BROWNS // SAINTS OVERVIEW
Last week, the Saints’ man-dominant coverage scheme got ripped apart by the Bucs at all levels of the field. Interestingly, while some of the big plays were the result of clever scheming and zone-based coverage breakdowns, most of the plays by Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Chris Godwin came simply from these receivers beating their man. Because talent doesn’t evaporate overnight, it’s tough to project this becoming a consistent problem for the Saints (last year, defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore allowed a quarterback rating of only 45.3 on passes in his direction, with five interceptions and zero touchdowns allowed, as charted by PFF), but the lack of pass rush from the Saints in Week 1 could carry over against an above-average Browns line. If that happens, there will still be opportunities for big plays, and for the Browns to keep pace in this game.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
Josh Gordon played on 69 of a possible 89 snaps last week, and he ran 47 pass routes (only seven fewer than team leader Jarvis Landry). That’s the good news for Gordon. The bad news was his surprisingly low usage: three targets on those 47 routes run — good for one catch on a 17-yard touchdown. The Steelers are stout on the perimeter, but with Lattimore expected to follow Gordon much of the day, this should be considered a difficult matchup as well.
If Gordon remains in fairly tight coverage for much of the game, Jarvis Landry should again see monster usage, after being targeted on an incredible 37.5% of Tyrod Taylor’s Week 1 passes. The Browns do not want to be a team that passes 40 times per game, but they’ll likely have little choice in this one — on the road, in the dome, against the high-flying Saints offense. This chart from NFL’s Next Gen Stats shows how the Browns used Landry last week — in a far more expansive role than he had in Miami, with work at all levels of the field, and from all areas of the formation. The Browns are treating him like their number one receiver, and we should as well.
The only other receiver to see significant run was Rashard Higgins, who ran 41 pass routes but was targeted only four times.
The final piece of the Browns’ talented cache of downfield weapons is tight end David Njoku. Njoku is a stud athlete who can put strain on an opposing defense, but he genuinely relies on nothing but his athleticism to get open — with lazy route-running and zero nuance to his game. Until he strengthens this side of things, I’ll continue being cautious with him against better coverage units; last year, the Saints ranked sixth in DVOA against the tight end and allowed the fewest receptions and yards to the position.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
While the Saints have shown that they are comfortable allowing yards on the ground, Carlos Hyde will be at risk of falling out of the game plan by the middle of the third quarter in this spot, as the Saints are likely to jump out to a lead — at which point, the Browns would be forced to go pass-heavy and bring Duke Johnson onto the field for more snaps. Hyde’s talent gives him an opportunity to post a nice game in this spot if he sees 16 to 20 touches, but there is obvious risk that he will fall shy of that mark.
Only six teams allowed fewer receptions last year to running backs than the Saints, but given Duke Johnson’s wide receiver-like skill set, the matchup shouldn’t be a concern. In tourneys, Johnson is an interesting upside target as one of the most efficient per-touch players in the league, in a spot where game flow is likely to turn in his favor. On DraftKings, especially, these are the types of plays we have to start thinking about as pricing tightens up: guys who need the game to work a certain way in order to hit, but who have strong, price-considered upside if things work out correctly.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
Last week, we took a look at the way Cleveland struggles to take away short passes, and (before the wind in that game wrecked our well-laid plans) we highlighted the advantage Antonio Brown had against a Cleveland pass defense that ranked bottom five last year in YAC allowed per catch. While Michael Thomas is not quite in A.B.’s range in the yards-after-catch area, he is solidly above-average in YAC at all short areas of the field (see chart below). He’ll be the focal point for this Saints offense once again, and he has all the upside in the world in this spot.
Behind Thomas (17 targets), the wealth was spread thin last week across Ted Ginn (six targets), Ben Watson (four targets), Austin Carr (two targets), and Tre’Quan Smith (one target). This offense belongs to Thomas and Kamara at the moment, and that is really as far as we need to look if hunting for quality all-around plays.
If we take floor out of consideration, Ginn obviously remains in the “upside” conversation.
If Ginn misses this week with his knee injury, explosive rookie Smith will become a very interesting tourney play — stepping into Ginn’s role, with a similar set of skills. But, again: this offense is Thomas and Kamara right now. Everything revolves around them.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
Last week, we were spot-on in our original projections for Kamara’s usage, as he saw only 17 total touches (it really is astonishing what this guy can do on so few touches…), but he was on the field for 52 out of a possible 64 snaps, and he ran a pass route on 39 of Drew Brees’ 49 drop-backs. Mike Gillislee and Jonathan Williams combined for only 10 snaps and four carries, and even if the Saints are playing with a lead, they appear set to continue leaning pass-heavy. Gillislee lost a fumble last week, and the Saints thought little enough of Williams to cut him from the 53-man roster and expose him to waivers before adding him back to the team before Sunday. We cannot bank on another 12 targets for Kamara, but it seems genuinely unlikely that he falls shy of eight targets — and if that happens, he should see a slight bump in his carries, up to around 12 or 13. The run game matchup is not the best, but there are so many holes the Saints can expose in this defense through the air and in space that Kamara remains an elite play.
