns finished 27th in pass yards (3,619) with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
T Jerdick Wills missed four games with some regression in his pass blocking. Cleveland drafted him 10th overall in 2020, inviting a much higher ceiling. Their other tackle (Jack Conklin) projects as an edge, but he missed 10 games last season. Both Browns guards ranked highly in run blocking while starting 17 games.
This offensive line should be much better this year, especially in sacks allowed. With a top rushing attack, Deshaun Watson should create a winning combination for Cleveland's deep passing game.
Cleveland slipped to 12th in the league in rushing yards allowed (1,857) while allowing 13 touchdowns and nine runs over 20 yards. Ball carriers gained 4.2 yards per carry while averaging 25.7 rushes.
The Browns’ defense rose to 5th against the pass (3,439 yards), but they allowed 29 touchdowns while securing 13 interceptions and 43 sacks. Quarterbacks gained only 6.4 yards per pass attempt with only five completions of 40 yards or more (third-lowest).
DE Myles Garrett remains their impact defender. He finished last year with a career-high in tackles (51) and sacks (16) with league average success vs. the run. However, the rest of the defensive line has questions up the middle defending running backs with questionable value in sacks. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah projects as Cleveland's best player at the second level of their defense. His next area of growth is improving his pass rush. The secondary has talent and upside across the board, but they need their defense to produce a short passing window.
Cleveland’s defense ranks 19th in the early draft season, but they should offer multiple games with matchup fantasy value.
2022 Fantasy Outlooks:
- AFC East
- AFC North
- AFC South
- Texans | Colts | Jaguars | Titans
- AFC West
- Broncos | Chiefs | Raiders | Chargers
- NFC East
- Cowboys | Giants | Eagles | Commanders
- NFC North
- Bears | Lions | Packers | Vikings
- NFC South
- Falcons | Panthers | Saints | Buccaneers
- NFC West
- Cardinals | Rams | 49ers | Seahawks