The Cleveland Browns have not yet chosen a starting quarterback for 2014, nor a lead running back, and the team's top receiver is facing the likelihood of a full-season suspension. And still, somehow, it feels as if things are looking up for this franchise.
That fact says just as much about how far the Browns have fallen over the past decade than where the team is now headed. But honestly, it's tough not to like the talent and depth Cleveland managed to add during the offseason. We're not here to bury these guys, despite the low ranking.
However, the purpose of the Juggernaut Index is to review a team's fantasy potential for the upcoming season, and, well ... you'll have to scroll down quite a bit in our preseason ranks before you encounter the first Browns skill player. None landed inside the overall top-50. We didn't rank a Cleveland receiver among the position's top-60, or a running back among the position's top-25, or a QB among the top-16. Thus, the team can only place so high. But, again, the situation is hardly hopeless. Let's review, position-by-position...
The man currently atop the depth chart at QB, Brian Hoyer, is a veteran back-up entering his sixth season, playing for his fourth NFL team. He's a Cleveland native who unexpectedly delivered a pair of big games last September, winning both, but suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 5. He's an easy guy to root for.
The man who's currently second on the QB depth chart for the Browns is one of the most recognizable sports celebrities in North America, a former Heisman winner whose nickname is a registered trademark. Johnny Football owned the college game as few players have; his Texas A&M highlights range from exhilarating to improbable to no-[expletive]-way-did-that-just-happen. Manziel is, without question, one of the most thrilling and successful improvisers in FBS history.
So who's gonna start for this team?
As we mentioned above, Hoyer will open camp as the varsity QB. That much seems clear. General manager Ray Farmer has actually suggested that Hoyer leads Manziel by "a substantial margin." But obviously camp and preseason performance will mean everything in this battle, and Hoyer — even if he begins the season as Cleveland's starter — will not have a particularly long leash. The Manziel takeover seems inevitable. Johnny may not start all 16 games this season, but we'll see plenty of him.
The Yahoo fantasy crew recently had a full Manziel projection discussion, and I doubt any of us have budged from the positions we occupied a few weeks back. There's little question that Manziel is a fearless player, a remarkable athlete with terrific in-game instincts. He performed ridiculously well at A&M versus the toughest possible competition. In a nutshell, he's a badass. No, he doesn't have ideal size (5-foot-11-ish), but he has the hands of a giant.
And still, I wouldn't mess with Johnny in a standard-size redraft league. To me, he only makes sense as a bench asset in a league with 14 or more teams, or in a dynasty format. I'm a fan of the player, don't get me wrong. But just look at the 2014 quarterback ranks. Have a little respect for the depth of talent at this position. The guy we rated as the No. 16 fantasy QB for the year ahead, Ben Roethlisberger, is coming off a 4,261-yard, 28-TD season. No reasonable analyst thinks Manziel can challenge those passing totals, even if he's the every-game starter for his team (which, again, is not a given). Clearly Manziel is going to pile up decent rushing numbers — in fact, one of the negatives on his scouting report is his eagerness to run at the first sign of trouble — but this isn't Cam Newton we're talking about. You shouldn't expect Johnny to exceed Kaepernick-level rushing stats (524 yards, 4 TDs in 2013). And was Kap a standard-league fantasy force last season? No, not even close.
Manziel isn't going to put the ball in the air 550-plus times this season, and, assuming Gordon is out of the mix, he'll have one less dynamic deep-threat, jump-ball specialist at his disposal. (For all his talent, Johnny benefited greatly from working with a terrific group of receivers, led by the enormous Mike Evans. Manziel put a few balls up for grabs over the past two seasons.) The player most likely to lead the Browns in receiving in 2014 is a tight end who didn't quite reach 1,000 yards last season...
Jordan Cameron is terrific, the lone upper-tier fantasy commodity on this team's roster. He had two of his finest games last year with Hoyer behind center — 6-66-3 at MIN, 10-91-1 vs. CIN — so he probably won't mind if Manziel is prowling the sidelines in the early weeks. Cameron has reportedly enjoyed a tremendous offseason (like virtually everyone else in the league), for what it's worth. And he's entering a contract year, if you care about such details. It's easy to argue that he should be the second tight end drafted in fantasy leagues, behind only Jimmy Graham; it's almost impossible to argue that he should fall outside the top-5 at his position. I'd be willing to snag him ahead of his current Yahoo ADP (57.2). He's great, and perhaps getting better.
