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2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Cleveland Browns

Rich Hribar examines the fantasy football prospects for the 2014 Cleveland Browns.

Ben Tate
Ben Tate

Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) hands the ball off to Cleveland Browns running back Ben Tate. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns are coming off of a 4-12 season in 2013, the sixth consecutive season in which they failed to win more than five games. With their 13th losing season in the 15 years their franchise has been back, Cleveland moved on from their entire coaching staff as they look to change their fortune and identity in 2014.

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Jacksonville Jaguars

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Oakland Raiders

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Carolina Panthers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Houston Texans

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Miami Dolphins

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: New York Giants

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Tennessee Titans

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Kansas City Chiefs

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: San Francisco 49ers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Philadelphia Eagles

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Baltimore Ravens

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: New York Jets

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: New Orleans Saints

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Pittsburgh Steelers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Indianapolis Colts

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: St. Louis Rams

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Atlanta Falcons

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: San Diego Chargers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Minnesota Vikings

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Dallas Cowboys

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Denver Broncos

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Green Bay Packers

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Arizona Cardinals 

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Detroit Lions 

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Washington Redskins

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Cincinnati Bengals

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Buffalo Bills

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Seattle Seahawks

2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Chicago Bears

2014 Browns Schedule

Week   Opp
1 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
2 New Orleans Saints
3 Baltimore Ravens
4 Bye Week
5 @ Tennessee Titans
6 Pittsburgh Steelers
7 @ Jacksonville Jaguars
8 Oakland Raiders
9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10 @ Cincinnati Bengals
11 Houston Texans
12 @ Atlanta Falcons
13 @ Buffalo Bills
14 Indianapolis Colts
15 Cincinnati Bengals
16 @ Carolina Panthers
17 @ Baltimore Ravens

 

As usual, proceed with caution when looking at the schedule in advance. Cleveland comes right out of the gate with three games they likely won’t be favored in, but then things clear out for most of what comes after their week four bye, playing only four playoff teams from a year ago in their final 13 games. They play in the division that is the worst for inner division fantasy points, so drawing only one AFC North foe over the final six weeks of the fantasy regular season is promising if this offense picks up steam as the season goes along.  As bleak as this offense may look today, they don’t have to overcome a whole lot to be better than a year ago.

Category Total Rank
Points Per  Game 19.2 27
Avg. Scoring Margin -6.1 27
Yards Per Point 17.6 29
Points Per Play 0.286 29
Yards Per Play 5.0 25
RZ Att. Per Game 2.2 30
Pass Play Percentage 67.7% 2

 

Kyle Shanahan comes over from Washington as the Browns’ new offensive coordinator in hopes of improving those totals immediately. Through six seasons of calling plays under his father and Mike Shanahan disciple Gary Kubiak, here’s a look at the play calling splits for offenses attached to Shanahan.

[table id=195 /]

Browns Balance

Outside of one season in 2012, Shanahan offenses have been more pass heavy than most would assume. He was also attached to some poor teams in Washington, so that had an impact, but by all accounts, the Browns are expected to be a run first team this season after they attempted the sixth most passes in NFL history a year ago.

The first step in emphasizing the running game was actually obtaining running backs that were above replacement level, something they did not have on their roster in 2013. One of their first moves in free agency was bringing in Ben Tate to be their lead back this year. Entering his fourth season at age 26, Tate is seemingly finally freed the shadows of strictly being a handcuff hero in fantasy.

There’s a fair amount of recency bias reflected in Tate’s ADP this summer, and based on his 2013 performance, some skepticism is warranted. In seven starts a year ago, Tate amassed only three top 24 PPR fantasy weeks, converted only one of eight carries inside the five for a touchdown and was a bottom 12 producer in touchdowns on percent of his touches.

A big part of that was that he was placed in less than accommodating situations created by the burning house known as the Texans offense. Only 26 percent of his carries came while Houston held a lead as the Texans ran 70 percent of their offensive plays while playing from behind. The other side of his inefficiency stemmed from playing with broken ribs. Health has been a concern for him as he’s missed eight games over the past three seasons after missing his entire rookie season with a broken ankle.

