With the 2022 NFL Draft in the books and Free Agency mostly wrapped up, it’s time to turn our attention to the upcoming season. Throughout the off-season, I’ll be looking at some position groups that featured new additions and could have a new look come September. Today, I’m looking toward Ohio and the mystery that is the Browns’ passing game.
The 2021 Cleveland Browns
Coming off a 12-win season that saw the team advance to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, expectations in Cleveland were high. The team has a stout backfield, and with Baker Mayfield leading a passing group that included Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Austin Hooper, it seemed like the Browns were destined to make another post-season run. It didn’t happen. The team sputtered, particularly on offense, ending the season 8-9 and out of the playoffs. It led to an off-season of hard questions, resulting in a new passing game roster. But will it work?
Beckham didn’t work out with the Browns in 2021, ending up released and on the World Champion Rams by the end of the season. The Browns continued their purge this off-season, letting both Landry and Hooper go. Landry landed back in New Orleans, where he played college ball, while Hooper made his way to Tennessee. On the flip side, the Browns made a long-term commitment to David Njoku, signing him to a four-year deal worth more than $50 million.
But the Browns weren’t done re-making their passing game. The team traded for Deshaun Watson and signed Jacoby Brissett. While Mayfield is still on the roster now, he’s not expected to be a part of the Browns quarterback group heading into the season. And to help out whoever is under center, the Browns acquired Dallas Cowboys’ receiver, Amari Cooper. The Browns got Cooper for a Fifth and Sixth Round pick, acquiring the Cowboys’ Sixth Round pick in the process. It seemed like a small price to pay to snag a star receiver.
Cooper is certainly that—a star. He began his career with the Raiders, playing there for three and a half seasons before being traded to the Cowboys. In Dallas, he continued to blossom playing in a high-volume pass offense with star quarterback Dak Prescott. Cooper has seen 100-plus targets in six of his seven seasons, seeing 96 in the other due to games missed with injury. And he’s been productive, catching 517 passes for 7,076 yards and 46 touchdowns. He is by far the best receiver in the Browns’ arsenal heading into 2022.
The 2022 Cleveland Browns
The Browns saw their top three receivers from 2021 head out the door in Landry, Beckham, and Hooper. They take a collective 182 targets with them. The team also saw veteran receiver Rashard Higgins depart for Carolina. He saw 47 targets in 2021 as a complimentary piece of the passing game. But with Cooper in town, much of that burden should be eased. The question is, what comes alongside Cooper in the pass offense?
Conventional wisdom this off-season suggested that Cleveland would prioritize a signing or drafting a receiver. It hasn’t happened. While some free agents—like Will Fuller V—continue to be linked to the team, the Browns seem happy with their group. Njoku showed flashes of his big-play ability in the passing game in 2021, likely a part of the reason he received a big extension. The Browns also have young receivers in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz, who were drafted recently, along with 2022 draft pick David Bell. The team also has a decent weapon in TE Harrison Bryant.
It’s a young and emerging receiving corps, but will that be enough in 2022?
For the Browns, it’s not so much about the receivers as the passer. And that’s where the problem likely lies. Mayfield seems to be on his way out unless a miraculous change of heart occurs on both sides. Meanwhile, Watson is facing league discipline over accusations of misconduct off the field. The final total hasn’t been announced, but many suspect Watson won’t play a down for Cleveland—or anyone else—in 2022. That likely leaves Brissett as the man under center in Cleveland.
The last time Brissett led the offense as a starter was in 2019 in Indianapolis. He started 15 games, going 7-8 as the team finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. Worse yet, the passing game struggled mightily. The Colts finished the season No. 24 in pass attempts, No. 30 in pass yards, and No. 19 in passing touchdowns. That was a big part of why Indianapolis replaced Brissett with Phillip Rivers the following year. While Brissett didn’t have a receiver as strong as Cooper on that team, no pass-catcher saw more than 72 targets.
The only upside for Browns fans might be that they’ve seen this kind of pass offense before. In 2021, the Browns finished No. 28 in pass attempts, No. 27 in pass yards, and No. 20 in passing touchdowns. So, while Watson would likely elevate that attack, Brissett might not be a bad option to maintain the status quo. In that offense, Landry led the team with 87 targets. If Cooper gets 100-110 targets, which seems reasonable, it’s likely Njoku and Peoples-Jones could see 60-75 targets, with a healthier Kareem Hunt seeing 60-65 targets. Receivers like Schwartz and Bell could see 30-45 targets, all lining up with the passing rates the Browns had in 2021 and Brissett mustered in 2019.
From a fantasy perspective, that should give players pause. I still like Cooper and Njoku in dynasty, while it might be too early to tell with Peoples-Jones. But in terms of 2022, it’s hard to expect much. I see Cooper ending up in the WR3 range—which might even be optimistic—and Njoku as more of a TE2. It’s hard to believe that aside from the backs, anyone else will be a reliable weekly option for the Browns. Seeing as Cooper is currently going as WR21 (which is fine for dynasty), I’d be moderating my expectations in the short-term or re-draft leagues.
Matthew Fox is a member of the FSWA. He’s a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ Homer. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.