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Browns vs. Saints, NFL Preseason Week 1: Position Battles to Watch

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Can Brock Osweiler cement his status as the Browns’ starting quarterback with a good outing against the Saints? That is one of five things to watch this Thursday.

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The Cleveland Browns take on the New Orleans Saints on Thursday for their first game of the preseason; at this time last year, we were getting ready to evaluate QB Robert Griffin III. This year, we’re talking about QB Brock Osweiler. Who would’ve guessed that? Here is a preview of what you should look for in the game from the Browns.

Injury Report - Who's In, Who's Out?

On offense, the following players are not expected to play:
TE David Njoku (back) - confirmed by Hue Jackson
OL Gabe Ikard (concussion)

On defense, the following players are not expected to play:
DT Caleb Brantley (finger)
CB Marcus Burley (face laceration)
S Ed Reynolds (knee)

Five Things to Look For

1. Can Brock Continue His Momentum? At this point, the way things have gone for QB Cody Kessler — being demoted, still not having the necessary arm strength, and two pick sixes in recent practices — indicate that the starting quarterback job comes down to Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer.

Over the team’s past three practices, including last Friday’s Orange & Brown Scrimmage, we’ve really seen the quarterback competition take a dramatic turn in favor of Osweiler. He was the most stable quarterback during the scrimmage, and after he was named the starter on Monday, he put together two solid practices full of touchdowns in preparation for the first preseason game.

The one area of concern on his end is that he still hasn’t had much time to build a rhythm with the first-teamers; Kessler and Kizer have received a lot more time with those guys. Osweiler is also expected to play the least of the top three quarterbacks on Thursday because first-teamers typically only play the first quarter of the first preseason game. So if he doesn’t get off to a hot start, that opens the door for Kizer — in the second half — to make some flashy plays and gain ground in the competition. Osweiler’s goal will be to let the running game get going, while staying aggressive and trusting his instincts that he can fit the ball to receivers even amidst tight coverage.

2. Slot and Third WR Reps: We know that Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt will be atop the depth chart come Week 1, but now it’s time to see who the slot and third wide receivers are in the rotation. RB Duke Johnson has seemed to work the slot receiver role more than any other player this camp, and if that continues to begin the preseason, then you can bank on it being his new primary role come the regular season.

But there will be times where the Browns want to use three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back — who plays the third receiver role? Ricardo Louis is the favorite, and he had a timely practice on Tuesday with a couple of touchdown grabs. Jordan Leslie has also made a lot of catches this training camp, but several other guys — Rannell Hall, Rashard Higgins, and Jordan Payton — are all trying to stake their claim too. Big catches in these preseason games can allow one player to emerge from the pack.

3. Who is Ready at Tight End? One of the positions I was most excited about this year offensively was at tight end. When the team was so quick to release Gary Barnidge after the draft, I thought it was a guarantee that David Njoku and Seth DeValve would be a big part of the offense. Although I still do believe that, a few other variables have come up over the past two weeks to make this something to watch on gameday.

First, Njoku had a bad first week of practice with respect to dropped passes or getting stripped of the football. Then, he tweaked his back, and ended up being listed third on the team’s first depth chart released this week. Blocking tight end Randall Telfer of all people was listed with the starters. I almost think the Browns will use two tight ends a majority of the time, so I want to see which personnel they actually stick out there with the first-teamers: is it both receiving tight ends? Or is it always Telfer and just one of the receiving tight ends? And lastly, if Njoku plays, with his athleticism jump off the screen enough to where a few silly little drops become an afterthought?

4. Back End of the DL: When it comes to the Browns’ starters on defense, I think we have a pretty good grasp of who will be in there. But the team will rotate a lot of defensive linemen during the regular season, so it’s those guys who need to have big days against the run and the pass. I’m referring to the likes of Jamie Meder, Trevon Coley, Xavier Cooper, Larry Ogunjobi, Carl Nassib, Cam Johnson, Tyrone Holmes, and Nate Orchard. I’ll be dissecting like crazy things like:

  • Which players rotated in with the first-teamers?
  • Which players didn’t get in until the second-teamers were playing?
  • Are guys like Cooper and Orchard buried on the third-string?

5. Which Safeties Will Stand Out? It’s all fun-and-good to think, “Oh, Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell will be fine at the starting safety spots.” But I can’t forget how awful that tandem was during the first half of last season, and it was largely because of their pass coverage. It wasn’t until Ed Reynolds entered the mix that things stabilized the second half of the year.

Am I to believe that Kindred is suddenly a natural free safety, or that Campbell won’t get lost on any pass that comes his way? I hope our safeties get tested early, because we need to know. In the second unit, can someone like Justin Currie or Kai Nacua perform at a high level to move up the depth chart? And don’t worry: Jabrill Peppers will be on the field all the time for Cleveland, but he could be at any position on any given play.

Game Thread

Our game thread on Dawgs By Nature will go live at 7:00 PM ET on Thursday, which is an hour before kickoff. Be sure to check in for the first preseason game of the year!