Few teams entered the 2019 NFL season with higher expectations than the Cleveland Browns. And few fanbases have ever seemed more deserving of a turnaround. The Browns won only four games from 2015 to 2017, but even that understates the misery. Reaching back to 2003, they have 12 seasons with five or fewer wins. They have only two seasons with double-digit wins since 1989.
Enter Baker Mayfield, and suddenly everything was different. He didn’t start in Week 1 last season, and it took a firing of Hue Jackson to help them escape the self-imposed misery. The change was immediate.
They got better in every facet, and they started winning. The offense jumped from averaging a paltry 1.41 points per drive to a robust 2.38.1 While moving to playmakers like Nick Chubb delivered a boost, Mayfield’s performance in Freddie Kitchens’ offense was the driver for the turnaround.
Mayfield threw four fewer passes per game, but his yards per attempt jumped by more than 2.0. His TD rate spiked. He went from a normal, struggling rookie to a phenom on the cusp of stardom. Among starting QBs, only Patrick Mahomes matched the 8.8 yards per attempt for the full season.2
Blair Andrews tells us in the Wrong Read, No. 56 that young QBs take a major fantasy leap in Year 2. Everything pointed to a league-winning 2019 campaign. Everything except his connection with Jarvis Landry.
High Hopes for 2019
With hopes justifiably high, Mayfield went off the board at QB4. He was a luxury item with a price tag three rounds earlier than Lamar Jackson and five rounds earlier Dak Prescott.
Given this enthusiasm, it was disconcerting to see the dynasty ADPs for Landry and Odell Beckham continue to flounder.
Part of this may be a reflection of dynasty owners better understanding the age risk of players in their primes, but 26-year-old stars in high-powered offenses are usually more coveted.
Through three games of 2019, owners certainly appear to be right about Landry. But in order to be right, they had to be simultaneously wrong about Mayfield.
Just How Good Was Landry?
Even with the disappointing 2018 campaign, no player has caught more passes through five seasons than Landry’s 481. It’s not close either. There’s a 55-catch gap down to Larry Fitzgerald in second. The same was true of his tenure prior to arriving in Cleveland. Through four seasons, his 400 receptions gave him a 58-catch lead over Anquan Boldin.3
Of course, Landry has always been criticized for where he caught his passes. Among the players with more than 400 receptions in their first five seasons, only Brandon Marshall would appear to be anything other than a Hall of Fame shoo-in, and he’s also the only one without a 2.0-yard edge on Landry in yards per reception. All but Marshall and Marvin Harrison own at least 1.0-yard edge in yards per target. But Landry caught 66% of his targets during those five seasons. In that cohort, Julio Jones is the only other member to manage better than 60%.
Landry also never played with a Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers. He hasn’t played with the types of QBs who naturally inflate catch percentages. Most of the success he’s had in the NFL is in spite of QB play, not because of it.
During his time with the Dolphins, Landry earned more than 500 targets from the trio of Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, and Matt Moore.
The numbers weren’t gaudy, but it’s disturbing how much more efficient he was with Tannehill than he has been with Mayfield. Far from taking a second-year leap in the offense together, the Mayfield-to-Landry connection sits at a meager 3.09 AYA in 2019.
Landry’s Collapse in Cleveland
As hard as it is to believe that Mayfield has represented such a downgrade, Landry’s peripherals in Cleveland are equally bizarre.
Landry has actually been targeted at a similar rate with the Browns,4 but his catch rate has plummeted. With 1.5 fewer receptions per game and his yardage numbers sliding despite deeper targets, Landry has averaged more than 2.0 fewer points in Cleveland.
Landry’s Strong Peripherals in Miami
If you’ve been reading my Monday articles on explosive WRs, you’re familiar with the concept of fantasy points over expectation (FPOE). This stat helps us measure efficiency directly in terms of fantasy points. Is a player outperforming the fantasy points you would expect based on down, distance, and field position? Due to the quality of QB play and the nature of his targets, it was always going to be difficult for Landry to post big FPOE numbers, but his impressive catch rate and elite work after the catch allowed him to overcome many of the hurdles in Miami.
