Predicting Top Offensive, Defensive Stat Leaders for the Cleveland Browns
Until the advent of statistic-driven fantasy football, the best thing about the NFL was its reliance on real play by real men. However, times have changed and many football fans actually care deeply about QB ratings not even math teachers understand and numbers describing anagrams like YAC.
For those who simply must cannibalize the league in pursuit of a perfect (albeit virtual) patchwork team, plug these numbers into the basement-alchemy system of your choice.
For those who prefer their players to be flesh and blood, think of this as a preview of anticipated 2012 successes.
For all NFL fans, remember Robert S. Weider's immortal words:
"Baseball fans are junkies, and their heroin is the statistic."
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Joshua Cooper Channels Wes Welker
Wes Welker is a slot man on his second NFL team. He’s too small and not athletic enough. He’s also the Patriots' leading wide receiver. In 2012, Welker hauled in 122 footballs and scored nine touchdowns. He averaged 12.9 yards per catch.
This was the same team that had Rob Gronkowski as a receiving threat—yet Tom Brady targeted his small, unlikely star 173 times. So let’s not make assumptions that only WR No. 1 and WR No. 2 have a shot at leading the team.
Never underestimate the power of chemistry. Does any knowledgeable football fan honestly believe that Randy Moss grasped the Patriots playbook more fully than Chad Ochocinco? If you do, please contact me—I have a loft I’m trying to sell.
Randy Moss was once, and always will be, a deep threat. Please. The man is going to go down in history waving his long skinny arm while deep in the opposing secondary.
The difference was that Moss and Tom Brady had a chemistry that Brady never developed with the former Bengal. The general public will never know why. We won’t know if Ochocinco still has the ability to separate until September. If he can still get open, chemistry was indisputably the key.
As (hopefully) soon-to-be Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin said years ago, "Chemistry wins more games than talent."
Josh Cooper wasn’t enough of an athlete to be drafted. He also played in the shadow of Justin Blackmon (121 receptions and 18 TDs). Still, Cooper managed three scores on his 71 catches. He has also managed to stay out of jail.
Brandon Weeden is on board: "I've got a lot confidence in 'Coop' and I am excited for him to be here."
"Confidence" is QB code for "you're getting the ball, dude."
Wide Receivers in Contention
Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi hope to have something to say about who nabs the Browns receiving title.
In a lockout-shortened first season, Little ended up with 61 receptions, 709 and two scores. In all probability, these numbers will soar. He has the ability, he has had practice and he now has a stronger-armed QB who will hopefully have more time to deliver the ball.
It's there for Little. After all, he averaged 11.6 yards per catch and contributed 35 first downs in his rookie year.
But he only came down with the ball 50 percent of the times that he was the intended receiver. So, the 2012 results are almost completely up to him. If he can’t take one gigantic step forward…
Mohamed Massaquoi will be waiting on the other side of the field. Since Mike Holmgren is leading the cheers for the 25-year-old receiver, you know that he will be heavily featured in preseason and September.
If Mo makes the big leap that Holmgren (and virtually no one else) expects, he’ll get as many targets as Little. Whichever one decides to actually hold onto the football has a chance to be a hero.
Here’s the problem: Out of 74 targets in 2011, Mo made 31 receptions. That’s just…well, words fail me.
TE De Jour: Benjamin Watson, Evan Moore or Jordan Cameron?
Evan Moore had more than half of his career receptions last season (34-of-62) and averaged 9.5 yards per reception. He scored four touchdowns and achieved 19 first downs in limited action in 2011.
That all makes him sound poised to take over as the No. 1 TE. Ah, but in January, Mike Holmgren projected Moore as "a 30-play-a-game kind of guy"—which does not bode well for his stats.
Somewhat perplexedly, Jordan Cameron remains a fan favorite who many believe will shine in 2012. Upon closer examination, his stellar college and combine performances are now more than a year in the past, and in eight games played, Cameron totaled six receptions. See my confusion?
Unless Benjamin Watson gets hurt and Jordan has himself a spectacular preseason, the latter will still be a backup with low stats—because Watson remains the preeminent choice.
