The Browns appear they are going to be relevant this year. And that all may depend on QB Deshaun Watson. Not only is he facing a suspension which may be for the entire season, but he hasn’t played in 18 months.
Past that, the offense is poised for great things with a good mix of run-first then pass. The defense has improved with the additions of DT Taven Bryan, CB Martin Emerson, DT Perrion Winfrey, DE Chase Winovich and re-signing DE Jadeveon Clowney.
Plus, the Special Teams unit is totally revamped with new kicker Cade York, newly-signed punter Corey Bojoquez and speedy return man Jakeem Grant.
There are several players on the roster who have been given time to develop into either a starter or as quality backup. Most have come through with their time learning the trade at this level and found their niche or became a valued roster member and even the starter.
Young bucks who have stepped-up include Donovan Peoples-Jones, JOK, Sione Takitaki, Harrison Bryant, Greg Newsome and D’Ernest Johnson, to name a few.
Then there are others who should break out this year such as Tommy Togiai, Nick Harris, Jacob Phillips, Richard LeCounte, Miller Forristall and Anthony Schwartz.
Next up is the list we are here for: young guys who were drafted or signed to become significant roster members, and have struggled.
DT Jordan Elliott
Elliott was taken in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft out of Missouri where he was named First Team All-SEC. While at Missouri, he was considered a defensive force who was very flexible and powerful. With the Browns being an analytics team, the mid-rounds are where they expect to obtain their defensive tackles.
Armed with good size (6’-4”, 303 pounds), Elliott saw very little game action in the first part of his rookie campaign before being inserted more into the rotation down the stretch. In the end, he played in just under 29% of snaps on defense and 3% on special teams. He finished with 15 total tackles with no other stats except one start.
In Week 11 he was graded the highest defensive tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus (PFF) at 90.2:
At the conclusion of his rookie year, he graded out at 55.3 by PFF. Not bad for his first year.
Before the 2021 season, Cleveland cut DT Sheldon Richardson and allowed DT Larry Ogunjobi to seek other employment in free agency. Suddenly, not one but two starting defensive tackle starting slots were wide open.
Going into training camp, Elliott was projected as one of those starters while veteran Andrew Billings was expected to claim the other spot.
Signed as DT competition was savvy veteran Malik Jackson who had won a Super Bowl. Others brought in were free agents Damion Square and Sheldon Day, while Ohio State rookie Tommy Togiai was drafted in the fourth round plus undrafted free agent Marvin Wilson of Florida State which the team had given an increased signing bonus. The Browns also took a flier on the troubled Malik McDowell who was another three-tech guy with huge talent.
It was no surprise that Jackson rose to the top of the heap being a nine-year veteran with Pro Bowl hardware and a Super Bowl ring as evidence of his abilities. But when Billings did a COVID opt-out for 2020 and showed up out-of-shape and heavy, the scene was set for Elliott. However, McDowell had an excellent camp with a renewed focus on football and took control of the final starting slot instead.
Billings was eventually cut in November. But even players such as Day were getting more snaps than Elliott. As the season wore on, Togiai became the favorite in the rotation as well. In Week 11 against Detroit Elliott had just 25 defensive snaps.
Elliott garnered just under 42% of defensive snaps for the year while his PFF rating dropped to a paltry 41.6.
Now Elliott enters his third season. He was drafted to start sooner than later, and now it is much later.
His strengths are he has shown some quickness while able to disengage from offensive linemen. Can he be an anchor at the point of attack? At times. He can also create a baseline that he can be a very good run defender.
Negatives? There are many.
For one, his play is just too inconsistent. One game he is a game-changer while invisible for the next three contests. And while he has good size, he may need to bulk up a bit. His body size is more in line with the defensive end position, but his speed (5.02) eliminates this option.
This season the exact same scenario has occurred in that the franchise did not re-sign both of their starting DT’s in Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell.
And while Elliott had all the green lights to start in his second year, this year’s competition is veteran and former first round talent Taven Bryan plus highly-touted rookie Perrion Winfrey. The Wild Card in this group is how fast Tommy Togiai came on at the conclusion of last year.
Elliott will be not only fighting for a starting role this year, but if he regresses like he did from Year 1 to Year 2, he most likely will be fighting to remain on the roster going forward. So far, the club has not seen enough of their efforts with their time and investment in him.
OLB/DE Curtis Weaver
The signing of Weaver was supposed to be the greatest theft in the history of thieves.
