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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Cleveland Browns

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Yup, things are definitely changing in Northeast Ohio.

The Browns cleaned house this offseason, canning head coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff after just one year, then removing team CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi. Ray Farmer, a long-time NFL personnel man, was named their new general manager, and soon after the team hired long-time defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as head coach. Both moves have been met with some skepticism but both men have done a nice job so far.

The Browns made quite a splash in free agency, signing linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner, running back Ben Tate and receivers Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett and Miles Austin. Why all the receivers? Because last year's breakout sensation, Josh Gordon, is reportedly looking at a long suspension for a third violation of the league's substance abuse policy. After he put up 1,646 yards on 87 catches with nine scores while catching passes from a terrible collection of quarterbacks, the belief was that he would continue dominating. But who knows if he'll play? Maybe the Browns know he won't and that's why they added all those receivers.

But there's no doubt that the Browns' biggest splash of all wasn't a free agent or a receiver. It was a quarterback -- a controversial, playmaking quarterback named Johnny Manziel. The outgoing gunslinger out of Texas A&M is small in size but big in the spotlight as he gets attention wherever he goes. He also was one of the most polarizing college football players -- able to make amazing plays and produce a bumper crop of stats despite lacking in size and mechanics.

Opinions on whether or not he'll succeed in the pros range all over the map -- some people think he's a bust, others think he's a leader who could make a Super Bowl run. The Browns are hoping it's the latter.

Buckle up, Cleveland. It's going to be an interesting ride.

Long-term investment ... Johnny Manziel

The Browns are insisting that Brian Hoyer has a good chance to begin the season as their starting quarterback. That might be reason enough to not draft Manziel in a standard seasonal league. But even if Manziel gets on the field for the Browns, he'll have a wide receiving group that is void of playmakers until Gordon comes off the suspended list. If that lasts for the entire 2014 season, there won't be many good reasons to even claim Manziel off waivers during the Fantasy season. The real value for Manziel is in long-term formats like dynasty and keeper leagues. Once he's entrenched as the starter with an elite receiver like Gordon reliably on the field, the potential for Manziel will be sky-high. It seems unlikely such potential will be realized early on this season, so don't draft him.

Don't overrate him ... Ben Tate

Tate has a wonderful opportunity in Cleveland, but he's had mixed results with wonderful opportunities in the past. Take last year for instance -- he started the last six games of 2013 with the Texans and had a game way over 10 Fantasy points, another with 10, another with nine and three more with five or fewer. Maybe you could blame that on playing in an offense with a suspect passing game, but how might you classify the Browns' pass game this fall?! He also dealt with injuries then, but he's dealt with injuries throughout his career. And the Browns drafted a running back with plenty of potential in Terrance West -- there's no guarantee that he doesn't end up leading the way at some point this season. The best way to view Tate is as a back who should be able to grind his way to some nice totals assuming he stays healthy. The middle of Round 4 would be the earliest to consider taking Tate (with a ninth-round pick on West to back him up).

Sleeper ... Andrew Hawkins

2013 Touches Leaders
727 total touches
Willis McGahee 146 (138 car., 8 rec.) 20.1%
Chris Ogbonnaya 97 (49 car., 48 rec.) 13.3%
Josh Gordon 92 (87 rec., 5 car.) 12.6%
Jordan Cameron 80 rec. 11.0%
Edwin Baker 51 (43 car., 8 rec.) 7.0%
Fozzy Whittaker 49 (28 car., 21 rec.) 6.7%
All others 212 29.2%

Look, somebody's going to have to catch the ball in the Browns offense besides tight end Jordan Cameron (more on him later). Nate Burleson has a history of breaking things and is more of a wise old owl than a speeding eagle. Miles Austin has slowed down over the years and has a series of hamstring problems. Charles Johnson has interesting measurables but no experience. Earl Bennett has experience but is otherwise uninteresting. And Gordon is expected to be suspended. Here's what's cool about Hawkins: He's the guy the Browns targeted in restricted free agency, proof that they have an idea of how they want to use him. And Hawkins is speedy, a factor that always helps. It's also cool that owners can draft Hawkins with a late-round pick in standard leagues and a mid- to late-round pick in PPR leagues. He's not a big guy (5-foot-7, 180 pounds) and there's an injury history that has to be considered (he missed eight games last year) but with such a late pick, owners can overlook that for a chance at getting a highly-targeted receiver.

Schedule analysis

Being the Browns means always having a tough schedule thanks to two games each against the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. Those opposing defenses should be a challenge against the run, but against the pass they have some holes. Expect a tough start for the run game as Cleveland opens at Pittsburgh, then vs. New Orleans and Baltimore before an early Week 4 bye. The silver lining is that three of the Browns' next four games are against the Titans, Jaguars and Raiders, three defenses expected to be pretty soft. But after that it doesn't look good for the Browns, as every opponent from Week 9 on should provide a semblance of a challenge. Because of that early bye and the relatively safe matchup in Week 5, we're ballparking Manziel's first start for Oct. 5 in Nashville.

