This series provides a brief overview of the each NFL team’s 2018 season, and the state of their skill positions for fantasy purposes with an eye towards the upcoming campaign and possibly beyond. I will be reviewing each team in the reverse order of the final 2018 standings. Next up…Cleveland.
Cleveland Browns (7-8-1)
Seemingly stuck in quarterback purgatory since the franchise re-entered the NFL in 1999, Cleveland took college phenom Baker Mayfield with their first overall pick in the 2018 draft with the intention of putting an end to their futility. My initial assumption was that Mayfield would redshirt his rookie season behind veteran Tyrod Taylor (acquired from Buffalo for a 2018 third round pick in March of that year), though those plans went quickly south when Taylor suffered a concussion in Week 3. Forced into action off the bench, Mayfield led Cleveland to a prime-time comeback win over the Jets, and held onto the starting job for the rest of the season. Following the mid-season firings of both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Mayfield really took off over his final seven games of the campaign, averaging 279.6 passing yards per contest, scoring 17 of his 27 passing touchdowns (which became a new NFL single season record for rookie quarterbacks), and leading the team to a 5-2 record during that span. During the offseason, Mayfield’s interim offensive coordinator to close out 2018, Freddie Kitchens, was promoted to head coach, while the team brought in air raid specialist Todd Monken (the overseer of Tampa Bay’s league-leading passing offense last season) to serve as the new OC. As if those moves weren’t enough towards fortifying Cleveland’s offense, the team orchestrated a trade for one of the NFL’s premier wideouts (whom I will discuss later in this piece) which plants young Baker firmly at the center of the elite QB1 conversation for both 2019 and the years to come.
Signed to a three-year/$15 million free agent contract during 2018 free agency, Carlos Hyde began the season atop the depth chart, while second-round rookie teammate Nick Chubb was forced to patiently bide his time behind the veteran. Fantasy managers who drafted Hyde as a RB2/3 were rewarded briefly given the usage (19 carries per game and five touchdowns), though a non-existent role in the passing game made him a liability when he didn’t score. Hyde ended up being traded to Jacksonville in October, which made Chubb a flaming hot waiver wire addition in leagues where he wasn’t already spoken for. Prior to the Hyde trade, Chubb had carried the ball just 16 times all season (which included a teaser of three for 102 yards and two touchdowns in Week 4 against Oakland), and was gassed up for workhorse usage in an ascending offense.
Between Weeks 7 and 17, Chubb averaged 19.2 touches and 97.2 total yards per contest, and scored 8 times. Overall on the season, Chubb finished first in yards-after-contact per attempt (4.47) among running backs with at least 150 touches. Between Hyde and Chubb monopolizing the Browns’ backfield, and the team in general playing more competitive football, there wasn’t much room for receiving specialist Duke Johnson to make as many meaningful contributions as in prior years. Johnson’s 40-201 rushing and 47-429 receiving lines (62 targets) represented career lows in aforementioned statistical categories. Typically a major PPR asset, Johnson was held to four catches or less in 15 of 16 games played.
Even though Hyde is gone, the Browns’ backfield will become convoluted once again in the not-to-distant future, as earlier this year the team signed former Kansas City star Kareem Hunt, who will begin the 2019 regular season serving an 8 game suspension. In the short-term, Chubb should get all the work he can handle, with Johnson mixed in to change the pace, though all bets may be off once Hunt is eligible to return. In redraft leagues I am banking on Chubb remaining the alpha guy all season long, with Johnson maybe finding his likely meager role diminished even further given Hunt is more than capable as a pass-catcher with a 79-833-10 receiving line since being drafted in 2017. Hunt’s contract with the Browns only runs through the end of 2019, so giving him the opportunity to return to Pro Bowl form by force-feeding him touches would only serve to make re-signing the former 2017 rushing champion a more costly move during free agency (if the Browns even intend to do so). My advice to anyone considering Chubb as their RB1 in single-season formats: draft him as you normally would if Hunt weren’t on the team, and evaluate as necessary once Hunt is re-instated.