In 2016, we all watched as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers broke the championship drought for the historic sports city of Cleveland, Ohio. In MLB, the Cleveland Indians almost captured a second title for the city that year, too, coming up just short in a thrilling World Series Game 7. It seemed like after years and years of being on the outside looking in, Cleveland sports were on the up.
Two years later the Cleveland Browns drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield. After Mayfield took over and showed promise during his rookie season, all eyes were on them during the 2019 offseason. In fact, with Mayfield announced as the full-time starter, with passing weapons like wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and with running back Nick Chubb capable of carrying the ground game, Cleveland was picked by many to be the winners of the AFC North for the first time since realignment in 2002.
Yeah, that was a nice Cinderella dream—and a dream is all it was.
The Browns struggled in 2019. With head coach Freddie Kitchens looking like he was in over his head, the Browns finished 6-10 and third in the division.
Big changes came after the big disappointment. Kitchens is now out as head coach, and Kevin Stefanski takes his place. Stefanski, who was the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings for the past two seasons, will have quite the roster to create an offensive game plan for. Not only do the Browns still have the players mentioned above, they also have tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku, running back Kareem Hunt, and have an upgraded offensive line with free-agent addition Jack Conklin and rookie Jedrick Wills.
There is no shortage of options for Stefanski to mold his offensive arsenal this summer. The question now is how to prioritize those options with just one ball to go around.
“I actually went over that with the offensive staff this morning, just talking about carries, touches and what that looks like,‘' Stefanski said in June of this offseason. “It’s definitely on our mind. We know, having been on different teams with different offensive players, sometimes you have a great running back, great receiver or great tight end, and certainly, you have to be mindful and intentional about how you want to go about that while understanding that each week calls for a different gameplan.‘'
So how will Stefanski do it? Well, I think it will go a little like this.
Let’s focus on the big three playmakers Stefanski will be working with to get the ball in the best spots: Beckham, Landry and Chubb. In order to see how he might do this, let’s look at what worked for Stefanski in Minnesota.
Last season, Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs had the second deepest yards-per-target average in the NFL at 12.0. That means the Vikings were going deep with Diggs, and his 67% catch rate, which was one of the best for receivers with as many or more targets than him. Diggs was not only going deep, but winning deep. Diggs’ catch percentage relative to his 17.9 yards-per-catch average was significantly higher than the other receivers around him who were averaging near that same number per catch. You’d have to go all the way down to Chris Goodwin’s 15.5 yards-per-catch average to find a player with a higher catch percentage than Diggs.
All that is to say Diggs was going deep and he was reliable when doing so. Stefanski has a player he can plug right into that similar successful role in Cleveland in Beckham.
The last time Beckham averaged more than 10 yards-per-target was his rookie season when he amassed more than 1,300 receiving yards in just 12 games for an average of 108 yards per game. As for the man getting him the ball, for as much as Mayfield struggled with the little things in 2019, he has been one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL for the last two seasons. According to Football Outsiders, Mayfield was fourth-best in the NFL for passes beyond 21 yards at 55.2 percent. That was up from the relatively similar 54.9 percent from 2018.
Beckham had a near career-low 7.8 yards-per-target in 2019. Upping that to near Diggs’ level from last year—which Beckham can do with his top tier speed and route-running ability—should make for a consistent dynamic threat on offense.
Next, let’s touch on Landry.
One of Landry’s best seasons of his career, statistically speaking, was 2016. In that season, Landry recorded 1,136 receiving yards off 91 catches with an 8.7 yards-per-catch average and a 71% catch rate. In that season, according to Pro Football Focus, Landry recorded 856 yards from the slot, which was 100 yards more than the next highest receiver. His 65 catches from the slot were also the most in the NFL for that year.
This has the potential to line up well with the Stefanski offense from Minnesota. As a complement to Diggs, Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has been one of the best slot weapons in the NFL. In 2018, Thielen’s slot snaps increased (373 routes from the slot), and so did Thielen’s success—Stefanski was the offensive coordinator for the final three games that season. Thielen saw 153 targets for 113 receptions (a catch percentage of 73.9) with 1,373 receiving yards and most importantly nine receiving touchdowns, all while being a slot player as a base. Landry could step right into this kind of crucial role.
Finally let’s examine the kind of presence running back Chubb can have as a workhorse in a Stefanski system.
In 2019, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook was one of the best running backs in the NFL. He rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in just 14 games—he also hauled in 519 receiving yards on 53 catches, which came from 63 targets.
For as good as Cook’s season was, Chubb’s was even better in some ways. Chubb, who played a full 16 games, rushed for 1,494 yards and eight rushing touchdowns, and also brought in 278 receiving yards on 36 catches from 49 targets.
Stefanski set up an offense that was heavy on play-action. They leaned on Cook to establish the run threat for that play-action—though establishing the run is not required for a successful play-action offense, but I digress—and he can do the same with Chubb.
The questions about how Stefanski will divvy up the touches and targets with his new team in 2020 are natural and valid, but the answers to them might not be as new as we think. At a base, Stefanski has the same skill sets he prioritized and succeeded with in Minnesota (which was the eighth-best offense in the NFL in 2019) in Beckham, Landry, and Chubb.