Tonight, the Cleveland Browns finish off their preseason as they take on the Chicago Bears. The fourth preseason games are often dreaded by fans, because the game typically consists of backups playing for all four quarters. That will basically be the case for the Browns, as we discussed on Wednesday. There are still some new things to look forward to this week, though, so let's take a look at what we hope to learn from this game:
What to Look For - Browns vs. Bears
The long-awaited debut of WR David Nelson is scheduled to take place tonight, marking his first in-game action since tearing his ACL last year as a member of the Bills. Nelson's utilization heading into the regular season is a big question mark -- is he healthy enough to play, and if so, is there a spot for him to contribute regularly? I would love for him to be in the starting lineup tonight with QB Jason Campbell, or at least in three-receiver sets.
The Browns already waived WR Jordan Norwood, and they'll be without WR Josh Gordon for the first two games of the regular season. It was originally believed that WR Travis Benjamin would fill in for Gordon during those two games, but he's hardly been utilized at the receiver position during the preseason games. Perhaps the Browns are trying to see if Nelson, who has plenty of starting experience with the Bills, is up to the task of starting alongside Greg Little against Miami and Baltimore.
Speaking of the receiver position, WR Tori Gurley has to be considered a dark horse to make the roster if Nelson doesn't pan out. Gurley has a lot of size and has been utilized as a coverage guy on special teams. I wish we could see some of WR Naaman Roosevelt, but he's been battling injuries. In the end, WR Josh Cooper appears to be the favorite for the final roster spot at wide receiver to begin the season.
Oniel Cousins is the favorite to start the opener against the Dolphins, and chances are, that's not going to change because of this game. Cousins should be going up against backups, and you would expect that he'd be able to handle himself against that type of competition. If he turns in an egg, though, Garrett Gilkey is still an option.
If Cousins performs poorly, the more likely scenario though would be Cleveland scouting the waiver wire for a veteran and spot-starting someone to begin the year. That's obviously not an ideal scenario -- starting a guy who hasn't had any work with your team all offseason -- but maybe Rob Chudzinski or Norv Turner can find someone they've worked with before in Carolina or San Diego.
The competition at punter isn't over yet. As we discussed on Wednesday, the newly-signed Colton Schmidt, claimed off waivers from the 49ers, is going to receive a last-ditch opportunity to win the job away from Spencer Lanning. Schmidt will alternate punts with Lanning, but he'll also do all of the kickoffs -- I'm sure he's hoping the Browns' offense puts plenty of points on the board.
If Schmidt can get the ball deep into the end zone on kickoffs and put more distance and/or hang time on his punts than Lanning, he might serve as a better complement to kicker Shayne Graham. That, of course, assumes Graham wins the kicking job. He probably will, as Brandon Bogotay is expected to miss this week's game again with a groin injury.
Defensively, we'll have our attention heavily focused on the outside linebacker position. A report from ESPN's Adam Schefter says that OLB Barkevious Mingo is expected to miss Week 1 against Miami, but could come back against the Ravens the following week. If that report is true, the only roster lock as a backup outside linebacker to Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard would be Quentin Groves.
Ideally, the Browns would like to have one more guy in their pocket, and that's probably why they went out and claimed two outside linebackers off waivers over the past few days: OLB Paul Hazel from the Jaguars, and OLB Eric Martin from the Saints. You can read more about Hazel here, and more about Martin here.
There is only one other player on the Browns' roster who has been playing outside linebacker in the preseason, and that is Justin Cole. I thought Cole has done a great job this preseason, both on defense and special teams, and am expecting him to make the 53-man roster regardless of Mingo's health. Nonetheless, if Hazel and Martin can make an impression, maybe I'll change my tune.
Will we see competency from anybody at the running back position? RB Dion Lewis and RB Montario Hardesty were both placed on IR this week, putting the backup running back position behind starter Trent Richardson into disarray. Sure, I like Brandon Jackson as a receiver and blocker, but not so much as a runner.
Despite not doing much this camp, both Miguel Maysonet and Jamaine Cook should get cracks to show why they belong on the team. If both guys look pedestrian, it wouldn't surprise me to see both of them released, with Cleveland searching the waiver wire for a backup. If one of them puts up a big day against the Bears, maybe, just maybe, they'll stick around.
Our game thread on Dawgs By Nature will go live at 6:30 PM EST, which is an hour and a half before kickoff. Be sure to check in for the fourth preseason game of the year!