The Browns made Austin Hooper the league’s highest-paid end during free agency, inking the 25-year-old to a four-year deal worth up to $42M and a position-high $23M in guaranteed money. Hooper joins an incredibly talented, but underachieving Browns offense led by new HC Kevin Stefanski.
One thing is for sure, though. Cleveland’s offense is about to look a lot different in 2020.
As the Minnesota Vikings OC last year, Stefanski used two tights on the field at the same time far more often than the rest of the NFL. The Vikings used 12-personnel (2 TEs, 2 WRs) on 47% of their pass plays last season, which was the second-highest rate behind only the Eagles attack powered by Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert (50%). For reference, the Browns used two-tight end sets on 17% of their pass plays last year. As a team, Vikings’ tight ends were 9th in target share while the Browns ranked 28th in 2019.
Hooper was incredibly productive over the last two seasons in Atlanta, ranking 4th in fantasy points and receptions among tight ends in this span. Only Zach Ertz (204), Travis Kelce (200), and George Kittle (173) have caught more balls than Hooper (146) in this span. As a late-round pick in fantasy drafts last year, Hooper was a certified fantasy league-winner before getting hurt mid-season. However, Hooper’s strong production needs some context.
Because the Falcons constantly found themselves behind on the scoreboard, it created a perfect opportunity for Hooper to stack receptions while Matt Ryan tried to keep his team in the game by throwing. Over the last two seasons, Atlanta has led the NFL in pass attempts (1,394), they have trailed on 54.4% of their plays (7th-highest), and were the 4th-most pass-heavy team when trailing (71.2%) in this span.
Even though Hooper has caught a ton of balls over the last two seasons, he hasn’t been particularly efficient or explosive after the catch. Among 28 eligible tight ends, Hooper is a middling 13th in yards gained per route run while only Zach Ertz (3.1) and Cameron Brate (2.3) have averaged fewer yards after the catch per reception than Hooper (3.7).
Hooper’s addition gives the Browns much-needed versatility and while he will be a fantastic chain-mover and red-zone weapon for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, replicating his production in 2020 after a near-perfect situation in Atlanta is unlikely.
Mouths to Feed in Cleveland
On paper, the Browns current offense sets up almost exactly like the 2019 Vikings. Odell Beckham will play the Stefon Diggs role for Stefanski, stretching the field and drawing defensive attention on the boundary. Adam Thielen is a little more versatile of a receiver than Jarvis Landry, but Landry will obviously be Stefanski’s preferred option in the slot. Thielen aligned in the slot almost twice as often as Diggs did in 2019.
Meanwhile, Hooper and David Njoku form one of the league’s most dynamic tight end duo’s and will closely mirror how Stefanski used Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. last season. Rudolph played on the line of scrimmage and Smith was used in more of a “move” role as the motion player pre-snap.
Hooper’s addition gives the Browns more versatility on the field, but it makes projecting their pass catchers a little more difficult. Last year, Landry (9th) and Beckham (12th) were both top-12 among wide receivers in targets on a Browns offense that lacked direction.
Stefanski’s attack will not only feature two tight ends more often and take targets away from Landry and Beckham, but I’m fully expecting Cleveland to lean more heavily on the run in 2020, too. Last year, Stefanski’s Vikings ran the ball 46% of the time in neutral situations (game within 8 points), which was the 8th-highest rate in the NFL.
Under Kitchens, the Browns ran the ball just 40% of the time when the score was within 8 points (ranking 21st). Beckham and Landry are still going to draw the majority of the Browns' targets, but it’s reasonable to expect their overall pass volume to dip slightly in 2020 -- especially with another mouth to feed.
It’s only April, but their price will be key when it comes time to select one of Beckham, Landry, or Hooper in fantasy. One of the Browns’ three pass catchers is likely going to be overvalued in drafts and I’m betting that Hooper will slightly disappoint, production-wise, in Cleveland. Hooper’s 146 receptions in Atlanta over the last two seasons were largely a function of the Falcons high pass volume that is unlikely to be replicated with the Browns in 2020.