The Cleveland Browns entered the 2019 season on everyone’s radar in large part to an offense that was expected to terrorize opposing defenses.
That never happened, of course, as the team’s skill players failed to coalesce into a formidable unit for a variety of reasons and the Browns finished the year 22nd in scoring, passing yards and total offense.
A new season brings new hope, and as teams prepare for the expected start of training camp later this month, NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks is not discouraged by what he saw from the Browns last season.
In fact, Brooks selected the Browns top five skill players - wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and tight end Austin Hooper - as the best “starting five” in the league:
The Browns have assembled an All-Madden Team on the perimeter with a collection of five-star playmakers surrounding Baker Mayfield. OBJ and Landry are sure-handed pass catchers with outstanding running skills in the open field. Hooper is the designated seam runner with slick route-running skills and sticky hands. Chubb and Hunt are high-end RB1-types with the potential to take over as inside-outside runners with sneaky skills in the passing game. In a redesigned offense that places a greater emphasis on balance and efficiency under head coach Kevin Stefanski, the Browns’ starting five could become the most dominant unit in football.
It is pretty impressive that Brooks has the Browns at the top of the list, especially considering that puts Cleveland ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 2), New Orleans Saints (No. 3), Kansas City Chiefs (No. 4) and Dallas Cowboys (No. 5).
One of the biggest differences, however, is that those teams have a pretty clear expectation of what they will get from their quarterback this year, while the Browns are not quite as certain about quarterback Baker Mayfield.
This is not to start some silly debate about whether or not Mayfield should be the starter. Outside of a serious injury, he is the unquestioned QB1 for the Browns.
But to not acknowledge that Mayfield played at least some part in the team’s offensive struggles last season would be obtuse. The Mayfield that was comfortable, confident and productive in 2018 was rarely seen last year.
General manager Andrew Berry worked to fix some of the issues that hampered the team last year, most notably by signing Jack Conklin and drafting Jedrick Wills Jr. to solidify the offensive line, but the biggest fix may come from head coach Kevin Stefanski.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell took a deeper look at Mayfield’s game in a column last week (which is well worth reading), and highlighted the impact that using play-action has on Mayfield’s game:
With the (John) Dorsey regime removed from power after the disastrous 2019 campaign and analytics-friendly executive Andrew Berry taking over as general manager, the Browns are again one of the league’s most numbers-friendly organizations. Mayfield was a totally different quarterback when he used play-action a year ago; his 106.2 passer rating with play-action was the 13th-best mark in football, but that fell all the way to 68.7 without using play fakes, which ranked 32nd. Mayfield’s interception rate jumped from 2.5% with play-action to 3.8% without.
That dovetails nicely with Stefanski’s approach last season with the Minnesota Vikings, where as offensive coordinator he had the Vikings run play-action on 31 percent of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ pass attempts, according to Barnwell, which was the fourth most for a starting quarterback.
It is over simplifying the situation to believe that running more play-action will solve all the problems. But given the success the Vikings had last season, it is not hard to see the Browns having even more success with defenses having to respect Chubb in the running game, which should open up numerous opportunities for Mayfield to attack the opposition.
If Mayfield can do that, then the Browns offense may be able to live up to the hype this fall.