By Alex Levin
With the draft complete and the bulk of the free agency rush over with, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2020 season! And with that, I’m back with year 2 of my Opportunity series.
For those who didn’t see this series last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill rankings. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.
As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.
Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.
Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.
Last Year’s Accuracy
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.
The Browns entered 2019 with one of the most talented teams in the league on paper. Suffice to say that their 6-10 finish was a tad below expectations. Freddie Kitchens, who rode a meteoric rise from RB coach to head coach between 2018 and 2019, was fired hours after losing to the lowly Bengals in week 17. Both his coordinators (Todd Monken and Steve Wilks) went with him. Even GM John Dorsey, the man who collected all the talent, was fired for basically the same reasons he parted ways with the Chiefs just a few years prior; expert at evaluating talent, poor at managing it.
Enter new head coach Kevin Stefanski. A long time member of the Vikings staff, he will be tasked with making the Browns’ talented but dysfunctional roster a winner immediately. To help him do so, he brings in former Bengals QB coach Alex Van Pelt as his new offensive coordinator and former 49ers DB coach Joe Woods as his defensive coordinator.
While Stefanski had been around the Vikings organization since 2006, he only finally got his chance to implement his own offense last season. Even that’s somewhat debatable as he had Gary Kubiak as something of a backseat driver, but it’s probably fair to say that Stefanski wasn’t against Kubiak’s style of offense. Regardless, it’s all we have for him, so we’ll make do with the data we have.
The first thing worth noting is that Stefanski’s offense ran only 970 plays last season, the 5th fewest in the league. While this was largely a matter of pace, it’s important to note that this slow pace was by choice based on situation rather than being forced by the scheme. The Vikings performed well last season and spent most of their time nursing leads. While leading, Stefanski slowed his offense down a ton, resulting in the 25th ranked time per play in the second half of games. However, on the occasions where the Vikings were trailing Stefanski had no issue picking up the pace, posting the 6th fastest time per play when trailing by seven or more.
The other main thing worth noting was just how RB-centric Stefanski’s scheme was. Showing shades of his Kubiak influence, he called run plays on 49.1% of all plays run, 3rd highest in the league and only narrowly behind San Francisco’s 49.2%. This RB-focused approach bled into the passing game as well, where the Minnesota running backs accounted for 27.0% of all targets, the second highest share in the league. This came at the expense of the wide receivers, whose 45.1% target share was the 4th lowest in the league. To be fair, the Vikings didn’t have much in the way of depth behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and Thielen spent a good chunk of the season hobbled by a hamstring injury.
Of course, while most of our focus is on Stefanski, it is worth noting that his OC Van Pelt is a long-time offensive coach himself. Granted, he’s primarily been a QB coach whose only season of OC experience came way back in 2009, but Stefanski did say that he was unsure which one of them would be calling the plays come fall. For what it’s worth, Van Pelt’s lone season as OC of the Bills produced a similarly high 46.5% run rate and 24.3% target share for running backs, though his wide receivers received a much larger 59.0% target share.
So how does all of Stefanksi’s Minnesota experience transfer to Cleveland? For starters, it’s likely that the Browns log far more plays than the Vikings did. As noted, the tempo of the Vikings offense varied wildly depending on if they were leading or trailing. The Browns definitely put some effort into fixing up their defense between free agency and the draft, but it’s highly unlikely that it’ll be enough to jump from the 20th ranked scoring defense to 5th (Minnesota’s rank last year). With games likely to be tighter, the Browns should run a faster offense than the Vikings did. Expect something closer to the league average number of plays. By the same token, closer games encourage more passing, so Cleveland will likely pass at a higher rate than Minnesota did under Stefanski.
The target shares should be more consistent. Under Stefanski, the Vikings featured two premier wide receivers with little notable depth behind them, a strong tight end core, and an elite backfield. The Browns offense almost perfectly mirrors that setup; Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham headline a receiver room with little depth, the team landed Austin Hooper as their star tight end ahead of a deep rotation, and the backfield might feature the best tandem in the NFL with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The one thing to keep in mind is that Adam Thielen was injured for a good chunk of last year for the Vikings. If Landry and Beckham stay healthy this year, that should help improve the wideout target share.
The last thing worth mentioning is the offensive line. Last year, the Browns underwhelmed up front. However, this year they massively upgraded both tackle positions. Already boasting strong play at center and left guard, the offensive line could quickly go from a weakness to a strength. This would provide a boost to several aspects of the offense, including the sack rate.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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