Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism

Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism
Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism

Context Matters

What happened in 2017 was HILARIOUS. The Cleveland Browns won zero games but should have won at least three. Last year’s Hard Knocks season indicated that the clown’s show with former head coach Hue Jackson would continue. After some close games, general manager John Dorsey let Hue go with a record of 2-6-1. Gregg Williams took over from Hue, Freddie Kitchens took over offensive play-calling duties from Todd Haley. The latter showed some unfortunate play-calling tendencies. Cleveland went 5-3 over the past seven games along with excellent offensive output.

The 5-3 run to end the season created an intensive hype, with Cleveland dropping from 50-1 odds to as low as 14-1 to win the Super Bowl. But let me explain why we should cautiously look at their 2018 performance. First of all, the Browns were expected to win a lot more games than they did in 2017.  With Hue, they went 2-3 in close games and followed with a 3-1 record during the Gregg Williams tenure.

From week eight onwards, the Browns went 0-5 against playoff teams. They lost by an average of 9.8 points per game – no matter who the coach was. They were fortunate to play the Bengals twice after Cincy was derailed by injuries (and after they signed Hue), same goes for the Falcons. Against Carolina and Denver, the Browns were behind on the scoreboard, going into the fourth quarter. Context matters.

Mr. Pythagorean is in the House

The Browns went 7-8-1 and had a Pythagorean win expectation of 7.1 – right on the money. However, during their final 5-3 stretch, their Pythagorean expectation was only 4.2 victories. They overperformed in wins, as indicated by their close game record. They underperformed under Hue but overperformed under Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens. Hypothetically speaking: if Cleveland won one or two close games more under Hue, they would have been overperformers on the full season. In contrast, the Baltimore Ravens had a Pythagorean win expectation of 5.5 in one fewer game with Lamar Jackson starting.

On the season, the Cleveland Browns went 5-4 in close games and had a turnover margin of +0.4. Their defense collected 31 takeaways – it will be a tough quest to reproduce that number. Over the stretch with Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield ranked 5th in EPA per dropback (0.22) among 37 quarterbacks with 100 or more passes. To put that into context: 0.22 EPA per dropback would rank in the upper nine percent among all quarterbacks with at least 200 passes in a season since 2009. For comparison, Carson Wentz had 0.20 EPA per dropback during the 2017 season.

I’m not saying that Baker Mayfield won’t be a very good quarterback in the future. Probably he will be. But 0.22 EPA per dropback doesn’t provide tons of upside for the Browns offense. And is even hard to sustain for the best signal-callers in the game. Since 2009, Tom Brady had five seasons above 0.20 EPA per dropback, but also five below that mark. For Baker Mayfield to sustain that level of play, and the Cleveland Browns capitalizing from it, some other things need to go right, too.

A Match Made in Heaven?

As the great Jake Burns has beautifully explained, the marriage of Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken seems to be like a match made in heaven. Kitchens will mesh his Air Coryell philosophy with Monken’s Air Raid scheme to support Baker Mayfield’s aggressive approach to the game. Both of them have displayed smart situational play-calling last season with a pass-first approach. Also, James Campen will coach the offensive line. He spent the previous 14 years coaching the five guys in front of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Since 2014, the Packers’ offensive line graded as a top-7 unit in pass-blocking grade by Pro Football Focus. From a coaching perspective, this trio is a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, Campen gets to coach the likely Achilles’ heel of the Browns.

Cleveland Browns Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Cleveland Browns Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The Cleveland Browns traded away right guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants for edge-rusher Olivier Vernon. Even though Vernon is going to boost the pass rush, it was a trade I couldn’t grasp. Zeitler is one of the best guards in the game. Zeitler’s absence leaves the Browns offensive line with two quality players on paper, left guard Joel Bitonio and center JC Tretter. Left tackle Greg Robinson and right tackle Chris Hubbard form one of the worse tandems in the league. Last year, they ranked 53th and 56th out of 85 qualifying tackles in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, respectively. In pass-blocking grade, which is more predictive, they ranked 56th and 39th. Second-year player Austin Corbett, who expects to start in place of Zeitler, has 14 career snaps under his belt. That setup is likely going to be a problem on long-developing plays and might not support Mayfield’s aggressiveness every time.

Incredible Group of Receivers

As questionable as the offensive line looks to be, the receiving corps is full of potential. Odell Beckham is an absolute stud and has been one of the best wide receivers since 2014. He consistently made Eli Manning look better than he is. Everyone who has watched Giants games instead of listening to Mike Francesa will confirm this. Beckham’s former LSU-teammate Jarvis Landry is ideally suited in a WR2-role, whereas Rashard Higgins and Antonio Callaway showed in 2018 that they are underrated third and fourth options.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Tight end David Njoku has steadily improved and is looking for a breakout season in his third year. Todd Monken had a lot of success teaming up Jameis Winston and OJ Howard at Tampa Bay. Running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson complement the passing game. Johnson has been one of the best receivers at the position throughout his career. I don’t know whether Kareem Hunt will be an option this year.