Nearly all of that potential risk is already baked into his current cost, making Tate a solid selection on exceeding his draft capital since he’s priced near his floor as long as he’s on the field. As expected, during the preseason Tate solidified his hold on the starting job and fought off any initial signs of their being a true committee approach entering the season.  When Shanahan has had a healthy lead runner, he’s been willing to ride him as well; giving his healthy lead backs 70 percent of the running back rushing attempts in every season outside of injury induced committees. The entire outlook for the Browns as a team likely caps Tate’s ceiling because he’s not much a pass catcher, but Tate is a solid option as an RB2 for those going receiver heavy early on.

The Browns also added depth to the position by trading up to acquire Terrance West this spring. West is a traditional bellcow runner, carrying an average of 25.8 times per game in 2013 at Towson, while adding 26 receptions. His physical profile (5’9” 225) is durable enough for NFL banging and his 4.54 forty holds good water for his size. He’s going to get carries weekly and be involved, but is still strictly a handcuff option on a team that may not be that great on offense. Anything in the single digit rounds is far too rich for my blood as I cannot foresee myself foregoing more immediate, predictable volume at receivers and backs in his draft area. Dion Lewis is still the one player in the backfield that has a skill set suited to be a pass catcher, so while he doesn’t standalone value, he does ding potential catches that either back could see.

Brown Out

With the status of Josh Gordon’s 2014 availability still in purgatory at the moment, it’s hard to actually pull the trigger on the 2013 megatarget. I’m not going to speculate on the outcome of the ruling, but assuming he does somehow receive a suspension for half of the season, his target area would be around WR40-50. If he is reinstated, then he slides right into the top tier of receivers, but I’ll likely pass on him there because I don’t believe he’ll meet that price tag.

We’re going to go forward as if he won’t be on the field at all. Without him, things are very scary for this offense as Cleveland would field one the least talented receiving units in the entire league. Using the Career Graphs App available at RotoViz, here’s the remaining depth at the position that would be leaned on in the absence of Gordon and their on field performance over the past three years.

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Shanahan has been one to funnel targets to his lead receiver outside, but this is a unit that’s made up of slot options and one trick vertical threats. Burleson has yet to even participate on the field yet as he deals with a hamstring injury, so his ultimate stance with the team may not even exist. Armstrong and Benjamin aren’t fantasy contributors that have some splash play capabilities, but both have shown that they can’t be depended on as more than situational players.

That leaves us with Miles Austin, who is the favorite to lead a Gordonless receiver group in scores. Austin has slowly been fading away with compounding hamstring injuries and last season he ranked 91st in fantasy points provided as a target for his quarterback, which was below Stephen Hill, Vincent Brown, and even Greg Little. He’s dirt cheap and he’s going to play snaps as long as he’s upright, however, so if you’re going to make a late swing on this group, he has the most upside and has actually given us something tangible in fantasy before.

Hawkins is a Rip Van Winkle of many this summer, but it’s really hard for me to be excited about him. He’s already 28 years old entering this season with only 86 career receptions and four total touchdowns. We know he’s going to be involved based on the Browns willingness to sign him while he was a restricted free agent, but just how much will he be involved in this passing game is the question. Hawkins is niche player at his size (5 foot 7, 175 pounds), really only utilized inside. Here’s his career usage per route and how much he’s been used strictly as a slot receiver.

 

Year Routes Slot Rts Slot %
2013 82 70 85.4%
2012 384 331 86.2%
2011 132 119 90.2%
Total 598 520 87.0%

*Route Data Provided By Pro Football Focus

That’s something you can live with in fantasy for an open offense, but for the anticipated approach I’m expecting this offense to have; his ceiling is going to be quite capped. While Hawkins has run nearly 90 percent of his career routes from the slot, Shanahan’s offenses typically haven’t fed that option in the passing game.

Year Lead Slot Tgt Total Tm Slot Tgts
2013 58 115
2012 47 94
2011 48 108
2010 60 82
2009 40 88
2008 33 90
 AVG. 47.7 96.2

*Route Data Provided By Pro Football Focus

 

The most targets a player has gotten from the slot were to Santana Moss in 2010. While this Shanahan offense may not look like previous ones as he’ll be forced to adjust to this personnel group, it’s hard to really see Hawkins as anything more than an option in draft only formats due to his ability to generate splash plays.

