How should we value the Browns’ passing attack in Best Ball?

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One of the toughest teams to evaluate heading into this Best Ball draft season is the Cleveland Browns, and in particular their passing game. Based purely on rankings it appears that there is clear value on WR Amari Cooper and TE David Njoku. Is that really the case though, as there are assumptions in those rankings that aren’t necessarily based on the numbers?

The biggest factor is Deshaun Watson and whether you believe he can return to his Houston Texan glory days or if he will remain as ineffective as he’s been the past two shortened seasons.

 

The Concern for Watson:

The Browns passing game last year finished 5th in passing attempts last year and that has given some hope that there is a real ceiling to this whole unit. The issue with that is they finished that high in passing attempts in spite of Watson, not because of him. In his 6 starts Watson threw only 171 attempts,  and 166 of those were in his 5 full games (33.2 average). That is well below the team’s average of 36.7 per game, and Joe Flacco averaged over 40 attempts per game.

If the Browns had Watson at QB all season, they could have had around 550 passing attempts, making them one of the lower-third teams in the league. Unlike teams like the 49ers and Ravens who also don’t throw the ball a lot, Cleveland (particularly with Watson) doesn’t have the efficiency numbers to make up for it.

Watson’s lack of passing attempts last season also wasn’t surprising as the same thing happened the previous year. He again had 170 attempts in 6 games, and averaged 5 fewer attempts per game than Jacoby Brissett. So I think the real volume of this offense should be questioned, and at best the expectation is this is a middle-of-the-pack team in attempts, but the reality is they are more likely a bottom 10 team.

If passing attempts were the only concern with Watson then perhaps we could overlook that concern and just rely on his elite production like he had in Houston. Unfortunately that QB may no longer exist. In 12 games with the Browns over 2 seasons, Watson has seen his production fall in every single area.

With the Texans Watson completed 67.8% of his passes, with a 5.9% TD rate, and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt. With the Browns those numbers are 59.8% completion rate, 4.1% TD rate, and a 6.5 ypa. Only the TD% would even be considered solid, and that is further limited given the lack of volume.

On top of all the volume and efficiency concerns that Watson carries, he’s also coming back from a serious shoulder injury. While currently he’s expected to be on track for the season, he will need to be limited for likely much of camp/preseason.

For a guy who has been looking to get back into form, it’s not probably great that he needs to work back from an injury. Also, will the injury limit his ability going forward, is it something to consider, or risk a re-injury?

 

Are we getting value on Cooper?:

The last two seasons Amari Cooper has finished as the WR 9 and WR 14 in fantasy (Through Week 17), yet he is going as the WR 29 on Underdog currently. This on paper looks like a massive value play, and someone we should be locking into our line-ups every time right?

The problem is Cooper had 39 targets from Watson last year for an average of 7.8 per game in the 5 games that Watson threw him a pass (Watson played about a quarter of the Colts game, but didn’t attempt a pass to Cooper). He had 28 catches for 480 yards and 2 TDs in those games.

Now the yardage there is fantastic in a 5 game sample, and relative to his season it’s pretty good. Keep in mind though a good part of his season was with P.J. Walker and DTR at QB as well. In his 4 games with Joe Flacco, Cooper had 42 targets, 28 catches and 485 yards, and 3 TDs. It’s the target discrepancy that really sticks out. And it’s something we saw in 2022 as well.

Cooper had 39 targets from Watson in 2022 in 6 games (6.5 per game), for 21 catches, 368 yards, and 2 TDs. In the 11 games without Watson, Cooper had 93 targets (8.5 per game), for 57 catches 792 yards, and 7 TDs.

Maybe Cooper can remain hyper-efficient like he was in a couple games with Watson last season, but the lack of volume is getting noticed. In the 11 games with Watson over 2 seasons, Cooper has just 3 games of 10 or more targets.

In the 15 games with either Brissett or Flacco he has 8 such games. That’s the type of volume I’d feel much better seeing in taking Cooper as high as you are still taking him. Can he still be a top 30 WR? Yes, but it will be tough for him to drastically outperform this ranking outside of more volume or Watson’s efficiency returning to the Texans’ days.

 

Does David Njoku have a ceiling?:

Njoku finished at TE 5 last year and TE 12  (on a per-game basis) in 2022 through week 17, and he’s going as TE 10 currently. From an athletic standpoint, Njoku is a major weapon and he should be heavily involved in the offense. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if that will be the case with Watson.

In 10 games with Watson over two seasons, he has just 4 games above 5 targets. In the 20 games without Watson over the past two seasons, Njoku has 16 games over 5 targets. As expected the production has followed as well. Njoku has only topped 50 yards twice in those 10 games with Watson, while exceeding that mark 12 times in the 20 games without him.

With Cooper at least we saw him overcome some of the lack of targets last year and still have some good games. With Njoku, though we don’t have that kind of production to fall back on. We need to rely that his target share would increase with Watson, and the production would follow.

Right now the only thing that Njoku has going for him, is just how murky the bottom of the TE market is. With so much uncertainty, there are plenty of paths for Njoku to remain a top 10-15 TE. It just feels unlikely that he can really exceed this range and be a top 5 TE again.


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