Fantasy Football Impact on the Cleveland Browns
The Browns hired ex-Steelers Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator after Pittsburgh decided against resigning him. Haley reportedly had a rocky relationship with franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger, and thus he became available for a lateral move despite 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 a QB upgrade and perhaps a new workhorse, the Browns have the pieces in place for a genuine offensive explosion in 2018.
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. 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 offensive coordinator 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 playcaller 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 drama-filled, paltry offensive seasons here, Haley was fired. He was immediately scooped up by the Steelers as their offensive coordinator, and 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 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 his 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.
Haley indeed needs some crucial pieces -- most notably a quarterback -- to buck this trend. Yet, with a strong offensive line, explosive pass catchers in Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, and David Njoku, this team could truly be the right QB and workhorse away from a massive turnaround.
When asked about his "offensive scheme," Haley has time and time again answered the same way: 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 play caller will add his own independent and game-specific wrinkles, nearly every coach's offense has a spine or backbone. 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 for two seasons, yet led the league in rushing.
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, 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.
Of course, the rub here is simple: Haley needs a competent quarterback, something the Browns currently lack. We saw his team sputter with Matt Cassel, and the Browns will likely do the same if they miss on a rookie or free agent this offseason. Rumors frequently connect AJ McCarron to the Browns with his past ties to Hue Jackson, but he seems to fit the Cassel "Just Another Guy" type of bill. Fingers crossed they go Baker Mayfield, who I think will absolutely ball out at the NFL level.
Regardless, whether it's McCarron or a developing rookie, the Browns are unlikely to be bringing a ton of QB Firepower to the fantasy table in 2018. The weapons and line are in place for a shocker, however.
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 this as "he 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 even Brown 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 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's best yet to come?
Simply put: Gordon is elite.
Of course, he's yet to accomplish anything close to Brown or 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.
He'll 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. Yes, getting a quality signal caller will help, but again Bowe caught 15 TDs with Cassel chucking the rock; meanwhile, Gordon led the league in receiving yardage with Brian Hoyer.
The combination of Gordon's own physical gifts and Haley's track record of peppering and developing his WR1s lays the path for a dominant 2018.
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 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. He could be completely dominant both after the catch and in one-on-one contested situations. But Njoku is still raw, and history suggests this development will be put on halt considering Haley's lack of tight end usage.
Of course, Haley does scheme to his strengths, and will undoubtedly recognize the mismatch potential Njoku can bring to the table. The lack of historic usage, however, makes a breakout feel far less likely. He won't be on my Tight End "Penny Stock" radar.
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 9 backs either top or at least be on pace for 1,400 total yards, including 6 of those 9 topping 1800. Simply put: Haley loves funneling rushing and receiving offense through his RBs, and prefers a solo artist if the talent fits.
This backfield seems like one of 2018's likeliest for a makeover. Isaiah Crowell is set to hit free agency, and, though an excellent pass catcher and explosive weapon, Duke Johnson is not built like a bellcow (though I feel he could thrive in the role after epic collegiate workloads).
Thus, armed with two of the top four selections, the Browns are very much part of the Saquon Barkley sweepstakes. Barkley's equally as versatile and perhaps even more impressive of a runner than Bell. Behind a beastly line and with this type of volume, Barkley would be an immediate RB1 candidate worthy of a first round pick. Even a lesser Round 2 talent will brim in upside.
As the roster currently stands, Duke has to see a penciled-in stock up arrow. Crowell seems destined to depart, and Johnson was far more effective as a runner and especially as a receiver anyways. With 61, 53, and 74 reception resumes, Johnson should carve out a Jamaal Charles-lite type of role for Haley and tack on another 60+ catch season... if a three-down horse is not added. His value will rise or fall significantly depending on the teams' moves in the backfield, but Johnson does drip in some humongous upside until further notice. His PPR RB11 finish from 2017 is certainly repeatable, if not toppable.
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 the 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. With the right quarterback and backfield moves this offseason, the Browns could buck that trend with Haley leading the charge.
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.
Meanwhile, some massive RB stats seem to be brewing here, with Haley producing 9 backs who at least were on pace for 1400+ yards (and 6 of these 9 achieving or on pace for 1800+). Duke Johnson seems bound to continue his massive receiving outputs, though the addition of a three down horse of Saquon Barkley's level isn't out of the question. Regardless, some massive RB stats feel likely behind this beastly line.
Of course, all of these ceilings and floors are largely dependent upon the Quarterback. This will remain a major question mark even once we know who'll be under center, as it's almost guaranteed to be someone unproven. Thus, a cloud of uncertainty lingers over the entire offense... except maybe Gordon. If Dwayne Bowe can catch 15 TDs from Matt Cassel under Haley's watch, Gordon seems bound to destroy the league.
Copyright 2018, Roto Street Journal