The NFL’s offseason darling of 2019, the Cleveland Browns failed to make good on the hype during the regular season. They were expected by some to go to Super Bowl LIV but they didn’t even make the playoffs, finishing third in the AFC North at 6-10.
One of the biggest letdowns was the offense that featured major firepower: QB Baker Mayfield, RB Nick Chubb, RB Kareem Hunt, WR Jarvis Landry and WR Odell Beckham Jr. Believe it or not, this talented unit finished 22nd in the league in passing, scoring and total offense, but don’t expect production this low from the Browns in 2020. They made a few key moves in the offseason that will help this offense make the biggest jump in the league:
1) Hiring Kevin Stefanski as head coach. The Browns were all over the place under head coach Freddie Kitchens last season, scoring a ton of points versus a good defense one week then laying an egg against a far-lesser unit the following week. Enter Stefanski, whose scheme will undoubtedly make this unit more efficient and consistent.
His quarterback-friendly offense highlights what Mayfield naturally does best as a passer who moves the pocket, excels in play-action and looks to make big plays downfield. The third-year QB had nine touchdown passes off play-action in 2019 (tied for third-most in the NFL), and now gets to play for the guy who coordinated one of the league’s top play-action offenses in Minnesota. Mayfield will get away from being a sitting duck and making poor decisions in the pocket like he often did last season out of shotgun, recording the lowest passer rating among 32 QBs with 150-plus shotgun attempts, per Next Gen Stats. He shouldn’t have to endure those struggles as often under Stefanski, whose Vikings operated out of shotgun on a league-low 30.3 percent of plays in 2019.
Instead, most of the time Mayfield will take the snap from under center on plays that will challenge the defense because many sets will look the same (or very much alike, at least) from a formation and pre-snap movement standpoint. Look for Mayfield to have a lot of input, especially in the first 15 offensive plays of the game, and thrive in that position. All of this helps not only Mayfield but the skill-position players, too. That is something OBJ (who’s in search of a bounce-back year) should be ecstatic about.
2) Beefing up the O-line. The Browns — led by Chubb’s 1,494 rushing yards — averaged nearly 119 rushing yards per game last season (ranking 12th in the league) without bookend offensive tackles. They went out and signed one-time All-Pro Jack Conklin and drafted Jedrick Wills Jr. at No. 10 overall to help establish dominance on the edges in both the run and pass games. Bringing these two players in might be the most important thing Cleveland did in the offseason. In fact, don’t be surprised if we see the Browns have two 1,000-yard rushers in 2020 (Chubb and Hunt). In the pass game, plenty of time should be allotted to Mayfield to get the ball out to his skill players.
3) Keeping David Njoku. The fourth-year tight end hasn’t lived up to his billing as a first-round pick with his best season to date coming in 2018 (56 catches for 639 yards and four TDs). He was the subject of trade talk this summer after requesting to be dealt (he later backed off that stance). He could still be traded, of course, but for now, he’s one of the backups to Austin Hooper, who signed a healthy contract in free agency. The thing is, Stefanski’s offense uses a lot of two-tight end sets, so Njoku is still a key part of the offensive success as a pass catcher and blocker, even with impressive rookie Harrison Bryant competing to be the TE2.
These three components, along with better overall execution, should make the Browns a top-five offense in 2020. Sure, they’re in a tough division featuring stout defenses (they’ll get their first test right out of the gate Sunday vs. Baltimore), but I’m not too concerned from a matchup standpoint. Great defenders will be a challenge to face, of course, but schematically and personnel-wise, I believe the Browns have the advantage.
Entering the 2020 NFL season, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr takes a look at all offensive players and ranks his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the rankings are based on a combination of:
1) Player accomplishments from the 2019 season.
2) Weekly performances, while considering strength of opponent.
Rankings will be solely judged on this season’s efforts following Week 4. Heading into Week 1, here is Carr’s list:
Honestly, whom did you expect to see here? Mox from Varsity Blues? Nah … Mahomes’ body of work over the last two seasons gave me 503 million reasons to slot him at No. 1. All before he turned 25 years old, Mahomes was named league MVP (2018) and led his team to its first championship in 50 years, earning the Super Bowl MVP award along the way. He’s made history and is chasing more of it.
The Seahawks have been a winning franchise since Wilson’s arrival in 2012, and he’s carried more and more of the load over the past few seasons. He was in the MVP conversation for a majority of the 2019 campaign, and he should be right back there this fall. He’s one of the NFL’s best deep passers with a league-high 130 deep-pass completions since 2016, and I’m sure there will be no shortage this season with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf as targets.
McCaffrey inked a well-deserved extension this offseason after becoming the third player in NFL history to post 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in one season. He feels like the only mainstay on the Panthers’ roster after a massive overhaul from head coach on down. I get the feeling, though, that it doesn’t really matter who’s on the field with McCaffrey, who accounted for 52.5 percent of Carolina’s offensive touches last season. He’s going to get the ball and find the end zone.
