NFL Free Agency Fantasy Fallout: Austin Hooper agreeing with Browns might mean target shortages on tap

At first glance, the Browns don’t appear to have a major need for a pass-catching tight end. Their current roster includes two high-profile wide receivers plus a former first-round pick at the same position in David Njoku. But the potential addition of Austin Hooper makes a lot of sense from a schematic standpoint given their new head coach, Kevin Stefanski.

Stefanski comes over from the Vikings, where he ran two-tight end sets at an exceptionally high rate in 2019. Minnesota ran the league’s most popular personnel grouping, 11 personnel, just 18% of the time per Sharp Football Stats. That was easily the lowest rate in the league for that three-wide set with one tight end and one back, and teams league-wide ran 11 personnel on 55% of plays in 2019.

Instead, Minnesota used multiple tight ends on 57% of plays, making them one of two teams — along with the Eagles — to do that on more than 50% of plays. But they also used multiple backs at a high rate, and we know Cleveland liked to use two-back sets last year, especially after Kareem Hunt’s return. The Browns placed a second-round tender on Hunt, and if he is back we’ll likely see him and Nick Chubb on the field together at times again.

In other words, expect Cleveland to use a third receiver very sparingly in 2020. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry should both be on the field plenty, but there are five skill position slots on any given play and Cleveland now has two running backs and two tight ends that Fantasy managers have at least a passing interest in. 

Still, as far as I’m concerned, the Hooper addition most dramatically impacts the receiving upside of the backfield. Hunt caught 37 balls in just eight games last year (4.6 per game), and during that time the Browns’ tight ends were not very active. While Njoku could still be moved, Stefanski’s history suggests we would still likely see plenty of two-tight end sets, and that makes it far more challenging to project a high rate of two-back sets. 

Additionally, Landry has typically been a high-volume chain-mover throughout his career, and he’s always been undervalued in Fantasy circles. That may again be the case, but his presence further complicates things as it pertains to short-area targets. I’m not optimistic Hooper can get anywhere near the 7.5 targets per game (97 targets in 13 games) he saw last year in Atlanta, especially if Cleveland is at all improved and they are in position to lean on Nick Chubb in the second halves of more games. 

Baker Mayfield now has a ton of weapons at his disposal, but unfortunately for Fantasy, it’ll be difficult for all of them to be productive. As always seems to be the case, people will underestimate Landry’s role, but given he’ll likely continue to see a decent share of targets, we’re potentially looking at each of Hooper, Hunt, Chubb and maybe even Beckham disappointing relative to target expectation. Consider me optimistic about the Browns as a whole, but if Hunt is back along with this addition of Hooper, I’ll be bumping down Chubb toward the back end of my top-10 backs and Hooper toward the back end of my top-10 tight ends. I’ll also be moving Hunt back as I’ll be far less optimistic about his weekly standalone value relative to 2019. He’ll still have considerable handcuff appeal. 

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