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Fantasy Football Team Preview: Cleveland Browns — Breakouts, Busts and Sleepers

Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) runs with the ball en route to scoring a touchdown during the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Pound the over on the Cleveland Browns10.5 win total — this offense is going to be dangerous in 2021. Vegas has Cleveland with the eighth-highest forecasted win total, but fantasy managers should be more honed in on the team's sixth-highest cumulative fantasy projection.

The team was an offensive juggernaut from Week 12 to the end of the season, ranking fifth in first-down conversion rate (42%), sixth in EPA per play (0.15), seventh in passing yards per attempt (7.8) and third in plays per game (68).

Fourth-year quarterback Baker Mayfield teams up with head coach Kevin Stefanski for a second straight season, and a continuation of last year's top-10 offense should be the expectation for Cleveland in 2021.  

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Everything Mayfield showed in the latter half of 2020 projects favorably for him to be a dark horse MVP candidate (35:1 odds at DraftKings Sportsbook). He regained the 2018 rookie form that excited the NFL and fantasy community alike, finishing the year as PFF’s second-highest-graded passer from Week 7 on (91.8). Mayfield averaged 21.1 expected fantasy points per game (ninth) starting in Week 12.

The Browns signal-caller was outstanding from a clean pocket, finishing with the fifth-highest PFF grade (92.7). That’s an important accomplishment, as the metric tends to be stable from year to year. Cleveland boasts PFF's highest-ranked offensive line unit, which bodes well for Mayfield’s progress to continue on an upward trajectory.

We could see a production spike in Mayfield’s red-zone touchdown percentage. Even his improved 26% red-zone touchdown rate in 2020 pales in comparison to his rookie season mark of 33%. Per PFF’s expected fantasy points tool, Mayfield threw four fewer touchdowns than expected. 

Expect a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. to lend a helping hand, along with the Browns’ cakewalk schedule. Cleveland owns Vegas’ third-easiest schedule based on projected win totals.

I boldly predicted Mayfield would finish as a top-five fantasy quarterback, and that is predicated on him having an outlier passing touchdown season due to his lack of rushing ability. 

Many point to the Browns’ heavy run rate last season (46%, fourth-highest) as a reason why Mayfield can’t even be a sleeper fantasy quarterback, but that’s just not correct. More passing volume is ideal, but passing efficiency can be the proverbial trump card for quarterback fantasy points. Just last season, we saw Ryan Tannehill (QB9), Aaron Rodgers (QB2) and Kirk Cousins (QB11) all finish as fantasy QB1s despite playing in offenses that ranked top-eight in run-play rate.

There’s also a solid bet to be made that the Browns will throw more in Year 2 under Stefanski. From Week 12 on, Cleveland increased its passing attempts per game (40 versus 30), pass rate on early downs (44% versus 57%) and pass rate under neutral game script conditions (54% versus 69%). The over on Mayfield’s 3,750.5 passing yards prop is the easiest bet money can buy.

However, any downtick in overall rushing attempts will have little to no impact on the league’s most efficient running back, Nick Chubb.


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