Browns Must Evolve Offense to Fit Stefanski's Vision, Mayfield's Talent

With Baker Mayfield having firmly established himself as a franchise quarterback in Kevin Stefanski's offense, the Cleveland Browns must continue to evolve their offense to fit the strengths of their quarterback, which requires far more speed at the receiver position.
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The Cleveland Browns offense proved to be the driving force for the team in 2020, but as the unit gained confidence and Baker Mayfield established himself as its focal point, issues with overall team speed and a lack of explosive ability proved a limiting factor on what the offense and team could accomplish. 

As the team heads toward 2021, the focus on the offensive side of the ball is to further evolve the offense toward the vision Kevin Stefanski had when he was hired while also fitting the personnel around the strengths of Mayfield in an effort to maximize his ability.

Entering the season, one of the major focuses of the season was getting Mayfield to reclaim the greatness he displayed as a rookie while demonstrating consistency. Confidence in the system and trusting his teammates to do their jobs took time, but once he was able to stop thinking about what the offense was doing and focus all of his energy on the defense, he improved by leaps and bounds.

With each stride forward Mayfield took, the flaws in the personnel around him became more apparent. Above everything else was the fact that defenses were able to play close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run and still be able to match up effectively against the Browns receiving weapons.

The first game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was shocking in just how little they cared about what the Browns offered in terms of receiving threats, particularly as it related to speed. They were able to control the line of scrimmage and send all kinds of pressure at Mayfield with no concern that the Browns receiving threats would pose a big enough threat to punish them.

In the playoffs, both games further highlighted the issue. In the wildcard round, the Browns ran into an offensive lull for almost a quarter and a half. It wasn't because the Browns stopped trying. The Steelers simply played better and the Browns had no meaningful way to challenge them down the field. Despite scoring 48 points, the Browns attempted just two passes over 20 yards.

Against the Kansas City Chiefs, the contrast was illuminating and humiliating. Almost every player on the Chiefs offense was a threat to score with the ball in their hands. The Browns defense had to play back because they were terrified they were going to going to get beat deep.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs were often manning up the Browns receivers while loading up the box with the remaining personnel to stop the run. They had no fear the Browns would gash them for it. It took picture perfect throws from Mayfield at times just to find some space in the coverage. As great as Mayfield was, it often felt like the Browns were hanging on rather than a team that could compete at the level the Chiefs could offensively.

Defenses simply don't have to cover much of the field against the Browns offense as it's currently constituted. The level of difficulty for Mayfield is needlessly high and he has to be close to perfect while opposing quarterbacks make all kinds of mistakes and often have more to show for it.

When Kevin Stefanski was hired, he implemented an offense that relies heavily on the tight end position, often using two of them on the field at a time. That naturally slowed down the offense in exchange for an increase in size. They signed Austin Hooper and drafted Harrison Bryant to go with David Njoku, who really shined down the stretch.

With a single running back on the field, that only leaves two spots for wide receivers and they can ill afford to play someone that doesn't provide a threat to attack vertically. Unfortunately, Jarvis Landry doesn't much going down the field, so when Odell Beckham Jr. was healthy, they had just one player that could stretch the field. And that immediately limits his route tree and pigeonholes him, which makes the entire offense more predictable. It limited Beckham's ability to contribute when he would run routes underneath.

In order to put more speed on the field, the Browns have to take someone off of it. And given Stefanski's scheme, it's not going to be a tight end, so they only have one option remaining - Jarvis Landry.

This isn't a usage issue. It's not because of the plays they call. It's because that's who Landry is. Whether it was with the Miami Dolphins or four head coaches into his time with the Browns, Landry isn't suddenly going to become something he's never been in the NFL. Just look at his three seasons with the Browns.

2018, Landry had 13 explosive plays (plays of 20 yards or more) on 81 receptions at a rate of 16 percent.

2019, Landry's best season as a Brown, he had 20 explosive plays on 83 receptions at a rate of 24 percent.

2020, including the playoffs, Landry had 12 explosive plays on 84 receptions at a rate of 14.2 percent.

Compare that to Rashard Higgins, who had 14 explosive plays on 44 receptions in 2020 at a rate of 31.8 percent. 2019, he had a 25 percent rate but he only caught 4 passes all season while in 2018, his explosive play rate was 28.2 percent, recording 11 on 39 receptions.

The best season for Landry is still lower than the worst from Higgins. No one is going to suggest Higgins is a blazer, but he still offers more in terms of being able to attack the deep intermediate areas of the field, which provide more spacing for the offense overall. It takes 80 passes to Landry to get the same result as 40 to Higgins.

Higgins isn't a star nor is he irreplaceable. He's a nice receiver that has happens to have good chemistry with Mayfield and is able to attack the deep intermediate levels of the field, which has proven beneficial to the Browns and helps to create space in their offense.

Additionally, most estimates put Higgins on a salary worth about $5 million next season whereas Landry is scheduled to make $14.8 million. Depending on how fast they move him, they could free up as much as $13.3 million in cap space, only having to endure $3 million in dead cap for the remaining signing bonus he's due.

More damning for the Browns is the fact they only had one passing play that went for over 43 yards all season - A wide open 75 yard touchdown pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones against the Tennessee Titans.

The Browns have an outstanding quarterback who demonstrated the ability to throw it 75 yards against the Baltimore Ravens and the current offense almost never provides opportunities for him to throw passes in the 30 to 50 yard range.

In 2018, when the Browns had receivers like Antonio Callaway and Breshad Perriman who consistently provided the Browns the ability to stretch field, the Browns had five individual receivers with receptions over 43 yards, including Landry who had a 51-yard reception.

