BROWNS // BUCCANEERS OVERVIEW
Quite contrary to what anyone would have expected a couple months ago, this game will likely draw more attention than any other on the slate, with an exciting, fast-paced Browns offense (third in pace of play, third in average intended air yards) taking on an aggressive Tampa team that ranks first in the league in average intended air yards. These downfield-attacking units should pair up to create plenty of opportunities for big plays — with the sweetener being the league-worst Tampa defense boosting scoring expectations across the board.
On the front end of the week, this game boasts the highest Over/Under on the slate, with the Bucs carrying the highest Vegas-implied team total. There are going to be some ugly bumps along the road in this game, but it is going to be plenty of fun to dig into and to watch.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
It is no secret that the Bucs have had the most attackable pass defense in the NFL this year, backed up by the highest catch rate allowed in the league. While Baker Mayfield has struggled with his completion percentage early on (fueled partly by periodic misfires, and fueled in larger part by his receivers dropping too many passes), he has quietly faced four consecutive defenses that allow a below-average catch rate. The Bucs are by far his easiest test on the season.
The best way to beat this soft Tampa zone is to use crossing routes and drag routes to move through the zone into openings — an approach that has been hammered repeatedly this year by opponents, from the Saints (Michael Thomas) to the Eagles (Nelson Agholor) to the Steelers (Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster) to the Bears (Taylor Gabriel) to the Falcons (Julio Jones). While this is perfectly suited to the skill set of Jarvis Landry, Todd Haley has frustratingly been working Landry away from these types of high-percentage routes, which has put a significant dent in his floor. In fact, the pass catcher the Browns have been using in the role that should belong to Landry is David Njoku, who has been called on lately to hammer slants, crossing routes, and short drag routes. Njoku has only one game all season under seven targets, and he has seen double-digit looks each of the last two games.
Landry’s new route tree does not prevent him from hitting in this matchup (any good receiver can hit in this matchup), but his chances of a monster game are lowered by the way he is being used — especially as he has not yet found an apparent level of comfort, catching only 31 of 65 targets on the year. While that’s the bad news, the good news is that Landry has at least seven targets in every game this season, with four games of double-digit looks already. His best game on the year (8-103-0, on 14 targets) came against a Jets team that is best attacked in a similar manner — and in that game, the Browns called on Landry to run a couple more of his longtime routes than they have in other games. There is some hope that Haley and company manage to not sabotage this game, and that they work Landry into the areas of the field where he can be most successful.
If Rashard Higgins fails to get cleared this week (which seems likely), Damion Ratley will fill in for another week after going 6-82-0 on eight targets last week. Ratley played a no-joke 65 out of 74 snaps, while running a pass route on 49 of a possible 54 opportunities. Cleveland runs the second-most plays per game in the NFL, and Tampa is better attacked through the air than on the ground, so there is a strong chance Ratley sees at least six or seven targets once again, with upside for more.
On the other side of the field is Antonio Callaway, who caught two of 10 targets last week, for nine yards, bringing his total on the year to 15 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown…on 40 targets. Callaway has four drops on the year and continues to look raw as a route-runner, with visibly low football IQ (i.e., an inability to understand when and where to break off his routes, and how to maximize his opportunities for receptions). He has yet to top four receptions in a game — but the targets continue to flow his way, and he has the athletic talent to hit for big upside if something clicks in place this week.
No team in the NFL has allowed more yards per pass attempt than the Bucs, and no team has allowed more touchdowns or picked off fewer passes. The Buccaneers have notched the fourth-fewest sacks in the league this year, and they have given up the most passing yards per game and allowed the highest passer rating in the NFL.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
Further boosting the volume outlook for all four pass catchers listed above is the fact that the Bucs rank fifth in yards allowed per carry, and they have faced only 22.4 rush attempts per game. When the Browns pass, the passes go to Njoku and the wide receivers, as Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb have combined for only six receptions all year.
Chubb has yet to touch the ball more than three times in a game, in spite of Hue Jackson’s insistence that he deserves more work. Carlos Hyde is difficult to trust as a guy who fails when he doesn’t score touchdowns — though the Bucs have allowed five rushing touchdowns on the year to running backs, and Hyde has 10 carries inside the five-yard-line, second in the NFL to only Todd Gurley. Hyde’s a low-floor play, but we shouldn’t dismiss his touchdown-driven ceiling.
