After the way the Cleveland Browns rallied to a 7-8-1 season following the firing of disastrous head coach Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens was hired as the full-time replacement for interim head coach Gregg Williams.
A few of the industry’s talking heads seemed surprised by the move away from Williams, but results and Kitchens’ connection with quarterback Baker Mayfield spoke to general manager John Dorsey.
A former three-year starting quarterback at Alabama in the mid-1990s, Kitchens became the tight ends coach for the Dallas Cowboys under Bill Parcells in 2006 following seven seasons in the collegiate ranks, spent mostly as running backs and tight end coaches. He joined Ken Whisenhunt’s staff to coach tight ends in Arizona from 2007-12 and was retained by Bruce Arians but as the quarterbacks coach. In 2017, Kitchens instructed the running backs.
Jackson hired Kitchens to coach the backfield in 2018 until the promotion to offensive coordinator before Week 9. The Browns would go 5-3, winners of three of the last four games. Mayfield would go on to set the NFL rookie record for the most touchdown passes (27) in a season, playing only 14 games. He threw 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions under Kitchens, and the 2018 No. 1 overall pick looked every bit the part of a franchise quarterback.
Fellow rookie Nick Chubb was a productive force at running back, manufacturing 100 yards three times in those eight games, scoring seven total touchdowns, including one in five straight contests. The Browns have a promising QB-RB-WR trio. Jarvis Landry logged a pair of 100-yard games in the first half of the year and as many in the second stanza, going for a matching two TDs in the first and second segments of the season. The veteran saw 93 targets in the first eight contests vs. 60 in the second half. Some of which due to Cleveland not being down so much, whereas a part of it was defensive attention and more efficiency running the ball.
Coaching staff additions include former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken as the new OC, even though Kitchens will call the plays, and one-year head coach Steve Wilks to coach the defense. He was Carolina’s DC prior to 2018.
Fantasy football outlook
Mayfield is the key to the offense. In his six games before Kitchens took over as the OC, the blossoming star averaged a touchdown pass with half of the frequency. His completion rate jumped 10 full points to a healthy 68 percent. It is arguable the most important stat is Mayfield was put in situations to get rid of the ball quicker and avoid sacks. In the first six appearances, Mayfield was sacked on 8 percent of his drop-backs. That figure dropped to just 1.8 in the second half of the year. The efficiency and protection upgrades didn’t come at the cost of dinking and dunking — in fact, it was quite the opposite. The Browns pushed the ball down the field, jumping nearly two full yards per pass attempt to 8.6 under Kitchens.
The most underrated and immeasurable aspect of Kitchens sticking around is continuity for Mayfield. He doesn’t need to learn a new offense, and the same can be said for every holdover around him. That is invaluable. Fantasy gamers have a high-end QB2 or low-end No. 1 in Mayfield. The Browns could use another receiving weapon, and there will be high expectations after coming close to breaking even in 2018. Mayfield is a gamble, so owners will have to accept the bad with the good, such as two games of three interceptions in the final five outings of 2018.
Chubb will get a chance to prove he is a capable of being a stud over the course of a full season. He buoyed his low yardage totals with finding the end zone down the stretch, and in the three games in which the Georgia product failed to score to close out ’18, Chubb produced 100-yard days in two of those weeks — encouraging. It is early yet, but don’t be totally shocked if Chubb makes his way into the late first round of fantasy drafts next season. The more likely scenario is he’s a second-round pick and still a capable RB1.
Third-down back Duke Johnson should see more consistent work, but he remains a fringe flex consideration in PPR leagues. Todd Haley’s version of the offense didn’t seem to know how to utilize Johnson. While he had a few quality games under Kitchens, he still wasn’t involved with enough regularity to expect a major bounce-back year in 2018.
A second year in the system with a full offseason to build chemistry with Mayfield should only help the 26-year-old Landry rebound into the 1,000-yard club and improve on his four touchdown grabs. He’s basically a lock for 140 targets and 85 catches. In PPR formats, the LSU product is a WR2 and possibly can he had for the price of a third.
Tight end David Njoku is an ultra-athletic, pass-catching type whose hands tend to betray him. In 2018, among the top-50 players at his position in terms of targets, 38 had better reception rates than Njoku. Fourteen players had higher percentages than his 62.9 when the field is narrowed to those with at least 50 targets. The point being, he can find substantial improvement if the hands get even 5 percent points better. Njoku is a No. 1 tight end in a class of volatile options.
There is reason to be optimistic in fantasy with the hiring of Kitchens, yet recognizing the potential for letdown is justified. He now has to deal with administrative and disciplinary elements, as well as face tremendous pressure. When one enters an organization that went winless the year before being hired, expectations aren’t exactly crippling.
Another positive effect of the respectable turnaround, in addition to finally having a legitimate quarterback, is it should make Cleveland an attractive stop for free agents.