Austin Hooper would stand to benefit. He had a below average season as a receiver by his standards. The drops were his own making and must be addressed, but the overall spacing issues for the Browns played a major role in just 435 receiving yards in the regular season, a substantial amount of which came on screens.

While a member of the Atlanta Falcons, Hooper was often able to exploit space in the middle of the field and against limited coverage because their receivers were a threat to attack down the field taking defensive attention away from him. Hooper averaged 561 yards per season with the Falcons, including 787 yards in 13 games in 2019.

It would also open up more space in the running game because defenses would have to make real choices regarding their defensive alignment. Play deep to avoid giving up big plays and it opens up more space to run the ball. Crowd the box and risk getting beat deep. Even check downs, swings and screen passes would have more room to operate.

Going back to the playoff game against the Steelers, the lull the offense suffered would have been a great time to go down the field to put added stress on the defense, potentially blowing the game open and securing victory much earlier. They couldn't do that and the Steelers were able to sit in the box and take away everything at once.

All of this makes life easier on Mayfield, who gets to showcase his immense talent, potentially creating instant offense to either break open games or be able to respond quickly. The current situation forces Mayfield to be almost perfect in terms of his accuracy and leaves little, if any room for error, against playoff teams.

None of this invalidates the contributions Landry has made to the team on the field or the impact he's had on teammates. It doesn't minimize the initiatives he took to better the community or the moments he's celebrated here, particularly in what has been a magical 2020 season that showed what the Browns could be again.

Nevertheless, Stefanski installed an offense that makes his limitations problematic. Opposing defenses will continue to adjust to stop the Browns offense and the Browns need to keep evolving to stay a step ahead of them.

Mayfield is their franchise quarterback and the Browns should be focusing on improving the offense to fit his talents. He has already demonstrated what he can do when provided with players can go down field. They simply need more of them, making it a prerequisite to be one of their featured threats at wide receiver.

According to Football Outsiders, Mayfield was accurate on 19 of 32 (59.3 percent) passes from 21 to 30 yards his rookie season. On passes of at least 31, he was accurate of 9 of 19 (47.3 percent).

In 2019, Mayfield's down field accuracy improved even if much of the rest of his game didn't. Mayfield was 19 of 34 (55.8 percent) from 21 to 30 yards and 13 of 22 (59 percent) on passes of at least 31 yards, putting him behind only Kyler Murray and Derek Carr for the year.

This past season, Mayfield led the entire league in adjusted completion percentage on passes over 20 yards during the regular season.

It would be negligent to have someone display that level of ability attacking down the field and not put in the effort to maximize it. 

To the Browns credit, they aren't ignorant of this dilemma. They spent time searching for options that could provide a vertical element; a threat to stretch the field with little success.

In training camp, they rotated a number of players with the first team in hopes of finding someone to fill that role. From Taywan Taylor to Jojo Natson to Donovan Peoples-Jones, giving each an entire day of practice with the first group to try to make it work, the Browns would settle on KhaDarel Hodge.

Despite the fact Higgins was a better overall receiver, when the Browns went to three receiver sets, they brought in Hodge to try to add a vertical threat, prompting people to assume Higgins had done something wrong, that he was in the coach's dog house. It wasn't until after Beckham tore his ACL that the Browns put Higgins into the lineup consistently because they needed a receiver who could do the job, continuing to relegate speed to that third receiver spot.

Hodge didn't get the ball much, but he was a good blocker and helped provide a little more breathing room for the offense and a handful of big catches sprinkled throughout the season. He suffered hamstring injuries which forced him to miss seven games over the course of the year. For a player that had proven so little, his absence was still noticeable early in the year.

The Browns kept looking for speed during the season, bringing in Marvin Hall off of waivers and signing Alexander Hollins from the practice squad of the Minnesota Vikings.

None of what they have done so far has been enough to provide the consistent vertical threat they seek. Some of those players may yet receive another opportunity to prove themselves in that capacity, but the Browns need to take a more proactive approach to address the issue. Donovan Peoples-Jones has assured himself a role on the team going forward, but that's not enough, even if they keep Beckham and he's 100 percent.

So long as the Browns plan to rely heavily on the tight end position, Landry doesn't fit what this team needs in terms of speed and the team knows it.

That doesn't make Landry a bad player. It simply illustrates how the team has changed since he was acquired by John Dorsey and he's no longer a good fit.

When Landry arrived, the Browns still had Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman as well as David Njoku. He could afford to be a player that excelled on short passes and provide a value.

Both Gordon and Coleman were gone almost immediately, but Dorsey kept bringing speed into the receiver room, including players like Beckham, Antonio Callaway and Breshad Perriman.

Now, the Browns have tight ends taking the role of being short and intermediate routes, trying to find space in the middle. They have running backs that can help in those areas as well. The Browns need receivers that can stretch the field and simply can't afford to give up a spot to a player that has never pushed the field vertically after seven seasons in the NFL.

Baker Mayfield is the player this team has chosen to lead them to the Super Bowl. Now it's about giving him the tools to do get them there, making his life easier in the process. More speed creates more space for him to operate, so he's not forced to make keyhole throws in order to start or sustain drives. It should create more opportunities not only for explosive plays down the field, but yards after the catch as defenses are forced to cover more of the field in general; something else the Browns lack on offense.

Unquestionably, the Browns will be spending the bulk of the offseason trying to improve their defense by actually having one. That doesn't mean they don't have the flexibility to changeover their wide receiver position in the process, making the offense more threatening while the defense gets better in order to put them closer to reaching the Super Bowl.

As tempting as it may be to hang on to Landry for sentimental value, given what he's done the past three seasons and an irrational fear that moving on from him will doom the Browns to be a bad football team again, the Browns will endure and continue to be successful. They must focus their energy and resources on taking full advantage of their championship window while Baker Mayfield's salary is still low.

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