2018 Cleveland Browns Fantasy Football Preview
The Browns hired ex-Steelers Todd Haley as their OC after Pittsburgh decided against re-signing him. Haley reportedly had a rocky relationship with franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger, and thus he became available for a lateral move despite his immense offensive success over his past six years in Pittsburgh. Haley brings 11 years of OC or HC experience to Cleveland, where he'll (mercifully) take over playcalling duties for Hue Jackson.
Though he's moving from a team overflowing with offensive playmakers to one that's lacked even a pulse, Haley's presence is incredibly important. He has his fingerprints on some historic fantasy campaigns, is an aggressive offensive mind, and, with revamped weaponry and QB upgrades, the Browns have the pieces in place for a genuine offensive explosion in 2018.
A Points Factory... Nearly Everywhere
Though he's been coordinating offenses for 11 years now, Haley also carries an additional 10 years of NFL experience. He first entered the NFL ranks with the Jets as an Offensive Assistant / Quality Control manager, before cycling through the Jets, Bears, and Cowboys as a Wide Receivers coach -- a position Haley's absolutely dominated development and production. His time with the Cowboys was particularly of note, as Haley worked under Bill Parcells and cites him as a heavy inspiration.
Ultimately, Haley became the Passing Game Coordinator in Dallas, where he helped facilitate monster seasons out of Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn en route to some fantastic development from the then "raw" Tony Romo.
Haley didn't start calling his own plays, however, until he took over the OC role for the Cardinals in 2007, a gig he held for two years. In Arizona, Haley's teams ranked 7th and 3rd in points scored despite a near nonexistent rushing attack (29th and 32nd in rushing yards per season), largely due to an explosive passing game: 2nd in attempts both years, 5th and 2nd in yards, and 4th and 3rd in passing TDs respectively. This included a historic postseason run by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald that ultimately ended in a Super Bowl defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Haley parlayed this offensive outpour into a head coaching gig with the Kansas City Chiefs -- ultimately his only real failure in terms of points production. Over his three year stint from 2009-2011, Haley's offenses sputtered to the 27th, 13th, and 29th most points (even if he was not the main play-caller those latter two years). If any positives emerged, it was Haley's ability to adapt to his team's strengths: his offense went from the pass-obsessed Cardinals to the 15th, 1st, and 5th most run attempts over his three year run in Kansas City-- unsurprising when you've got a weapon like Jamaal Charles in the backfield and a bum like Matt Cassel under center.
Following these three drama-filled, paltry offensive seasons here, Haley was fired. He was immediately scooped up by the Steelers as their offensive coordinator, and had absolutely flourished here from 2012-2017. During Haley's six year stint, the Steelers finished outside the top 10 in passing TDs only once. The unit really exploded over his past four years, where the Steelers always ranked in the top 10 in total points, top seven in overall yardage, and top five in passing yardage specifically. Indeed he's had some enormous playmakers at his disposal, but Haley's consistently unleashed them the right ways.
Ultimately, Haley's offenses have averaged 24.4 points per game over his nine seasons calling plays. His only time below the 20 point thresholds were during those dreaded Kansas City years -- and he had given up play calling for two of those three seasons. He joins a Browns squad that hasn't averaged over 20 points per game since 2007 -- 10 full football seasons. Moreover, they scored the fewest points in the NFL in 2017, so there's nowhere to go but up.
Though the Browns have been a laughingstock, Haley has been handed a bevy of new weapons to work with. Most importantly, the QB play is destined for improvement with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield under center. Meanwhile, Jarvis Landry may be the most dangerous intermediate / YAC threat in the game, while the revamped backfield of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb should motor this power-run game. Adding these to a unit with a strong offensive line, explosive pass catchers in Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, and David Njoku, and the Browns might have the most historic offensive turnaround in NFL history.
When asked about his "offensive scheme," Haley has time and time again answered: he has no set system.
