The Cleveland Browns have for all intents and purposes concluded the weighty portion of their training camp and preseason. The third, and most “real” of the games was played last Thursday against Philadelphia. A fourth remains but no starters will play as the game is used to determine the handful of toss-up roster spots still unclaimed, as well as to get some of the backups game reps. For the most part, the big question marks for the team have been answered.
At least they have in terms of who is going to be doing what. How it is all going to go still remains to be seen of course, but there looks to be a bit of clarity there as well, depending on what you want to believe. None of us will know anything for sure until opening day against Pittsburgh two weeks from today, but enough data has been submitted to hazard a (somewhat) educated series of confident guesses.
In listening to the commentary by Joe Buck and (especially) Troy Aikman on Thursday night, the team has clearly done enough to give indicators to casual observers that the corner is about to be turned. Words like “playoffs” and “Super Bowl” were being tossed around - not jokingly - and about us! It’s a little bit amazing when considering this is a team coming off the worst stretch of football the league has ever seen, particularly in the modern era. 4-49, and it’s not like we were any good prior to that.
Thus, while I join the ranks of those more optimistic about where this 2018 Browns’ team is headed I also must temper it with some doses of bitter expectation of spectacular failure, as is our birthright. One year ago nobody would have believed, even after winning but a single game in 2016, that we would achieve the ignominious distinction of going totally winless. Getting an accurate read on how much improvement this team will ultimately show is subject any given bias one has certainly, but suffice it to say there are lots of reasons to be positive, and just as many to be skeptical, about this team this year.
With that, and in no particular order, these are among the biggest takeaways of the 2018 preseason:
Joel Bitonio looks like he can hack it at LT
Replacing first-ballot Hall-of-fame G.O.A.T. left Tackle Joe Thomas was one of the more daunting challenges undertaken by new GM John Dorsey over the course of this last offseason. Actually, there is no “replacing” Thomas, as his level of consistent excellence at the position was so incredibly rare as to be of the once-in-a-lifetime variety. You can win with much less though, as other teams proved repeatedly over the years.
After seeing (last year) Spencer Drango and then (this spring/summer) Austin Corbett and Shon Coleman fail to grab hold of the spot, starting Left Guard Joel Bitonio was moved over during the first week of training camp. This caused some consternation on the part of those who were concerned that this could negatively impact two positions, the presumption being that both Bitonio wouldn’t be able to hold down the LT spot and that LG would be weakened by a lesser player (who has turned out to be the rookie Corbett). To this point, the experiment seems to be working out.
Bitonio started at LT for four years at Nevada, after which he was drafted by Cleveland early in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft. Replacing him at LT at Nevada was Corbett, also drafted early in the 2nd round by the Browns this last April. Bitonio slid into LG and played at a quality level pretty much immediately. Corbett now also will slide into LG as a rookie, and if he performs like his predecessor, then the future of the OL looks bright indeed.
So much about the preseason can’t be evaluated in the traditional sense, because you have mismatched lineups with varying participation by starters and basically no game-planning. However things like how the offensive line looks as a unit is something you can sort of bite into, and overall our line doesn’t look to be a liability. Bitonio hasn’t looked overmatched at all, and while Corbett has been up and down (also playing more with the 2nd & 3rd teams) the 1’s as a group, even with starting RG Kevin Zeitler out the entire time, have been solid.
Still NFI on Josh Gordon
It’s sometimes worthwhile to consider that we drafted Josh Gordon (supplemental) in 2012. He has played a total of two full seasons and perhaps a partial 3rd scattered across multiple years over that time. Through ownership, GM and coaching changes, Gordon and his incredible talent being hijacked by drama surrounding whether or not he will be able to play have been a constant. Last year he saw significant time and showed that he still has the freak talent that has compelled us to remain patient as he works through his various issues.
This year, on the eve of camp it was announced that he would be taking some time away from the team for reasons not made known except that they weren’t mandated by the league nor was his involvement in them punishable in any way. He just hasn’t been around. This last week he rejoined the team but didn’t play in the preseason win over the Eagles and wouldn’t figure to in the preseason finale against Detroit.
What’s more, it’s been made known that whenever Gordon is fully back into the swing of things (which presumably he is or is close to being) he won’t just be gifted the starting role. Fine, though while I like our receivers much better this year as compared to last (particularly with Ricardo Louis already on IR) if Gordo is on the team at full strength then it’s hard to imagine Antonio Callaway or Rashard Higgins keeping him on the sidelines. That said, until we see him in the starting lineup catching passes on a week-to-week basis, there will always be that lingering question as to whether he ever will, which is at this moment is as yet unanswered.
