Analytics show Cleveland Browns passing game needs an overhaul

Cleveland Browns tight end Harrison Bryant (88) catches a pass in the fourth quarter during a Week 9 NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cleveland Browns won, 41-16.Cleveland Browns At Cincinnati Bengals Nov 7
Cleveland Browns tight end Harrison Bryant (88) catches a pass in the fourth quarter during a Week 9 NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cleveland Browns won, 41-16.Cleveland Browns At Cincinnati Bengals Nov 7 /
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Cleveland Browns
Jan 9, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Fans react after Cleveland Browns running back Demetric Felton (25) gave fans a ball after scoring a touchdown during the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland Browns used Pop Warner system for targeting receivers

Again, if the pros are supposed to maximize the utilization of the best wide receivers and minimize the use of underperformers, the Browns seemed to have more of a Pop Warner mentality, in which everyone gets a chance, irrespective of skill level.

First of all, two players are listed from other teams, Jakeem Grant and Amari Cooper. Both are talented players. Grant made the Pro Bowl as a returner last season, and Cooper is a four-time Pro Bowler.

There is also a separate listing for Odell Beckham, Jr. for the Rams, and one for OBJ’s tenure for the Browns. They may be the same person, but they were very different players. It’s hard to believe that OBJ had the chance to work with Baker Mayfield for three seasons, and only three months with Matt Stafford and the Rams.

Because Jakeem Grant was primarily a kick returner, he did not get a huge number of snaps on offense, but he had a good year for the Dolphins and Bears, getting a first down or touchdown 52.9% of the times he was targeted.

Hence, when he was on the field, his quarterback looked for him and threw him the ball relatively often. What a concept! Grant was targeted 11.5% of the time he took a snap on offense. That is reasonable for a talented player having success.

Similarly, Cooper was an established playmaker for the Cowboys, so big plays resulted 51% of the times he was targeted, which is also a good showing. Accordingly, he was targeted a healthy 12.5% of the time. That is also reasonable for a star player.

Let’s turn our attention to the Browns receivers.

The buzz on Jarvis Landry was that he was Mr. Clutch for the Browns. The yardage was not that great, we were forced to admit (6.6 yards per target, which is terrible). Still, it seemed  ―  in the eyes of some fans at least  ―  like he was always coming up with first downs and touchdowns.

Consequently, Landry was targeted 16.3% of the times he took a snap with the Browns offense, a very high percentage that would usually be reserved for a top 20 NFL wide receiver. That’s way higher than Cooper and Grant. Is Landry then a superstar, significantly better than Cooper?

But the reality is that Landry was not delivering first downs and TDs often enough in 2021. In fact, he only produced 36.8% of the times he was targeted. This is what might be expected from a number four receiver, not a number one. If Landry was so valuable, he would probably be earning more than $3 million guaranteed from the Saints this season and $6 million overall (if he hits all of his incentives, which is highly unlikely).

The Browns were targeting one of their most unproductive receivers as their top priority, so no wonder they ranked 27th out of 32 teams in the NFL in terms of passing yardage. That’s one of the main takeaways from the data.

A similar analysis applies to Odell Beckham, Jr. His IPP was second lowest on the team, just a bit above underachieving Anthony Schwartz. Hence, the rate of targets of 11.7% cannot be justified based on his poor numbers in Cleveland, despite his obvious ability.

Mayfield managed to never throw him a touchdown pass last season and was losing confidence in him so that by the Pittsburgh game, he basically quit using him. Once he went to Los Angeles, he started scoring touchdowns and making first downs.

Beckham’s IPP of 43.8% is significantly better than his Cleveland performance (five TDs in LA versus none in Cleveland, being the largest distinction), justifying his target per snap rate of 12.8%. Yes, it hurt when he left, but we cannot blame him, based on the results.

It was put-up-or-shut-up, and the man put up. He has a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl touchdown plus another playoff TD and five others in the regular season, compared to zero for the Browns. The fact of the matter is he did not have star results in Cleveland last season but he did for the Rams.

Demetric Felton also had high TSP (16.2%, a tick lower than Landry), but in his case, his numbers were high enough to justify the attention. He made first downs and scored twice (57.1% IPP), and caught over 80% of the balls thrown at him, though the Browns did not want to play him. Why not? Just as a guess, he often got catches on quasi-trick plays in which the Browns wanted to sell the defenses that he was a running back and then moved him into the slot.