Rather, Haley is all about assessing his personnel, figuring out what they do well, and coming up with a simple but substantial playbook that plays into their strengths:
"Haley said he’s not a “system guy” and there is no unique Haley offensive system. 'What I believe in is playing to every player’s strength that you have as best you can,” he said. “Putting players into position to succeed, playing to their skillset. Wherever I have been, that is what I have really tried to do. Whether I was a position coach, coordinator, head coach, [I’ve tried] to put guys in position to succeed...
...it really stuck with me — no square pegs in round holes,” he said. “I’ve said it a million times. It’s what our guys do and what gives us a best chance to win. Whatever that is, we’re going to try to do it and not waste a lot of time with things we’re not in love with. We have a scaled-down playbook. Some guys have a million plays. We try to hone in on what we really love our guys doing and what we think gives us a chance to succeed.”
This, of course, is what any coach would state. Yet, while any playcaller will have his own offensive flavor, nearly every coach's offense has a base "recipe." Perhaps it's the higher-percentage "West Coast Attack," or maybe the more vertical "Air Coryell."
Yet, Haley's philosophy truly hinges upon his talent. This was entirely evident in the drastic changes in playcalling during his 2007-08 Arizona tenure in which the Cardinals led the league in pass attempts (97th percentile), to his Kansas City Tenure where he ranked in the bottom 25 in passing output for two seasons, yet led the league in rushing.
His future QB Tyrod Taylor has noticed this "player-driven" approach already, and is incredibly excited about what this could mean in 2018:
“It is a player-driven offense. I believe that we have the weapons and the talent on the offensive side of the ball to go out there and make explosive plays. If you look at the depth chart, there is talent at every position...
It allows everyone to be free. It allows Jarvis (Landry) to do what he does best. It allows Josh (Gordon) to do what he does best. It allows Seth (DeValve) and David (Njoku) to do what they do best...Of course, the running backs, putting them into situations where they can go out there and be themselves."
Still, some trends have emerged. At its peaks, Haley's offenses have generated big plays and stretched defenses vertically, ideally with the benefit of a versatile workhorse who can establish the play action and screen game with equal aptitude. He seeks out a "go-to" pass catcher who can dominate at every level, and peppers this target whenever available.
Thus, while we can't label the Browns offense any particular system, we can assess the team's talents and look at how Haley has deployed similar molds in the past:
Putting players into position to succeed, playing to their skillset. Wherever I have been, that is what I have really tried to do. Whether I was a position coach, coordinator, head coach, [I’ve tried] to put guys in position to succeed...it really stuck with me — no square pegs in round holes. I’ve said it a million times. It’s what our guys do and what gives us a best chance to win...We try to hone in on what we really love our guys doing and what we think gives us a chance to succeed - Haley on his Philosophy
Erase Matt Cassel, and every single one of Haley's quarterbacks has either thrown, or at least been on pace, for 4,000+ yards. True, he coached two of the game's greats in Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, but both experienced career renaissances under Haley.
Generally speaking, Haley loves taking to the air, especially if his quarterback can sling it deep. From screens, to shallow slot routes, to the home run ball, Haley will constantly keep defenses guessing with extensive route trees and concepts.
The Browns have topped 4,000 team passing yards just once in their entire 72-year existence, and that happened way back in 1980. To say their passing game has been anemic would be a criminal understatement.
Meanwhile, Haley's teams have topped this yardage in 7 of 11 chances. Between Tyrod Taylor's beautiful deep ball and Baker Mayfield's Brees-like accuracy + this stacked cast of receiving weapons, the Browns are equipped to continue Haley's dominant streak and achieve the 4,000+ pass yard milestone for just the second time in franchise history.
Both Taylor and Mayfield have the arm talent to make every throw at every layer. Even better, both QBs (especially Taylor) come with the pocket-mobility to buy time and expand the playbook. Plus, this offense boasts among the league’s most stacked casts, featuring Josh Gordon (potential top-five talent), Jarvis Landry (arguably the top slot weapon in the game), Corey Coleman, (an athletic freak not far removed from receiving awards as the top college wideout), Duke Johnson (among the top receiving backs in the game) and first round TE David Njoku (potential mismatch nightmare). With these types of targets and a mind like Haley who can squeeze out every drop of production, the Browns' QB will offer Top-5 Weekly Upside.