The reigning MVP led the league’s most dynamic offense a season ago with his video game-like skills. Some may worry that his style of play could get him into trouble, but he’s not just a quarterback who’s looking to run. He threw a league-high 36 touchdowns and ranked third in passer rating (113.3), all with an unheralded receiving corps. Jackson’s skill set (specifically his development as a passer) and determination to build off an impressive 2019 should hinder anyone from thinking his production will drop in 2020.
Thomas has been incredibly dominant on short routes in his young career, which helped him set the NFL single-season receptions record (149) in 2019. He made history even though New Orleans didn’t have a quality, complementary WR2. Enter free-agent addition Emmanuel Sanders, who should draw more attention away from the Saints’ WR1. The sky’s the limit for Thomas.
Adams has been the Packers’ most productive receiver for the past few seasons, with the most receiving TDs (40) in the league since 2016. Last season, he led the Packers in receiving yards (997) despite missing four games with a toe injury, while no other Packer logged more than 480 receiving yards for the season. His value to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense is second to none — especially since the one receiver Green Bay did add this offseason (Devin Funchess) opted out — so Adams must continue be that dominant player against double and triple teams. When watching film on Adams and talking to his peers around the league, it’s clear to me that he’s a lot better than people give him credit for.
Kittle was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player (95.0) in 2019 and with good reason. He logged his second straight 1,000-yard season, forced 20 missed tackles (most among TEs) and is a pivotal piece in the 49ers’ dynamic rushing attack. The way this guy embraces blocking — he does it with a vengeance — makes this run game so effective, as the 49ers rushed for 4.8 yards per carry with Kittle last season and just 2.6 yards per carry in the two games he missed, per Next Gen Stats. Man, I can’t wait to see him back on the field wrecking defenders.
The Cowboys boast a consistently great run game anytime Zeke lines up in the backfield behind their talented offensive line, although the unit has taken a hit with La’el Collins’ injury and the loss of Travis Frederick to retirement this offseason. Even with so much hype surrounding the passing game, Zeke should continue to be the focal point of the offense considering its effectiveness when Zeke gets the rock. He averages 96.5 rush yards per game for his career, ranking fourth in NFL history (and among Hall of Fame company).
Having Jones as an option in the passing game is every quarterback’s dream. He’s a dominant target no matter the coverage. He’s helped Matt Ryan immensely when it comes to tight-window passes as he ranks first in receptions (74) and receiving yards (1,039) on those throws since 2016. I expect this duo to improve in getting Jones the ball in the end zone. He hasn’t posted double-digit receiving touchdowns since 2012! That streak has to end.
Barkley might be one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the league. Giants QB Daniel Jones had a 95.5 passer rating and a TD-INT ratio of 21:6 with Barkley on the field in 2019. Without Barkley, he recorded a 59.9 rating and a TD-INT ratio of 3:6. He’s rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons, but the third-year running back has flown somewhat under the radar due to the lack of team success in New York. I’m expecting Barkley to run right into a career year and vie for the rushing title in 2020, though.
The first tight end in NFL history to log 1,000-plus receiving yards in four consecutive seasons, Kelce’s confidence couldn’t be higher heading into 2020. He just signed a new deal and is the favorite target for the league’s top quarterback. Kelce has been a huge mismatch against safeties/linebackers, and that shouldn’t change in 2020.
The only wide receiver to be selected first-team All-Pro in each of the last three seasons, Hopkins is set to become Kyler Murray’s go-to guy in the Cardinals’ Air Raid offense. His presence as a WR1 will take this unit to the next level and challenge top CBs in the division, including Los Angeles’ Jalen Ramsey and San Francisco’s Richard Sherman. With Hopkins providing Murray a reliable target, one that has had just six drops since 2018, this connection should be one to watch in 2020 and beyond.
Mixon has quietly racked up up 1,100-plus rushing yards and 1,400-plus scrimmage yards in each of the last two seasons. The impressive production earned him a well-deserved four-year extension just last week. With more talent around him (namely, Joe Burrow and a healthy A.J. Green) and an improved offensive line, Mixon should continue to be one of the NFL’s top-tier backs.
Waller earned this spot with a breakthrough performance in 2019 (90 receptions for 1,145 yards and three TDs). His size (6-foot-6, 255 pounds) and speed combined with further development in Jon Gruden’s offense should make Waller a force once again in 2020. With the Raiders adding speedster Henry Ruggs III in the draft but losing Tyrell Williams (shoulder) for the year, Waller could see his production increase as a key player in the offense.
Rodgers had an up-and-down 2019 campaign but he can still deliver in critical situations. He’s done it his entire career and he’ll have to be clutch again — without any new weapons in the passing game — if the Packers intend to stay atop the NFC North. If any quarterback can prevail no matter the circumstance, it’s Rodgers.
Follow David Carr on Twitter @DCarr8
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