The dark days of the NFL calendar have come to a close as the Cleveland Browns will officially open training camp on Wednesday.
The Browns will enter camp with more hype than anyone has seen since, well, 2019, when Cleveland was the offseason darlings only to fall flat under first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens and a roster of mismatched parts put together by general manager John Dorsey.
Times have changed, hopefully, this time around as the Browns are now run by the competent duo of head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry, and boast what has the potential to be one of the league’s best rosters.
Just as importantly, this is a team that was tested by injuries and COVID-19 last season and never blinked on its run to the playoffs. That resiliency should serve the Browns well as they deal with renewed expectations this year.
So as the Browns prepare for what’s to come, here are xx stories to watch during training camp and the preseason.
The offensive line’s second unit
The Browns have the league’s best offensive line, but as they showed last season, it only takes a moment before the “next man up” plan is implemented.
Whether it was injuries to right guard Wyatt Teller, or COVID-19 issues with right tackle Jack Conklin and left guard Joel Bitonio, the starting unit only played together for eight games in 2020 as they were forced to call on Nick Harris, Michael Dunn, Blake Hance and Chris Hubbard at times during the season.
Harris, Dunn and Hance earned some valuable experience, and Hubbard showed his value as a veteran backup. They will be joined in camp by fourth-round draft selection James Hudson III, Greg Senat, who was signed in free agency, and Drew Forbes, who opted out of last season.
The Browns kept nine offensive linemen last season, so there might only be four spots available in camp. And while a repeat of 2020’s issues might not be likely, who wins those coveted backup spots might end up being important at some point this fall.
The return of OBJ
The news has been nothing but positive about wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as he rehabbed from a torn ACL suffered in Week 7 of last season.
That injury was just the latest in a growing list that includes a sports hernia that required surgery in 2019, a quadriceps injury in 2018, and a fractured ankle in 2017. Add those all up, and over the past four seasons, Beckham has only played in 37 out of a possible 64 games.
Those injuries have not only cost Beckham numerous games, but likely have resulted in him not being the same player when he has been on the field. No matter how hard he works at his rehab, Beckham has suffered some major injuries that, combined with the physical nature of football, have to have had an impact on his body.
Beckham’s talent is still there — the game last season against the Dallas Cowboys showed that — but it might not be there at the same consistent level as earlier in his career. Being able to accept that possible reality and fitting in with the offense, rather than wanting the offense to revolve around him, will be a major storyline not only in training camp, but throughout the season as well.
Who will be left standing at defensive tackle?
The Browns are mostly set at defensive end, at least in terms of the top three in Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley.
It is a completely different situation at defensive tackle.
Malik Jackson and Andrew Billings enter camp as the presumptive favorites to claim the starting roles — primarily because of their experience in what is a young position group. But they will be pushed by a group of younger players in Jordan Elliott, a PFF darling despite limited time and production as a rookie last season, Tommy Togiai, a fourth-round selection in this year’s NFL Draft, Malik McDowell, who has the talent but has yet to show it due to off-field issues since being selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and Marvin Wilson, an undrafted free agent who has many people excited despite being passed over by every NFL team in this year’s draft.
The Browns kept four defensive tackles last season and there is little reason to believe that will change this year. So while Jackson and Billings may open camp this week as the starters, there will be plenty of opportunities for everyone to show what they have. And if the veterans slip up, they could find themselves on the outside looking in come the regular season.
The rebuilt defensive secondary
Out of all the offseason moves, the work that general manager Andrew Berry did on the defensive secondary may provide the biggest payoff.
Berry added cornerbacks Troy Hill and Greg Newsome II, along with safeties John Johnson III and Richard LeCounte III, to cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Ronnie Harrison. The Browns are also expecting cornerback Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit to return after both players missed the entire 2020 season with injuries.
On paper, the Browns look to have one of the top secondaries in the NFL, which is rather remarkable after a season that saw opposing offenses feast on the likes of Andrew Sendejo, Tavierre Thomas and M.J. Stewart.
But while the talent is clearly better, it still might take some time for everything to mesh. The starting cornerback spot opposite Ward needs to be settled, and the safety trio of Johnson, Harrison and Delpit needs time to work together.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods now has the talent in the secondary to run the defense the way he wants. How quickly he can pull all that talent together into a functional unit will be put to the test in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kevin Stefanski’s first “real” training camp
Even though head coach Kevin Stefanski is entering his second season with the Browns, this will be his first normal training camp as a head coach.
COVID-19 significantly altered the way teams operated last summer in training camp and wiped out the preseason, so it will be interesting to watch how Stefanski approaches Cleveland’s three preseason games.
Every significant player is returning to the offense, so they may not need as much playing time together. But with so many new players on defense, can Stefanski afford to have them sit out the preseason, even if it means risking someone to injury?
How much to player the starters can be a tricky situation for a head coach. Play them too much and if someone gets injured you are criticized. Play them too little and if the team struggles early in the regular season you are criticized.
Stefanski showed a steady hand during his first season in charge and this is certainly a situation he has spent time pondering during the offseason. Confidence should be high that he will strike a decent balance once the exhibition games begin, but it will still be interesting to see how he manages the playing time of the starters as the Browns prepare for the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.