The only question is: who will that be?
The team remains adamant Taylor will open 2018 as the starter. Early OTA reports have Taylor impressing, but Mayfield’s accuracy and leadership intangibles made him the most threatening of the rookie QBs to Taylor’s starting gig. While Taylor will be a quality fantasy play for however long he lasts, his expiration date now feels a whole lot sooner. He's still an early-season QB1 rental who could conceivably hold Mayfield off all year, in which case he'd finish as a Top-12 Fantasy QB, no doubt. But the pressure will indeed be high.
2007 - Larry Fitzgerald: 167 tgts, 100 rec., 1409 yds, 10 TDs
2008 - Larry Fitzgerald: 154 tgts, 96 rec, 1431 yds, 12 TDs; Anquan Boldin (12 GP): 127 tgts, 89 rec, 1038 yds, 11 TDs; Steve Breaston: 113 tgts, 77 rec, 1006 yds, 3 TDs
2009 (PUKE) - Dwayne Bowe: 87 tgts, 47 rec, 589 yds, 4 TDs
2010 - Dwayne Bowe: 133 tgts, 72 rec, 1162 yds, 15 TDs
2011 - Dwayne Bowe: 142 tgts, 81 rec, 1159 yds, 5 TDs
Indeed, Haley worked with some generational talents in Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Brown. Still, a nobody like Dwayne Bowe recorded over 1100 yards in back to back seasons, including a 15 TD masterpiece, with a bum like Cassel chucking the rock. We can't just dismiss these dominant WR1 performances as "Haley just had the best talent."
Haley clearly has no problem sending massive target shares to his dominant threat, and is very creative in his ways of shaking these guys free. He's moved his top threats all over formations, and uses them in all types of routes. In particular, Haley often peppers his top targets with one-on-one chances in the red area, including Antonio despite his smaller frame. Haley trusts his playmakers to, simply put, make plays.
Remember, Haley's rise through the NFL Ranks began as a Wide Receivers coach. He knows how to maximize this particular position, and seems to have a soft spot for his top targets. Of course, no one will say Haley is solely-responsible for monsters like Brown, but the coach himself feels he played an important role in AB's development
Ultimately, the massive successes of Haley's top wide receivers is not coincidental or simply a matter of having elite talent. These supreme players have had their best numbers under Haley, and weaker talents still flourished in weak passing attacks. Of all the positions, expect WR dominance to continue.
2018 Outlook – Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry:
Two Dominant Seasons Coming?
Gordon, still only 27, is composed of elite gifts.
Of course, he's yet to accomplish anything close to Antonio Brown or Larry Fitzgerald career-wise. But in terms of natural ability, Gordon ranks right alongside those two. Thus, if Gordon keeps his head on straight, there's a real chance Haley squeezes the best out of him too. Mayfield's jaw has already hit the ground while watching Gordon, as the QB stated, "I've never seen anybody like him, bar none...He's definitely gifted."
Indeed, Gordon's easy to single out. He stands an imposing 6'3" and 225 lbs, yet glides down the field with Randy Moss-esque ease. His 2013 season, in which he led the league with 1,646 yards, remains impossible to forget -- especially considering this came in only 14 GP, with the 7th-lowest QB rating passer delivering the mail. For perspective, Gordon averaged 22.4 fantasy points per game this season, at only the age of 22, which ranks top-20 among wide receivers all-time.
But 2013 feels like ages ago, and Gordon has only played in 10 contests over the four seasons since, and has yet to flash the truly elite form from that gem year. In his defense, Gordon has been catching passes from little more than garbage heaps in that span, and last year he graded out as the 11th-best among wide receivers (via PFF) over the final five weeks of 2018. Whether its Mayfield or Taylor delivering the mail, Gordon will be catching passes from by far his most talented signal-caller yet. A return to 1,300 yard, 7-10 TD dominance is fully possible if Gordon wins the clear WR1 role. He'd be peppered with targets, run routes at all levels of the field, and be moved all over the formation. Moreover, Haley will preach the little details and intricacies like footwork and route sells to further develop and refine Gordon's immense natural gifts, in addition to the obvious QB upgrade.
