It’s odd to say that a team that finished 8-9 on the season and tied for last place in their division was lucky. But that’s exactly what the Browns were in 2021. In fact, it’s about the luckiest 8-9 record you might ever see.
Of their eight wins, five of them were one-score affairs. I also count four wins that easily could have gone the other way depending on the bounce of the ball. They beat the Bengals twice, once when Cincinnati played no starters in Week 18. They beat a Ravens team helmed by Tyler Huntley. The Browns beat the Detroit Lions by just three points when the Lions started Tim Boyle at quarterback. Cleveland beat the Broncos in a Thursday night game by three points because D’Ernest Johnson rushed for 146 yards and a score. They beat the Vikings by one score because Kirk Cousins threw a last-drive interception in Browns’ territory. The Browns were mere plays away from being a four- or five-win team.
And that’s just the on-the-field product.
Cleveland was, of course, run through the shredder after Odell Beckham Jr.’s dad – apparently applying for an NFL scouting video job – posted to social media all the times his eventual Super Bowl champion son was open and Baker Mayfield missed him. His dad was so upset it caused him to go dig around in the attic and find the box of old CDs. He eventually found Automatic for the People by R.E.M. and the rest is history.
Tbh, the Odell Beckham video is quite funny 😂 his dad playing Everybody Hurts as background music 😂😂
— Austin J. Zurik (@A_Zurik3) November 2, 2021
That post and subsequent release of Beckham was the beginning of the end of the Browns’ season and opened up a whole new can of questions about Mayfield. Now the Browns have a junior-varsity squad in their wide receiver room, an average-at-best quarterback due a ton of money, and they are paying two tight ends more than $10 million next year. Even though those tight ends combined for just over 800 yards in 2021. How many times can Nick Chubb run the ball in one game?
So what do we do with the Browns in 2022? Who do we buy and sell in dynasty formats?
Buy: David Njoku, TE
You may have seen the news recently, but the Browns placed the Franchise Tag on David Njoku for 2022, ensuring they will pay him a salary north of $10 million next season, The interesting thing about that tag, however, is they already have another tight end locked up at more than $10 million per year in Austin Hooper. A-Hoop makes $9.5 million next season with a cap hit of more than $13 million with bonuses. Do they really need two tight ends in the upper 10% of all contracts at that position?
They also have Harrison Bryant lurking. He caught almost 300 yards and had three touchdowns last season. Why the need to tag Njoku? Simply put: They need him.
The tag on Njoku allows Cleveland to bridge the time to after 2022 when they get let Hooper go for just a $7.5 million cap hit. At that point, I assume they will look to lock up the 26-year-old Njoku long-term.
The Browns clearly want to be a running team. That was clear in 2021 when they ranked just 27th in percent of pass plays called (54%). The Browns were first in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt (5.1, tied with the Colts) and were tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns per game.
But, the ball is still going to be in Baker Mayfield’s hands at least 50% of the time next year. His wide receiver corps could best be described as a motley crew of misfits and has-beens. In 2021, only the Falcons, Saints, and Eagles threw the ball less than the 253 targets that went to Browns’ wide receivers.
Conversely, they were sixth in total tight end targets (142), right behind the Chiefs in that category. And Njoku made those targets count. Among all tight ends, he was top-six in yards per target, yards per reception, contested catch rate, and fantasy points per target.
Njoku is a key piece of this offense moving forward, so don’t take the one-year tag as a sign they are not wanting to be committed long term. They certainly are.
Sell: Jarvis Landry, WR
That low pass rate to wide receivers starts to look even more grim when you begin to break it down by wide receiver. Among every team’s top wideout, Landry’s 87 targets ranked 29th in the NFL. Only the Saints, Giants and Jets had lower totals. Those aren’t exactly the paragons of the new pass-happy NFL offense.
Yes, Landry only played a total of 12 out of 17 games last season, but it represented the third year in a row that his game totals decreased. As a receiver who will be 30 years old by the time 2022 arrives, it’s not going to get better as he ages.
The other problem, of course, is Baker Mayfield. He is seemingly morphing into a player that is contradictory to his strengths. In 2021, Mayfield actually ranked eighth in the NFL with 8.2 air yards per attempt, likely trying to salvage that connection with Beckham. But his true completion percentage (66.9%) was 31st in the NFL. His catchable pass rate, according to Player Profiler, was just 38th.
As the Browns’ game-plans for 2022 emerge, I suspect we will see a heavy dose of the running game combined with a dual tight end attack. As they were in 2021, the wide receivers look to be an afterthought. Sell Landry for what you can get right now.