Beneficiaries On Offense With Kevin Stefanski
While new Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski wasn't willing to go into much detail on what he will do offensively, he did say the scheme he ran as an offensive coordinator this past season with the Minnesota Vikings would be a starting point. Beyond that, he wants to be multiple and aggressive. Based on what Stefanski did this past year with the Vikings, there are a number of players that stand to benefit.
The most important player in terms of what the Browns will do under Stefanski is obviously Baker Mayfield. The 2019 season was not the most prolific for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, but it was his most efficient. In his one season with Stefanski as his offensive coordinator and play caller, Cousins completed 69.1 percent of his passes and set career marks for touchdown percentage (5.9), interception percentage (1.4), quarterback rating (107.4) and adjusted air yards per attempt (8.7). His 8.1 yards per attempt were tied for the highest in any season he's started more than five games.
Some may criticize that the offense didn't feature Cousins enough, opting to use the running game as their primary driver and having Cousins work off of it, but the results were impressive. The offense was able to be a major contributor to an upset win in the playoffs on the road against the New Orleans Saints.
What that means for Mayfield is utilizing a substantial amount of playaction, where he's already experienced significant success, but more movement before the throw. Fakes off of stretches, bootlegs and naked rollouts. Not only does it change the amount of field Mayfield has to work, but it changes the angles defenses have to deal with, which makes the offense less predictable and more difficult to defend.
Mayfield offers more mobility, which is an asset and may give the offense a few additional options on how to take advantage. He also has more arm strength, so it can be more aggressive, attacking down the field. The Vikings passing attack can change over the course of a game, going from a quick passing game that gets the ball out quickly to more aggressive throws down the field, both down the sideline and the middle of the field.
The scheme should be good for Mayfield, but it might be a more seamless transition for the offensive line, which is invaluable if the Browns are going to bounce back quickly. Presumably, Stefanski will stay with the zone concepts employed by the Vikings, many of which were employed by the Browns last season. It remains to be seen what Stefanski will do with his coaching staff, but that might be a compelling argument to keep James Campen. Campen was coaching the Browns to utilize the same wide zone scheme blocking for Nick Chubb as the Vikings did with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison.
In particular, Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter thrived in this scheme, but as the season progressed, Wyatt Teller was able to step in and contribute. That enabled Chubb to finish second in the league in rushing and was easily the most effective part of the Browns offense in 2019. It would be stunning if Stefanski didn't keep something that was so effective for the Vikings and the Browns were already using.
The only factor that limited the Browns when it came to this scheme is a lack of effective tackle play. Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard just weren't effective in this part of the game and particularly tosses were often a struggle. That play was a consistent sight for the Vikings, having their linemen get out in front and allow particularly Cook to find the right running lane.
Presumably, the Browns will be searching for tackles they believe would fit better in this type of zone scheme. Kendall Lamm, a player that seems likely to carry over to the 2020 team because he has a great contract and is a worthwhile tackle, could see himself a potential starter, depending on how the Browns approach the position.
It's an excellent draft class to attack the tackle position and there are any number of them that could be great fits into this type of scheme, so the Browns could expand their running attack and enable Chubb to do more.
If Stefanski were to retain Campen, it could prove beneficial for Bitonio and Tretter, but more so for Teller and a rookie like Drew Forbes, who would undoubtedly benefit from consistency in message as well as teaching.
Chubb is going to be great in virtually any offensive scheme, but obviously he flourished in the wide zone scheme the Browns and Vikings both employed last year. His physical ability is impressive, but his intelligence and decision making tend to be just as good, so when he sees running lanes, he can exploit them, creating explosive plays. For every tackle he actually breaks, he seems to simply take a defender out of the play with the right cut.
Chubb is simply a better back than anyone the Vikings have as a runner, but Stefanski might be able to improve his effectiveness as a pass catcher. Beyond his own improvement from years to year, Stefanski's offense was able to generate more production and efficiency from Vikings backs in the passing game.
Something Stefanski said makes it far more realistic the team will keep Kareem Hunt, assuming the new structure is comfortable with him as a person and a contract. It seemed reasonable to consider him a trade asset heading into this offseason.
Stefanski is a fan of the fullback, which the Browns didn't have this past season. They had a number of different players operate as a lead blocker, including Hunt, but none were a true fullback. And given the way the league has gone, with so many teams getting smaller on defense, there's an excellent opportunity to utilize that position to add size on the field in a hurry as an advantage in the running game and playaction passing. No one does it better than the San Francisco 49ers with Kyle Juszczyk, who is a uniquely gifted player, but the Vikings were effective in their own right with C.J. Ham.
Chubb doesn't need a fullback. Certainly, there are situations where he could use it like on the goal line or short yardage situations, but he operates effectively without one, using tight ends or wings to create a numbers advantage. Looking back at Hunt's time with the Chiefs, the team ran zone, but didn't ask him to read much. Largely, he'd run through a predetermined hole at full speed with zone blocking. Occasionally, there's a cut reading a block here or there, but it's often going to a designated hole and making the play from there.
The Chiefs also utilized a fullback, who was doing much of the reading for Hunt. Going on a predetermined path, the fullback's job was to identify and find the right defender while Hunt only had to read the fullback's block. It proved to be an effective way to eliminate the need for great vision while running a zone scheme.
Hunt was always going to be an effective receiving threat and this past season he was consistently willing to block. Those two things alone weren't going to make him valuable enough to keep if he wasn't also going to be an effective runner. He'd offer far more value in a trade than to the Browns. The Browns now have to find a worthwhile fullback that can operate in their scheme.
When it comes to players like Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and David Njoku, there are some easy comparison with the Vikings in Stephon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. There are subtle but important differences and the Vikings offense was able to utilize them at a high level.
Adam Thielen missed a significant portion of the season due to injury, but the time he did play, he was efficient. Diggs was tremendous for the Vikings this season, both in raw production as well as efficiency. performing in the way most thought Beckham would when he was traded to the Browns. The use of the tight end as a pass catcher is underwhelming, but their efficiency was worthwhile.
Overall, the Vikings offense was extremely well served by having Stefanski coordinate it. In becoming the head coach of the Browns, the hope is that he can bring ta similar level of efficiency, which would be a massive upgrade for the Browns. There are holes to address and adjustments to make, but the Browns are well positioned to make a reasonably smooth transition.