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
CLEVELAND, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 19: tight end Harrison Bryant #88 of the Cleveland Browns catches the ball over cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III #26 of the Houston Texans during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Why did the Cleveland Browns play Austin Hooper over Harrison Bryant?

One Browns tight end had stats that were vastly superior in terms of first downs and scoring touchdowns. But that tight end was not Austin Hooper, the guy with the largest paycheck. Nor was it David Njoku, who many observers believe is the most athletic.

By the way, it makes total sense to franchise tag the kid because tight ends are relative bargains in today’s insane market.

Some fans are still remembering the criticism that Njoku received from John Dorsey on his poor blocking back in 2018, but Njoku has come a long way since then, and both he and Harrison Bryant have surpassed Hooper as blockers.

Instead, the man with the best performance was Harrison Bryant, who made something good happen 60.7% of the time he was targeted, leading the entire team. His reward was an exceptionally low target rate.

Mayfield only targeted him 7.0% of the time he was on the field. Coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt seemed content to allow Austin Hooper to be Baker Mayfield’s go-to guy. The problem was that Hooper didn’t score enough touchdowns, move enough yardsticks or compile enough yards. Njoku also scored significantly better than Hooper on IPP, and also accumulated 9.0 yards per target.

Meanwhile, Hooper led the Browns skill position players in offensive snaps. However, his career has gone steadily downhill since leaving Atlanta, for whatever reason. Compared to his 2019 season in Atlanta, when he played in only 13 games versus 16 last year for Cleveland, Hooper had almost exactly half as many receptions (38 versus 75); fewer than half as many yards (345 versus 787), half as many TDs (three versus six); fewer than half as many first downs (18 versus 41).

Hooper’s yards per target were only 5.7. It will be interesting to see whether he can come back with Tennessee this season. It might be a mistake to assume that his poor numbers were all his fault, but whatever is that the Browns were doing with him, it was not working.

To be clear, this author has zero problems with Hooper, who gave 100% every time he went on the field. Hooper remains a good NFL tight end, if not a Pro Bowl-caliber player that the Browns thought they were getting. Somehow Atlanta was able to use Hooper much more effectively as a receiver than the Browns were able to, and the guessing is that he might regain some of that form with Atlanta.

The issue in Cleveland was throwing too many passes that were empty yardage, short passes that came up short of a first down. It seemed that the Browns were far too comfortable with this pattern. That’s not necessarily the receiver’s fault. He’s responsible for running his pattern and catching the ball if he is targeted, but if it is an ill-advised route or poor throw, that’s on someone else.

It can’t be known now, but this analyst’s opinion is that if the Browns had waited two weeks, and the Deshaun Watson deal had been accomplished, Hooper might never have been cut. It may be that the front office (Andrew Berry & Co.) believed that Hooper was being used in a dysfunctional way and needed to be removed for the good of the team.

Could it be that Berry was tired of too many meaningless five-yard passes on third-down-and-six, just like the rest of us? Watson was not going to use Hooper like a security blanket and would have defined a more appropriate role with fewer receptions and more meaningful yards. It might have worked out.

Cutting Hooper wasn’t really a viable salary cap move. From a business perspective, the real question is how much money did the team save by cutting Hooper now versus not cutting him?

The answer is that the Browns get to reclaim $9.5 million from the 2022 salary cap, but they have to pay $7.5 million against the 2023 salary cap. The net savings is $2.0 million. Can they really replace Hooper with a $2.0 million dollar player? That’s doubtful. Hence they should have kept him on the roster one more year.

Tennessee signed Hooper for $6.0 million, fully guaranteed, indicating that they believe he is worth three times the valuation placed on him by the Browns. They are saying, okay, he may not be an elite player, but he is still a starting caliber tight end.

Football isn’t a simple game, and it’s not possible for stats geeks to know for sure whether receivers were being ignored or whether they were just not getting open. If Hooper, Landry, and Higgins were getting the lion’s share of the targets, maybe there was a reason.

Comment below if you want to plead their case. Free agency, however, tells us that none of the three are still stars at this stage of their careers, though Hooper and Landry are still starting caliber.

The numbers don’t tell us whose fault it was, so that is up for interpretation. We could fault the execution (Bryant, Mayfield, or the other nine guys for not doing their job); the play design (Van Pelt); or the play call (Stefanski). But Bryant was extremely productive, and just was not given much of a chance to play.

The numbers can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. What we can say for sure is that the tight end with the most impressive results was targeted less often than the other tight ends, and the one who underperformed the most (Hooper) was targeted the most often.

The next page expounds some more about Impact Play Percentage (IPP). This is for the fan who is interested in the stat and what it tells about receivers and what its limitations are. Like any stat, it’s not perfect and needs a human interpreter to make sense of it.