The Cleveland Browns and New York Giants preseason opener is behind us, but there’s still plenty to discuss as the Browns prepare for their next matchup on Friday against Buffalo.
Overall, the Browns looked encouraging, especially on offense and especially at the quarterback position. It’s been a long time since those words have been strung together and actually seemed more likely than not to be true.
On that note, we’ll roll right into some observations, starting with the team’s revamped quarterback group.
99 problems but a Quarterback—hopefully, finally—ain’t one
What a difference one season makes. I’m glad everyone is finally able to see on the big screen what those at practice have been saying since training camp started: the Browns finally have competent quarterbacks, and it’s the most exciting thing maybe about this year’s team.
Forget the Baker Mayfield against Tyrod Taylor debates. The Browns have been conditioned to perpetual quarterback competitions, and that coverage has dominated the team’s media presence for what seems like forever. But this situation is different, and it’s time everyone comes to grips with it—at least for now, right? Give it a few minutes before I possibly change my tune.
Taylor appears to be everything the Browns hoped he’d be after trading a third-rounder to Buffalo before last April’s NFL draft. He wasn’t tested much from the pocket during his two series—hat tip to the team’s new-look offensive line—but he threw darts, putting the ball right on his receivers. It was a limited showing, but an encouraging one that we’ll be hoping he can duplicate as the starting offense gets much more involved in the next two preseason games.
Everything you can hope for from a rookie quarterback, Mayfield flashed it in his NFL preseason debut. It wasn’t just the results that impressed me the most. The young signal-caller demonstrated a level of acumen, nuance, and attention to detail that rookie quarterbacks typically fail to grasp, especially the first time they step onto an NFL field.
.@browns @bakermayfield had one of the greatest rookie starts to a career that I have ever watched. Baker Baker the Playmaker. #BaldyBreakdiwns pic.twitter.com/9W07TYfHu7— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) August 10, 2018
Most impressively, Mayfield’s comfort and ability to play from the pocket was remarkable. He also showed acute situational understanding, throwing the ball away at the right time, keeping his eyes down the field, then knowing when to use his more-than-capable legs to convert first downs in big spots when the situation called for it.
Mayfield was 8-for-13 for 154 yards and two touchdowns when throwing from a clean pocket, according to Pro Football Focus. His 142.3 passer rating on those throws ranked him second out of 22 quarterbacks with qualifying dropbacks through Thursday’s games.
Despite the early strides, there’s still no quarterback controversy in Cleveland. Mayfield will be ready to play sooner than later, and that will be a huge day for the Browns franchise, but Taylor appears to have the job locked up. It would take a big change in sentiment in Berea for coach Hue Jackson to shift to the rookie, although I wouldn’t say it’s impossible if Mayfield continues to impress enough to make it a conversation.
And he very well could do that, especially if Jackson breaks from his hardline stance of giving Taylor all of the first-team quarterback snaps. That’s the sign to look for if you’re wondering whether Mayfield has any legitimate shot at earning the starting job.
The running game woes
Running the football is an art form in the NFL. In a league that’s quickly identifying itself as a passing league, running the ball has become an afterthought lost in the shuffle of the main storylines. But its importance is not going away despite pass-friendly rule changes and perception to the contrary.
Being able to run the ball results in a much easier path to offensive consistency, and it also helps open up the passing game. If the Browns are going to succeed, they cannot ignore that aspect of their offense as they have in the previous two seasons under Hue Jackson.
For now, it’s fair to say the offensive line is struggling with its identity. It’s likely we’ll see some improvements after they play more together and build better cohesion and trust for one another. Getting into a rhythm is also key, both for offensive coordinator Todd Haley and the between the players.
Haley should be able to find that rhythm in the upcoming weeks as the first-team line plays longer together. Those longer series will allow him to use his full arsenal to develop and set up plays, and also to learn what his players do best and and play to their strengths. The running backs will also be able to learn along the way, figuring out what works and where the holes are going to be.
It’s too soon to be concerned, but the running game is definitely a focus area moving forward.
Although Cleveland’s offensive line struggled moving defenders in the run game, its pass protection was commendable and topped Pro Football Focus’ rankings following Thursday’s action.
The Browns offensive line was a big reason behind its quarterbacks’ success against the Giants. The new-look line, featuring different starters at three positions, posted the best pass blocking efficiency rating of all 24 teams that played Thursday night (93.4), allowing just three pressures (two of which were attributed to rookie Austin Corbett) and zero sacks in 34 passing plays.
