There are three specific areas the Cleveland Browns should focus on offensively in training camp to make their offense more potent in 2021. The Browns need to Incorporate a consistent vertical element to the passing game, expand the role of the tight ends within the offense and maximize Kareem Hunt as an offensive weapon.
Last season, injuries and a lack of time due to an abridged offseason contributed to the Browns being unable to do all of these things, but all three flashed at points during the year, contributing to Browns victories. The vertical element played a role early when Odell Beckham Jr. was healthy, the tight ends were used more creatively at the end of the season and there were a handful of games where Hunt showcased his full potential on offense.
Should the Browns effectively incorporate these three factors into the offense while maintaining their excellence in the areas that carried them on that side of the ball last year, it's really difficult to imagine how opposing defenses will stop them.
1. The Vertical Element
So much of this is going to be focused on Beckham, because of the rabid inconsistency between he and Baker Mayfield. In spite of that, they were able to attack down the field with Beckham early in the year, create explosive plays and improve the spacing for the rest of the offense.
Beckham's ability to attack deep created more opportunities for teammate Jarvis Landry to operate on sail routes in that 18-25 yard range as an example. The Mayfield-Beckham dynamic is going to be a major focus for training camp in general, but he's not the only player that can help in this area of the game.
Donovan Peoples-Jones isn't a traditional burner, but he's more than fast enough to be threatening down the field. He plays big, can make leaping catches and has impressive hands. When the Browns tried to attack vertically late in the year, he was usually the target. Simply growing and developing as a player should enable him to do more this year.
The addition of Anthony Schwartz as a third round pick was to be their jet player as well as someone who could take the top off a defense a few times per game, even if it's just to create spacing for teammates. One of the goals in this offseason was to get faster across the board and Schwartz was as fast as anyone in this year's draft class.
KhaDarel Hodge was largely used as a field stretching presence, but did not get the ball a significant amount. Still, it's an ability he has displayed and he's gotten better as a receiver every year he's been with the Browns.
Last but not least is David Njoku. After an impressive game in a blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens where he was used vertically, he suffered an injury. It wasn't until late in the year and in the playoffs the team really showcased what he can do. Whether it's running up the seam or a wheel on the sideline to get a favorable matchup, he's someone that can make plays and help the rest of the offense.
Having more players that can attack vertically will also benefit Beckham as he was often limited in his effectiveness underneath because the defense wasn't overly concerned with anyone else going down the field.
The Browns inability to attack vertically was most apparent in the playoffs where the Browns couldn't attack vertically to put the Pittsburgh Steelers away earlier or to punish the Kansas City Chiefs for playing man free pretty consistently throughout the game.
2. Expanding Tight End Usage
Most of the season, the Browns utilized their tight ends inline with Harrison Bryant as a wing. It's a useful front to run the ball and utilize play-action.
The Browns had to ensure their protection for Mayfield was solid, but the biggest reason they kept the tight ends inline so much was because Mayfield had to prove he could effectively operate with a 5-man protection scheme when the opponent knew he was passing, such as in empty formations.
This sounds like it's a slight of Mayfield, but it's one of the more difficult things young quarterbacks are asked to do in the NFL. In high school and even collegiately, this can be a great run formation. They can use motions and run jet sweeps, but in the NFL, it's almost always a pass unless the quarterback is a great runner and the goal is to empty out the box for that exact purpose.
In the NFL, when teams play in empty formations, the opponent is able to pin their ears back and can go all out to get the quarterback. If the quarterback cannot find the best matchup early, he makes a poor decision, gets hit or takes a sack. They have to process information quicker than in any other situation.
Mayfield proved later in the year he could operate out of empty formations effectively and it enabled the Browns to expand how they attacked opposing defenses. Tight ends could be used in space and create favorable matchups. It puts a significant amount of pressure on opponents to be able to use two and three tight end personnel that focuses the defense to play bigger. To be able to then stretch them out horizontally with the same personnel is a major advantage for the offense.
When the Browns first played the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were using tight formations almost exclusively, which allowed the defense to play more men in the box. They would then be able to blitz from multiple angles with a relatively short path to the ball, which caused problems for the offensive protection as well as Mayfield.
In the playoff game against the Steelers, the Browns played with more spread looks, forcing the defense to spread out horizontally. Mayfield was able to pick apart the matchups and the Browns dominated the early part of the game.
With players line Austin Hooper and David Njoku, being able to go from a tight running or play-action heavy formation to an empty, passing formation is a tall order for the defense to deal with effectively. The more the Browns can create and exploit those opportunities without having to sub out personnel, the more effective they will be. Combined with a fast tempo, this can put the defense on their heels and may force the opposing team to call a timeout.
3. Model Kareem Hunt After Alvin Kamara
The Browns have such an embarrassment of riches between Nick Chubb, an exceptional runner and then Kareem Hunt, a terrific space player. They really need to embrace Hunt's talents and increase the amount of touches as a receiver relative to his touches running the ball.
In 2020, Hunt carried the ball 198 times averaging 4.2 yards per carry and caught 38 passes at 5.91 yard per target.
By contrast, Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans had 187 carries at 5 yards per carry and 83 receptions, averaging 7.06 yards per target in 2020.
Kamara is arguably the most valuable running back in the NFL because of his ability to be such a dynamic space player and receiver. Hunt may never be quite to the level of Kamara, but there's nothing schematically that Kamara does with the Saints that the Browns can't do with Hunt. Hunt doesn't have to be Kamara to be an incredibly dangerous weapon.
When the Saints have been their most dangerous, they had a more traditional tailback in the backfield with Kamara lined up all over the place on offense on early downs, then taking out the traditional back for a receiver on heavier passing downs. The Browns can create that same dynamic with Chubb in the backfield and Hunt all over the offense.
Whether Hunt is in the backfield or lined up as a receiver, he's shown consistently to be more dangerous as a receiver than he is as a runner. His vision in the box isn't great, but when he gets in space with a block or two to read and he's deadly. Strong enough to run through tackles and quick enough to make opponents miss.
Teams don't want to have to put a corner on him, but he's often too quick for linebackers, so it forces defenses to make difficult choices, which can benefit the rest of their weapons within the offense.
The Browns utilized Hunt as a true weapon for a few games in 2020, but just need that to be his full time role. Two of Hunt's best performances were against the Cincinnati Bengals in week seven and the Baltimore Ravens in week 14.
Against the Bengals, the Browns didn't do anything overly complicated to get Hunt the ball, but the mix of pass and run made him more dangerous. They simply got Hunt the ball in space and he took care of the rest.
Against the Ravens, the Browns were more creative with Hunt. After initially struggling because the corners locked up the Browns receivers, the offense started putting Hunt out wide to isolate a linebacker against him. Hunt was easily able to beat the defender and create separation for Mayfield to get him the ball. That proved to be a catalyst for the Browns offense as the Ravens now had to find a way to stop Hunt which created space for everyone else on offense.
In those two games, Hunt carried the ball 24 times for 109 yards and caught nine passes on 11 targets for 103 yards, scoring three touchdowns.
On the season, Hunt only had 304 yards receiving, which means in the other 14 games the Browns played in the regular season in 2020, he averaged just 14.3 receiving yards, which seems criminal.
Those two games were also among Baker Mayfield's best performances. Perhaps a coincidence, that extra stress on the defense provided an easy outlet and opened up opportunities elsewhere on offense.
It's not difficult to foresee a scenario where the Browns best 11 on offense includes both Chubb and Hunt taking the place of a third receiver on the field.