Training camp battles

Does Manziel have a chance to start in Week 1? Of course there's a chance, but it will take a major demonstration of knowing the playbook and playing better than Hoyer. We haven't seen Hoyer play at a high level for more than a couple of games, and he's coming off of a torn ACL. So it's not like he's going to be handed the starting job either. But Hoyer does have NFL experience and the Browns start the season with a tough schedule. Those factors help Hoyer have a leg up on Manziel to begin the season as Cleveland's starter.

How will the WR depth chart shake out? No one expects Gordon to be available in Week 1 because of a looming suspension. Hawkins, Burleson and Austin are all new to the Browns and learning the team's new playbook. Hawkins seems like the best fit for the slot and anywhere else on the field they can hide him. Austin and Burleson seem like the best outside receiver fits. But younger players like Charles Johnson and Travis Benjamin along with veteran Earl Bennett will push hard for playing time. This is a mess, but one worth keeping tabs on if only to have some names in mind for your late picks.

Is Justin Gilbert a Week 1 starter on defense? Not every first-round cornerback comes into the NFL and plays well right away (isn't that right, Dee Milliner?). There are high hopes for Gilbert to assimilate into the Browns defense quickly, particularly because he was a Top 10 pick. But here's news for you: If Gilbert ascends to the starting lineup and plays like a veteran, this defense will be tough to poke holes in assuming it stays healthy. The cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden is one of two big question marks the Browns defense has going into camp -- far fewer questions than the franchise normally has.

Bold prediction

Gordon wasn't the only breakout pass catcher for the Browns last season -- Jordan Cameron also posted blow-away career-high numbers with 80 grabs for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. How he delivered those stats might not have been consistent (only five games with 10-plus Fantasy points including three in the first four weeks), but after being as productive as he was with a litany of mediocre quarterbacks suggests that he could deliver even more statistically. The Browns have upgraded at quarterback and if Gordon's out for a while, Cameron should be a consistent target in the passing game. Kyle Shanahan is the new offensive coordinator in Cleveland and while he doesn't have as prolific a track record with tight ends that former playcaller Norv Turner had, he still has utilized his tight ends well over his last six seasons. That should help Cameron plenty. Expect another big year for Cameron, one in which he eclipses his career-bests from a season ago. Consider him a Top 5 tight end worth a pick in Round 6 or 7.

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Player News
Owen Daniels to step into larger role
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(10:47 am ET) With Dennis Pitta going down with another hip injury, Ravens tight end Owen Daniels is likely to be thrust into a larger role than he has had the first three games, and it is one he should be well-suited to fill.

It is easy to forget, but Daniels was considered a borderline No. 1 tight end last season, before he suffering through a season of Matt Schaub's quarterbacking and a fractured fibula. In 2012, he finished 8th among tight ends in Fantasy scoring -- just two points behind Pitta. Daniels caught 60.2 percent of passes thrown his way to finish the season with 62 receptions for 716 yards that season, and could put up similar numbers the rest of the way.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco likes to throw to his tight ends, as Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark and Pitta combined for 128 targets a year ago. With Daniels the best receiving option left among the team's tight ends, expect most of the looks to go his way, and he already showed in Week 2 he can be a solid red-zone target for Flacco.

Daniels is still unowned in three-quarters of CBSSports.com leagues, but should be worth targeting if you lost Pitta or are otherwise looking for help this week. 


Could Bortles time make Allen Hurns more effective?
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(10:25 am ET) Generally speaking, rookies are tough to rely on in Fantasy. They tend to produce inconsistent numbers while learning the game, making them incredibly tough to rely on from a week-to-week perspective. That has certainly been the case for Jaguars rookie Allen Hurns, who has sandwiched two double-digit Fantasy efforts around a near no-show in Week 2. Now that he has a rookie in Blake Bortles throwing it to him, why should we expect Hurns to be any more reliable moving forward?

Hurns has shown an impressive ability, thus far, to get open down the field. Even during his 2-catch, 13-yard stinker against Washington, he was open downfield and dropped a sure-fire long touchdown. Chad Henne might have lost faith in Hurns after that, as he failed to target him once in Week 3, but newly appointed starter Bortles looked Hurns way three times in the second half of Sunday's game, with the duo eventually hooking up for a 63-yard score.

The long touchdown is starting to become Hurns' signature play, and he will have real home-run potential for Fantasy. He will also likely certainly be wildly inconsistent, as both he and Bortles feel their way through their first weeks together in the NFL. Still, he has a chance to be one of the top rookie wideouts in the league this season, and is worth taking a chance on in waivers this week -- he is owned in just 41 percent of CBSSports.com leagues.  


Randall Cobb frustrated with play after three weeks
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:21 am ET) Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb was not happy following his team's 19-7 loss Sunday against the Lions. Cobb totaled only three catches for 29 yards, and the entire offense struggled against a Lions defense that was decimated by injury.

