Football is seriously almost here. I mean for real; this week starts training camp, and if you haven’t already I encourage you to check out the detailed and excellent previews for each position group Chris has been furnishing us over the last few weeks. Today we’re going to jump ahead to cut-day and do some prognostication.
In addition, I will also attempt to set the depth charts for those positions in question. Some are obvious, others much less so, and of course all subject to change due to injury/other factors. The one exciting thing about it all is that this roster, position group-by-position-group, is the strongest we have had in some time. There’s every reason to be excited about Browns football.
Let’s take a look at the positions:
Projected Starter: Baker Mayfield
I know, I know. I am all alone on Ez Island here, and you are wondering if it’s even worth continuing after this seemingly inauspicious start. I know what everyone has said, I know what the organizational posture has been, and I remain unconvinced. When we acquired Tyrod Taylor, coach Hue Jackson announced on the spot that he was the starter, and then doubled-down on it back in May. I’m not saying I don’t believe coach Hue, I’m saying that people change their minds, and I think that’s what’s going to happen here.
Mayfield was the first quarterback taken in a draft in which four were taken in the top 10 and five went overall in the first round. I was enthusiastically for that selection pretty much since about November of last year, because tape, the accomplishments, and yes - the attitude, painted the picture to me of a truly special player. Being the first walk-on to start an FBS opener as a true freshman and then later (and more impressively) the first walk-on to win the Heisman trophy speaks to a mental toughness and acuity that to my mind thus far has kind of been dismissed or not fully considered by observers of all things Browns.
Because of this and other considerations, I think he’s going to surprise people with how quickly he picks up the playbook and goes about managing the offense. To the point that coach Jackson won’t have to make that tough of a decision, as Mayfield is going to make it for him.
2nd String: Tyrod Taylor
Absolutely nothing about my depth chart projection is meant as a slight to Taylor, who was acquired for the 65th pick in this last draft in a trade with Buffalo. Clearly the plan has been and continues to be for him to assume the reigns and be a veteran presence until Mayfield is ready. Everyone on the planet other than me expects that to be well after the start of the season, and for good reason. Taylor, despite some odd coaching decisions managed to lead the Bills to their first playoff bid in 17 years, which was the longest such drought in major sports until it was snapped last year (and in case you’re wondering, our current drought now enters year sixteen).
However that wasn’t good enough for the Bills to keep him around, so they dealt him to us so that they could replace him with A.J. McCarron and first round draft pick Josh Allen. Generally speaking, if a team has a good QB, they aren’t dealing him no matter what, especially if you are going to replace him with A.J. McCarron.
If I’m wrong (which you and everyone thinks I am) and he is the starter come opening day, then he will be probably the best vet at the position we’ve had in quite some time. One thing that’s great about him is his penchant for avoiding interceptions. Of course, some may argue (effectively) that part of that comes from a reluctance to take chances in a league where you have to. His being 0-5 vs. Tom Brady kind of drives that point home.
3rd String: Drew Stanton
Finishing out the totally revamped QB room is Stanton, who comes over from Arizona. While he’s never been a regular starter in the league, he does have a good deal of experience spot-starting in various situations throughout his career. His primary role seems to be to offer some additional veteran guidance to the young Mayfield.
cuts: Brogan Roback*
Running Back (4)
Starter: Carlos Hyde
It’s a little different with the RB’s because it’s not necessarily a bell-cow type situation. The Browns really have three backs that should see some significant action this year, and Hyde just seems like the one to get the first crack at it. He’s coming off his best year as a pro last season in San Francisco, and the former Buckeye essentially replaces Isaiah Crowell, who bolted to the Jets in free agency.
2nd string: Nick Chubb
Again these depth chart assignments aren’t as rigid at RB as they are at others, and Chubb was the 35th pick overall in last April’s draft so the order here between he and Hyde could be flipped. Like Hyde, he’s a powerful runner and between the two this position group is significantly upgraded from last year.
3rd string/3rd downs: Duke Johnson
This is what I mean - Duke Johnson isn’t so much a third string running back as he is an offensive weapon from the running back position that is going to see a lot of playing time. He was rewarded this offseason with a contract extension as he’s already established himself as among the very best in the league in catching passes out of the backfield. He probably won’t carry the ball as much as Hyde or Chubb, but he’ll be on the field a lot and adds a nice dimension to the offense.
