No team has more question marks than Cleveland right now. What will click and what won't? We break down the fantasy implications.
There's a reason that, of the 32 teams, I'm writing about the Cleveland Browns last. The easy answer is to say I was waiting, hoping for the result of the suspension appeal by Josh Gordon to be announced. And that's true, sure. But the better answer is that I was waiting for clarity out of Cleveland about ... well, about almost everything.
I can't remember the last team that reached this point in the preseason with as many question marks as the Browns have. And that's even with the team announcing Brian Hoyer as its starting quarterback to open the season. That answers Week 1 and ... little else.
From a fantasy perspective, only Jordan Cameron is anything like a known quantity entering the season. Between injury risks, starting job questions, and possible suspensions, there is no guessing how the rest of the Browns skill players will shake out.
To the alternate timelines!
Possibility 1: Hot in Cleveland
Josh Gordon gets his suspension greatly reduced, missing only a couple games, just like last year. Brian Hoyer keeps the starting job all season. New signee running back Ben Tate stays healthy and delivers on the promise he showed as Arian Foster's backup/handcuff in Houston. Nate Burleson, Miles Austin, and Andrew Hawkins prove to be a competent group of subordinate receivers. Jordan Cameron is Jordan Cameron.
In this possibility, this is a Browns team that could contend for a playoff spot in a weak AFC and against weakened division mates in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Gordon could repeat as the No. 1 receiver, and should definitely be top five or six. Tate could be top 15 at running back, with Hoyer having about the same ceiling among quarterbacks. Burleson, Austin, and/or Hawkins could be decent bye-week fill-ins. And Cameron will be a mid-level starting tight end.
None of this is actually outlandish. We know what Gordon can do. Tate has a strong rookie year on his resume. Hoyer was gaining popularity last year before tearing his ACL. Burleson and Austin have the ability if they can stay healthy, and Hawkins can be a nice little possession guy. And Cameron is Cameron.
But that's asking for a lot to go right. So, part two:
Possibility 2: Down with Brown
Gordon's gone for the year. Tate, who spent what should have been his rookie year on IR and has been dogged by other injuries, is hurt a lot of the time and ineffective the rest. His backup, third-round pick Terrance West out of Towson, isn't ready. Hoyer and first-rounder Johnny Manziel are both as bad as they were in the team's last preseason game. Burleson and Austin get hurt again; Hawkins disappoints. Jordan Cameron is Jordan Cameron.
This version of the team is one that could go 0-16. In this version, Tate and/or West might be bottom-end starters for a desperate team, but none of the team's wide receivers offers much of anything in fantasy. And Cameron will be a mid-level starting tight end.
This, too, isn't actually crazy. Gordon could easily be out for the year. Sure, any football player is an injury risk, but Tate, Austin, and Burleson are all particularly adept at getting hurt. West doesn't profile as a burner, and already has a lot of tread on his tires from carrying a Towson team. There's a reason Hoyer has gone this far into his career without a starting job, and there are a lot of warning signs around Manziel. Hawkins has been in the league for three years and still doesn't have a thousand yards. And Cameron is Cameron.
I could see the good side happening. I could see the bad side happening. I could see just about anything in between the two happening as well. From a fantasy perspective, the Browns just have so much variance.
Still, we gotta do this. Best guesses ahead:
We all fell in marginal love with Hoyer last season after he put up 18 fantasy points, with 321 yards and three scores, in Week 3 against Minnesota. After Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy and Derek Anderson and Brian Hoyer and what-have-you, even a whiff of competence in Cleveland was a breath of fresh air.
Hoyer threw three interceptions in that same game.
Look, I was in on him too. But Brian Hoyer, competent starting NFL quarterback, comes largely from that one game and the fact that last year's general manager, Mike Lombardi, was famously high on Hoyer during all his years as a backup. There really isn't any resume evidence to tell us Hoyer is anything special, or even decent.
Manziel, meanwhile, might be a terrible NFL quarterback. We can't say for sure either way yet, but there are plenty of warning signs, including his size and the fact that there are already learned-the-playbook worries. (No, a middle finger is not a warning sign.) But whenever Manziel plays, there's every chance he'll be at least a reasonable fantasy quarterback. Like Tim Tebow before him, Manziel ought to be able to provide enough rushing yards to offer some fantasy value when he plays, even if he isn't actually good. If he is actually good, even better.
