The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: AFC North – Cleveland Browns

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TheProfessor_NFL-Preview-Cleveland-Browns

Cleveland Browns

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins
CLE440.13372.18149.57

It’s difficult not to be optimistic about the way things are coming together in Cleveland. Year One of the Kevin Stefanski-Andrew Berry regime was a huge hit, and the foundation is in place to build on that success.

After getting things corrected on offense for the 2020 season, the Browns turned their attention to the defense this past offseason, using free agency and the draft to build the unit. Safety John Johnson, linebacker Anthony Walker, and corner Troy Hill all fit the rare designation of free agents signed on cost-effective contracts.

Johnson has been a standout player over the course of his rookie contract, Walker has consistently played at an above-average level, and Hill is coming off a strong 2020 for the Rams, where he aligned on the outside in base and typically slid to the slot in sub, depending on Jalen Ramsey’s game-plan specific role. They also added a quality role player in Damion Square, a defensive tackle who has been solid on base-downs for the Chargers over the past few years.

Cleveland continued to add to this group by drafting corner Greg Newsome in the first round, and perhaps the steal of the draft in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who was lauded by a variety of draft analysts for his range and playmaking ability. Both players should be expected to play big roles early, and their presence pushes some players who were stretched as starters into depth roles where they might excel.

The one move I didn’t quite understand was the decision to swap out Sheldon Richardson for Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive line. Before they released Richardson, the Clowney signing appeared to be a reasonable gamble, but given the former first overall pick’s extremely inconsistent play in his 2019 campaign for Seattle before a lost 2020 season in Tennessee, coupled with the fact that Clowney has shown few signs of developing technical mastery as a pass rusher, this seems like a long-shot at best. Clowney has relied on his freak athleticism his entire career, and with the injuries piling up, it’s questionable whether he still possesses those traits. Richardson, on the other hand, has been consistently available and is a house of a man on the interior who flashes dominant physical play at times.

If the defense can come closer to matching their offense, the Browns should be back in the playoffs. Quarterback Baker Mayfield needs to continue to build on his progress from 2020, but he’s in a great position to do that. Cleveland’s offensive line should be the best in the league, a physically imposing unit with above-average or elite players at all five starting spots. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are one of the league’s best duos, the tight end group of Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant gives Stefanski a variety of options from a personnel perspective, and Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones did a good job complementing Jarvis Landry in the back half of last season.

The X-Factor for the offense is Odell Beckham Jr., who could take an already dynamic offense to another level if Mayfield doesn’t let his presence prevent him from operating in the design of the offense. Some question if Beckham fits in this scheme, but in my opinion, that’s the wrong question. If healthy, Beckham fits in any scheme; he’s an elite route runner with dynamic run after catch ability and one of the largest catch radiuses in the league. The question is whether Mayfield will operate the offense the way he did after Beckham went down, or if he will revert to working outside the design of plays to force-feed Beckham the ball. Given the success that Mayfield had in the second half of the season, it seems fair for Cleveland fans to be optimistic that he will continue executing the scheme and get a boost from the fact that Beckham will upgrade the talent level at one of the receiving spots on the offense. Beckham may not see a ton of volume, but the opportunities in the play-action game could allow him to post massive yards per reception numbers.

All that said, Cleveland’s ascension from playoff team to championship contender depends heavily on Mayfield’s continued improvement. He showed flashes of becoming a dynamic playmaker, most notably in a late-season shootout with the Baltimore Ravens, and if he can play at that level on a more consistent basis, expect him to get the contract extension he’s looking for, and for the Browns to make some serious noise in the AFC.

QB Passing Projections

PlayerQBRkGPComAttComPercYPAPassYdsPassTDINTPPRAvg
Baker Mayfield1917349.6546.60.647.273976.330.711.816.86

QB Rushing Projections

PlayerQBRkGPCarriesYPCRushYdsRushTDCarryShareRushTDShrPPRAvg
Baker Mayfield191749.83.8189.21.610.67.816.86

Skill Projections, Rushing

PlayerPosRkGPCarriesYPCRushYdsRushTDCarShrRushTDShrPPRAvg
Nick ChubbRB2417248.25.001241.210.153.250.713.09
Jarvis LandryWR50179.34.9746.30.42.02.010.94
Kareem HuntRB5717120.64.51543.96.225.831.110.48
D’Ernest JohnsonRB2921739.14.80187.41.78.48.41.69

Skill Projections, Receiving

PlayerPosRkGPTgtCnvRecYPRRecYdsRecTDTgtShrRecTDShrPPRAvg
Nick ChubbRB241768.727.37.24197.50.77.32.413.09
Odell Beckham Jr.WR481757.275.813.751042.57.524.324.511.02
Jarvis LandryWR501765.881.612.511021.36.022.719.510.94
Kareem HuntRB571776.744.38.97397.54.110.613.310.48
Austin HooperTE1331770.447.99.46453.16.712.521.96.45
Rashard HigginsWR2141757.022.211.80262.52.77.18.93.15
David NjokuTE2631763.717.710.93193.81.25.14.12.11
Donovan Peoples-JonesWR2731766.514.516.51239.80.44.01.21.97
Harrison BryantTE3151754.39.28.3076.41.13.13.71.12
Anthony SchwartzWR3351748.39.010.2291.80.23.40.40.85

About the author:

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.

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