The Browns may quietly fulfill last year’s promises in 2020

With lots of talent and a unified front office, the 2020 Browns may be poised to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Browns tried the Moneyball approach in 2016 and 2017. They tried old-school tactics in 2018. They even tried Arkham Asylum-level chaos last season. Nothing worked. But all of that upheaval left the 2020 Browns stacked with promising talent: Edge rusher Myles Garrett, quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, cornerback Denzel Ward, and newcomers like tight end Austin Hooper and tackle Jack Conklin.

Meanwhile, the new brain trust of head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry appears to be on the same page with Moneyball czar Paul DePodesta after years of organizational in-fighting. This promises to be the year in which the Browns to finally stop trying to win boardroom power plays, Twitter beefs, analytical thought experiments, and fourth-quarter helmet jousts and start trying to win some football games.

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What scenarios are the Cleveland Browns facing in 2020?

Best-case scenario

Everything that was supposed to happen last year, happens this year. Mayfield, Beckham, and the others play a thrill-a-minute brand of offensive football. Garrett spearheads a vicious pass-rush without spearing anyone in the head. Stefanski provides a Sean McVay-like mix of innovation and old-fashioned ball control while keeping the team’s personality on “simmer” instead of “overboil.” The Browns make the playoffs for the first time since (sheesh) 2002.

Worst-case scenario

The bad habits Mayfield developed after years of conflicting coaching instructions prove impossible to break. A porous run defense becomes a big problem for a team whose 2020 schedule features the Ravens twice, plus other run-heavy opponents like the Cowboys and Titans. Worst of all, Stefanski and Berry turn out to be inexperienced, over-promoted yes-men for DePodesta instead of up-and-comers with their own ideas, setting the Browns up for yet another palace coup the moment things go wrong.

Deep dives and fantasy football options

Baker Mayfield

Mayfield’s efficiency rating on third downs of 65.5 ranked 31st in the NFL, below the likes of Dwayne Haskins (68.5), Devlin Hodges (70.7), and David Blough (80.9). Mayfield completed just 53.9% of his passes on third down, threw seven interceptions (four of them with 10-plus yards to go), and was sacked 16 times.

Related | Browns: Reviewing Valdovinos’ early three-round 2021 mock

Mayfield’s third-down woes were caused by bad play-calling, bad decision making, spotty footwork and fundamentals (he appeared to believe that 3, 5, and 7-step drops were merely suggestions) and other little issues. Stefanski and his staff have a lot of things to fix on several levels if they hope to fix Mayfield.

Kevin Stefanski and his play-calling

Per Sharp Football Stats, Stefanski’s Minnesota Vikings offense used 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) on 34% of offensive stats, more than any team in the league in 2020 except the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran out of healthy wide receivers in October. They used 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end, the way dear-old dad likes it) 21% of the time, more than any team but the San Francisco 49ers.

There should be plenty of opportunities for both Hooper and David Njoku at tight end now that Njoku has backed off his trade demands. Look for the Browns to use constricted formations and bulkier personnel groupings to improve pass protection, create play-action opportunities, and open up downfield space for Beckham.

The Browns defense

The Browns defense allowed 5.0 yards per rush last year, ranking third-worst in the NFL in both yards per rush and Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They can’t just blame Lamar Jackson, the Arizona Cardinals (226 yards), and Cincinnati Bengals (179 yards in each meeting) are among the teams which ran roughshod over them.

Related | Browns Myles Garrett places high on Williamson’s top 25 edge rushers for 2020

Missed tackles were a big part of the problem: The Browns led the league with 140 of them. Those problems could continue in 2020. Linebacker Mack Wilson and rookie safety Grant Delpit (a projected starter) both went down with training camp injuries, forcing the team to grab linebacker Malcolm Smith off waivers and testing their depth. 

Who to target in fantasy football

Chubb rushed 15 times inside the five-yard line but LOST 14 yards on those carries and scored just two touchdowns. A little film study reveals that Freddie Kitchens was to blame: Kitchens loved sending half the offense in motion at the goal line and leaving Beckham and Landry as Chubb’s point-of-attack blockers, among other acts of self-outsmartment. Chubb’s ADP is hovering at eighth or ninth overall, despite the arrival of run-oriented Stefanski and the addition of Conklin to firm up the line. 

The reason Chubb slips to the end of the first round of fantasy drafts is ultra-handcuff Kareem Hunt. He’s going in the sixth to seventh round in most drafts. Hunt never had more than 12 touches in a game after returning from suspension last season, but if the analytics department has any say over Browns’ game plans (which they do), they’ll push for a committee approach.

Will the 2020 Cleveland Browns finally make the playoffs?

The Browns have more talent on paper than AFC playoff contenders like the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, and the New England Patriots. But due to last year’s bluster and disappointment, the Browns don’t have many boosters left in the media. Not many of us want to say “maybe this is the year” after getting burned last year.

But maybe this is the year. The talent is undeniable, the organization looks stable, and 9-7 isn’t all that hard to achieve. Plus, the fact that no one is talking about the Browns will probably benefit them. The Browns played like they believed their own balderdash last year. Perhaps that taught them to shut up and let their performance do the talking.

Cleveland Browns 2020 prediction

9-7, third place in the AFC North.

NFL Recap from Mike Tanier
Every Sunday and Monday, Mike Tanier gives his NFL Recap of the biggest stories around the NFL. Click here for the rest of his takes on NFL Week 2 in the long-form format you’re used to seeing from Mike. For individual pieces, head on over to our NFL Recap page.