Stock Watch: Reassessing the Browns
Stock Watch: Reassessing the Browns

This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.

With a new coach, new general manager, and by far the league's most cap space, it's not surprising that the Browns offense already has a very different appearance going into April. Drastic change was needed after Baker Mayfield's letdown 2019 season, and they're well on their way toward remodeling the setup. Those changes could dictate a rearrangement of the ADP of the notable players in question. Should they?

The Austin Hooper signing is of course the most singularly important personnel development, as Cleveland made him the league's highest-paid tight end following a season where he averaged 14.6 PPR points per game (75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns on 97 targets in 13 games). Not 26 until late October, Hooper will clearly be a centerpiece of this offense. There was no such figure in the offense previously – Cleveland tight ends combined for just 41 receptions, 497 yards, and nine touchdowns on 69 targets last year. Hooper alone might go for 800 yards or more in 2020, so a subtraction will likely occur elsewhere even if Baker Mayfield improves on last year's total of 3,827 yards passing.

Where you anticipate that subtraction will do a lot to inform what you think about the various cast members of the Browns offense this year. With Hooper, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt all candidates for the pinch, one can subscribe to a number of theories. And none of that is to consider what might change in light of the draft, or the potential return of David Njoku.

Based on the recent ADP changes in 12-team BestBall10 drafts, none of these various theories has taken an obviously dominant hold in the mainstream consensus. A few trends seem to be emerging, however. Hooper has been one of the losers in the ADP since he agreed to sign with Cleveland on March 16, before which his ADP was 67th (70.14 ADP) and after which was 76th (79.03 ADP). Odell Beckham fell from 27th (27.92 ADP) to 29th (30.03 ADP), while Nick Chubb slipped from 8th (8.64 ADP) to 9th (9.73 ADP). Of course, Chubb's slide could more so be informed by when Cleveland assigned a second-round restricted free agent tag to Hunt on the same day Hooper agreed to sign. For whatever reason, Landry's ADP has gone almost unaffected, ranking 71st in both samples while going from 72.53 ADP to 72.86.

So that means that, based on the ADP generated since the 16th, the markets think Hooper's signing will hurt Hooper more than anyone, and that Hooper will pose no threat whatsoever to Landry or Hunt. I don't see it that way. I do agree that it's a downgrade for Hooper to go from Atlanta, where he fit perfectly in a system whose quarterback was fond of and familiar with him, into a transitioning Cleveland offense that grades worse yet more crowded than the prior one in Atlanta. I still think Hooper is going to be busy, though, and I think his production will occur primarily at the expense of Landry and Hunt.

THE SCHEME

Before I go too far into my reasons why, it's worth zooming back out briefly to imagine the broader design of the Cleveland offense now that new head coach Kevin Stefanski takes it over from Freddie Kitchens. One theory is that Stefanski might look to feature both Hooper and Njoku in a primarily two-tight end offense, not unlike what Minnesota ran last year with Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith under Stefanski. Indeed, BrownsZone's Scott Petrak published an article Monday speculating that the Browns would use a two-tight end set at least 55 percent of the time, implicitly pointing to last year's Minnesota team as evidence that Stefanski "loves to use two-tight end sets." I'm not convinced this is true – I think Stefanski used Rudolph and Smith a lot last year because Minnesota's third-best receiver was Chad Beebe. Vikings tight ends combined for 1,710 snaps last year, but in 2019 they combined for only 1,302. Did Stefanski hate tight ends in 2018? Did he suddenly love them in 2019? Probably not.

Granted, Hooper and Njoku are as strong of a tight end duo as any, and it'd be easy to find the motive to get them both on the field. There are still two problems I see. One is that the Browns aren't committed to Njoku, who has one year left on his rookie contract might therefore remain a trade or even a cut candidate. In the case of Rudolph and Smith, both were under long-term contracts. The second issue is that if Hooper and Njoku are both on the field most of the time, it means Landry will have to line up outside the vast majority of the time. Whereas Adam Thielen is a slot wideout who can still produce outside and downfield, Landry is a slot wideout who struggles outside and downfield. The distinction is meaningful, because there's no reason to think Landry can justify his $14.55 million cap hit generally, let alone if he's playing out of position while returning no sooner than August from an offseason hip labrum surgery. If you believe in the theory that Stefanski will utilize a two-TE emphasis, then that alone is reason for you to worry about Landry.

