The Cleveland Browns have found themselves in an awfully sticky predicament early in a campaign where playoffs have become an expectation. With 29 and 31 points scored in their first two matchups—recording a 1-1 record—Cleveland hasn’t had any issues reaching paydirt, but it’s come primarily via the ground game, not from the arm of Baker Mayfield. While Nick Chubb was paid to do exactly that, Mayfield, who’s eyeing a massive extension, must begin to produce through the air.
But to whom?
Week 1 saw the Browns leave Arrowhead winless to start the year following a special teams gaff midway through the fourth quarter. A game in which the Browns led for the majority of the afternoon was flipped on its head when it mattered most. For Mayfield, a 321-yard day of turnover-free football earned a thumbs up from head coach Kevin Stefanski, but a lack in receiver punch left Cleveland pondering “what if” their arsenal was fully stocked against the Chiefs. Would they be 2-0 right now? Would Odell Beckham Jr. have provided the spark needed to earn Cleveland’s first win in Arrowhead since 2009?
Questions remain in abundance about Cleveland’s receivers room.
With Beckham Jr. out the first two weeks of the season, Tuesday welcomed another slice of bad news for Stefanski’s unit. After recording just one catch in two snaps played against Houston, Jarvis Landry was placed on injured reserve and will remain out for at least three weeks of action. Landry reportedly suffered an MCL sprain, which ultimately has landed the onus on Beckham Jr. to not just return but to produce immediately.
Although the three-time Pro Bowler is still working his way back from knee surgery, the Browns' passing attack will now have to lean on wideouts Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and rookie Anthony Schwartz if they have any hopes of placing themselves in position for a division crown come Christmas. While the names don’t jump off the screen, if Stefanski must enter Week 3 against the Chicago Bears without Beckham despite optimism about his return, the Browns may not be in as bad a shape as many believe.
Following Landry’s injury on Sunday, first-year running back/wideout hybrid Demetric Felton led the Browns with 51 receiving yards and a touchdown, tight ends Harrison Bryant and Austin Hooper combined to catch nine passes for 89 yards, Higgins caught two passes for 27 yards, while tight end David Njoku contributed with two receptions for 18 yards. The unit helped Mayfield complete 19-of-21 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. It was a group effort to complement a rushing attack that scored a trio of touchdowns Sunday to lead the Browns’ offense.
But, it’s the lack of such production from Peoples-Jones that has stood out through the opening two games. With just two targets from Mayfield in 93 total offensive snaps, Peoples-Jones has been invisible on the outside during his allotment of roughly 78% of the offensive workload. At 6-foot-2, Peoples-Jones offers the vertically-stout target Cleveland has not had in its stable of weapons since Josh Gordon many moons ago. A part of roughly just 25% of the offensive snaps in 2020, Peoples-Jones’ role has surely increased, but his production has yet to kick into gear. With Beckham’s expected return, and an obvious effort through two weeks to get his tight ends involved, it’s difficult to place a gauge on the second-year wideout’s progression, but if Landry’s injuries linger and Beckham Jr. suffers a setback, he could quickly find himself atop the depth chart with a massive workload if all comes to fruition.
All in all, the Browns’ “lack” of punch at wideout finds itself in a moderate spot early in the year. In years past where an injury could derail a season, general manager Andrew Berry has added the necessary depth for Mayfield to continue to sling it around the yard. While the headlining names in Beckham Jr. and Landry draw the masses, it will be the pass-catchers lower on the depth chart that need to keep Cleveland’s pass offense afloat during the early portions of the fall.