Denzel Ward looks the part, and the overhauled secondary looks better, too
Young cornerbacks are baptized in fire in the NFL. It’s not often a rookie player enters the league and becomes an instant shutdown player at the position. But there is certainly hope for Denzel Ward. The Browns passed up a potential pass-rusher or offensive lineman to draft Ward at No. 4 overall, making him the highest selected cornerback since the Raiders took Charles Woodson at No. 4 in 1998.
Watching his debut a second time showed me a glimpse at the elite player he’s capable of becoming. Ward plays fast, instinctive, and is a very versatile defender who can both cover and provide run support. He needs to continue getting reps to help hone his technique and learn the routes he’ll be facing as he begins to take on the premier receivers in the league.
Key offseason acquisition T.J. Carrie logged 45 percent of the snaps, the most by any Browns cornerback. And he showed up too. According to Pro Football Focus, Carrie allowed only one reception for seven yards on six targets, while allowing a passer rating of just 39.6, which was the best of any Browns cornerback.
My five standouts from Bubble Watch
After every preseason game I’ll highlight five players who are on or near the roster bubble who I thought helped their chances of making the final 53-man roster.
- LB B.J. Bello—Bello is someone I noticed in linebacker drills in Berea. Gregg Williams was constantly lauding—yelling at excitedly, more like—the large 6-foot-3, 229-pounder from Illinois State. When Williams yells, it’s good to listen, and I’m glad I was paying attention. Bello played as good as anyone on the field defensively for the Browns against the Giants. He finished with four stops while playing 45 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Bello was cut, signed to the Browns practice squad, then activated and played in all 16 games for the Browns last season—mainly on special teams until seeing increased playing time in December. He’ll be competing for a roster spot with my next standout, James Burgess Jr.
- LB James Burgess Jr.—Burgess led all Browns defenders, playing 76 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and finished with three stops and one quarterback hurry. Burgess will benefit from his experience last season. He finished the year as a big contributor, logging 60 percent of the team’s linebacker snaps after Jamie Collins went down for the season in Week 10. Both Burgess and Bello could potentially end up on the Browns roster this year, although the additions of Mychal Kendricks and Genard Avery make that result unlikely.
- WR C.J. Board—Board fumbled a punt return, but has been otherwise noteworthy for his receiving work. He has come on slowly to become a reliable option for Baker Mayfield, both in practice and now his hard work showed up in game situations. Board’s nifty grab on 3rd-and-18 helped extend the drive, which ultimately ended in Mayfield’s touchdown toss to David Njoku. Even with Corey Coleman gone, Board is facing an uphill battle for a roster spot. Antonio Callaway, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and Josh Gordon are all good bets to make the team—assuming Gordon and Callaway are active and not facing discipline by the team or league. That leaves one or two spots up for grabs, one likely to go to special-teamer Jeff Janis, assuming he gets healthy soon. Can Board outplay Damion Ratley, Derrick Willies, and others for that sixth spot, assuming the team carries six receivers?
- DE Marcell Frazier—Per PFF, Frazier had three quarterback pressures in 15 pass-rushing snaps, albeit against third-stringers in the second half. He also lined up as a standing left defensive end, hit a spin move between the right tackle and tight end, then wrapped and deflected Kyle Lauletta’s third-down pass attempt, forcing a long 3rd-and-18, then eventual punt. Frazier, a 6-foot-5, 260-plus-pound behemoth of a man, is competing with Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard for a rotational defensive end roster spot. Frazier went undrafted but was projected to be a Day 3 pick in April’s NFL draft. He initially signed an undrafted free agent deal with Seattle, but was waived then claimed by the Browns in May. He stood out, making several big plays during the Browns’ Orange and Brown scrimmage earlier in August. He continued to bolster his already strong case to make the Browns roster with his performance in New York.
- DB Derron Smith—Derron Smith laid down some lumber on multiple occasions, filling up from the secondary to make some big stops near the line of scrimmage. While looking for depth behind Jabrill Peppers and Derrick Kindred may not be a huge concern, Smith is making a case for himself to crack the bottom of the roster. Here’s a look at Smith’s big third-down stop, courtesy of Jake Burns:
Let's try to highlight a few more things from yesterday. Derron Smith had a couple really nice downhill efforts from his FS spot. Like we see here. pic.twitter.com/WKhG3nIrfv— BrownsFilmBreakdown (@BrownsFilmBDN) August 11, 2018