THE PASS CATCHERS

I don't personally worry about the two-tight end scenario for Landry – Hooper alone is enough of a concern. Hooper was credited with 300 snaps at receiver last year (287 slot) on 726 snaps, which means roughly 39.5 percent of his snaps last year occurred in the slot. If we assume Hooper plays more than 35 percent of his snaps in the slot, how many of those times do we think the Browns are in a four-wide formation? Because if they're in a three-wide formation it means that Landry is again lining up outside. But even if we're talking three wide with Landry in the slot and Hooper at proper tight end, this is still a scenario that concerns me for Landry. Like I said earlier, the Browns tight ends last year combined for 41 receptions for 491 yards. Hooper had 526 yards on 46 receptions through seven games last year. Despite their different positions, Landry and Hooper are basically competing to establish themselves as the offense's primary underneath receiving threat, and I think we have reason to consider Hooper the favorite.

In the last two years the Falcons completed 68.7 percent of their passes at 7.7 yards per attempt, while the Browns completed 60.3 percent of their passes at 7.3 YPA. In that same span, Hooper caught 78.9 percent of his targets at 7.8 yards per target, while Landry caught 57.1 percent of his targets at 7.5 YPT. As you can see, Hooper produced well above the baseline of the Atlanta passing game, while Landry was no better than right at the baseline of the Cleveland offense. The Falcons passing game was only 8.4 completion percentage points and 0.4 YPA better than the Browns in this sample, yet Hooper outdid Landry by 21.8 completion percentage points and 0.2 YPT. Now consider: if Landry is the second-best short-route target in the Browns offense and he otherwise can't compete with Odell Beckham in the intermediate and downfield, what are the odds that Landry finishes as better than the third-leading receiving threat on this team? And how many of the people buying Landry had that particular outcome in mind? I'd guess not many.

Whether it's Beckham, Landry, or something else, we know Hooper's arrival will bring a usage pinch for some player or another. This is a near certainty – the Browns tight ends totaled 69 targets on 1,303 snaps last year, while Hooper reached his 73rd target last year by his 572nd snap. But perhaps this won't be the problem of Landry or Beckham...

THE BACKFIELD

If Hooper isn't the problem of Landry or Beckham, though, then someone in the backfield will have to pay up. Chubb and Hunt are both quite good, but the pie is only so big and someone somewhere will have to lose.

To figure out who's more likely to lose, it's worth reminding ourselves what they're actually competing over. Some of the more pessimistic forecasts for Chubb make their arguments around the question of the passing game, where Hunt has an advantage. They point to how Hunt played 309 snaps in his eight games following suspension, an eight-game span in which Chubb played only 424 snaps, and they presume a similar split, or even one that tilts even more in Hunt's favor with the passage of time.

But it's one thing for Hunt to be a useful pass catcher in an offense without Hooper, and a different matter to draw usage after Hooper's arrival. After all, of those 309 snaps Hunt played, PFF credits only 209 in the backfield, and 12 of those were at fullback. So in eight games Hunt played 197 snaps at running back, and the 112 snaps otherwise are at positions that might not be available in light of Hooper's arrival, namely the tight end and slot snaps. Framing it another way: Hunt had more targets (44) than carries (43) in his eight games last year. How are you feeling about him if the targets cut in half?

Now, if Hooper pushes a greater share of Hunt's snaps to the backfield, and if Hooper's usage will draw targets in the same part of the field where Hunt functioned last year, then that evaporation of receiving functions means Hunt would only displace Chubb by outplaying Chubb as a runner. It's pretty easy for people to hype Hunt by making vague references to his superior versatility or quickness or whatever, but it's less easy for them to explain why what they're talking about matters at all. If the running back function in this offense is primarily to run, then rushing results are what primarily matter for the running back position in this offense. Talk about aesthetics and unrelated skills all you'd like – as far as rushing results go there's nothing ambiguous about Chubb's superiority to Hunt. There's a pretty easy case to make that Chubb is the league's best pure runner – it's not necessarily a fight anyone can win, let alone a guy on a one-year contract with substantial character concerns.