"Our defense played their butts off tonight," Cobb said, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We did nothing for them. It was kind of embarrassing as an offense, embarrassing myself the way I played."

Although Cobb had two touchdowns Week 2 and three on the season, he has just 14 catches for 126 yards through three games. He also has just one catch of 20-plus yards.

"I have to do more, I have to give this team more," he said. "I have to look in the mirror first and see where it is that I can do more to help this team out."


John Brown unlikely to be a reliable source of scores
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(10:15 am ET) Arizona rookie wide receiver John Brown is sure to be one of the hottest names on the waiver wire ahead of Week 4, but Fantasy owners might be searching for fool's gold if they are looking to bolster their receiving corps with the young Cardinals wide out.

Through the first three weeks of his career, Brown looks like a bonafide red-zone monster, having hauled in three touchdowns, including two in Sunday's win over the 49ers. However, he also had just 52 receiving yards in the game, with almost all of his value coming from those two scores. Unfortunately, an early proclivity for scoring doesn't necessarily mean a player has a nose for the end zone.

Over the past five seasons, 14 rookies have caught two touchdowns in a game while failing to top 55 yards in that same game, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com's play index. And though some of them -- Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant, Rob Gronkowski -- went on to stardom, the collective isn't particularly impressive as a whole. Over their next two games played, the 14 players accounted for 10 total touchdowns but just 149 Fantasy points overall, an average of just 5.3 points per game.

Brown has been the best Fantasy option in the Cardinals' receiving corps so far, but he won't be much use if -- when -- the touchdowns run dry. He is just third on the team in targets and could be a big-time disappointment moving forward. 


Steelers could be without three defensive players for a while
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:09 am ET) Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a sprained MCL Sunday against the Panthers and will undergo an MRI Monday, according to ESPN. 

Linebacker Jarvis Jones likely needs wrist surgery after getting hurt Sunday and will be sidelined indefinitely. Cornerback Ike Taylor could also miss some time after suffering a broken arm against Carolina.


Making sense of Baltimore's backfield, post-Taliaferro breakout
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(9:48 am ET) It took just about every other back being unavailable, but Ravens rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro got the chance to shine in Week 3 against the Browns.

Taliaferro led the Ravens in rushing yards Sunday, racking up a team-high 91 on 18 carries, including a 31-yard long run and a 1-yard touchdown. However, he was actually less effective on a per-touch basis than Justin Forsett, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry to Taliaferro's 5.1. Is Taliaferro a star in the making, or just a flash in the pan?

Among the four players who have had at least 10 carries through three games against the Browns, Taliaferro actually ranked fourth in yards per carry, as the Browns are giving up 5.2 yards per carry to opposing running backs. Though you will certainly want to go out and add Taliaferro, be mindful of the fact that he did his work against a team that has been pitiful against the run thus far.

The Ravens have seemed to be looking for reasons to push Bernard Pierce down the depth chart this season, but it is not clear if Taliaferro's performance in Week 3 will be enough to do that for good. With Taliaferro's emergence, the Ravens look to have three dependable options in the back field, meaning he is likely to be working in a crowded backfield for the time being. Taliaferro is an interesting pickup, though likely not a Fantasy starter at this point. 


Eddie Lacy working on improving run game
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:43 am ET) After facing three of the league's best run defenses through three weeks, it probably comes as no surprise the Packers rank 27th in rushing offense, averaging 78.7 rushing yards per game.

Perhaps even more alarming is that star running back Eddie Lacy is averaging 37.7 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry after averaging 78.5 and 4.1, respectively, in 2013.

"We have to change our mind-set," Lacy said, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We had a few opportunities as backs that we didn't take advantage of, whether we made the wrong read or tried to press too much. It's a long season and we're going to get it to where we need it to be.

"We just have to figure out better ways to run the ball. I don't know if I have to be more patient or speed things up but one way or another I'm responsible for the run game."


Panthers DST gets steamrolled
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12:55 am ET) After opening the season with two strong performances, the Panthers DST got run over Week 3 by the Steelers. Carolina allowed a whopping 264 rushing yards and 454 total yards in the 37-19 loss. Pittsburgh averaged 7.8 yards per carry.

Carolina mustered one sack, by defensive end Mario Addison, and zero turnovers. The Panthers DST will try to bounce back Week 4 at Baltimore.


Graham Gano goes for seven points
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12:51 am ET) Panthers kicker Graham Gano converted a pair of 40-yard field goals and a PAT in the Week 3 loss to the Steelers. He'll visit the Ravens in Week 4.

Panthers get offensive contributions
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12:49 am ET) The Panthers got some minor contributions in their Week 3 loss to the Steelers. Wideout Brenton Bersin made a 29-yard catch, and receiver Jason Avant caught two of six targets for 12 yards.

 
 
 
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