Fullback: Dan Vitale
It may be a tad misleading to consider Vitale a FB in the prototypical sense as he really hasn’t played that role to this point in his career. However he was also inked to an extension in the offseason so that assumes he has a role, and probably more of the h-back type than 4th string RB.
cuts: Matt Dayes*, Dontrelle Hilliard*
Wide Receivers (6)
Starter: Josh Gordon
Of course, you ALWAYS have to temper your enthusiasm when considering #12, but when Gordo finally got on the field last season (despite some horrifying QB play) he flashed (pun intended) all the ability we lovingly remember from that ridiculous 2013 season he put up. If he’s able to keep everything in order and stay on the field, then either Mayfield or Taylor will have among the best WR’s in the league to throw to.
Starter: Jarvis Landry
Other than Baker Mayfield, to me this was the biggest offseason acquisition for us. Landry was a bona fide stud for the Dolphins, and established himself as probably the best slot receiver in football. That he was great there leads many to conclude that that’s the only thing he can do, but I have my doubts. I tend to think he can play outside or inside, but either way, the guy catches everything thrown at him. Considering the maddening performance of our receiving corps last year, this is extraordinarily welcome (and we have him already signed to a long-term extension).
Third WR: Corey Coleman
It’s almost like the 3rd WR is still a starter in the modern league, and it could be that Gordo & CoCo line up on the outside while Landry stays in the slot. Either way, this is a big year for the former first round pick. He’s had a disappointing career thus far featuring (freak) hand injuries and quite possibly the worst stretch of quarterbacking the league has ever seen. If he can stay healthy and clean up the drops, this WR group could be incredible.
Fourth WR: Antonio Callaway
I loved this pick from John Dorsey; Callaway was a guy that had some character questions coming out of Florida, but was also a projected first round talent. We drafted him in the 4th. He’s now the third out of four of these receiver for which you have to preface: ‘if he gets it together...’ but it’s the truth. If all three pan out, this group is the best we’ve had in a decade or longer.
Fifth WR: Rashard Higgins
Higgo didn’t exactly light the world on fire last year, but have I mentioned the quarterback play? He did have his moments, and while not physically dominating he does seem to catch the ball when thrown to him. I’ll take it, and I think he makes the final cut.
Sixth WR: Jeff Janis
Admit it: you forgot we signed this guy! It’s understandable as it was a relatively low-key signing for the former Green Bay Packer. He also hasn’t lit up the skies with his performance in the league to date but he’s a veteran player who may be called into greater action than anyone is expecting if those aforementioned “ifs” don’t work out with the three out of four top guys in the group.
cuts: Ricardo Louis, Da’Mari Scott*, Derrick Willies*, Damion Ratley*, Evan Berry*, C.J. Board*
Tight Ends (3)
Starter: David Njoku
No caveats, no qualifiers, nothing but ebullient excitement for what this young man is going to do in year 2. His rookie campaign, despite some serious challenges at quarterback (have I mentioned that?) was impressive, though certainly he has room to grow. He improved his blocking as the season wore on, and already was a dynamic receiver and strategic mismatch for defenders. Thinking of he and Gordon, Landry, Coleman and Duke all on the field at the same time should give opposing D-coordinators plenty of angst.
2nd String: Seth DeValve
If not for Njoku, I think DeValve could absolutely be the starter. In two years he’s demonstrated solid pass-catching ability, and is a more than capable backup for Njoku. In fact while pondering the scenario in the previous paragraph, just having DeValve and Njoku on the field at the same time creates some exciting mismatch opportunities.
3rd String: Darren Fells
Veteran coming over from Detroit, Fells is known most for his blocking, but is also a big target (6’7) to throw to. With the departure of Joe Thomas it may be that Fells was brought in to sort of supplement the blocking on the edges. Either way he rounds out another solid position group.
cuts: Devon Cajuste*, Julian Allen*
Offensive Line (9)
Left Tackle: Shon Coleman
For the first time since 2006, the Browns will enter a regular season with someone other than Joe Thomas protecting the blindside. Sad as that is, we could do worse than moving Shon Coleman, last year’s starting RT and 2016 third-round pick, over to the side he played so well in college. In fact Myles Garrett called Coleman the best Left tackle he faced while in college. In the pros, Coleman did alright in his first year starting, if a bit heavy on the penalties. If he improves even marginally from year two to year three than we should be ok at the position. I mean we’re never going to have another Joe Thomas, but Coleman should be able to do the job adequately.
