The Cleveland Browns passing offense must become more explosive in 2021 if the team hopes to win the Super Bowl. While the return of Odell Beckham Jr. is the key to unlocking Baker Mayfield’s ceiling, the role of rookie Anthony Schwartz is perhaps more intriguing as the Browns open training camp.
Cleveland’s defense receives most of the blame for the team’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs last season, but the offense put up only 17 points. When the Chiefs score 22 points against you, you’d better have won that game. There were mitigating circumstances, such as the botched end zone call against Rashard Higgins, as well as the plethora of injuries the Browns were dealing with, but the team could have and should have won.
The Chiefs lacked a pass rush outside of Chris Jones, and had a secondary that was slightly above average at best. And knowing full well that Mayfield was playing at a league-best level, sold out to stop the run. KC played a majority of cover-1 and cover-0, daring Mayfield to beat them through the air, because they knew that Cleveland’s receivers could not separate against man coverage.
The Chiefs were also not scared of being beaten overtop in the slightest, as the Browns offense was not vertically threatening. One game is just one game, but this was a season-long trend for the Browns, one that was simply a limitation of personnel, not a preference in scheme. Targets typically went underneath, but with practically no chance for yards after the catch; Cleveland ranked 30th in the league in YAC, something that must change significantly.
Even before Beckham went down in week seven, Kevin Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt realized their offense was deficient. JoJo Natson, the team’s punt returner, played nine offensive snaps over the first three weeks before suffering a torn ACL. He was utilized as a motion player in an attempt to create some sort of misdirection and to apply any degree of lateral stress to the defense.
The Browns did not employ pre-snap motion very much last season. In fact, only six teams used less. Cleveland utilized tight end shifts, sure, but not much from the receivers, which is understandable. When the Browns utilized jet and orbit motion, it was typically Jarvis Landry, who has had some nice carries over the past three seasons, but who also doesn’t strike much fear into defenses as a big-play threat.
Motion not only makes the defense think about more than just its base assignment, but it can also reveal calls and responsibilities that a smart quarterback can exploit. It isn’t a free pass to an explosive and efficient offense, but there’s a pretty good trend league-wide, and the Browns are certainly aware of that.
Since entering the league, Mayfield has statistically been one of, if not the most effective deep passer in the NFL, yet his weapons have, for the most part, not complemented his skillset.
Not only do the Browns need to stretch the field vertically, both to take proper advantage of Mayfield’s strength, and to better open up the running game, but they must work more laterally as well. These are two dimensions to the offense that were missing in 2020, and if added, could make this the most dangerous all-around unit in the league.
Schwartz was drafted to help with both of those things, though it remains to be seen how much of a role he will have early on. He is still just 20 years old, and his quarterback play at Auburn was, to put it kindly, inconsistent. He is a raw route runner and doesn’t track the ball all that well right now, plus his hands are not the best. Yet, he possesses an elite trait; speed. Schwartz is an Olympic-level sprinter who is one of the fastest players in the league. He eats up grass in a hurry, whether he’s carrying the ball on a reverse or running past a safety down the field. Schwartz needs a good deal of development, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute right away.
His speed is elite, but the rest of Schwartz's athletic testing was relatively disappointing. However, in what was a class-wide trend for Cleveland in 2021, Schwartz's drill performance didn't exactly match up with his tape. He doesn't have the oily hips and lightning-quick agility and burst of a Rondale Moore, but Schwartz is more than good enough in those areas to be a threat in the NFL. He has shown the ability to properly sink his hips into routes as well as using his feet to set up release moves against press coverage. These things just need to happen on a more consistent basis, and with quality pro coaching, hopefully they will.
10-15 snaps per game, with the majority of those coming in motion, seems like a good starting point for Schwartz, because even though he has plenty of established players ahead of him on the depth chart, none of them provide what he can. But those snaps will come at the expense of a veteran. It probably won’t be Beckham, because the Browns can’t really afford to take him off the field.
Some snaps will be taken from Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, but those players fill different roles than Schwartz will. The most likely candidate is Jarvis Landry, if only because he was the motion man last season.
When the Browns are in 11-personnel, the most explosive lineup they can run would feature David Njoku at tight end, Beckham and Peoples-Jones on the outside, and Schwartz in the slot, where he spent about half of his collegiate snaps.
His ideal role in the NFL is not as an every-down slot receiver, but that’s where he seems to fit best right now. His route tree may be limited at the moment, but the threat of his speed on both the x and y-axes will open things up for the other targets, and allow Mayfield to take the next step forward in his career.
Schwartz won’t be able to fix the problem alone. Cleveland needs a healthy and incorporated Odell Beckham Jr. to truly solve it, but the two of them combined can create a decisive advantage on offense. Assuming full health (knock on wood), scoring 17 points against a middling defense will be a thing of the past.
The Browns used 11-personnel just 44% of the time last season, which ranked 30th in the league, but that number should increase in 2021 with Schwartz and a healthy Beckham. Mayfield was allowed to throw the ball more as the 2020 campaign went on, and the offense thrived the more he threw. That trend should continue as he grows more comfortable in the scheme, and now he has two targets with elite traits to throw the ball.
Schwartz may not touch the ball all that often, but his impact will be felt when he is on the field; his speed commands respect, and that’s something the Cleveland passing attack needs to earn a lot more of.