Behind these two, Duke Johnson is another guy who “deserves more work,” but even with Mayfield throwing the ball an extraordinary 130 times over the last three weeks, Johnson has piled up only 12 total targets. He’s a scary-floor play, with big upside if the Browns happen to get him involved.
BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
Cleveland has played strong defense in the secondary this year, allowing the second-lowest catch rate in the NFL through six weeks, while forcing opponents to throw to the short areas of the field. Outside of Tyrell Williams last week, the wide receivers who have posted strong games against the Browns have all done so by hauling in short-area throws (often drags and crossers) and picking up yards after the catch. Only four teams have allowed more YAC per reception than the Browns.
For a second consecutive week, things set up poorly for Mike Evans to hit for upside, as he annually ranks near the bottom of the league in YAC per reception — with this year being no different. The likeliest scenario here is that Evans’ targets rise back up to his normal range of nine to 11, after a down Week 5 (five total targets). He’ll need a touchdown or a broken play to pay off his lofty price tag.
Behind Evans, the Bucs are a frustrating mess of timeshares, with Chris Godwin and DeSean Jackson splitting time at wide receiver, and with O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate splitting snaps at tight end. Jackson carries the most upside of the bunch, with the third-deepest aDOT in the league. Tyrell Williams showed last week that Cleveland can be taken deep, but Jackson obviously remains boom/bust in this spot. Same as last week: Chris Godwin actually runs the routes that set up best in this matchup. He remains a part-time player, but he has shown solid floor on the year, and he incredibly ranks second in the entire NFL in targets inside the 10-yard-line, with eight. This is four more such looks than Evans, Jackson, Howard, Brate, and Adam Humphries have combined.
Humphries will continue to soak up four to seven short-area looks, and he humorously sets up well in this matchup as a guy who could add some yards after the catch on the slants and short crossers that can beat this defense. He and Jameis Winston have noted chemistry, often putting in extra reps together after practice ends.
O.J. Howard is also deployed on short crossing routes, and his YAC upside is undeniable. The floor here is low as a timeshare tight end with only one game all year above four targets, but the Browns allowed an above-expectation game to Jesse James and got pasted by Jared Cook. (Their other games were against the tight-end-poor Jets and Chargers, and the timeshare of the Ravens.) There is ceiling to be found.
Brate has almost no role outside of the red zone, but his touchdown prowess does manage to keep him in the conversation each week at a thin position.
BUCCANEERS RUN OFFENSE
The Bucs have a decent run game matchup against a Browns team that ranks 25th in yards allowed per carry and 16th in adjusted line yards — though the Bucs’ offensive line ranks 31st in adjusted line yards, and only three teams have notched fewer yards per carry. The Bucs have seemingly decided that Ronald Jones is going to be their pass-catching back, leaving Peyton Barber as a workload-secure two-down grinder. Barber hauled in four receptions last week, but that was a special circumstance, against a Falcons team that gets hit by running backs out of the backfield week in and week out. Barber had two receptions across his other four games. If he punches in a touchdown or two in this spot, he’ll provide strong point-per-dollar value, but he’ll need the touchdowns in order to be relevant on this slate. If you feel like chasing, Cleveland has allowed seven rushing touchdowns — the fifth-most in the league.
Jones saw three targets last week and one carry, on 12 snaps. Jacquizz Rodgers (10 snaps) almost matched him. Rostering one of these guys would be hoping for a miracle.
My eyes are popping over Njoku right now — and while I don’t imagine he’ll be overlooked, he’s a guy I’ll almost certainly be comfortable locking in even if ownership is high. The Browns play so fast, and passing volume is so likely in this spot, we know the targets will be there; and he is running the routes that are best suited to beating this defense. Baker Mayfield will almost certainly find his way onto my narrowed-down list at the end of the week, while I’ll have Landry, Ratley, and Callaway on my early-week list as well. Their usage and the inefficiency of this offense will introduce some concerns for me to weigh, but any targeted pass catcher against the Bucs is in play.
