Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for 11 games. While we can look at the Browns’ offense with more certainty now, we want to understand where we can potentially find value after the Deshaun Watson suspension news. Cleveland should be able to win some games within their first six weeks (the original suspension length), but adding on games against the Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, Bills, and Buccaneers will likely be a tough stretch of games to stay in the playoff race of the AFC.
Jacoby Brissett-led Browns
This passing offense under Jacoby Brissett is likely to be underwhelming. Brissett has started 37 games in his NFL career, throwing for under 200 yards in 50% of these games with a touchdown rate of 3.0%. The touchdown rate is similar to Brock Osweiler (3.0%), Brian Hoyer (3.0%), and lower than that of Tyrod Taylor (3.5%). All of this points me in one direction: the offense will play slowly and rely on the running game and defense to win games early on in the year.
Starting at the top, Amari Cooper with the six game game suspension had slipped to WR3 territory in most fantasy drafts, and I expect him to fall further knowing what the first 12 weeks of the season bring. Cooper will be a WR3 in a best-case scenario for those 12 weeks and as low as a WR5. For example, T.Y. Hilton in 2016 averaged 17 PPR points per game with Andrew Luck, and in 2017 with Brissett, Hilton dropped to only 10 points per game. In Cooper’s career, he has never commanded above a 22% target share, and he has had 38% of his games in PPR go for under 10 points – that number increases to 49% in half-PPR.
There will be a battle for the Browns’ WR2 role between Donovan Peoples-Jones and David Bell. I don’t see either being a contributing fantasy player unless it’s a league where you can roster eight wide receivers comfortably, and even then, it is difficult to predict whether they will be contributors when Watson returns.
As for the tight end room, I am not rostering David Njoku in small bench leagues; but in deep bench leagues, where you pick him as a backup tight end, try to make sure your other TE has a post-Week 12 bye, such as Zach Ertz or Cole Kmet. With Brissett, if the Browns keep a similar number of attempts per game as Baker last year, we are looking at 31 attempts per game. Utilizing Brissett’s career averages, 19 completions, 198.4 yards, and 0.93 passing touchdowns are available. That’s 44 points per game that the pass catchers have available in PPR and 36 points for half point. That’s fewer available points per game than the Trevor Lawrence-led Jaguars had in 2021. Do not spend high draft capital on players you can’t viably start until at least Week 12.
The rushing attack will be the focal point for this offense until Watson returns, and I expect these running backs to be utilized the same way they have been since forming the duo. Looking at current ADPs, Nick Chubb as the 25th player off the board is way too expensive for someone that does not have any pass-catching upside. I recommend reading Josh Larky’s player archetype article for why Nick Chubb is someone he has ranked as his 38th-overall player. Kareem Hunt is taking way too many meaningful touches for you to be able to draft Chubb at his current price tag.
With both Chubb and Hunt in the lineup, Chubb had 52% of the red zone carries, and Hunt had 28%. In 2020, they had a healthy 50-50 split the first three weeks, and to end the year, it was a 50-31 split in favor of Chubb. The split between these backs makes it difficult to buy into either of them at ADP because of the running backs going around them. With Chubb, you have James Conner at a similar ADP, who is the top back in his offense from every approach. And with Hunt, you have Elijah Mitchell, who has received an extremely high workload while healthy. Neither of these backs is a must-have, but I prefer Hunt if you want to pick one.
Deshaun Watson-led Browns
The return of Watson will present a difficult situation because he has to get back into playing meaningful football – he last played during the 2020 NFL Season. Additionally, not being able to practice or be around the team for 12 weeks will be difficult to manage. The late-season moves for fantasy football present the opportunity to snag Cooper, but every league is different with trade deadlines, and you’d be trading for a player that’s possibly not start-able until Watson plays.
In his career, Watson has almost double Brissett’s productivity, with a 6.0% TD rate and 8.3 yards per attempt. Watson will take this Browns’ offense to new heights and be a drastic improvement from what we will see in the first 11 games under Brissett. However, I normally only carry one quarterback on my redraft teams, so I won’t pick Watson, who will miss nearly the entirety of the fantasy football regular season.
The Browns’ pass-catching room is where the value lies when Watson comes back, and I will be looking to trade for Cooper the closer we get to that date. For games in which quarterbacks target Cooper 10 times, he averages 25 points per game in PPR, and in the two full seasons with Watson, DeAndre Hopkins had 60% of his games come with 10 targets. Cooper is not as talented as Hopkins was in Houston, but on this current roster, Cooper is by far the most talented pass-catcher.
The manager of Cooper will be looking to hold him, but there are scenarios where he becomes available. Most bye-weeks are over after Week 11, and if you have a good record and the roster to make the move post week nine, I would at least entertain trading for Amari Cooper. Whoever has emerged as the WR2 between Bell and Peoples-Jones becomes a contributing bench player in Week 12, and Njoku becomes a streamable tight end due to week-to-week touchdown upside.
I do not recommend drafting anybody on this Browns offense with the current ADPs on FantasyPros because the first 11 weeks of Brissett will be hard to overcome. However, as the weeks get closer to Watson returning, try your best to trade for Cooper, as the upside presented for when he comes back will be immense. Bell, Peoples-Jones, and Njoku are fine bench spots for deeper leagues while you wait for Watson to return. Chubb and Hunt are both fine players to draft, but only Hunt’s ADP makes sense, considering the archetype I want to have is built into Hunt’s role in this offense, and with the possibility of Hunt being moved via trade. For the first 11 weeks, expect a heavy dose of this running game and reliance on the defense.