I think the Browns will need to go to Manziel early in the season, one way or another. Even if Hoyer is good, it's hard to imagine he could be a part of any future Cleveland contender, while there is a chance Manziel could be. If I knew Hoyer would be the Cleveland starter all year, I'd rank him in the mid-20s among quarterbacks. Without that assurance, though, I can't possibly rank him.
Similarly, I think Manziel gets the job early enough in the season to be relevant in fantasy. I rank him as my No. 20 quarterback, with a fantasy upside much more inspiring than, say, Josh McCown or Joe Flacco.
In his first NFL season, 2011, Ben Tate played 15 games, ran for 942 yards, and scored four touchdowns. As Arian Foster's backup in Houston, that was a nice stat line that led to him being one of the top handcuff draft picks across fantasy the last two years. He responded by missing seven total games, barely cracking 1,000 yards over the two seasons, and not remotely taking advantage of the opportunity when Foster got hurt last year.
Still, there was enough of a flash of something in that 2011 production that Tate remains intriguing, both in fantasy and real football. The Browns signed him to a two-year deal in March to ostensibly be the team's starter.
I say "ostensibly" because there were a couple of weeks around the start of training camp when people started talking up Terrance West as having a chance to take the starting job from Tate. Now, a few weeks later, that talk has quieted again, as Tate has clearly outproduced West so far in the preseason.
Should Tate get hurt again - or be awful - West might be a nice flyer to take. As such, he's a good candidate for a handcuff, backing up a new starter with an injury history and little history of success. Still, though, Tate is the starter, and has to be drafted as such.
I rank Tate as my No. 18 running back, right at the back end of starting territory. West is in my mid-40s, with flex-level upside if something happens to Tate.
This is the big one. If Josh Gordon is around for most of the season, he's an obvious WR1, with first-round-of-the-draft upside. Even if 2013 winds up as his career year - likely - his on-the-field performance is beyond much question.
But man, without any real answer on how much of the season Gordon will and won't be around for, knowing when to take him is really difficult. I'll give it to you this way: I had my first real draft of the season Tuesday night, and I took Dennis Pitta as my tight end in Round 8. Right after that pick, I started looking at Gordon, thinking the next few rounds might be the right time to start thinking about him, only for my buddy Nate to immediately pounce. The chat room was filled with "Ooooh"-type responses.
I have no idea if that pick - late in the eighth round of a 12-teamer - is actually the right spot for Gordon. Frankly, it's impossible to know right now. But it's definitely defensible.
And, of course, Gordon's presence or absence will have a huge impact on the team's other wide receivers. The Browns brought in Nate Burleson and Miles Austin in the offseason as de facto top guys if Gordon is out, and second fiddles if he's there. If I knew there was a full healthy year ahead for both guys, they'd interest me. Austin has WR2 upside; Burleson has low-end flex. But it's hard to picture two relevant guys who could be less guaranteed to have that clean bill of health. As such, and with the Gordon questions, I can't really justify spending a draft pick on either.
Finally, there's Andrew Hawkins, who I think will perform largely independent of the others. He never did much in his three years in Cincinnati - 995 yards and four touchdowns total - but there was enough for the Browns to give him a four-year deal.
Hawkins will be the team's possession receiver, a poor man's Wes Welker type. Gordon or no Gordon, that's the kind of player who will be a security blanket for whoever plays quarterback, and that kind of player could have good value in fantasy, particularly PPR.
Hawkins is one of my favorite sleeper candidates this season. I rank him as my No. 45 receiver in standard leagues, and up into the 30s in PPR. I snagged him in the 11th round Tuesday night. I see a good year from the new Brown.
Jordan Cameron is Jordan Cameron.
Need more? Sigh. Okay.
Cameron isn't likely to crack the upper tier of tight ends, the one populated by Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Julius Thomas. His value is held in check by the team's quarterback position and the questions of how much the offense will continue to focus on the tight end. But when I say "Jordan Cameron is Jordan Cameron," I don't mean he's great. I just mean he's predictable.
Gordon or no Gordon, Tate or no Tate, it's hard to see much variance in Cameron's 2014 prognosis. He's the lead guy in the tier of tight ends that includes guys like Greg Olsen, Dennis Pitta, and Charles Clay. I rank him as my No. 6 tight end, and think he's a high-floor, low-ceiling type with almost no variance in his results.