Yes, it's unreasonable to expect a 32-year-old player to return to the form he displayed two years ago (68 receptions and three TDs).
On the other hand, Watson had to wait an entire career to catch as many balls as he has recently. As a Patriot, Watson had 167 receptions in six years. In two seasons as a Brown, he pulled in 105 footballs.
Now that he has a taste for it, Watson is going to want the ball. If he is healthy, he will be the starting TE—unless/until Moore, Cameron or Smelley can supplant him, which won’t happen in the first part of the season, at the least.
It remains to be seen whether having a rookie quarterback doing checkdowns will increase tight end targets across the board. Offensive minds Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress will be taking both Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden out for a test drive with lots of short-yardage passes punctuated by power rushing and the occasional long bomb to Travis Benjamin.
Multiple red-zone targets will be the order of the day. That means two WRs, Richardson and at least one TE. Further, those two tight end sets that are going to sweep the NFL in 2012 will cut down on any one TE's stats.
Best to stick with (Rob) Gronkowski for your fantasy ball-catcher.
Trent Richardson Leading Rusher of More Than Just the Browns
Despite a complete lack of mystery in this category, there is some academic (and fantasy living room) interest in exactly how many yards/carries and touchdowns Trent Richardson will accrue this coming year.
Playing against SEC defenses isn’t the same as facing The Steel Curtain or Ray Lewis. However, particularly in 2011, it wasn’t exactly chump change either.
Richardson played 13 games, scored 24 touchdowns, carried the ball 283 times, made 29 receptions and averaged almost 130 offensive yards per game. That’s just…terrific, wonderful, great, stupendous. Pick a superlative and it applies.
Shurmur and Childress are salivating at the very thought of watching their brand-new toy rush into the teeth of the best defenses in the NFL.
Richardson will be the statistical leader and will probably come up with 10 (at least) 100-yard games and a dozen scores. At least that is what every Dawg-loving Pounder devoutly hopes.
Brandon Weeden: Not Ready for Prime-Time Fantasy
Many pundits will be speechless if Brandon Weeden isn’t the Day 1 starter under center. While some fans would probably enjoy the ensuing silence were Colt McCoy to win the job, we’ll stick with reality here.
Weeden completed over 72 percent of his passes last year while throwing for over 4,000 yards. That will not happen this season.
However, his TD/INT ratio of 34/12 (almost three scores to every pick) would be nothing short of star-making if repeated. Or, let’s face it, even approached.
Weeden, when campaigning for a first-round draft grade, allowed himself to become an ESPN Sports Science guinea pig. The former OK State signal caller threw ball after ball after ball at clay pigeons. And he broke almost all of them in mid-air. Does this mean a darn thing when it comes to facing an NFL rush? Probably not. But it surely is fun to watch—especially if you are a Cleveland fan.
No matter how mature he is and how much being a former professional pitcher has prepared him for NFL expectations, Weeden will be a rookie. Fans shouldn’t expect more than a 56 percent completion percentage. Considering that Seneca Wallace finished 2011 at 51.4 percent, Cleveland will be happy.
But you might want to wait before you start Brandon on your fantasy team. Maybe next year. Okay, we’ll see how it goes.
D'Qwell Jackson Continues as a Tackling Monster
Tempting as it might be to give the tackling title to the big guys up front, it’s simply crazy to go against the NFL’s reigning Comeback Player of the Year.
D'Qwell Jackson came storming back from two injury-shortened seasons to record 116 solo tackles and assist with 42 more. He defended three passes, made 3.5 sacks, forced a fumble and even snagged an interception. The secondary might want to take note.
In the absence of Scott Fujita for at least the first month and in the presence of several rookies, there is no reason to expect any other linebacker to approach these numbers.
Jackson’s impact on the team is more than statistical. His Cleveland teammates voted him the 2011 Ed Block Courage Award winner, given to "players who exemplify commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage."
It may be impossible to prove, but his courage and character have been undeniable contributors to the statistical bottom line.