The Cleveland Browns have put together an incredible offensive coaching staff. They also have a promising young quarterback in place who is going to throw to the likes of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. The biggest – and only – weakness remains the offensive line which has a couple of weak spots. Furthermore, it will be a lot to ask to vastly improve from the efficiency this offense put together over the last eight games in 2018. It can be a terrific offense next season, but I am not expecting the 2011 Packers.

Zone or Man?

The Browns are returning a defense that ranked 7th in pass DVOA last season – they had the fifth-most interceptions at 17. While they improved on paper, I’ve got some concerns about new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. He runs one of the most zone-heaviest defenses in the league. Last season at Arizona, he prioritized his philosophy over the strength of his best cornerback: Patrick Peterson. The latter excelled at man-press coverage throughout his career, but Wilks forced him to play more off-coverage.

With Denzel Ward, the Browns have a cornerback who has been light years better in man-coverage than in zone throughout his career, as Ryan McCrystal explains with the use of charting data. As McCrystal found out, the Browns created a lot more pressure when they were in man, because opposing quarterbacks needed to hold the ball longer. Will Wilks adjust his scheme completely? Here’s an interesting quote from McCrystal:

There’s a good reason coaches typically stick with what they know best. They have a set of plays they have confidence calling in various situations, and Wilks obviously has that comfort level with his current scheme. Dramatically increasing his use of man coverage would force him outside his comfort zone, and likely lead to some poor decisions in the early stages of adjusting his scheme.

Either way, the Browns defense is likely to go through some growing pains as the team adjusts to Wilks’ scheme or as Wilks adjusts his scheme to the Browns’ personnel.

With Greedy Williams, John Dorsey drafted a cornerback in the second round who is well-suited to play man-press coverage exclusively. Williams expects to play on the outside, opposite of Denzel Ward. Steve Wilks will work with two starting cornerbacks who are best-suited for a scheme he doesn’t run. It’s hard to predict cornerback success in the first season. But not playing the role you are comfortable with, makes the situation more complicated. We shouldn’t expect elite play out of that secondary in 2019.

Nasty Front Seven

The front seven is as dangerous as it gets. But they will be reliant on the secondary to cover well for the first three seconds of the play. Slot cornerback TJ Carrie has been underwhelming throughout his five-year career. Free safety Damarious Randall survived the switch from cornerback in a manner that makes all Browns fans optimistic for the future. It’s highly questionable whether strong safety Morgan Burnett is an upgrade from departed Jabrill Peppers.

Cleveland Browns Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Cleveland Browns Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Edge rusher Myles Garrett could have a monster season. Olivier Vernon has been riddled with injuries over the past two seasons, but he has put up very high pass-rushing grades. On the interior, the Cleveland Browns feature young explosion Larry Ogunjobi as well as the underrated Sheldon Richardson. The latter has quietly put together good seasons at Seattle and Minnesota recently. Mike linebacker Joe Schobert graded out as one of the best coverage-players at his position last year whereas Christian Kirksey couldn’t keep pace with him. Rookies Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson will battle for rotational snaps.

This defense is incredibly talented among its front seven, but performances will rise and fall with the secondary play. If Steve Wilks doesn’t adjust his scheme to his cornerbacks” strengths, it could be a long season for Myles Garrett and co.

2019 Schedule

The Cleveland Browns have a significant advantage. According to current win totals at the sharpest bookmaker in the world, Pinnacle, the Browns are projected to play the fourth-easiest schedule in the league. The same goes for their defense, which is expected to play the sixth-easiest schedule in terms of opposing pass EPA from 2018. Due to their third-place division finish, they will face the Titans and Broncos instead of, say, the Colts and Chiefs. A schedule against the weakest division in football over recent years, the AFC East, helps, too.

Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS
Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS

However, the Browns will play a tight schedule within their division. The Steelers and Ravens are playoff contenders, and I am probably higher on the Bengals than most folks out there. They can play an early home game against the Seahawks, but they play disadvantageous body-clock matchups against the Rams and Niners in night games.

Cleveland Browns 2019: Cautious Optimism

While the Browns are set up very well, the overwhelming hype is too much. At Pinnacle, the Browns are the fifth-best favorite to win the Super Bowl, and they are the favorites to win the division. I don’t think they are the best team in their division – yet. And from my point of view, there are three factors why I am only cautious optimistic:

  1. It’s a young team with a rookie head coach, and the offensive line can hold the Browns back.
  2. DC Steve Wilks and his scheme is a big question mark for the secondary that needs to play well.
  3. The Browns don’t play in a scrub division. The AFC North will most likely be highly competitive.

I can see the Browns going to the playoffs this year. But I don’t believe it’s as sure of a thing as many folks out there claim it to be. It will be a rocky road, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw at least three AFC North teams fighting for the playoffs in December.

The Browns look to play their harder part of the schedule over the first half of 2019. Five of eight games are on the road, and two home games are against the Rams and Seahawks. Right now, I wouldn’t put my money on any Browns future. The prices are inflated. It’s probably a much better idea to wait and grab a future at some point during the first nine weeks.

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