The 2021 NFL Season is upon us and the Music City Drive In has you covered. We’ll be previewing all 32 teams, as well as our picks for award winners and playoff participants each day through Monday, September 6. Check back daily at 4 p.m. EST for each new piece in our preview series.
The 2020 Browns were one of the best success stories of the NFL season. After a few years of pre-season hype failed to generate in-season success, new coach Kevin Stefanski was able to right the ship. Despite losing star receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., in the middle of the season, the Browns were able to thrive. They won 11 games, earning a trip to the 2020 post-season. And if that wasn’t enough, the Browns made an impact once they got to the post-season.
The Browns came out on fire, blistering the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round, eventually winnings 48-37. In the Divisional Round, the Browns put up a great fight against the Chiefs, falling just short with a 22-17 loss. Nonetheless, the 2020 performance has fans and pundits again excited to see what the Browns can do for an encore.
The good news for the Browns was this off-season brought more stability. The team retained its strong core on offense and, better still, provided coaching continuity to quarterback Baker Mayfield for the first time in his career. They also added receiver Anthony Schwartz out of Auburn in the draft.
The biggest changes came on defense. The Browns saw Olivier Vernon, Karl Joseph and Sheldon Richardson depart, but brought in new talent. The team signed Jadaveon Clowney to bolster the pass rush, Malik Jackson at defensive tackle and safety John Johnson. The Browns also spent their top draft pick on corner Greg Newsome II, adding Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Mayfield is in the same system with the same coach and largely the same personnel for the first time in his career. In 2020, despite seeing OBJ out for more than half the season, finished as QB17. I think Baker takes a step up in 2021, coming in close to QB1 range. He could get there, but I have him at QB13, just on the cusp. Either way, he feels like a good value this season.
In the backfield it’s all about Nick Chubb—who just signed a massive extension—and Kareem Hunt. Hunt was RB10 and Chubb was RB11 in 2020 with Chubb missing four games. Chubb is the better talent, and a great fit in this offense. I think he’s a top half RB1, while Hunt is on the RB2/3 fringe in 2021.
Among the pass catchers it gets more interesting. The Browns have a great group at wide receiver, with OBJ, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Schwartz, and a crowd at tight end led by Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku. I expect all to be involved at some level. OBJ is my pick to finish highest, coming in as a high-end WR3, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finish as a WR2. Landry will likely be a WR4/5 as the volume won’t be there and he’s not as much of a TD threat. At tight end, likely one of them cracks TE2 range, and the best bet is Hooper. But this is a case of a group being better for NFL purposes than fantasy.
The Browns were a darling in 2020 but they won’t sneak up on anyone in 2021. The offense remains stout while the team has built up its defense. It’s a three-horse race in the AFC North with the Steelers and Ravens competing but I like the Browns’ roster and potential. I think they challenge for the division title and make some noise in the post-season.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.