Myles Garrett is a wrecking crew
When you go 0-16 there’s not a great deal of motivation to try and find bright spots, but the abbreviated rookie campaign of last year’s number one overall pick Myles Garrett was certainly among those. It was abbreviated because Garrett suffered an ankle injury just prior to the beginning of the regular season. When he finally did see the field, he recorded a sack on his very first play, and while he didn’t completely dominate off the EDGE in 2017, he showed an awful lot why the Browns selected him instead of going with a quarterback.
Good people can disagree about how well the rookie season went (I say very well), but there can be no denying that the man has looked beastly here so far in the preseason. His combination of size, speed and strength make him a formidable matchup for even the most seasoned of LT’s, and for those that are below that scale he is proving to be big problem. His influence is showing up in terms of not just personal sacks but also pressures leading to sacks by his teammates or hurried throws which assist the secondary. In other words, he looks like everything he was advertised to be.
If this keeps up, teams are going to need to gameplan around him, which is going to open up opportunities for other players on the defense to win one-on-one matchups. There is a lot of talent in that group. All this to say that defensive pressure should be much improved, and if there is a corresponding (or even just complimentary) improvement in coverage then there is no limitation on how well this defense can perform, lozenges notwithstanding.
Hard Knocks is awesome!
Admittedly I was not as pumped as many others were that our beloved (and stripeless) rorange helmets were to be featured this year on the annual HBO feature. I should have been. It’s difficult to describe just how much I have enjoyed it. The personal stories and interactions of the players and coaches is just intriguing beyond words to me. The way the coaches handle certain situations and how the players respond is an element to the fan experience that I’m very much enjoying, and this was definitely the perfect year for our team to be showcased.
Now of course, there is some grandstanding and hamming-it-up going on pretty much all the time, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is probably the most egregious in this respect. However these are all people, even the coaches, who at some level are competing for a chance to stay in the league, so there has to be some genuine content in between camera-consciousness. These things have been the most interesting.
By far the most consequential of these IMO have been coach Hue Jackson’s approach to turning all of this around. To my eye you can see reasons why we have struggled because of how he operates, but also some reasons why he connects so well with the players. I’m glass-full-of-poison with him generally, but I also acknowledge that the last two years were, to whatever varying degree you want to assign them, essentially tank-years. It’s therefore difficult to get a solid gauge on just how good a coach he is, though that picture seems to be fuller (if not appreciably much more complete) with these shows.
Also, Bob Wylie, Brogan Roback and Papa Cajuste are just delightful.
Our Quarterbacks are SO much better
I cannot possibly get through today’s offering without effusively praising the effort of Tyrod Taylor, who I have come to admire greatly. When he landed awkwardly on his left wrist as he was falling to the sideline last Thursday, I thought he was probably going to be done for the year. Then amazingly, he managed to walk it off and was back out there. Turns out to have been “only” a dislocated pinkie.
Apart from being really, really tough, Taylor has done pretty much exactly what he was brought here to do: perform the functions of an NFL starting quarterback both to improve the chances of our success and to provide a model for how our number 1 draft selection needs to go about doing things. He’s also shown some playmaking ability, which even if limited, should help us improve fairly drastically when combined with his penchant for not turning the ball over.
Don’t get me wrong, he is not the future of the organization. He is the present though, and for as long as he holds the starting the job, he displays the professionalism with which an NFL team should be conducting themselves as personified by the quarterback position. When inevitably his friend Baker Mayfield takes over the starting job, he will have seen how it’s supposed to be done.
Mayfield himself has shown more promise from a rookie QB than we’ve seen from the dozen or so we’ve had before him combined. To my (extremely biased) eye, he looks ready to go right now and would be good right from the jump. To my chagrin, that won’t be happening, but his strong performance has also set the expectation of performance on the part of Taylor that much higher. Coach Hue has been adamant from the moment we acquired Tayor that he IS the starter, but if the season starts out rocky and we go, say 0-3 or 1-5 or something, it won’t be long before people call for Mayfield, and rightfully so.
However there stands a good change that it doesn’t happen that way, because Taylor could actually win some games with the collection of talent both surrounding him and guiding him (specifically new OC Todd Haley). Taylor has had marginal success in the league, so it’s not an un-heard of proposition. He’s a much better, more proven version of Brian Hoyer if one wanted to compare the current situation with that of 2014 (the last time we had the veteran QB-bridge/rookie 1st rounder paradigm).
With better QB play, solid OL performance, improvement in the pass rush and some continuity in the coaching staff, there’s all sorts of reasons to be optimistic. However, being us, there’s plenty of reason to downplay all that and expect the (absolute) worst. We’ll get a much better picture of all of this in two weeks.