4 Cleveland Browns who could emerge as impact players in 2021

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Porter Gustin (97) warms up before playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Browns won 48-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Porter Gustin (97) warms up before playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Browns won 48-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
1 of 4
Cleveland Browns
Dec 6, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (11) is upended by Tennessee Titans fullback Khari Blasingame (41) on a punt return during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

Players have to fight just for playing time this year with the Cleveland Browns, but some will emerge as impact players. 

The Cleveland Browns have a talented roster with several players who are regarded as Pro Bowl candidates or close to it: Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham, Jr., Jadeveon Clowney, and other well-established players who sell a lot of jerseys and are already known as impact players. It’s tough to break into the lineup or even to become a major contributor in this environment.

We expect them to be stars. But what about players who are not on anyone’s radar, who might come up big unexpectedly? Last year, for example, Rashard Higgins was all but given up for dead, coming off the 2019 season in which Freddie Kitchens had no use for him. His 2018 season, in which he established a special relationship with Baker Mayfield, seemed to have been relegated to the distant past, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

Lest you have forgotten (and who really wants to dwell on that terrible season?), in 2019 the word was that Higgins had lost it. He had only 55 yards all season long in the Air Freddie offense. Coach Kitchens assured the fans that Higgins was not in the doghouse.

Freddie just had no use for the slow guy (4.64 in the 40-yard dash) from Colorado State. Truly, the fan base was kind of in Higs’ corner all along, openly questioning the wisdom of coach Kitchens giving up on him (I can hear coach Kitchens arguing, “I don’t have a dog house,” but you did, coach, and it was a mile deep). With that in mind, let’s see if we can identify other players ready to make a quantum jump in 2020.

Baker Mayfield was the one who went to bat for Higgins and helped convince the Browns to bring him back. He convinced the front office that there was nothing wrong with the player and Higgins wound up being the go-to guy when Odell Beckham, Jr. went down.

Jarvis Landry was not his normal self, either, playing with rib injuries that probably should have kept him out of the lineup. For much of the second half of the season, Higgins was really the No. 1 receiver. From Week 7 on, Higgins led the Browns in receiving yards with 546 yards. Landry was second with 521 yards. Higgins also edges Landry in playoff receiving yards 116-112.

Hence Higgins was definitely an impact player in 2020, who re-emerged after almost disappearing in 2019.

The first player on the list of potential impact players for 2021 is also a wide receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones, who brought down 14 balls for 304 yards in 2020. In fact, Peoples-Jones may surpass Higgins in the depth chart and become the new number three wide receiver by mid-season.

4. Donovan Peoples-Jones, the Peoples’ choice

Donovan Peoples-Jones looked like a lousy prospect coming out of the University of Michigan in 2020. He had 649 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore for a so-so team and followed that up with only 431 yards as a junior. In other words, he was a fair player, not a great one, and he was getting worse instead of developing. No wonder he was only a sixth-round pick.

However, at his Pro Day, he ran a 4.48 40 yard dash and had a 44 inch vertical, which is higher than anyone on the team, and he has huge hands (10 and ⅛ inches). Maybe we should just give DPJ a Mulligan for the poor statistical showing and blame it on the mystery of coach Jim Harbaugh.

Another important consideration is that he was only 21 years old in 2020. Readers of this space are aware that this writer has presented numbers that show that 21-year-olds hardly ever perform at close to their peak as rookies, but they improve greatly as they mature.

DPJ was tremendously impressive as a Browns rookie, producing 760 all-purpose yards, including 304 receiving yards. On offense, when he was targeted, he caught the ball 70% of the time, and when he caught it he made 21.7 yards per catch. Two of his catches went for touchdowns, and the one against Cincinnati was a game-winner with 11 seconds left in the game.


In his second season, he will actually know the playbook a lot better, and at age 22 he has had an entire year to unlearn what he was taught at the School Up North. He has learned by playing with Rashard Higgins, Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry. There could not be three better teammates to learn from. The thinking is that he is going to be a nice No. 4 wide receiver this season.

However, the prediction here is that, now that the Dawg has been let out, he will thrive. He and Rashard Higgins will reverse their roles, if not this season, then next, with DPJ accumulating 600 receiving yards as the new number three receiver.

It might also be interesting to see how the defense handles a three-wide-receiver set with DPJ, OBJ, and Anthony Schwartz, who happens to run a 4.26 40 yard dash. It may be hard to hide a 4.7 defensive back in that case.