Let’s begin with the elephant in the room: Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen with new Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson in terms of discipline. There are rumors that the league wants a “significant” suspension, perhaps the entirety of the 2022 season, amid the two dozen civil suits filed against Watson (20 of which were recently settled). Again, though, that’s a rumor, and even once a suspension is handed down there could still be an appellate process to navigate. It’s a mess.
Making things even messier is the team has alienated former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield to the point that he’s unlikely to ever suit up for the Browns again. In that scenario, a Watson suspension would lead to journeyman Jacoby Brissett getting the nod. Brissett is a prototypical game manager, and his insertion into the lineup would dampen the outlook for Cleveland’s passing attack.
The lone silver lining is it sounds as though the NFL would like to have the Watson situation resolved in its entirety before camp opens July 27, so hopefully we’ll get clarity soon.
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A year ago, the Browns had Odell Beckham Jr. (currently a free agent) and Jarvis Landry (now with the New Orleans Saints) atop the depth chart. This year, they’ll be looking at Cooper to be the No. 1 receiver coming off a three-and-a-half-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys. He was strong for most of his time in Big D, but 2021 was his low-water mark, putting together a 68-865-8 line while clearly falling behind CeeDee Lamb in the pecking order.
Now 28 and with five 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, Cooper is an established lead receiver, and he should be the No. 1 option in the passing game no matter who lines up at quarterback. In fact, given what’s behind him on the depth chart, Cooper could find himself among the most targeted players in the NFL this season.
Peoples-Jones actually led the Browns in receiving last year with 597 yards on just 34 catches for a robust average of 17.6 yards per reception — that included 12 pass plays of 20-plus yards. The Michigan product was feast or famine, though, catching three or fewer passes in 10 of his 14 games.
It’s the consistency department in which DPJ needs to make significant strides as his downfield work shows there’s statistical upside to be found in his game. He appears to be the front-runner to start opposite Cooper and would benefit from seeing exclusive single coverage while being targeted from a quarterback of Watson’s talent.
David Bell and Anthony Schwartz
A pair of recent third-round picks also should factor into the mix behind Cooper. Schwartz, drafted in 2021, did little as a rookie, catching just 10 passes for 135 yards and a score. He has excellent speed and is best suited to the slot. We’ll see if an unproductive first year in the NFL taught him any lessons.
Bell was selected 99th overall this year and is more of a chain mover than a downfield guy, which should immediately separate him from DPJ or Schwartz. Despite a lack of speed, Bell has shown a knack for finding soft spots in coverage and has the toughness to make catches in traffic.
This will be an intriguing battle to watch in camp, even if there likely is not enough upside from Cleveland’s third receiver to find a regular role in fake football lineups.
Fantasy football outlook
No matter who takes the snaps for Cleveland in 2022, Cooper should get his. The veteran knows how to uncover and is a proven commodity. Would he be better with Watson than Brissett? Sure, but he should deliver at least low-end WR2 production regardless.
Peoples-Jones could get some late-round attention, particularly if Watson avoids substantial discipline, but he’d be a flier at best. DPJ is an ideal candidate for a WR5 slot in best-ball formats — where boom-or-bust weapons don’t harm your score.
Neither Bell nor Schwartz generate much enthusiasm at this juncture, but the former has a hint more appeal, if for no reason other than being the unknown commodity after the latter couldn’t make his mark in 2021.