The end of the training camp period is fast approaching. There are battles every single practice for not only starting positions, but roster spots. Nobody wants to lose their job, but at the same time there isn’t a single coaching staff that desires to keep athletes who cannot help their franchise each week.
Not every player can stay either. Currently, there are 80 players in camp and on cut-down day only 53 will become 2020 Cleveland Browns. The practice squad (PS) increased from 10 to 12 athletes this year, but in addition the NFL has added four more PS recipients due to the ongoing coronavirus situation. Within these 16 players, for the first time four players can be protected and thus not claimed by any other club.
And on cut-down day, numerous players who have been visited by “The Turk” by other teams suddenly are claimed by the Browns and then added to their own roster. This occurred last season when OG Drew Forbes, DT Trevon Coley and S Juston Burris all made the final roster, but then Cleveland claimed three players off the waiver wire. Coley and Burris were subsequently cut while Forbes was placed on IR with a knee injury.
This year, the undrafted free agents are the most likely target for waivers, but there are others who are in danger of being shown the door. Here’s five:
DE Chad Thomas
This is a player who helped out the Browns tremendously last season when Myles Garrett was suspended for the remainder of the year. This is another year and unfortunately, football is a business.
Filling Garrett’s cleats was an impossible feat. Thomas started the final eight games and had four sacks, 26 total tackles, six tackles for loss, 13 QB pressures, plus one fumble recovery. It was the first real action for Thomas since being taken in the third-round of the 2018 NFL draft.
This season, however, he is being out-shined by Porter Gustin who is having a terrific camp with his power-to-speed off the edge. In fact, talks about signing free agent Jadeveon Clowney have all but put to bed with Gustin’s rise on the depth chart.
The fight for the other backup DE spot is currently being handled by Adrian Clayborn, a key free agent signing this off-season. Clayborn is a speedy pass rusher who has achieved high sack numbers for his career. In all likelihood, Robert McCray would remain the fifth defensive end.
A move to defensive tackle where the need is greater just isn’t feasible for Thomas, so he may be the odd man gone.
WR Damion Ratley
There are 11 wide receivers in Browns camp. Some are there just for camp fodder, but most are competing for the third and fourth receiver positions. Typically, the franchise only keeps six receivers.
Jarvis Landry, OBJ and Rahard Higgins are locks, but after that it is anyone’s spot to snatch and grab. The key to those last slots is versatility.
JoJo Natson is a dynamic kickoff/punt returner with speed and quickness to add to the return game. Taywan Taylor is a special teams ace. If the Browns keep both of these men, that leaves just one slot remaining.
The problem for Ratley is two-fold: injury-prone and DPJ.
If you have seen any practices this year, the most common sight is Ratley standing on the sidelines. Last season he was hampered by a hamstring injury. This year, a groin injury.
Sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones (the DPJ reference) is having a very good camp. He has the versatility to line up at any of the receiver slots and has been impressive so far. He is also a return man. Ratley does not add any value to special teams and could find his time in Cleveland very brief.
QB Garrett Gilbert
The signing of veteran Casey Keenum was a blow to Gilbert this past off-season. Gilbert was slated as Baker Mayfield’s backup as he was last year, but new head coach Kevin Stefanski coached Keenum while at Minnesota and realized he needed someone who already knew the system.
To make matters worse, on August 3rd Gilbert was tested positive for COVID-19 although his symptoms were asymptomatic. The issue, however, is that he was taken from the practice field and the reps he badly needed especially with a new head coach and a new offensive system installed.
So far, his training camp progress has been nondescript and is battling basically with rookie Kevin Davidson. Neither has shined nor shown any reason to keep three signalcallers on the active roster. In all likelihood, Gilbert will become one of the four stashed PS players.
TE David Njoku
Not only did the Browns sign Austin Hooper to a huge deal in free-agency, but then they drafted Harrison Bryant in the fourth-round of the NFL draft.
Hooper is the highest paid TE in NFL history. Bryant won the John Mackey Award for college football’s best tight end for 2019 and a unanimous First Team All-American. Stefanski utilizes a lot of two tight end sets, with backups needed mainly for blocking schemes.
Enter Pharaoh Brown who is arguably the best blocking tight end on the roster. Both Harrison and Hooper are having stellar camps. Stephen Carlson played in nine games last year and has shown some promise in his limited playing time. Both have cap friendly salaries.
Njoku is a former first-round pick of the Browns who has not shown his high-priced potential to date. In his three seasons with Cleveland, Njoku has only started 20 games with just nine touchdowns. Hooper has a 77.3 catch percentage whereas Njoku rates out at 58.9%.
Njoku has had a concussion plus a broken wrist while Hooper has been named to two Pro Bowls. The Browns did exercise their fifth-year option so right now, Njoku has trade value; albeit it would most likely not involve a first-round pick but more likely a third-round selection with maybe a seventh-rounder added to the mix. Since the injury bug has struck Cleveland in two areas already, perhaps even trade for a safety or a defensive tackle.
Currently, Hooper will make a base salary of $1.5 million this year with a cap number of $3.5 million. Njoku is scheduled to make $430,000 with a cap number of $3.03 million. Hooper is already breaking the bank at the position, so the club doesn’t need a pair of expensive tight ends. That just doesn’t seem feasible so one has to go.
C Willie Wright
Wright has predominately played guard for the Browns but was moved to center for a possible backup position. Now that J.C. Tretter has been MIA in practices, rookie Nick Harris has subsequently taken all first-team reps instead of Wright.
In fact, Evan Brown has moved into the third-string position ahead of Wright once Tretter returns. It is possible that Wright will be moved back to guard, but the most likely scenario is that he is cut and then signed as one of the four protected players on the PS if he is still available.