Even with a dim light being cast on those receivers, Cleveland still does have a talented pass catcher on their offense in tight end in Jordan Cameron. Cameron was on fire early in the season as he averaged a plush 24 PPR points per game over the season’s first four weeks. He averaged a still respectable 9.8 points per week afterwards, but he was hurt the most by quarterback swapping a year ago. Fantasy owners are looking for Cameron to make the next step this season, as his ADP is still in the sixth round or higher. As far as production, here’s how he stacks up with the other big names at the tight end position per game.

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Cameron did do a lot of his fantasy work while Cleveland was trailing big, scoring one third of fantasy points trailing by two scores or more. Those accommodating coverage situations played a part in a catch rate that Mike Clay expects to regress this season, which could potentially make Cameron an overvalued commodity. This offensive system has seen monster volume and productions seasons from tight ends before such as Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels, players that aren’t even in Cameron’s realm in terms of athleticism and ability, so there’s reason to believe that he still can best that draft slot and carry this passing game. C.D. Carter has him holding his current draft cost, so for those shopping for an early tight end after the big three have been plucked, Cameron is as good as they come.

Show Us the Money (Fingers)

Brian Hoyer has already been tabbed as the Browns’ starter entering 2014 and he’ll be the teams’ 12th different opening week starter in their 16 seasons since being back. Hoyer will be 29-years old this October with four career NFL starts on his third different team and is playing ahead of a first round rookie with massive market ability on a potential losing squad. You don’t have to stay at a Holiday Inn to know the probability of how this going to end.

It was also an extreme myth of just how good Hoyer was when he played last season because he looked somewhat competent in comparison to his competition in house. He threw 70 percent of his passes while in favorable game conditions, but was on par with Terrelle Pryor and Josh Freeman in those spots. Looking at the Browns schedule, there’s a realistic chance that they could be staring at 0-3 heading into the week four bye.  Facing only one team that won more than five games a year ago in their five games following that bye, that would create an ideal situation for the organization to turn the keys over to first round selection Johnny Manziel.

The Cleveland offense will likely need Manziel’s ability with his legs to keep this offense from becoming stagnant, even if that welcomes with it some mistakes. Manziel’s one of the rarest quarterback prospects to come out and Shawn Siegele questions if he could be the best one. Davis Mattek sees his rushing ability as enough to make him a screaming bargain while C.D. Carter sees his floor as the most desirable part of his fantasy game.

JJ Zachariason has a little cold water to throw on his ceiling and I regard in his camp for the 2014 season even if I see Manziel as a long term fantasy asset. I don’t see his immediate rushing ceiling being as high as Cam Newton’s because he doesn’t have the size that Newton has used to exploit inside the five yard line to boost his touchdown totals on the ground nor does he have the track star long speed that Robert Griffin displayed before his injuries as a rookie. If and when he does start, his 2014 fantasy output will likely be similar to what you will be able to get from Alex Smith, but he can still be used a streaming option once he takes the field.

2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections

Passing

Player Att Comp % Yards TD INT FF PTs Total Pts
Brian Hoyer 102.3 63.7 62.2% 696.3 4.7 1.9 42.7 47.8
Johnny Manziel 409.3 246.9 60.3% 2785.1 17.5 9.3 162.8 223.6

 

Rushing

Player Att Yds YPC TD FF PTs
Ben Tate 232.3 998.9 4.3 5.8 132.4
Terrance West 92.9 390.3 4.2 1.9 49.2
Johnny Manziel 79.0 466.0 5.9 3.9 60.8

 

Receiving

Player TGT Rec Yards TD PTS PPR PTS
Miles Austin 102.3 56.3 658.4 4.5 92.9 149.1
Andrew Hawkins 92.1 51.6 593.0 2.6 74.8 126.3
Jordan Cameron 107.4 73.1 847.4 8.0 133.0 206.0
Ben Tate 46.0 32.7 232.1 1.0 29.1 61.8
Terrance West 25.6 18.9 142.0 0.6 17.6 36.5

 

Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Tate – this is the moment we’ve been waiting for over the past three years and not many people are still on the bus. This team could be run reliant and if Manziel plays early, can open more opportunities for Tate to flourish.

Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Manziel – there’s the chance that he just doesn’t play and the thought that he may be overvalued when he does.

Best Waiver Wire Option: Austin – West will still be plucked in your drafts, but Austin has at least given us something tangible in the past. You’re injury prone until you’re not. If healthy, he may be fed targets without Gordon available.

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