The Cleveland Browns have been the laughingstock of the NFL for a long time. But after consecutive seasons during which they managed just one win, the franchise appears to finally be on the right track. They had an outside chance at making the playoffs last season, primarily because of the immediate success of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. And this offseason Cleveland made several high-profile additions that only serve to strengthen the talent they already have. The result of this strong offseason is a group of young, talented offensive skill position players that appear ready to take the NFL by storm.
The emergence of Baker Mayfield
We might as well start with the most important position on offense: the quarterback. Last year, Cleveland drafted Baker Mayfield with the first pick in the NFL draft. This decision was not universally agreed upon at the time. But in retrospect, it appears to have paid off.
Mayfield’s performance during his rookie season, when he threw for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions, gave him comparable statistics to players like Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton. This level of play made him best rookie quarterback last season by a wide margin. It also showed that he can play at an above-average level for a quarterback, with the potential for even better results.
Mayfield’s PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grade supports this conclusion as well. His OSM grade of 24.04 was 17th out of 39 measured quarterbacks, just slightly above the median. In an ideal world, he would be higher on this list. Still, he outperformed the other quarterbacks in his draft class by a significant margin (the next highest graded player was Sam Darnold, at 22.8). If he can build on this early success, Mayfield could cement himself as a top-ten quarterback in the near future. And if he does, the Browns will be in an excellent position because they have surrounded Mayfield with an incredibly talented group of skill position players.
Odell Beckham Jr. fills a hole in the Browns offense
The area in which Cleveland saw the most improvement during the offseason was at wide receiver. In 2018, Mayfield’s number one target was Jarvis Landry, who had a reasonably successful first season in Cleveland. Landry had 976 yards, four touchdowns, and the second-highest yards per reception of his career with 12.0. Landry received an OSM grade of 31. None of these statistics are anything special for a true number one receiver. But if your number two wide receiver is capable of that kind of production, then your offense is in an excellent position.
This offseason, the Browns traded for someone who can fill their void at number one wide receiver: former New York Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. This move reunites Beckham with Landry, who he played with at LSU. Beckham had a relatively poor 2018 season after returning from a fractured ankle the year before. He managed just 1,052 yards and 6 touchdowns. While his OSM grade of 33 was good, we’ve all come to expect more from the star wide receiver.
Beckham’s 2018 season wasn’t terrible. In fact, many receivers would be very happy with a season of this caliber. But by Beckham’s lofty standards, this qualifies as a down year. That said, Beckham was only a year removed from a major injury, which may have slowed him down. He also had the steadily regressing Eli Manning as his quarterback. Mayfield is better than Manning in pretty much every way at this point in their respective careers. So the switch should help Beckham to fully bounce back from his injury. And if he does, Cleveland will have signed one of the best wide receivers in the NFL for Mayfield to throw to.
David Njoku and the rest of the supporting cast
Rounding out the Browns skill position players is their starting tight end, David Njoku. Njoku doesn’t the same name recognition as Beckham or Landry. But he was a crucial piece for Cleveland’s offense last season and should be again in 2019. His 639 receiving yards were second-highest on the team and was eighth in the NFL among tight ends. He also had an OSM grade of 35, higher than many of the other players on the current Browns roster.
Njoku may not be a superstar at his position just yet. But he does give Mayfield another excellent receiving option in an offense that already has many. Having players like Njoku, as well as other supporting players like Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, and Duke Johnson (assuming he isn’t traded) helps to take the pressure off of Cleveland’s more high-profile options, making the Browns even harder to defend.
Although he was overshadowed by Mayfield, Nick Chubb also had an excellent rookie season
Cleveland won’t just have an excellent passing game in 2018. They have also set themselves up to have one of the NFL’s most dangerous running back duos. The first half of this duo is Nick Chubb, now in his second season. Chubb received very few carries as a rookie prior to his first start in Week 7. But once the Browns gave him the opportunity, Chubb proved to be incredibly effective.
Despite not receiving more than three carries in any game before Week 7, Chubb ran for almost 1,000 yards, at an astonishing 5.19 yards per carry. He also scored 8 rushing touchdowns. These are excellent statistics for any running back, let alone a rookie. If Chubb had been starting the entire season, he might have been in contention for offensive rookie of the year.
And Chubb’s OSM grade was equally impressive. Out of all the running backs in the NFL, his grade of 40 was second only to Derrick Henry. And this is particularly notable considering how good the Browns offensive line was in 2018. You might normally assume that having such a good offensive line in front of him inflated his numbers. But the OSM grade shows how well Chubb performed only on factors that he could control. The fact that he ranks so highly on this metric indicates that his success was not just a product of the offensive line. Obviously, having an excellent offensive line contributed to his statistical success. But Chubb did a lot of the work himself. And if he can replicate that level of success during his second season, he could prove himself to be one of the best players at his position.
Adding Kareem Hunt makes a position of strength even stronger
Cleveland’s second running back will almost certainly be Kareem Hunt. The Kansas City Chiefs released Hunt 11 games into the 2018 season because of off-field issues. And the NFL eventually suspended him for the first eight games of the 2019 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Considering Hunt’s actions, there has unsurprisingly been some controversy surrounding the decision to sign him. But whatever your personal opinion on the situation might be, Hunt’s talent is undeniable.
Through the 11 games that he played in before being released by Kansas City, Hunt totaled 824 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. These numbers are roughly in line with his numbers through his first eleven games during the season prior (890 yards, four touchdowns), although he did reach the endzone significantly more often. That is a solid level of production for a starting running back. And if that were all Hunt was able to contribute, he would already be an excellent backup for Chubb.
But unlike Chubb, Hunt is also a threat in the receiving game. This was an area in which he showed significant statistical improvement in 2018. His 378 receiving yards nearly matched his total from his first season in five fewer games. He also had 7 touchdowns, four more than the prior season. Additionally, his yards per reception also increased from 8.6 to 14.5. This versatility makes Hunt an excellent pairing for the hard-running Chubb. And once he returns from his suspension, the Browns will have an incredibly versatile and explosive running back tandem.
The future of the Browns offense looks bright
Considering the sheer amount of talent they possess, it would not be all that surprising if the Browns end up having one of the best offensive skill position groups in the NFL next season. When you combine all of this talent with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the Browns offense looks like it could be dominant in 2019.
Assuming Cleveland’s defense can improve from last season, the team has an excellent chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. They might even be able to win their division for the first time since the 1989 season. Even better for the Browns is the fact that none of the players mentioned in this article are more than 26 years old. So if Cleveland’s offense is as good as I suspect that it will be, then they have a chance to maintain that success for a long time.