Unfortunately for the Browns, the rest of this receiving corps (aside from Gordon) is less than stellar...
Andrew Hawkins is the one Cleveland wideout I might not hate as an end-of-bench flier. He was a supporting player in Cincinnati, but he's ticketed for a more significant role with the Browns. Hawkins is a speedy slot guy with field-flipping ability, capable of turning short throws into big gains — an excellent fit for an offense that may soon be led by a first-year QB. I won't even attempt to build a case for owning fragile veteran Miles Austin, an aging wideout who lacks explosion. Nate Burleson doesn't really do much for me either, since he'll be a secondary receiver in a run-heavy offense, plus he's entering his age-33 season. Burleson fractured his arm during the offseason (non-pizza related), but he'll be OK for camp. Still, there's no reason to expect this team to produce more than one or two useful pass-catchers. Just leave Burleson alone in standard leagues; spend your late picks on players with higher ceilings.
As for Gordon, the expectation is still that he'll be suspended for a full year, although the matter isn't settled as of this writing. It's not crazy to spend a late pick on him if you're drafting today, in the event that he somehow avoids the worst-case punishment scenario. (But it would be kind of insane to draft your league today. Don't do that.) He remains a dynasty asset, no question. The man led the NFL in receiving yardage last season (1,646), despite being tied to an unimpressive collection of QBs. No team threw as often as Cleveland in 2013 (42.6 attempts per game), but they didn't do it efficiently (55.7 completion percentage).
It's really a shame that Gordon has put himself in this situation, and it's odd that his substance of choice can possibly lead to a full-season ban. But I don't make the rules. We're all anxious to see the Manziel-Gordon-Cameron-Hawkins version of this offense, so let's hope Josh isn't finished in Cleveland.
With OC Kyle Shanahan drawing up plays, the Browns figure to run all day, whenever possible. Ben Tate inked a two-year, $6 million offseason deal with substantial incentives, and right now he occupies the first chair in this backfield. Tate was a productive runner for Houston over the past three seasons, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, plus he caught a career-high 34 passes last year. (Few of those receptions were impact plays, just for the record. He somehow picked up only one first down on 34 catches and never found the end zone. Tate is basically a one-man case against PPR.) The persistent issue with this player has been health, as most of you know. Tate missed the entire 2010 campaign after suffering a preseason ankle injury, and he's never played a full 16-game slate.
Thus, Cleveland wisely invested a third-round pick in Towson rookie Terrance West, a big back (230 lbs) who put up silly numbers against low-level competition. Seriously, check these stats. It's always tricky to project a player who hasn't faced the toughest opponents, but at least West absolutely feasted with the Tigers (2,509 yards, 41 TDs in 2013). He should be the second or third back taken in any rookie draft, behind only Sankey and perhaps Jeremy Hill. In standard redraft leagues, Tate and West will both be rostered, with neither player carrying a scary price tag; Tate's Yahoo ADP is just 88.9, and West is a steal at 120.3.
We're likely headed for a committee arrangement, with the early-season workload tilting toward Tate. If there's a sleeper on the depth chart, it's UDFA Isaiah Crowell, but he'll have work to do in camp. These guys will run behind a not-so-bad zone-blocking O-line, featuring Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and promising rookie Joel Bitonio. It's hardly the worst setup for a running game.
You aren't likely to draft this D/ST, but Cleveland is approved for use as a match-up play. All-Pro linebacker Karlos Dansby is a reliable IDP coming off a big year (122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 4 INTs), and Pro Bowler Donte (W)Hitner was a solid add to a secondary that already featured Joe Haden. This unit is not without talent, and the Browns' division schedule isn't exactly loaded with unstoppable offenses. You'll stream this bunch at some point, and you probably won't mind doing it.
2013 Cleveland Browns team stats: 19.3 PPG (NFL rank 27), 273.3 pass YPG (92), 26 pass TDs (11), 86.4 rush YPG (28), 21.8 rush attempts per game (29), 42.6 pass attempts per game (1)