I'm self-plagiarizing a bit by bringing this up again, but aside from Chubb only 10 other players in NFL history possess a career average of 5.08 yards per carry over 490 or more carries, and three of those 10 are Jim Brown, Jamaal Charles, and Bo Jackson. It's not as if Chubb has had a favorable playing situation, either – the Browns offensive line was trash last year and we might never see a more incompetent head coach than what Kitchens was. There's a non-zero chance that Chubb becomes even more explosive if Stefanski and his zone-blocking schemes catch on with a generally improved Cleveland offensive line. Remember how Dalvin Cook looked under Gary Kubiak's influence last year? The same scheme shift that the Vikings underwent from 2018 to 2019 is what the Browns will theoretically undergo with Stefanski this year.

THE FINANCES

I've talked a lot about what the Cleveland offense will look like based on its current personnel, but it's worth thinking about the extent to which the Browns are invested in these various players, because the degree of investment could inform more changes yet with the draft still ahead. Teams generally look to justify their investments – it would be strange if the Browns made Hooper the highest-paid tight end just to have him play a peripheral role, in other words – so we should consider the institutional interests that might influence the goals of Stefanski and the team's front office.

We all think whatever we do about Beckham, Landry, and Hunt, and they of course each bring their own compelling skill sets. What we still need to keep in mind in each case is the fact that the Browns are not bound to any of them. You might think Beckham is a useful and great receiver (I do!), but because he was acquired by trade his contract has no cap penalties attached now, making it easier for the Browns to move him by trade. The Browns might not have any intention of moving Beckham, but because they can move his contract with no penalty it's simply easier for them to stumble across an offer they can't refuse.

In Landry's case the trade scenario is much less likely, because whereas Beckham's cap hit is justifiable ($14.25M), I'd say Landry's ($14.55M) is not, so I don't know why anyone would consent to taking on Landry's contract. That, and Landry's contract still carries a $2.95 million cap penalty until after this season. The Browns have the league's most cap space – about $7.1 million more than the team with the second-most space – so that $2.95 million penalty alone won't necessarily stop them. But even if the Browns go into 2020 with Landry on the roster, his high salary, durability concerns, and expiring cap protection make the Browns a good candidate to take a receiver as early as the 10th overall pick, or the second round if not the first. Landry is not a useful long-term asset for the Browns, in other words, and they just might act like it in the draft.

In the case of Hunt, I think people are misunderstanding the significance of the second-round RFA tender he received. You shouldn't read that as 'The Browns value Hunt as much as a second-round pick,' you should read it in the context of his broader service time situation and recognize that the Browns simply preferred a second-round pick over the loss of Hunt, who will now play on a one-year contract before entering unrestricted free agency in 2021. Instead of equating Hunt to a second-round pick, they merely believed anything less than a 2020 second-round pick would be less valuable than one year of Hunt and the potential 2022 third-round compensatory pick they might receive if Hunt signs with another team in 2021.

Chubb's situation is drastically different from Hunt's. Whereas Hunt's service-time standing affords the Browns a chance to subsidize one year of top-notch running back depth with a potential 2022 third-round pick, Chubb's service-time standing is best exploited with a huge workload right now. Chubb has two years left on his rookie deal, at which point he will likely command as much as $15 million per year in free agency. Now what do you think is more likely, that the Browns would limit Chubb's workload the next two years in order to keep him fresh for a $15 million per year second contract, or that the Browns would use this two-year window to run Chubb into the ground while his salary is artificially low? It's not for long that you get a player as good as Chubb as cheap as the Browns have him, and they'd be fools to not capitalize in that two-year window specifically.

SUMMARY

I have my biases on these various questions – I incidentally don't believe Landry or Hunt are especially close to Beckham and Chubb as talents – but between that and the other schematic/financial details I believe the Hooper signing will primarily come at the expense of Landry and Hunt. There are only so many tasks to go around, and within the Browns offense as it's currently built the Landry/Hunt duo are the best at none of those tasks.

My verdicts on post-March 16 BestBall10 ADP:

Nick Chubb (9th, 9.73): Fair price

Odell Beckham (29th, 30.03): Fair price

Jarvis Landry (71st, 72.86): Fade

Kareem Hunt (75th, 77.61): Fade

Austin Hooper (76th, 79.05): Slight fade unless price falls below Hunter Henry (83rd) and Tyler Higbee (88th)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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