How good will the Cleveland Browns offense be in 2021?
The Cleveland Browns are returning all 11 starters for 2021 and figure to improve upon last year’s point total in 2021. The Browns have received less attention than the Tampa Bay Bucs for maintaining continuity, but nevertheless, this is the first time in years that the Browns’ offensive situation has been stable.
Last week, your humble correspondent outlined a methodology for evaluating the defense, starting with the 2020 players. Pro Football Focus grades were used as an initial estimate for performance (modified slightly by the author’s specific prejudices, of course), and including multipliers for the percentage of snaps played by each player, and the relative importance for each position.
The same basic methodology is applied for the Browns offense starting with the 2020 team and then projecting how it might change in 2021, but first we have to explain why the Browns did not dominate more offensively.
The simple truth is that the team scored barely more than the average number of points compared to the average NFL team, despite having premier players at most positions with no real weaknesses, at least according to the grades they received from independent evaluators.
The PFF grades for Cleveland are way too high to make any sense for a team that averaged only 26.3 points per game for 16 regular-season games and two playoff games (473 points total divided by 18 games), or 1.5 points per game higher than the league average of 24.8 points per game. Another way to say it is that over their 18 games in 2020, they scored only 27 points more than the NFL average offense.
Baker Mayfield is graded as the seventh-highest quarterback in the NFL. The difference between the seventh-best quarterback and the average quarterback (i.e., sixteenth) is something like five touchdowns over the course of a season, either directly through the air or by leading the team on successful drives, which is enough to move the differential about 1.5 points per game right there.
On top of that, PFF grades Wyatt Teller. J.C. Tretter, Joel Bitonio, Jack Conklin, and Nick Chubb at a Pro Bowl level, and Jarvis Landry very close to that level. Based on three wide receivers per team, there are 96 starters in the league and thus roughly 48 that should move the point differential positively and the rest move it in the negative direction. The Browns top three receivers are on the positive side of the ledger. Other key players were also capable, such as Kareem Hunt, Chris Hubbard, David Njoku, and Michael Dunn.
Player ranking can be translated to point differential empirically from watching the betting lines move. R.J. White of CBSSports.com had a really interesting article last year in which he estimated every NFL quarterback’s ability to move the point spread compared to the backup.
In this case, however, Mayfield is not being compared to backup Case Keenum, but to the hypothetical average quarterback; i.e., the 16th-best starter in the NFL. So in the table below Mayfield was 1.5 points better than 16th-best quarterback. Case Keenum did not have not enough reps to make any impact one way or the other.
So if the Browns had the seventh-best quarterback operating with five Pro Bowl talents and no real liabilities at any point, how does that not equal a top-five offensive team in terms of point total?