Left Guard: Joel Bitonio
Other than a few injury riddled seasons (caused directly by Isaiah Crowell) Bitonio has been solid at LG from the moment he came into the league. He’s pro bowl caliber even if he hasn’t gotten the nod, yet.
Center: J.C. Tretter
Not a world-beater but also not a liability, I thought Tretter more than held his own in 2017. As importantly, he proved to be durable, which was a big question coming over from Green Bay the year before.
Right Guard: Kevin Zietler
Probably an overall disappointing first year for the big-money acquisition in 2017, nevertheless he’s a solid player who should hold down the RG spot just fine. If he can get back to the form he displayed as a Bengal this line has the capability of being great.
Right Tackle: Chris Hubbard
Coming over from the Steelers, Hubbard is our new plug-and-play RT. He was signed to a healthy contract, and everyone loves a free agent right tackle...
Backup OL: Austin Corbett
When we drafted Corbett #33 overall out of Nevada, I was convinced we got him to be Thomas’ replacement at LT. However with Coleman getting the 1st looks, it probably means that at least initially Corbett won’t be in the starting lineup. He’s versatile though, and can fill in at multiple positions if injury occurs.
Backup OL: Spencer Drango
Not to say that he was anything special, but coming in and taking over for the greatest Left Tackle of all time is a pretty daunting task, and Drango performed pretty well given the circumstances. He’s not a tackle, but proved that he can play out there if necessary. His versatility makes him valuable and keeps our line deep.
Backup C: Austin Reiter
He started a game for us a few years’ back and performed well, so of course he immediately got hurt for the rest of the year. He was brought back this year though and figures to make the club as a genuine center.
Backup T: Desmond Harrison
I really went back and forth on this. In the first place, nine OL’s is a lot. Harrison was an UDFA that has shown some promise, and ultimately I think he makes the club over Greg Robinson here because he simply won’t clear waivers. Good tackles are rare.
cuts: Greg Robinson, Fred Lauina*, Avery Gennesy*, Anthony Fabiano, Christian DiLauro*, Victor Salako*, Geoff Gray*
Defensive Line (9)
Right End: Myles Garrett
Hampered a bit by a nagging ankle injury during his rookie season, Garrett nevertheless showed all the traits you want from a #1 overall selection last year. He commanded double teams pretty much immediately, and with improvement with experience could become one of the best in the league as early as this year.
Defensive Tackle: Larry Ogunjobi
There’s some talk out there about Showgun being compared favorably to Ndamukong Suh. I’m maybe wanting to ease up on that a bit, but no doubt the young man made a mark last year and was both a big reason for our improved run defense as well as the decision to give Danny Shelton to the Patriots.
Defensive Tackle: Caleb Brantley
I’m split here between Brantley and Trevon Coley, as I ultimately think the three DT’s will get a healthy rotation. Still Brantley flashed a bit as a rookie, and was last year’s version of Callaway: a talented UF player with a high draft grade that slid due to off-field issues. Except in Brantley’s case those issues turned out to be nothing.
Left End: Emmanuel Ogbah
There are few players I am more excited about seeing come back than Ogbah. He played largely out of position as a rookie but last year was a wrecking crew on the left side until he got hurt. With both he and Garrett healthy and on the field at the same time, the pass rush looks very promising.
Backup DE: Chad Thomas
Rookie out of Miami was taken pretty high (67th overall) in last April’s draft. A big man with athleticism, he should see the field in a variety of packages, and should be able to rotate inside at times as well.
Backup DE: Chris Smith
Free agent defensive end we picked up from Cincinnati. Hasn’t had a lights-out career to this point but can get to the passer, and figures to be a situational pass-rusher.
Backup DT: Trevon Coley
Coley could very well be the starter along side Ogunjobi. As it was he did start for us last year, and did not embarrass himself (like, for example, our quarterback play). He should see lots of snaps within a healthy rotation at DT
Backup DT: Jamie Meder
This guy just keeps hanging around. A gap plugger and rotational interior guy, he’ll always be beloved for helping us to get that single victory we’ve had in the last two years. He makes the squad.
Backup DT: Trenton Thompson
This may be a bit of a stretch but there’s always a guy or two that makes it as UDFA. We could just as easily choose Orchard or Nassib here but I think Thompson gets the nod.
cuts: Nate Orchard, Carl Nassib, Lenny Jones*, Daniel Ekuale*, Marcell Frazier*, Jeremy Faulk*
Starting Strongside: Jamie Collins
Not much of a surprise here. Collins signed a big extension last offseason but had a tough 2017 battling through injuries until suffering a season-ender while making an interception at Detroit. If healthy, he’s a tremendous asset and potential difference maker, and also capable of making plays off the EDGE.
