Going Deep: Projecting The Browns Without Watson

Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) asks how different Watson and Brissett are, really?

When against the backdrop of any of the very serious ills that plague our society, talking about a game within a game becomes uncomfortable to me. As it probably should.

I encourage anybody reading to at minimum spend some time reflecting on the issues of sexual assault and accountability. I certainly have been and will continue to do so.

I could go on about this topic for a lot longer. However, today and on this platform, I am projecting the Cleveland Browns for 2022 fantasy football purposes. As of today’s ruling, quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for the first six games of the NFL season. Let’s dive in.

 

Quarterback

 

As always, I begin a team’s projections by keeping in mind the macro tendencies of the coaching staff. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has never liked throwing the ball. His offenses have ranked bottom-five in pass attempts all three years he’s been a head coach or an offensive coordinator. These teams have averaged 30.5 pass attempts per game.

Contrary to popular belief, Deshaun Watson has never been a particularly high-volume passer. He’s averaged just under 33 pass attempts per game over his last three seasons. His career year in 2020 was mostly off the back of rushing production and great passing efficiency (8.9 yards per attempt, 6.1% TD rate).

With Stefanski a lead balloon for passing volume, it was already unrealistic to project Watson significantly above his career average in pass attempts. This doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have been a top fantasy quarterback during a full season, as he showed in 2020 when he was the QB5. Being a lock for five rushing attempts per game certainly helps.

Mostly assuming career averages or slightly above in terms of efficiency, my projections have Watson at about 22.5 fantasy points/game in any game that he plays. Last year, that would have been the QB5 overall over the full season.

What about Jacoby Brissett? In any game that he plays, Brissett’s worse efficiency, lack of rushing production at this stage of his career, and even lower career averages in pass attempts make him unlikely to ever be in the top-20 fantasy quarterback conversation. In Brissett’s stints as a starter with the Colts, he averaged more than 15 rushing yards per game. Last year in the games where he got a majority of the snaps, Brissett failed to top 10 yards rushing in five of his six games.

 

Pass Catchers

 

How much would Watson have elevated Cleveland’s receivers over a full season? Less than you likely think.

Amari Cooper and third-round rookie David Bell project for the highest target shares on the team, with Bell likely to play mostly in the slot. Donovan Peoples-Jones is the favorite for the other outside receiver spot, and will likely be competing with Bell to stay on the field in two-receiver sets. The Browns ran 11-personnel only 45% of the time last year, generally preferring to get their tight ends on the field.

Speaking of tight ends, Austin Hooper was lost to free agency, but the team still has two capable players in David Njoku and Harrison Bryant. Both will command some targets, but it’s unlikely either enters TE1 territory if the split is anywhere close to even.

Sophomore speedster Anthony Schwartz as well as backfield mainstays Kareem Hunt (assuming he is not cut or traded for cap purposes) and Nick Chubb round out the players likely to command relevant target shares. Each player’s career average, 2021, and projected 2022 target shares are below.

 

Cleveland Browns Target Share Projections

 

First, a note: I’m aware these projections add up to only 93% of the total pass attempts. The others will be taken up by throwaways and targets to players you’ve never heard of.

Though I understand some in the industry expected big things from Cooper this year, he has not surpassed a 22% target share per game in the seven years of his career. There is certainly less target competition for him now than there was in Dallas, but it’s tough for me to project a leap beyond his norm coming off a down year. The downgrade from playing with Brissett lowers his ceiling even further.

I’m likely coming across as rather bullish on Bell. I’m a big believer in his profile, which includes consistent production dating back to his freshman year at Purdue, early declare status, enough size to bully NFL slot corners, proficiency at running a variety of routes, and Day 2 draft capital despite a lackluster performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.

How would these target shares translate into fantasy points with Watson or Brissett under center? Not very well in either case, unfortunately.

 

Projected Fantasy Points Per Game (PPR)

 

Even after factoring in the increases in pass attempts and efficiency that I was projecting Watson to bring to the Browns, Cooper looked undesirable at his current 6th-round Underdog ADP. 12.8 points per game would have ranked him well outside the top 24 wide receivers last year, and his projection has much less room to grow than exciting sophomore receivers being drafted near him like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Elijah Moore, and even DeVonta Smith.

If Watson was under center for the full season, the possibility existed for any individual Browns pass-catcher to return value by running hot on touchdowns. That likelihood declines dramatically whenever Brissett plays, but these median projections aren’t affected all that much by him.

While I’d still take shots on Bell late in drafts, the low projected pass attempts are likely to hold back every Browns pass-catcher this year, Watson or no Watson.

 

 

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

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