Of course, the same caveats as last week apply: when you pay this sort of price tag for a non-elite workload, you are going to expose yourself to a few price-considered duds. It’s simply more dangerous — from a “floor” perspective — to bet on efficiency than it is to bet on volume. But the other side of that concern is what Kamara showed us last week: he is capable of posting a must-have score without seeing elite usage.
After digging into exactly what went wrong on the Saints last week (as noted above: it was mostly about a lack of pass rush and Saints defenders simply getting beat), and also digging into the tape from the Browns last week (my God! — could the Browns have been less creative in their route combinations and schematic concepts?), I am not seeing this as a blowup spot for Cleveland. This pulls Hyde out of the wheelhouse where he will be in weeks where the Browns can keep things closer, and it puts Duke Johnson into tourney consideration. I expect Lattimore to clamp down on Josh Gordon, and I expect Njoku to struggle getting open, which makes each guy a “bet on talent in tourneys” option for me this week, with lowered floors. And with the Browns likely to be trailing in this game and those other weapons in a difficult spot, I expect Jarvis Landry to once again see 10+ targets as the Browns try to keep pace. Tyrod Taylor also stands out as an intriguing play this week, as the Browns are all but certain to find themselves in comeback mode in the second half — opening opportunities for Taylor to pile up garbage time passing and rushing yards down the stretch.
The Saints’ offense is in a smash spot against Cleveland, with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara as the central weapons. Browns’ DC Gregg Williams is incapable of creatively scheming these two out of the game, and he’ll focus on “stopping them after they get the ball.” This is suicide against the Saints, and the trio of Thomas/Kamara/Brees rise to the top of the slate once again.
SATURDAY EVENING UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
Josh Gordon is expected to get cut/traded this next week after “breaking the team’s trust.” There are whispers he has experienced setbacks in his quest for sobriety, which is hopefully not the case, simply from a human standpoint; but regardless, he won’t be playing Sunday.
This leaves Rashard Higgins and rookie Antonio Calloway on the field with Jarvis Landry. One way to look at this is that Higgins and Calloway are now underpriced assets; and while Landry played on the outside more last week than he did with Miami (33% last week, which will lead to more coverage from Marshon Lattimore), his targets should become even more locked-in. Of course, stud athlete David Njoku also becomes appealing with this rose-colored view.
From a “JM’s Interpretation” standpoint: My concern here is that the Browns will get blown out of the water, with Lattimore now able to focus on Landry whenever Landry lines up outside (rather than being stuck to Gordon). Njoku still has one of the toughest tight end matchups on the slate, Higgins is not very good, and Calloway is extremely raw. This is a bad coaching staff and a quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who functions better as a high-level game manager than as an aggressive, 40-pass-per-game guy.
I still like Kittle // Doyle // Jonnu more than Njoku, and Landry doesn’t really change for me (as noted in the Player Grid: I like him, but there are a few guys I like more). Higgins and Calloway theoretically have 20-point ceilings, but their likeliest range is six to 14 points on DraftKings and five to 12 points on FanDuel; not bad, but I’ll be aiming higher this week. I do think this gives a slight bump to Duke Johnson, whose floor remains iffy, but who has true 20-point upside in a game where Cleveland will have to pass (and will likely struggle to move through the air outside of Landry). He’s a tourney target.
The bigger fallout, if the Browns do in fact struggle, will be on the Saints’ side. Without Gordon stretching the field and demanding attention, it’s fair to wonder if the Browns are now over-projected at 19.75 points. And if the Browns fall shy of that mark, it’s fair to wonder if the Saints’ ceiling is capped. They should still score four touchdowns (which means Brees // Kamara // Thomas remain very strong plays), but the chances of this turning into a shootout are slimmed; and the chances of the Saints protecting Kamara by grinding out the clock with Gillislee or Williams in the fourth quarter increase.
This obviously does not take Kamara out of the ‘monster floor, monster ceiling’ conversation. But in the tough decision between Gurley and Kamara on sites where pricing is tight, it does give Gurley a small nudge. Same goes for Thomas, chasing Antonio Brown and (to a lesser extent) Julio Jones.
I already had Gurley sliiiightly higher than Kamara, so this just makes that a bit easier to stick with. And I already had Thomas behind A.B. and Julio, so: ditto. But if you had Kamara higher than Gurley, or Thomas higher than Julio, realize that game script becomes slightly less exciting for these guys. Each guy can absolutely post the highest score at their respective position (Kamara more so than Thomas), but their chances of doing so get taken down a half-notch.
Hopefully you are feeling great about where you are at this point, and are in position to wrap up your final thoughts on the slate.
I’ll see you at the top of the leaderboards in a few!