This week's edition of 'Thursday Night Football' (8:20 p.m., NFL Network) features two teams that selected in the first three picks of the 2018 NFL Draft. Only one of those players will be on the field, however, as the Browns still have Baker Mayfield on the bench while the Jets have been starting Sam Darnold from Day 1.
Darnold already has the first win of his NFL career, having defeated the Detroit Lions in Week 1, but the Jets followed up that game with a disappointing loss to the division rival Miami Dolphins. The Browns, meanwhile, actually did not lose each of their first two games. They've been good enough that it's conceivable they could be 2-0 right now, but instead they are 0-1-1 after tying the Steelers in Week 1 and losing a heartbreaker to the Saints in Week 2.
On a short week and playing host to the Jets, is it possible the Browns can finally come away with the win that has eluded them since 2016? We'll find out later Thursday evening.
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When the Browns have the ball
The Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor this offseason so that they would not have to start whichever quarterback they drafted No. 1 overall until that player was 100 percent ready. The thinking was that Taylor would provide a certain level of competence the Browns have not achieved over the past several seasons, and remove the pressure for Hue Jackson and company to push the rookie (Baker Mayfield) into the starting lineup. Through two weeks of the 2018 season, it does not necessarily look like that plan will last all that long.
Taylor has completed just 52.9 percent of his passes -- second-to-last in the NFL ahead of only Josh Allen. Despite throwing the ninth-longest average pass in the league, Taylor ranks just 25th in yards per attempt. Perhaps this is because Taylor has thrown more deep passes (15-plus yards downfield) than any quarterback except Ben Roethlisberger, but he is just 29th in downfield accuracy rate. Not completion rate -- accuracy rate. Just nine of his 21 downfield passes have been on target, a dismal rate of 42.9 percent.
And Taylor is not the only major figure in the Browns' offense who ranks among the league leaders in inefficiency. Cleveland's three-man backfield of Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, and Nick Chubb has arguably been even worse. Hyde has been the lead man and obvious bell-cow ball-carrier for the Browns, and he has ... not been good. Just two players in the NFL (Todd Gurley, James Conner) have more carries than Hyde through the first two weeks of the season, yet he ranks 42nd among qualified ball-carriers in yards per carry, averaging just 2.8 yards per tote. Some of this is due to poor blocking up front, as Hyde has averaged just 0.84 yards per carry before contact, but it's not as though his 1.92 yards per carry after contact is anything to write home about, either.
Because the Browns have been so invested in getting Hyde the ball, they have not come close to utilizing the full breadth of Johnson's skill set -- a surprise given that they signed him to an extension this offseason. Johnson averaged only 9.3 touches per game during his first three years in the league, and it seemed like they had bigger plans for him this season and beyond when he was signed to a three-year, $15.6 million extension. Instead, Johnson has just 11 touches in two games and has yet to find the end zone. It seems wild that Johnson has been the team's most effective back for several seasons and is a terrific pass-catcher and yet has not seen a meaningful uptick in usage over the years.
Johnson's not even the only former University of Miami player whose skills are not being properly utilized by Cleveland. Tight end David Njoku had seven targets in each of the season's first two games, yet he just just 33 total receiving yards. The Browns clearly had high hopes for Njoku this season, and Taylor has had good chemistry with tight ends in the past, but he has yet to find a rhythm thus far. Among the 97 players in the league who have been targeted at least 10 times, no player has a worse passer rating on throws in his direction than Njoku.
Really, the only player with whom Taylor has shown any sort of chemistry is Jarvis Landry, and even that is largely because he just keeps peppering Landry with targets. Landry's been the intended receiver on 22 of Taylor's 70 pass attempts through two weeks, and he's actually been targeted downfield way more often in Cleveland than he ever was in Miami. Landry ranks 10th in the NFL in air yards through two weeks. Last year, he ranked 40th despite ranking fourth in the entire league in targets.
It's not necessarily the best news for the Browns that they're about to head up against a team that ranks second in the NFL in pass defense DVOA through two weeks. The Jets have four players -- Darron Lee, Jamal Adams, Morris Claiborne, and Trumaine Johnson -- currently ranked in the top 30 of Sports Info Solutions' points saved in coverage, including Lee at No. 1. New York's offseason splurge for Johnson looks to be working out so far, and their safety duo of Adams and Marcus Maye looks strong as well. If Lee finally begins tapping into his potential as a full-field linebacker, then the team will suddenly have plus playmakers at every level of the defense. New York has allowed a score on just 19 percent of opponent drives thus far this season, and unless Taylor takes a big step forward it's difficult to see Cleveland scoring too often on Thursday night.
When the Jets have the ball
Numbers-wise, Sam Darnold came crashing back to earth in Week 2 after an excellent debut against the Lions in New York's season-opening win. As many have noted, however, the performance Darnold put on tape in Week 2 was actually arguably better than what he'd done in the opener. He's averaging 8.6 yards per attempt through two games while also completing over 66 percent of his passes, an excellent sign for his ability to push the ball downfield while maintaining efficiency. Darnold has taken too many sacks so far but he's not been rushed or harried in the pocket. Contrarily, he looks extremely comfortable managing the rush and picking out the open receiver before delivering the ball on time and on target.
It'll be interesting to see if he can continue doing so in Week 3, against a Browns defense that suddenly has not one but two players capable of putting a ton of pressure on opposing passers. Myles Garrett looks every bit like the player people expected him to be when the Browns drafted him No. 1 overall last year, coming through with two sacks, two hits, three hurries, and a knockdown through the first two games of the year. He's been joined through two games by interior rushman Larry Ogunjobi, who has just been trucking over folks and living in the backfield thus far. Ogunjobi already has three sacks this season after recording just one a year ago, and the combined pressure he and Garrett have put on quarterbacks has helped the Browns force an NFL-high eight turnovers so far. (The Jets have actually forced turnovers slightly more often as a percentage of opponent drives.)
Even if Darnold can manage to take care of the ball on Thursday, it would not be surprising if the Jets had some trouble moving it downfield with any sort of consistency. Isaiah Crowell has a 6.2 yards per carry average, but nearly half his yardage came on one 62-yard jaunt. His other 21 carries totaled just 75 yards, an average of 3.6 per carry. Bilal Powell's 17 carries, meanwhile, have totaled just 66 yards. The two players have combined to break just one tackle on 39 carries this season. That's not great. The Browns, meanwhile, have defended both the run and the pass well so far, and they're not quite the walkover they've been over the past several seasons.
All that said, because Darnold has shown the ability to navigate crowded pockets and find the open man, he should be able to have a degree of success picking out Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson, Terrelle Pryor and company downfield, if they can get open. Rookie corner Denzel Ward had two interceptions in his debut but he has also been beaten for two touchdowns in two weeks. Terrance Mitchell is yielding a 112 passer rating on throws in his direction. Linebacker Christian Kirksey has been beaten for several big plays already. The Jets should be able to find Crowell and/or Powell for passes out of the backfield and have success as well: the Steelers' James Conner caught five passes for 57 yards in Week 1, while Alvin Kamara caught six for 53 last week. Powell has been the better pass-catcher of the two both this season and throughout their careers, and it would not be surprising to see him have a strong impact in this game on check-downs and/or swing passes out of the backfield.
Pick: Jets 23, Browns 13