2018 storylines: The fantasy-relevant Cleveland Browns
(With attentions turning forward across fantasy football, this week is 2018 Storylines Week on PFF Fantasy, with an article a day highlighting what our writers think are the biggest fantasy storylines we’ll see in the 2018 season.)
When an entity becomes a punch line over a long period of time, our tendency is to expect that punch line status to continue. The Red Sox didn’t win for a long time, to the point where Bucky Dent begat Mookie Wilson, who begat Grady Little, who begat Aaron bleeping Boone. Until the Red Sox won, Red Sox fans just expected them to find a way to lose.
So if I tell you there’s a team with one of the league’s best offensive lines, a top-11 PPR running back, an ex-No. 1 wide receiver, a first-round tight end, two of the draft’s first four picks, and more than $100 million in cap space, you’d be excited. But then I attach the word “Cleveland” to that description, and the scoffing commences.
But here it is: The Browns will win at least six games in 2018. And better for our purposes, the Browns will offer at least four fantasy starters as well.
In just about every fantasy league with a free agent acquisition budget, there’s at least one owner who hoards that budget all year, and in, say, Week 10, when some starter goes down to injury, that owner knows, straight away, that they can have the replacement, simply because they can outbid everybody else.
NFL free agency isn’t quite that easy, of course — players have free will, and sometimes situations and/or raw desires factor into the equation more than “biggest wallet.” But the wallet is a big first step. Per OverTheCap, the Colts have the second-most cap space right now, at just over $77 million. The No. 1 Browns? More than $110 million. The difference between the Browns at first and the Colts at second is the same as the gap between the Colts at second and the Lions at 10th. Put another way, the Browns’ advantage over the Colts is more than 13 teams have at all.
If the Browns want Kirk Cousins, they can’t guarantee they’ll get him. But they can make it really hard for him to say no. They can give him a Godfather offer. And they can do that and still have the most cap space in the league.
But let’s say they don’t want Cousins. So far, reports have other teams more interested in the ex-Washington quarterback than Cleveland is. Maybe the Browns go after one of the Vikings trio (Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater). Maybe they don’t bother with a veteran at all and turn the reins over to someone they take with the first overall pick — Baker Mayfield, one of the Joshes (Allen or Rosen), even Sam Darnold. Whoever is under center for the Browns in 2018 will be starting from a position of power, because of …
The offensive line
Per PFF grades, the Browns had the fourth-best pass-blocking line in 2017. It was slightly worse (16th) in run-blocking, but both rankings came with elite tackle Joe Thomas missing the majority of the season. Assuming he’s back for 2018 (there are rumors he might hang them up), he would join Joel Bitonio (2017 PFF grade: 85.2), J.C. Tretter (70.5), and Kevin Zeitler (81.1) to make one of the league’s elite offensive lines.
They already graded well as a pass-blocking unit. They were middle of the road in providing yards before contact. Add Thomas back in to that mix, and not only are the Browns going to provide a good starting point for whoever plays quarterback, but they’ll also be in good shape for whoever is involved in …
The running game
The offensive line is the biggest component here, of course. Just ask Todd Gurley, who went from 1.0 yard before contact in 2016 and “big fantasy disappointment” to 1.9 yards in 2017 and “fantasy superstar.” The Browns are set up to help whoever makes up the 1-2 punch at running back in a big way.
Duke Johnson will be part of that duo. He just finished 2017 as the No. 11 fantasy running back in PPR leagues, with 7 touchdowns, 1,041 total yards from scrimmage, and 74 receptions. His 81.7 PFF grade was 16th-best at the position.
It’s the other part of the pairing we’re still looking for. It likely won’t be Isaiah Crowell, who heads into free agency after four so-so years in Cleveland. But maybe the Browns splurge on Le’Veon Bell if the Steelers don’t franchise him. Maybe they invest in a hope-for-a-rebound Doug Martin. Maybe they get crazy and draft Saquon Barkley, or take one of the other host of running back options in a deep draft at the position. The point is, whoever carries the ball for the Browns this year, he’ll have plenty of support.
Also getting plenty of support will be …
The passing game
As noted above, the Browns had the No. 4 pass-blocking line. The team’s quarterbacks (mostly DeShone Kizer) didn’t take advantage, scuffling to a 32nd-place finish. The bust free agent signing of Kenny Britt didn’t help, nor did injury to Corey Coleman. What did help? The late-season return from suspension of Josh Gordon and an acceptable rookie season from first-rounder David Njoku.
The team should have all those pieces (Britt aside) back for 2018, along with (again) that cap space. Allen Robinson? Sammy Watkins? A return for Terrelle Pryor? Paul Richardson, Danny Amendola, Marqise Lee? The Browns could afford one of those receivers with no trouble. They could sign two or three if the mood struck and not even notice the effect on the pocketbook. And who better to make use of whatever pieces they bring in than …
The offensive coordinator
The Browns brought in Todd Haley as offensive coordinator this offseason, and he’ll take over playcalling from head coach Hue Jackson. Haley has coached offenses to top finishes before — though, as he did it in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown, it might not be fair to give him full credit for the success. Still, Haley’s a proven offensive talent.
Offensive success starts in two places: Quarterback and offensive line. The Browns have the offensive line. They have the finances at least to make it work at quarterback, and they have the offensive coordinator to put that quarterback in the right position.
The 2018 Browns aren’t likely to make a leap to the playoffs like the 2017 Rams did. But that’s not what we’re looking for. For fantasy purposes, the Browns have Josh Gordon and Duke Johnson who will enter 2018 as definitely draftable weapons. If they somehow land Cousins, then the quarterback, another receiver, Njoku at tight end, and the other running back would all be nice pieces. If they’re a step below Cousins, their peripheral pieces will still keep those weapons on the radar.
The Browns have been a laughingstock for years now. In 2018? They won’t be.