Each year, Dawgs By Nature asks five questions to Football Outsiders to gain some insight on the way they view the Cleveland Browns, or players on the team, from an analytical and statistical perspective. Rivers McCown joined us for this year’s Q&A, and I hope everyone enjoys!
The Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 is available from FootballOutsiders.com in electronic form or you can buy it at Amazon.com in printed form. Football Outsiders has partnered with United Way to donate 10% of the proceeds from every copy of Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 to benefit United Way Worldwide’s COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund.
Chris: “Jack Conklin was one of the Browns’ major upgrades this season, coming over from the Tennessee Titans. How did Football Outsiders assess his performance, and should he be a significant upgrade over Chris Hubbard?”
Rivers: “Conklin projects as a minor upgrade as a pass blocker and a major upgrade as a run blocker. We have Hubbard blowing a block on about every 30 snaps in two of the last three years, the exception being 2018. Conklin has never been that bad of a liability, though he did allow six sacks on his own in 2018. Given that getting a push in the red zone was a major problem for Nick Chubb the last two years (136 yards on 77 carries, negative DVOAs in each season), Conklin’s experience in front of Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray should be a big deal.”
Chris: “Baker Mayfield didn’t live up to expectations as a sophomore, and now he’ll have his third head coach in as many years. We’ve heard a lot about how Kevin Stefanski will use the play-action pass like he did in Minnesota: do you have the statistics to back that up (and if not, what strengths do you see him bringing to the offense for Mayfield)?”
Rivers: “As we point out in FOA 2020, Mayfield averaged 8.4 yards per attempt out of play-action last season, and 10.0 yards per attempt using play-action in 2018 with Mayfield. The Vikings ran play-action on 30% of their pass plays last year, as compared to Cleveland’s 28%. But Stefanski does have a lot of experience under Gary Kubiak and Pat Shurmur in situations where they used play-action even more and I expect he’ll tailor his game plan to Mayfield’s strengths a lot better than Freddie Kitchens did.”
Chris: “In your Almanac, you say that tight end Austin Hooper gaves the Browns’ offense a little boost, but that the overall offensive numbers for the team are just average. That isn’t fun for fans to hear, who want to believe the team has stars and significantly upgraded talent at each position. Which players have limited the offense to only being considered average?”
Rivers: “Hey, welcome to being a writer trying to explain a projection system, where no matter what you do you disappoint everybody! Baker Mayfield did not play well last year, and even though he has a good subjective chance to bounce back and we actually do project the offense to be better than it was last year, that doesn’t mean what happened last season is meaningless. David Njoku hasn’t been a darling of empirical systems or even put up a non-negative receiving DVOA. Wyatt Teller (or whoever wins the right guard competition) probably isn’t likely to produce great results.
As we emphasize in the chapter, the take that the Browns can bounce back is a fair one and a few teams have bounced back from poor offensive performances in a hurry in the last 3-4 years. (The Jared Goff Rams, for one.) But most teams do not do that, and a projection system isn’t going to pick up on that to the extent a fan viewpoint would like to see.”
Chris: “Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon was viewed as somewhat of a letdown last season; while he wasn’t a liability, he didn’t quite stand out. What type of season did he have numbers wise?”
Rivers: “Sports Info Solutions had Vernon with 23 hurries in 519 snaps, which is as many as Myles Garrett had. Of course, he finished with 6.5 fewer sacks and 10 less defeats, but a healthy Vernon is a solid secondary rusher. The problem is that “a healthy Vernon” is starting to become a theoretical thing along the lines of “a functioning government system.””
Chris: “Safety Karl Joseph comes over from the Oakland Raiders. How did he perform in Oakland; what can we expect him to bring to Cleveland?”
Rivers: “We believe Joseph is a better box safety than a deep safety, and Jon Gruden’s Raiders used Joseph more as a deep safety last season. If you really want to dredge up the sad numbers, Joseph had a woeful 27% success rate in coverage and allowed 11.7 yards per target. But … only 11 targets. So that’s such a small sample size that it’s basically not even statistically significant.”
Thanks again to Rivers for all of his insight from Football Outsiders!