Browns Year in Review

2014 Pass Attempts Rank: 26th (502)
2014 Rush Attempts Rank: 6th (477)
2014 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 19th (1,010)
2014 Yards Per Play Rank: 27th (5.1)

Projected Starting Lineup

QB: Josh McCown
RB: Isaiah Crowell
WR: Dwayne Bowe
WR: Brian Hartline
WR: Andrew Hawkins
TE: Rob Housler
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: Joel Bitonio
C: Alex Mack
RG: Cameron Erving
RT: Mitchell Schwartz

Passing Game Outlook

Although Browns coaches and front-office men were effusive in their praise of Josh McCown at spring workouts, the reality is McCown is a 36-year-old journeyman on his ninth NFL team who has just twice in his 12-year career finished a season with more touchdowns than interceptions. In Tampa Bay last season, McCown was frenetic in the pocket, ranked 39th in completion rate (56.3) among passers with 100-plus attempts, and committed 24 combined fumbles and interceptions across 11 starts. In Cleveland, McCown will play with the worst pass-catcher corps of his career and in an offense that is built to play run-first, smashmouth football. The best guess is that both McCown and Johnny Manziel make starts this year.

Johnny Manziel‘s off-field problems have generated more headlines, but his on-field playing ability is a bigger question mark at this point. Manziel is small and not particularly strong armed, and his improv-based style of college play hasn’t historically translated well to the NFL. Manziel did not know the playbook during his 2014 spot starts. He is supposedly more bought in this offseason, yet was still soundly outplayed by McCown at OTAs and minicamp. I do expect Manziel to see playing time this year, but only because I fully expect McCown to struggle. So far, at least, Manziel has shown every symptom of a colossal NFL draft bust.

Turning 31 in September, Dwayne Bowe is a late-career possession receiver. Whether Bowe has any playmaking ability left is a legitimate question. He’s gone 17 regular season games without scoring a touchdown, although Chiefs QB Alex Smith‘s risk-averse passing approach is partially to blame and has limited the impact of his receiver corps in the past. Bowe’s individual performance was mediocre last season, dropping 7-of-95 targets and ranking 67th among 110 qualified wideouts in PFF’s yards-after-catch per reception metric. Still, sheer opportunity makes Bowe an intriguing sleeper for 2015. His competition for targets consists of fellow veteran retread Brian Hartline, 5-foot-7, 182-pound slot man Andrew Hawkins, and underachieving TE Rob Housler. Bowe is highly unlikely to light up the stat sheet in Cleveland, but I think he offers a 60-catch floor with an outside shot at 75-80 receptions.

Competing for playing time in three-wideout sets will be ex-Dolphin Brian Hartline, slot maven Andrew Hawkins, explosive but pint-sized sophomore Taylor Gabriel, and sluggish fourth-round pick Vince Mayle. 28-year-old Hartline is allergic to the end zone, while Mayle has fullback speed at 4.67. Hawkins was Cleveland’s best receiver last season, playing all over the formation and posting career bests in catches (63) and yards (824). Hawkins is another non-touchdown scorer, however, and his target count may fall dramatically after he saw a team-high 112 last season. In what will likely be a dysfunctional passing game on a run-first team, Browns receivers beyond perhaps Bowe will struggle to provide any fantasy impact.

The Cardinals made Rob Housler a top-70 draft pick after he shredded the 2011 Combine, running 4.55 with a 37-inch vertical and 6.90 three-cone time at 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds. Injuries, inconsistency, and Bruce Arians‘ tight end-unfriendly offense combined to make Housler a general non-factor the past four seasons. Housler is still only 27 years old, and targets are up for grabs in Cleveland. His primary competition for tight end snaps is Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray. New Browns OC John DeFilippo spent the last three seasons as a quarterbacks coach in Oakland, where Mychal Rivera made fantasy noise from time to time despite far less physical ability than Housler. If Housler can earn a regular position in the Browns’ 2015 offense, he could push for low-end TE1 stats. His current ADP is undrafted.

Running Game Outlook

Isaiah Crowell turned in a solid season for an undrafted rookie in 2014, averaging 4.10 yards per carry behind a Browns line that collapsed immediately after C Alex Mack fractured his leg and ankle in October. The Browns did not trust Crowell as a pass protector, however, and he saw only 14 targets in the passing game, catching nine for 87 yards. Crowell also showed a distinct lack of elusiveness as a runner; PFF charted him with just nine missed tackles forced, a league low among backs with at least 140 attempts. Still, Crowell runs with purpose and downhill burst inside the tackles, and is easily Cleveland’s top short-yardage back. While the third-round selection of Duke Johnson is a concern for his 2015 outlook, Crowell will open training camp as the favorite for early-down work behind a line that returns all five starters and added C/G Cameron Erving in the first round. The fantasy outlook for all Browns runners is diminished by what will likely prove one of the league’s lowest-scoring offenses, but Crowell is affordably priced at his seventh-round ADP. I like his chances of finishing as a top-24 fantasy back.

When I watched Duke Johnson‘s Miami (FL) tape, I saw a slippery back capable of shedding contact between the tackles and a consistent finisher who maximized runs. Johnson was also a terrific receiver, turning checkdowns into big plays and making tough catches downfield. At every stop since drafting him 77th overall, Browns brass has compared Johnson to Bengals scatback Giovani Bernard. I envisioned Johnson as a potential NFL lead runner, but Cleveland seems to fancy him a passing-down and change-of-pace back. Johnson’s current ADP stands in round ten, but glowing spring reports could spike his average draft slot, especially if Johnson continues to shine in padded practices. Ultimately, Johnson’s year-one ceiling is likely an RBBC member in one of the league’s worst offenses who cedes goal-line work to Crowell. While I do believe Johnson is capable of changing the Browns’ perception of him, the upside is so limited that it’s a tough projection on which to gamble before the double-digit rounds.

Terrance West‘s 2014 yards-per-carry average (3.94) wasn’t far behind Crowell’s, but from watching the two play it was pretty clear Crowell is the superior runner. West is a solid passing-game back, but not quite as skilled there as Duke Johnson. Thus, West is left as the likely backup to both roles, perhaps mixing in for a handful of touches and snaps per game depending on how often new OC John DeFilippo rotates his runners. A post-minicamp breakdown by ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi listed West as the Browns’ No. 3 back, and did not so much as mention West’s name when assessing Cleveland’s workload distribution. Crowell was described as the clear starter, and Johnson as “an option on passing downs.”

Vegas Win Total

The Browns’ 2015 Vegas Win Total is 6.5, aggressive for a team that projects to be so anemic on offense and struggled mightily to stop opposing running games last year. Cleveland is also short on outside pass rushers, has a first-time offensive coordinator, and plays in arguably the NFL’s toughest division. The Browns open the season against three beatable opponents — @ NYJ, vs. TEN, vs. OAK — before their schedule becomes extremely difficult from Weeks 4-17. Cleveland does have some intriguing pieces on both sides of the ball, but won’t score many points and lacks a game-controlling defense. I like the under on the Browns’ win total.

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