Jabaal Sheard or Juqua Parker: Sackmaster Battle?
Here’s a somewhat surprising stat for a supposed run-stuffer: Ahtyba Rubin recorded five sacks in 2011. That figure put him second in the rankings.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard brings 8.5 sacks into his second year in the league. That goes with five forced fumbles, by the way. Think how much better he could be with a matching pincer at the other defensive end slot. Every Dwight Freeney needs a Robert Mathis.
Juqua Parker may have been brought in to help with the rush, but he has only averaged a touch over three quarterback dumps per year, and Frostee Rucker has seven in his whole career.
Backup Marcus Benard has a real opportunity here to make a name for himself if he can get to the quarterback when he is in the rotation. Brian Schaefering will also compete for time at this spot, depending upon the status of his health.
Not to be ignored is draft steal (at least so far and on paper, anyway) Billy Winn. Nfldraftscout.com rated Winn as a second- or third-round pick and as the 10th out of 135 DEs. Plus, he recorded two sacks in the Boise State bowl victory, so he knows his way to the quarterback.
This early in the year, Sheard has the edge on emerging with the team sack record, though both Benard and Parker have something to prove.
Bold Prediction: Billy Winn becomes the next JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul for those of you who missed the Super Bowl—and every NFC East game of the past two years).
Joe Haden Gets Some Interceptions?
The interceptions-leader position for the Cleveland Browns is ripe for the "picking." Sorry.
Joe Haden may be one of the best young corners in the NFL, but he brought down zero interceptions in 2011. Null, naught, zip…you get the idea.
That’s gotta change, and fans hope that coordinator Dick Jauron is bringing the point home this offseason. In 2010, Jauron’s Eagles finished third in the league with 23 picks.
That’s great; however, one can’t help but notice yet another Philly connection. Does Mike Holmgren hire anybody who didn’t coach for the Eagles? Apparently not.
When one searches for "Browns interception" on the Internet, only one entry appears that relates to the 2011 season, showing rookie DB Buster Skrine picking off (wait for it) John Skelton. Yes, we know he was a surprisingly effective quarterback for the Cards and is in contention for the starting gig. But seriously, John Skelton? How impressed can we be?
For those doubting the, um, veteran Sheldon Brown, it is worth noting that he led the team in interceptions last season with two. Jauron still thinks highly of him:
"There’s no reason to doubt him. He’s certainly done it every other year he’s been in the league, and there’s not a lot of guys that do it that well and that long."
Nevertheless, Joe Haden is the young talent who should be leading in this category. He will rise to the occasion and make it his mission to jumpstart his INT total.
Browns' Special Teams Leaders: Paging Joshua Cribbs
The Browns reportedly really, really want Joshua Cribbs to get back to scoring touchdowns in the return game—at least, that’s what they say.
If Greg Little can hang onto the football and if Richardson opens up the passing game and if Travis Benjamin, Jermaine Saffold or Bert Reed can produce as a deep threat, then the Browns will be able to get Cribbs back where he belongs—on special teams.
But if the wide receiving corps gambles don’t pay off, Joshua C. will be attempting to prop up the passing game. Again. Try not to wear him out. It wasn't helpful.
Keep an eye on the special teams reps at the return positions. If any of the above three speedster WRs dazzle here, the balance of power in the wide receiving corps will change drastically.
Meanwhile, Phil Dawson will not only lead the team in kicks, he might (perish the thought) continue to lead them in points scored.
Dawson may be entering his 14th season, but he’s been a rock while booting it, too. He has averaged over 82 percent in the past two years (while being asked to save games from very, very far away).
He nailed kicks from over 50 yards, eight times in 2011. Eight. While happy for Phil, this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of offensive execution.
The best-case scenario is that both Phil and punter Reggie Hodges will spend much more time as spectators than stat leaders in 2012. They can get pom-poms and applaud Trent Richardson as he zooms by them. Or not.
"The spirit, the will to win, and the will to excel are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur."
For some (marginally) less hypothetical Browns analysis see:
Football in General:
Peyton Manning as Football Experiment