The former Boise State product was the Mountain West Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and set the conference’s record for career sacks with 34. He had 13.5 alone in his final season.
When he became injured while a member of the Miami Dolphins, they placed him on waivers with the idea that usually no clubs will claim an injured player. Except Browns GM Andrew Berry did just that. And to top it off, Weaver’s rehab occurred in Berea which gave the player a full year under the team’s roof to recover and become acclimated to the playbook.
Weaver had a sub-par training camp and was a last day cut. He was then re-signed to the practice squad where he languished for most of the year. Just before the game against Green Bay in Week 16, he was elevated to the main roster. He did not play but was active the following week against Cincinnati to which he netted six snaps with one tackle.
So what happened with Weaver?
Seems he doesn’t have the necessary bend for an EDGE rusher and has issues dropping back into coverage when placed as an outside linebacker. His 40 time is 4.93. And while he may have blown up a lesser conference such as the Mountain West, he possesses an average athletic profile.
His size of 6’-2” and 260 pounds is that “tweener” stage where he plays too light for defensive end and is far too heavy to play linebacker in today’s NFL.
College production is one thing, but NFL players need explosiveness and Weaver falls short in that category. His college numbers may have been skewed in that Boise State did not play a scheme that translate well into the NFL. Look at traits, not production.
And being a beast in college does not bode well in this league with athletic limitations.
Currently, Weaver is listed fourth on the depth chart at left defensive end behind Myles Garrett, rookie Alex Wright and journeyman Stephen Weatherly.
This year’s training camp is make-or-break for Weaver.
LT Jedrick Wills, Jr.
When the Browns selected Wills with the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, former Cleveland great Joe Thomas exclaimed that one pick would soon place the franchise into the Super Bowl.
Not so fast.
As a true right tackle for Alabama, he was thrust into playing the other side immediately. Wills has shown the ability to get out in front of plays and has great hand placement with a strong body.
He has also shown the ability to improve after a lackluster rookie campaign. An exceptional run blocker, his pass blocking skills have come a long way although he still has issues with speedier defensive ends.
Wills has dropped his penalties from 11 in his rookie year to just four last year which is a huge plus. However, his play is inconsistent. His pass protection is spotty and at times he struggles to get into his spot or hold his ground. He needs to sink his hips more in order to maintain some sort of control over his attacker.
Yes, he has had only 15 penalties the past two seasons, but 11 are false starts. Nothing kills a drive more than a player who knows what the snap count is yet jumps early.
Then there are the issue of injuries.
A shin injury set the tone in his rookie year. That has been followed by an ankle injury in Week 1 last year that required X-rays. He was subsequently pulled from the following week against Houston. The lingering issue caused him to miss three games. Later in the season he was a COVID scratch.
Wills’ health has been linked to the team’s success. He is a mainstay on one of the best offensive line units in the league. His position is one that requires being very physical and being able to maneuver.
Last year he played a total of 763 snaps, or 69% of offensive plays. He did not play a full game until Week 5.
So far Wills has been good but not great. He does come into training camp completely healthy this year so we will see if his development continues or if he flatlines and does not elevate his game to the elite tackle he was drafted to become. Last year, he declined in his productivity and was deemed a disappointment. His PFF grades were 61.5 in run blocking and 67.9 in pass protection. Needless to say, both of these are subpar.
Very good mental processing via Jedrick Wills Jr.— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 29, 2020
- 54 is creeping pre-snap & Wills picks it up
- On Wills first kick his eyes are inside
- Once 54 comes he smoothly mirrors inside & clips him
- Outside pressure is on Baker pic.twitter.com/JqYrL4S9W1
Couple this with the fact that in the 2020 NFL draft there were five offensive tackles predicted to be taken in the first round. When the New York Football Giants selected Andrew Thomas, Cleveland had their choice of the others. Three picks after the Browns took Wills, Tampa Bay nabbed Tristan Wirfs out of Iowa, a traditionally good offensive lineman factory. Wirfs has since been named to the NFL All-Rookie Team, earned First Team All-Pro honors, gotten a Pro Bowl berth plus is a Super Bowl champion.
If this is the last year the Browns retain the services of RT Jack Conklin, the obvious move would be the slide Wills back over to his natural position and see if he will shine.
So far he has shown flashes of greatness followed by inconsistent play.
The potential has always been there. He has the blessing of one of the best to ever coach the offensive line in Bill Callahan. And Joe Thomas.
Come to think about it, how are we to argue with either one of these men?