The only concern, then, is if he'll even be his team's top target following the Jarvis Landry trade. How Haley will utilize Landry is a bit of a mystery, as he's never had a skill set quite like this at his disposal. Though Landry lacks the elite speed to truly take the top off a defense, few match his lateral ability before and after the catch. Landry's incredibly dangerous in the short-to-intermediate game, and is among the top WRs at racking up YAC with a running-back type of mindset and physicality with the ball in his hands.
Which might make Haley's past RBs the right position to try and draw conclusions from. Haley has always peppered this shorter layer of the field via his running backs. Talents like Le’Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles have flourished with enormous YAC opportunities, and Landry should find enormous room to feast over the middle with speed demons in Gordon and Corey Coleman outside him.
Landry also really developed his red zone game in 2017. He ranked 6th among WRs and TEs with 23 targets inside the 20, first in receptions (18) and catch rate (78%), and tied for second in TDs (9). Landry was impossible to run with off the line, resulting in all 9 of his TDs coming from 10 or fewer yards out. In words I never thought I’d type, the Browns project to visit the red zone far more often in 2018, giving Landry plenty of opportunities to score. Haley will undoubtedly continue maximizing his ability to shake off defenders inside this congested area.
All-in-all, both Gordon and Landry could top 1,000 yards with health in 2018. Gordon better fits the "Dominant Target Hog" mold Haley has historically peppered outside, but Landry's role could mirror past target hog RBs like Charles and Bell. After his extensive track record producing 4,000+ yard passing seasons, including an Arizona season that saw three wideouts top 1,000 yards (including household name Steve Breaston), Haley inspires faith that both Brown WRs can dominate in 2018.
Even better, the pungent stench that's lingered around Cleveland could make both options screaming fantasy bargains.
Notable TE Seasons (+500 yards)
2010 - Tony Moeaki: 47 rec, 556 yds, 3 TDs
2012 - Heath Miller: 101 tgts, 71 rec, 816 yds, 8 TDs
2013 - Heath Miller: 79 tgt, 58 rec, 593 yd, 1 TDs
2014 - Heath Miller: 91 tgt, 66 rec, 761 yd, 3 TDs
2015 - Heath Miller: 81 tgt, 60 rec, 535 yd, 2 TDs
Tight ends have been largely irrelevant in Haley's schemes. Only once over his 11 years calling plays (2012) did a tight end produce a truly difference making season, and only five times did they even cross the 500 yard threshold. Haley's consistently utilized 3+ WR sets, and even had a year in Arizona where three wideouts topped 1,000 yards while no tight ends crossed the 200 yard mark. Haley designs his air yardage to almost exclusively funnel through the wideouts, unless no other options are present.
2018 Outlook – David Njoku's immense upside remains capped?
At 6'4" and 246 lbs with a 4.64 forty and combine leading vertical and broad jumps, Njoku may drip in raw, athletic upside. Moreso, after being vastly underutilized in 2017, Njoku is expected to have a "full time starter" role in 2018. He could be completely dominant both after the catch and in one-on-one contested situations, especially by the stripe where the Browns will visit much more frequently this season.
But Njoku is still raw, and Haley's historic lack of tight end usage suggests the sophomore's development may remain on halt. Of course, Haley does scheme to his strengths, and will undoubtedly recognize the mismatch potential Njoku can bring to the table. He has some late-round "Penny Stock" appeal, though I find myself targeting guys like Vance McDonald and Austin Seferian-Jenkins more often.
Haley's schemed up bonafide RB1 outputs in 8 of his 11 seasons, and has generally taken a "Workhorse" approach to the position. Even in 2010, when Jamaal Charles was outcarried by Thomas Jones, Charles saw enough passing game opportunity to yield nearly 2,000 total yards.
In fact, Haley has had nine backs either top, or at least be on pace for 1,400 total yards, including 6 of those 9 racking up 1800 or more. Simply put: Haley loves funneling rushing and receiving offense through his RBs, and has preferred a solo artist if the talent fits.