On the Bucs’ side: I ultimately ended up having no interest in these guys last week against the Falcons (outside of Jameis), as this offense has so many mouths to feed — creating a situation in which Jameis can notch a big game without any of his pass catchers joining him. If I felt that way against the Falcons, I should feel that way even more strongly in this far more difficult matchup. Godwin and Howard will likely make my early list, but I’ll be surprised if I end up playing either guy. DeSean Jackson is also appealing in large-field tourneys for his boom potential, but I would have a tough time pulling the trigger in this matchup in smaller-field contests.
FRIDAY NIGHT UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
The Jaguars and Browns made noise on Friday with a strange trade: Carlos Hyde to the Jags. Hyde will not be ready to play this week for the Jags, so he will start one game for them before Leonard Fournette is (finally) expected to return — after which he will become an insurance policy. As for the Browns, they are “finally able to get Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson onto the field,” as if their hands were tied from doing so before.
From a DFS perspective, I’m going to lay out some facts on the Chubb situation (both positive and negative), to give you some data points to work with in deciding whether you feel he’s a “Play” or a “Fade.” I have not yet decided where I will land (I am leaning one way, but there is time for further research to swing me back the other; naturally, I’ll let you know in the Player Grid on Saturday evening what I expect to do myself, in case this helps you in your decision-making). But as always: the best process on your end will be to gather facts and to make what you feel is the best decision for your rosters. By Saturday evening (around 7 PM Eastern), I’ll share what I feel is the best decision for mine.
The Browns have a middling offensive line (15th in adjusted line yards), while the Bucs rank second in adjusted line yards on defense. Only four teams have allowed fewer yards per carry than the Bucs. Only four teams have allowed fewer rushing yards per game (84.2). Carlos Hyde has yet to top 100 yards in a game this year. Nick Chubb — it should be noted — has more explosion than Carlos Hyde.
The Bucs’ run defense should be weakened this week with the absence of Gerald McCoy. By no means does this make the Bucs a below-average unit, but it does soften the matchup a bit.
Hyde’s role has yet to yield more than three targets in a game. Since Baker Mayfield took over as the starter in Week 4, Hyde has target counts of one, three, and zero.
Hyde is leaving behind one of the biggest red zone roles in football, with 10 carries inside the five-yard-line already (tied with James Conner for second in the league, behind only Todd Gurley), leading to five touchdowns on the year. While the Bucs have been stout against the run, they have allowed five rushing touchdowns (only eight teams have allowed more), as opponents regularly find themselves close to the goal line against this team.
In this same role last year, Isaiah Crowell topped 100 yards only once. He topped 60 rushing yards only five times all year. He did see far more targets than this role has yielded in 2018, but this has become a much more vertical offense with Todd Haley calling the plays and with Baker Mayfield under center.
This vertical offense opens more space for the running back to work — and to bust out a long play. Tampa has allowed four rushes of 20+ yards — middle of the pack in the league.
Ultimately — barring an unforeseeable spike in targets — Chubb’s fantasy score will come down to yards and touchdowns. You can hope he turns his one or two catches into a couple big gains (or that he is unexpectedly schemed the ball in the air), but “whether or not to roster Chubb” this week should really come down to “whether or not you think he will punch in one or two touchdowns.” If he scores, he likely becomes one of the most valuable plays, given how inexpensive he is. If he fails to score, he likely disappoints.
On a typical week, he would be a lock-and-load anyway, as even 70 yards on the ground plus one catch for 10 yards would be a more than acceptable “floor score” at his price. But with an unusually high number of quality options at the lower ends of the price range this week, it shouldn’t be difficult to beat that “floor score” with a different player.
Does Chubb score a touchdown or not? That’s what this play will almost certainly come down to.
As for Duke Johnson: I won’t play him, simply because there are a number of affordable guys I like this week, and there is so much guesswork on this play (why does Hyde’s absence open up more work for Johnson? — logically, it shouldn’t, but logic does not apply to this coaching staff). As most of you know, I’m a huge Duke Johnson truther, so if you think he sees a spike in work, I definitely like the play. I just don’t plan on trying to make that guess myself.