Starting Middle Linebacker: Joe Schobert
When drafted to be a pass-rushing OLB, it never really made sense given his skill set. Last year he stood up all year and flourished. Made the Pro Bowl in his second season and could improve even more heading into year three. Solid player.
Starting Weakside: Christian Kirksey
Kirko had his moments on both ends of the spectrum last year, but is a good player that deserved his contract extension inked last season. He rounds out a formidable group of starters.
Backup LB: Mychal Kendricks
It was kind of surprising that Cleveland was able to land Kendricks after the draft - particularly since he doesn’t figure to be a starter. Still, the former Eagle could push for a starting role but at very least provides excellent depth at what prior to his arrival was kind of a shaky situation for the group.
Backup LB: Genard Avery
Is it too early to declare someone the steal of the draft? Ok, yeah probably, but he this guy was definitely a value pick in the fifth round. He has some pass-rushing skills as well and if nothing else, should be a force on special teams right away.
Backup LB: James Burgess
Kind of a Spencer Drango situation, Burgess got a lot of the snaps abdicated by Collins after he was lost for the season. He certainly had his struggles, and probably didn’t perform as well as Drango, but we could do worse for some depth at LB.
Backup LB: BJ Bello
Holdover from last year will probably be on special teams almost exclusively.
cuts: Brady Sheldon*, Jermaine Grace*, Justin Currie*
Starter: Denzel Ward
It’s no secret that Browns’ DBs struggled last year, so after getting our QBOTF the next top priority was shoring up the Cornerback spot. Ward was widely considered to be the best CB in the draft, and excels at man coverage. He should see the field right away.
Starter: T.J. Carrie
Free Agent acquisition at a position group that John Dorsey really focused a lot of free agent capital on, Carrie looks like the first in line to take over at the other corner opposite Ward.
Primary Slot CB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun
BBC established himself as a quality defender in the slot last year. He also played some Safety but not nearly as well (IMO).
Backup CB: EJ Gaines
Another free agent CB brought in this offseaon, he could potentially push for the starting roll over Carrie, or even Ward if he doesn’t seem to be ready right away.
Backup CB: Terrance Mitchell
This is one of those signings where Dorsey just got one of ‘his’ guys IMO. He comes over from K.C. and wasn’t especially impressive there, but as a depth guy rounds out a group that should be well improved over last year.
cuts: Mike Jordan, Tigie Sankoh*, Denzel Rice*
Free Safety: Damarious Randall
Last year we struggled mightily at three primary spots: QB, WR, and Safety. We made a fairly large effort to fix the latter group in the person of Randall. He’s played Cornerback, and for the most part ok, for his career up to this point. However he came into the league as a Safety, and he returns there for us. If he performs well there, it’s going to go a long way towards improving our fortunes overall.
Strong Safety: Jabrill Peppers
No easy way to say this: Peppers struggled mightily as a rookie. About the only saving grace is that he was playing out of position at the “Angel” spot, and just never really got the hang of that role. SS is a little more natural to him so the hope is the move there will augment his strengths. If he improves to even an adequate level of play, the defense could be very, very good.
Backup Safety: Derrick Kindred
Kindred had his moments in ‘17, but also had his struggles. He started much of the year and could make some strides heading into his third year.
Backup Safety: Simeon Thomas
Rookie sixth round pick probably won’t see the field very much this year except special teams or in case of injury.
cuts: Montrel Meander*, Micah Hannemann*, Elijah Campbell*, Derron Smith
The Specialists (3)
Kicker: Zane Gonzalez
Kind of an up and down rookie year that I think mostly ended on an up note for a kicker that we actually drafted in 2017. Didn’t really have too many “clutch” opportunities but in one at the end of the season in Pittsburgh that we absolutely had to have, he drilled a long kick to keep us in the game. Should easily retain the job.
Punter: Britton Colquitt
Could get pushed by Justin Vogel due to their relative salaries, but Colquitt’s a good consistent punter and I think he holds on to the gig.
Long-Snapper: Charley Hughlett
I mean he’s no Ryan Pontbriand, but who is, right? Still of all of our problems last year, I don’t recall a single bad snap. He doesn’t even have any competition so he’ll be the guy.