This offseason, the Browns added seemingly similar bruising, downhill rushing talents in Nick Chubb (35th overall pick) and Carlos Hyde (3-year, $15.2 mil contract). Thus, the early fantasy prognosis would appear grim... the dreaded committee.
Both backs clearly required hearty investments, whether draft capital or actual cash. Additionally, both backs are excellent at breaking tackles and churning forward with a bruising style, which makes differentiation difficult. On paper, then, this would appear to be a near 50/50 split of early-down and goalline rushing work, which could be incredibly frustrating from a fantasy perspective.
Especially with Duke Johnson locking up the vast majority of third down and receiving work, creating a three-back rotation, aka a fantasy torture chamber. In fact, Johnson might be the most appealing option here with the clearest cut backfield role and Haley's history of funneling short-game receptions to his RBs. Even this role is unclear, however, as Johnson is likely to lose significant short and intermediate work to Landry.
Thus, at first glance, this backfield doesn't appear enticing for fantasy owners. Yet, while Hyde is an avoid at his 5th Round, 60 overall ADP price, both Chubb and Johnson offer plenty of appeal going at pick 100 and beyond. Neither should be treated as immediate fantasy starters, but Hyde comes with an extensive injury history, and Chubb drips in the talent to fully takeover early down carries regardless. Both he and Johnson could turn into excellent values behind this beastly line and under Haley, who's frequently facilitated dominant RB production.
Indeed between Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown, Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell Haley has had some tremendous, even generational, talents at his disposal.
Yet, he's also maximized each and every one of these elite skillsets, squeezing out every last drop of production possible and facilitating fantasy seasons for the ages. He can develop and utilize his talents properly -- something far from a given in today's NFL.
In general, Haley's experienced tremendous offensive success, with his teams averaging 24.4 points a game over his 9 years of playcalling. For perspective, the Browns haven't averaged more than 20 points a game for over 10 years now.
Between Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield, as well as explosive weaponry additions in Jarvis Landry and the grinding Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb, the Browns feel almost guaranted to buck this trend, perhaps producing one of the greatest offensive turnarounds in the history of the league.
In the process, Josh Gordon appears primed for the clearest leap. His natural gifts are on par with Brown and Fitzgerald, and Haley has facilitated dominant WR1 seasons out of far lesser (Hi, Dwayne Bowe). Expect Gordon to refine his craft and be peppered further than ever before under Haley.
Yet, he'll face stiff target competition from Jarvis Landry, though both WRs feature diverse skill sets. As such, each could each thrive in vastly different roles and at different layers of the field; after all, Haley's been able to produce three 1,000 yard WRs on a single team before, and both Gordon and Landry could easily top this threshold in 2018. Expect Landry to be utilized similarly to past target-hog backs Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell, and to thrive with these YAC opportunities.
Meanwhile, the backfield appears headed for a nightmare-inducing three-headed attack. Both Nick Chubb and Carlos Hyde offer very similar downhill, bruising styles of running, and the team invested high capital -- whether cash or draft stock -- into both. Thus, projecting a clear frontrunner for the early down role is near impossible right now, and ultimately this feels headed towards a 50/50 split. With Hyde carrying a 60th overall ADP and an extensive injury, as compared to Chubb's 100ish range price tag, I'd easily side with the value here, but as a mere bench stash for now. Of all the backs, Duke Johnson appears to have the most role clarity as the best pass-catcher. Even still, Landry's even more dominant after the catch in the short-route game, stealing plenty appeal from last years RB11 in PPR formats. Though this all appears grim, Haley has facilitated monster backfield production nearly every season he's coached. Considering the 100+ price tag of Chubb and Duke, Cleveland RBs are not the immediate "avoid" the committee appearance may suggest.
All-in-all, this offense appears destined for a massive turnaround -- perhaps the greatest in NFL history. Expect the team to top 4,000 passing yards for just the second time in franchise history, while averaging over 20 PPG for the first time in over a decade. With the general stink of the last 10 years lingering, Cleveland's fantasy options could be among the top bargains in 2018.
Copyright 2018, Roto Street Journal