The Cleveland Browns will be without their top four wide receivers in Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge for Sunday’s Week 16 game against the New York Jets.
Just when it seemed like Cleveland might have a chance to steal the AFC North crown from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the year 2020 and COVID-19 struck.
Cleveland Browns news: Jarvis Landry, most of WR depth chart out for Week 16
ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the bad Browns news, which will leave their receiving corps extremely shorthanded on extremely short notice versus the Jets:
Prior to last week’s action, perhaps this wouldn’t be quite as big of a headline. Up until that point, New York had failed to win a single game this year. Then the unthinkable happened: the Jets upset the Los Angeles Rams 23-20, and likely lost their chance to draft Trevor Lawrence in the process.
Cleveland has had a run-first offense under new head coach and play-caller Kevin Stefanski, but leaning too heavily on the rushing attack might be difficult with the passing game lacking so many key weapons.
Landry in particular is a big-time player for the Browns to lose. He leads the team with 67 receptions and 789 yards. As for Higgins, he’s a reliable possession target who’s caught 35 of 49 targets for 544 yards and four touchdowns.
Despite being a sixth-round rookie, Peoples-Jones has made the most of his opportunities and is carving out a bigger role of late. The Michigan product has 13 catches on 17 targets for 293 yards (22.5 per reception) and two scores. Hodge has proven explosive in his limited experience, too, with nine receptions for 155 yards in 2020.
Only Marvin Hall remains at wideout on Cleveland’s depth chart at the minute. It stands to reason that practice squad players Ja’Marcus Bradley and Derrick Willies are real candidates for promotion to the active roster soon.
Cleveland Browns news: Can Baker Mayfield overcome shrinking Week 16 supporting cast?
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has thrived of late, playing among the best at the position in the entire NFL. However, losing a deep threat like Peoples-Jones, an all-around veteran playmaker in Landry and a sure-handed target in Higgins is going to make life difficult, even against the 1-13 Jets.
Mayfield does still have the elite running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to lean on. New York will also be without rising star defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who recently went on injured reserve. That’ll be a tough absence for the Jets’ already lackluster front seven to overcome.
The good news, too, is that Hunt actually leads Cleveland with five touchdown grabs in 2020 and is third on the team with 34 receptions, just one behind Higgins and tight end Austin Hooper.
Speaking of tight ends, Stefanski’s system is predicated on heavy use of them thanks to their versatility in run blocking schemes and as pass-catchers. Between Hooper, former first-round pick David Njoku and promising rookie Harrison Bryant, the Browns are easily three-deep at the position, which means Stefanski will likely lean into that personnel group to adapt Sunday’s game plan on the fly.
If Cleveland wins and Pittsburgh loses to Indianapolis, then Week 17 will feature a Browns-Steelers duel for the AFC North title. Multiple COVID-19 cases have beset Cleveland this season, even striking superstar pass-rusher Myles Garrett, who’s still in the process of recovering and is gutting through it on the field.
The Browns have proven to be more resilient under Stefanski than in many years past, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see this team manage a victory despite losing so many receivers for the time being.