Out of the Weeds: Is Browns QB Breakout Bound?

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brandon_weedenIn an ongoing effort to get the Knucklehead Nation out to the masses, we’re continuing with our blog-for-blog exchange program by featuring a piece written by our friend Russell Shaffer, courtesy of TopTeamFantasy.com.

Yes, for those of you scratching your head I’m talking about Brandon Weeden. And in the spirit of full disclosure, for you regular readers of Fantasy Knuckleheads not familiar with my work on Top Team Fantasy I’m a lifelong Browns fan.

But before you go dismissing this article as another case of homerism gone wild, consider the Draconian punishment Browns QBs have inflicted on us fans during the Expansion Era. There was Tim Couch and Brady Quinn – and those were just the 1st round busts. We also got the pleasure of watching has-beens and never-weres like Charlie Frye, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme and Kelly Holcomb try and fail as Cleveland’s field general. If that list doesn’t leave you needing years of extensive therapy, I don’t know what will.

So to say I was skeptical when the Browns took the then 28-year-old Weeden (the oldest player ever selected in the 1st round) #22 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft would be putting it lightly.

Weeden certainly lived down to my expectations in his professional debut, tossing 4 costly INT and finishing with a historically abysmal 5.1 QBR in a heartbreaking last-minute loss to Philadelphia. I didn’t even think it was possible to have a QBR that low, but of course one of my Browns would find a way to sink to that level. He did, however, gain a little of my respect the following week, bouncing back for his first of three 300-yard performances in a shootout loss to the generally stingy Cincinnati defense.

And that really sums up his rookie campaign as a look at Weeden’s final stat line shows a QB who had some success but was largely inconsistent over the course of the year. His 57.4 COMP% was among the worst in the NFL (though surprisingly better than fellow rookie Andrew Luck) and his 17 INT were way too high for a franchise QB (but also better than the 18 thrown by Luck). But if you toss out that dreadful 4 INT performance Week 1 against Philly, Weeden showed a marked improvement in ball security over his final 14 starts. His 3,385 passing yards in just 15 games set a Browns rookie record, and it’s not a stretch to assume he would’ve topped 3,600 yards had he played all 16 games.

If you watched the Browns closely a year ago as I did, you would’ve seen a canon-armed QB who struggled with the constraints of a dink and dunk West Coast offense. A former pitcher in the Yankees farm system, Weeden often misfired on short timing routes because he put too much zip on his throws – causing them to sail high or glance off his receiver’s hands (though many of those balls should’ve and would’ve been caught by better WRs). The element of the game where Weeden clearly shined was the downfield passing game – something that was limited not so much by Weeden’s ability to chuck the rock as much as it was by a conservative scheme.

Weeden established a clear rapport with fellow rookie Josh Gordon early in the season and the two formed a lethal big play combo. Weeden also hooked up deep on a few occasions with dangerous return specialist Travis Benjamin.

The good news for Weeden is both Gordon and Benjamin are back for another turn in Cleveland (once Gordon serves his two-game suspension) and are joined by third-year WR Greg Little who’s looking to build on the promise of a strong rookie campaign marred by second-year struggles. Weeden also has an experienced possession receiver in off-season acquisition Davone Bess who can serve as his sure-handed safety valve in the slot.

The not-so-young QB also has the luxury of a franchise-caliber RB who can catch the ball to take off some heat and should get great pass protection from one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, anchored by Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. But perhaps the best thing Weeden has going for him this season is an exciting vertical passing attack courtesy of new Head Coach Rob Chudzinski and Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner.

The air-it-out style installed by Chud and Turner certainly fits the strengths of Weeden better than the West Coast style employed by the former regime. It also might create another bonafide target for Weeden in the form of athletically gifted TE Jordan Cameron. Cameron was a non-factor with just 20 catches a year ago, but Chudzinski and Turner are lauded for their magic with TEs and Cameron himself is a trendy fantasy breakout candidate quickly rising up draft boards.

And so far things are looking good for Weeden. Through two preseason starts he’s an impressive 18-of-25 for 229 yards, 3 TD and (most importantly) 0 INT. That includes 3 completions for 72 yards and 2 TD to Cameron, who so far looks capable of being a real mismatch for defenses deep down the middle. Yes, it’s just preseason and these games don’t count. But Weeden’s success has come against 1st team defenses and he’s looked poised, confident and decisive in a very secure pocket. He’s making all his throws and his receivers are holding onto the ball.

So is all this enough to make Weeden a breakout candidate? It’s certainly encouraging for Browns fans, and it definitely moves him on the fantasy radar whereas he was completely off the grid a few weeks ago (when he was still competing for a job).

The problem for Weeden is that QB is just so deep. When guys like Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco and Josh Freeman aren’t getting drafted, there’s just no need to pay much attention to Weeden right now beyond 2 QB leagues. But that said, if you’re in a 12-team 2 QB league I’d be looking at Weeden for his upside over guys like Phillip Rivers, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker. I think Weeden could be a sneaky week-to-week matchup play for bye weeks or injuries and could finish the year with 4,000+ yards and 20+ TD. If he can limit the INT, that would certainly qualify him as a fantasy breakout worth rostering as a trustworthy backup.

Follow me on Twitter @RussellShaffer and check out the rest of my work at Top Team Fantasy.

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