You can see how the efficiency numbers will bounce around on a per-game basis even for an underneath threat. But Landry managed to perfectly balance the positive and negative for 0.0 FPOE over his time in Miami.
Watching Landry play, he appears to be among the most physical WRs with the ball in his hands, and the stats back this up. Landry averaged 5.14 yards after the catch with the Dolphins. Only Golden Tate, Antonio Brown, and Julio Jones created more total after-catch yards during this time frame. As a result of his high target share and elite catch percentage, Landry was contributing more than 30 yards after the catch per game.
Landry’s Stunning Collapse in Cleveland
Unfortunately, Week 3 was just the latest in a multi-season trend for Landry. He was targeted nine times but caught only three passes for one of the least efficient performances of the weekend.
After the Browns were steamrolled by a mediocre Titans squad in Week 1, the 28-point performance by Beckham in Week 2 offered a glimmer of hope for the passing attack. That was snuffed out quickly by the Rams. Beckham and Landry both should have scored 16-plus points, but they disappointed fantasy owners again.
Mayfield struggles to connect with Landry at every target depth, but the Browns may have made a tactical error by acquiring Landry and then dramatically shifting his usage. During his Dolphins tenure, just over 10% of his targets occurred more than 15 yards down the field.
Since coming to Cleveland, those numbers have jumped over 30%. This means fewer of the short targets that Landry has been so good in turning into extra yards. Unfortunately, even Landry’s underneath routes have been far less valuable in Cleveland.
Before joining the Browns, Landry gained more than 32 yards after the catch per game. With Cleveland, he’s generating just over half that at 16.9. Combined with a plummeting catch rate, that’s led to -2.2 FPOE per game.
From 2014 to 2017, Landry’s combination of catch rate and yards after catch made him a superstar in converting air yards into receiving yards. His receiving air conversion ratio (RACR) over that time period was 1.11. With the Browns it has plummeted to 0.59.
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This is how you turn a fantasy force into a mediocre player. His 2018 numbers are shockingly bad in the two main efficiency categories.
Landry’s volume still made him a top-20 receiver last season, and it offered a sneaky upside scenario if a) the Browns moved him back to his Dolphins role with Beckham joining the squad, and/or b) Mayfield’s expected breakout materialized.
Of course, his profile after the move to Kitchens presented lurking downside as well, especially if Beckham cut into his workload and the Browns spread it around behind their alpha receiver.
Right now, we’ve hit close to the worst case scenario. Landry’s targets are down and his efficiency has remained among the league’s worst.
Will the Perfect Storm Turn Into a Sprinkle?
This is the perfect time to buy Landry. It’s possible that his performance through three weeks will lead to a volume decline. In many ways, that’s the lesson the Browns should be taking from this. Use him less. Find more efficient plays. But that’s not what happened in Week 3, where he earned a season-high nine targets.
In any scenario where Landry isn’t marginalized in the offense, his production starts to bounce back. I don’t like what the Browns have done with Landry to this point, but he’s been too good for too long – and Mayfield was too good too quickly – to simply write off these players or this offense. I have Landry out of my lineups for Week 4, but I’m putting in trade offers everywhere.
Image Credit: Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Jarvis Landry.
- For context, the Patriots averaged 2.21. The Chiefs were up at 3.18. (back)
- It’s obviously easier to do so when pulling out a positive split, which is something to remember even when that split corresponds to a specific structural element within the team like “with Freddie Kitchens.” (back)
- Michael Thomas is on pace to best Landry’s numbers, but there’s certainly no shame in falling behind the Saints star. (back)
- Although some of that owes to the high target rate in the handful of games with Tyrod Taylor. (back)