Cleveland Browns Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: Isaiah Crowell Is Most Valuable
To borrow a phrase from the band Funkadelic, the Cleveland Browns’ offense is standing on the verge of getting it on.
The Cleveland offense won’t fully have it on, however, until the team finds its first truly reliable starting quarterback since Bernie Kosar. Until then, the Browns are like Funkadelic without the funkmaster himself, George Clinton—there are some fine musicians in the ensemble, but the bandleader is missing. Many of the requisite performers are on hand for the Browns, including the members of one of the best offensive lines in the league. Unfortunately, the absence of a viable quarterback could prevent Cleveland’s skill players from reaching their ceilings.
|Isaiah Crowell||RB14||RB13||Approach cautiously|
|Duke Johnson||RB53||RB38||Grab him|
Isaiah Crowell is far and away the Browns’ most coveted fantasy asset after a season in which he produced 1,271 yards from scrimmage, scored seven touchdowns, averaged 4.8 yards per carry and became a useful asset in the passing game, with 40 catches for 319 yards. The rugged Crowell averaged 3.18 yards after contact last year, according to Pro Football Focus, the third-best mark among qualifying running backs.
There have been character concerns about Crowell in the past, but things have been quiet on that front for a year. He went undrafted in 2014 despite an illustrious prep career and SEC Freshman of the Year honors at the University of Georgia, thanks to a weapons arrest that got him dismissed from Georgia and a reputation for being hard to coach. Last summer, amidst a national outcry over the police killings of two young black men, Crowell used his Twitter account to post an image of a police officer getting his throat slit by a masked assailant. He quickly deleted the post, but the image had been captured and the damage done.
Crowell finished RB14 in fantasy scoring last year, and appropriately, his Fantasy Football Calculator ADP is RB14. Crowell’s talent and the caliber of his offensive line are appealing. The concerns are twofold: (1) With the Browns destined to get substandard play at quarterback, Crowell is likely to face more than his fair share of heavy defensive fronts; and (2) with the Browns short-stacked at QB and on defense, Crowell is probably going to be victimized by a lot of negative game scripts, with the Browns trailing and thus unable to fully commit to their running game. Crowell’s ADP is fair relative to his position, but he’s typically being drafted early in the third round, at a point where the pass-catching options are more attractive than the RB options. I’ll probably be drafting around Crowell this year rather than chasing him.
The prospect of negative game scripts is less daunting for Cleveland’s primary passing-down back, Duke Johnson, who’s looking like a nice value. Johnson has had more than 50 receptions and 500 receiving yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. He has a two-year catch rate of 78.1% and has averaged 9.2 yards per catch. Johnson has scored only three touchdowns in 32 games with the Browns, but during his college career at the University of Miami (Fla.) he scored 30 times in 33 games. There’s some sneaky TD upside here, and while Johnson hasn’t been a big factor in the Cleveland running game yet, there may be growth potential in that area, too, considering that Johnson was a prolific college runner who ran for 1,652 yards in his final season with the Hurricanes. I love Johnson at his ADP of RB53 and have been landing him repeatedly in early drafts.
|Cody Kessler||N/A||QB27||Stream only|
Cody Kessler is favored to be the Browns’ Week 1 starter at quarterback. He was surprisingly competent in nine rookie-year appearances, completing 65.6% of his throws, averaging 7.08 yards per attempt and throwing six touchdown passes against only two interceptions. But Kessler was pummeled, leaving a Week 5 game against Pittsburgh with a chest injury and eventually being shut down for the year after sustaining two concussions. Kessler isn’t draftable in average-sized leagues but could be a viable matchup play against lesser defenses.
The Browns will probably want to get a look at rookie DeShone Kizer at some point in what figures to be a losing year. Kizer is a big (6-4, 233), mobile, strong-armed rookie whom the Browns selected 52nd overall in this year’s draft even though he was back-stabbed with a less-than-ringing endorsement from his college coach, Brian Kelly, whose continued employment at Notre Dame is a miracle of inertia. It probably won’t be pretty when Kizer throws against NFL defenses for the first time, and even though he might be able to produce fantasy points with his legs, he doesn’t offer much rookie-year fantasy hope.
Ex-Texan Brock Osweiler is also on hand, at least until the roster cutdown. Flush with cap space, the Browns were willing to absorb Osweiler’s $16 million 2017 salary in exchange for draft considerations. Osweiler is a long shot to make the roster, let alone contend for a starter’s job. The third-QB job is more likely to go to Kevin Hogan, a fifth-round draft pick last year whose 104-yard rushing day against the Bengals in October was one of the more unusual statistical anomalies of the 2017 season.
|Kenny Britt||WR50||WR39||Enjoy the value|
You’d think that upon reaching free agency Kenny Britt would have wanted to join a team with a proven quarterback, having just spent three years with the Rams. But Britt took $17 million in guaranteed money from the Browns and signed a four-year, $32.5 million deal. Waylaid by injuries early in his career, Britt enjoyed a renaissance with the Rams, culminating in the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2016. If Britt can stay healthy, he’ll be the best bet to lead Cleveland’s pass catchers in targets, and Britt’s average of 16.0 yards per catch over the last three seasons suggests that a lot of those targets will be high-value ones.
Britt is an eight-year veteran, yet he’s only 28 years old. Although he finished WR26 last year, early drafters have remained tepid on him, keeping his ADP at WR53. I think he’s a strong buy at that rummage-sale price.
Corey Coleman actually has a higher ADP than Britt, presumably based on the draft capital the Browns spent on Coleman last year. (He was the 15th overall pick.) Coleman had a 58-yard catch in Week 1, then had five catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2, but he broke his hand in practice a few days later and didn’t return until November. He had 41 or fewer receiving yards in his last eight games, finished the season with a catch rate of 44.6%, and averaged just 9.2 yards per catch after returning from the hand injury. Coleman was indicted on assault charges for a New Year’s Eve incident but wasn’t charged. A persistent hamstring issue caused him to miss time in training camp last year and time in OTAs this year. Coleman is a tremendous athlete who put up some gaudy numbers in a pass-happy scheme at Baylor, but I want no part of him at his current ADP.
The Browns still have the rights to Josh Gordon, who remains indefinitely suspended for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. It’s not inconceivable that he could be reinstated before or during the 2017 season, but we haven’t seen Gordon play well since 2013. That was such a magical season for Gordon (87 catches, 1,646 yards, nine touchdowns) that people are still drafting him in some leagues. It’s time to move on.
Cleveland spent the 29th overall pick of this year’s draft on David Njoku, one of the brightest prospects in what’s being regarded as a once-in-a-generation tight end class. Njoku, who had 43 receptions for 698 yards and eight touchdowns in his final college season at Miami (Fla.), is 6-4, 246 pounds, with long arms and 4.64 speed. At this year’s Scouting Combine, Njoku had the best broad jump, vertical jump and three-cone time among tight ends. The 21-year-old Njoku is a strong bet for future NFL stardom, but we know that rookie tight ends are historically poor bets, and if you’re going to bet on one, you probably don’t want to bet on one who’s burdened with a mediocre QB situation. It’s not hard to imagine Njoku following a career path similar to that of Jimmy Graham, who produced a stat line of 31-356-5 as a rookie before exploding for 99-1,310-11 in his second year. Njoku’s ADP of TE23 is tempting, though, and I wouldn’t criticize anyone for taking a late-round flyer on the talented rookie.