We don’t know whether he can play the slot when Nick Chubb is in the backfield and defenses are fully aware that he is the slot receiver, but we might as well find out if there is any reality to the numbers Felton put up. The Browns may have a slot receiver.

Perhaps the Browns were loath to play anyone in the slot long-term unless it was Landry, because that was Landry’s best position also. These are just guesses, however. It might be that the Browns were just kind of clueless about who to play, and stayed with their veterans too long.

Now, let’s turn our attention to Donovan Peoples-Jones. He was by far the most productive wide receiver that the Browns had last season. Fully 50% of the time they threw a football at him, a first down or touchdown resulted, but they greatly preferred throwing to Jarvis Landry, OBJ, or Rashard Higgins.

DPJ was targeted only 8.3% of the time he was on the field, about half as often as they threw to Landry. Yet DPJ was hugely more productive in terms of first downs, touchdowns, not to mention yards.

Rashard Higgins was a similar story to Landry. He didn’t have a very good year, but continued to be targeted by Baker Mayfield. It’s impossible to justify targeting Higgins more frequently than Peoples-Jones, but it happened.

Now that he has gone the free agent route and signed a not-so-lucrative deal with the Carolina Panthers, Higgins is getting only a shade above the NFL veteran’s minimum, with just $152 K guaranteed. The numbers say he was not a valuable target last season, although the Browns (or at least Baker Mayfield) judged him to be very valuable judging by their relatively high percentage of targets.

However, the rest of the NFL corroborates our numbers by offering only a small financial reward for his substandard play. Hopefully, he makes a comeback, but Higgins did not convince any of the 32 NFL general managers of his value by his performance last year. It’s not just an obscure writer at Dawg Pound Daily with a spreadsheet, it is the entire NFL voting with their checkbooks.

As for Anthony Schwartz, he played like a 21-year-old rookie at times. Perhaps that is because he was in fact a 21-year-old rookie. Cleveland saw enough of him to know he belonged on the bench most of the time. The Browns need to see improvement in summer camp, or one of the undrafted free agents could push him out of a job.

Ja’Marcus Bradley is listed for completeness, but given that he was targeted only four times last season, a statistically reliable estimate cannot be made of his ability to produce. It would be fair to say that we are still waiting to see if he will ever screw up, but that has not happened yet.

To use a baseball analogy, he is like a kid outfielder who got a chance and he’s hitting line drives all over the place and batting over .300 in just a few at-bats. We’re not sure if it’s for real, but maybe we ought to keep playing him to see if he continues to hit big league pitching rather than just give up on him with a .300 batting average.

What the heck, the other outfielders are batting .200 and they can’t stay in the lineup, so why not?

Last year’s wide receivers consisted of a high-level performer in Peoples-Jones, who the Browns didn’t want to throw to, and an unproven player in Demetric Felton who was producing, but the Browns were not interested in playing him. Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and Odell Beckham, Jr. (while he was in town) were not producing, but they were Mayfield’s go-to wide receivers.

It may seem harsh to criticize the Browns for using the Pop Warner method to distribute footballs, but if there is a pattern in selecting who they targeted, it is very hard to see. It looks like the most productive receivers were not always on the field, and if they did make it onto the field, the quarterback tended to avoid throwing the ball to the ones most likely to score touchdowns and make first downs.

Instead, the balls went to the receivers who seemed to wield the most political power in the clubhouse. Was it because these receivers were the most skilled at getting open? Or was it the quarterback’s decision-making, the design of the play, the result of the play call, or a combination of all of these factors?

A numbers geek is probably not entitled to point fingers at specific individuals, but the numbers say that for whatever reason, the team had some established go-to receivers whose production in 2021 did not merit the attention they got.

Offseason moves, such as the departure of Landry and Hooper, corroborate the mismatch between value and production, as the new teams for these players are paying them much less than the Browns were paying.

At least one receiver seems to have agreed with this assessment, because he jumped the team and wound up in Los Angeles, underscoring the importance of politics in the Browns’ clubhouse.

The situation is not any more clear at tight end, where the Browns had three tight ends and seemed to prefer the one who had the biggest contract rather than the one who was producing results. That story is on the next page.