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Most intriguing training camp storylines

The Browns are built to win now

NFL: DEC 20 Raiders at Browns
Tommy Togiai
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite all of the negative publicity Cleveland has received since trading for QB Deshaun Watson, the media has been realistic about what the Browns have built. On paper, they appear to be a playoff contender.

The timing is right because there are numerous contracts which will need to be dealt with after this season to which not every player will return next year. But for now, winning ways are a certainty.

Training camp begins July 22nd for rookies with the remainder of the players reporting July 26th.

The offensive line is completely healthy including key backups such as Chris Hubbard. The cornerback position will rival the O-Line as the premier unit on this squad whereas Cleveland’s running back group is a three-headed monster. TE David Njoku has a new contract and is the clear TE1 plus the special teams units have been totally revamped with the exception of the always steady Charley Hughlett at longsnapper.

Other than the quarterback position, there are quite a few storylines that will be quite interesting for the duration of training camp. Here are our favorites.

Is Amari Cooper still an elite receiver?

To some, Cooper was obtained from the Dallas Cowboys a bit too cheap when they traded the receiver for a fifth and sixth round pick. The Cowboys also sent a sixth round draft pick in the process. The question loomed? Why? Why trade away their WR1?

Cooper has gone to four Pro Bowls and posted over 1,000-yards five of his seven NFL seasons. After two consecutive years with over 1,000-yards in 2019 and 2020, last year he had just 865 with eight touchdowns. For the former SEC Offensive Player of the Year, that was his lowest production since he became a Cowboy.

Cleveland Browns Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Dallas was about to pay Cooper $20 million for a player whose numbers had dropped every year in Dallas. Maybe it was the scheme, or the quarterback, but regardless his stats just weren’t worth the money he was due and so the Cowboys shipped him off.

Now that he is with the Browns, can he become that elite possession receiver once again?

Jarvis Landry, the former WR1, is now gone to which Cooper has taken on that role. Cleveland is a running team, so the coaching staff is not requiring the veteran to put up staggering numbers but instead be a dependable target and gain first downs when called upon. He gained 1,189-yards in his first season with Dallas, so the talent is definitely there.

If Cooper can regain any symbolical of a WR1, then what little the Browns traded away will be worth it. He is only 28 years old. While with Dallas he had 27 receiving touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl just two seasons ago.

Cooper also adds veteran leadership and is a very good downfield blocker with sure hands.

Can Nick Harris win the starting center spot?

Releasing veteran J.C. Tretter was not a good day in Berea. But with every decision is a plan behind it. The Browns believe that Nick Harris can compete and fill that position with confidence.

NFL: AUG 03 Cleveland Browns Training Camp Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Harris is a former fifth round pick who has played quite a few positions along the offensive line when called upon once the injury bug and COVID protocols have kicked in. He has been playing center since high school. At Washington, he was named First Team All-Pac 12 both his junior and senior years as a center.

He has had some injury issues since becoming a Brown including a knee injury plus some hamstring issues. But he has versatility and a strong work ethic in his toolbox and is going into training camp with the mindset that the job is his if he works hard enough for it as his apprenticeship under Tretter is officially complete.

Over everything else, Harris is steady and consistent. He is just 23 years old and although he has been thrust into both guard and tackle positions in actual games, he has also gotten quite a few snaps at center mostly in the pre-season. He possesses a good array of timing plus is a disciplined blocker with a knack for run blocking.

He will have stiff competition from veteran Ethan Pocic so do not think this position has been gift-wrapped. And with Deshaun Watson and Jacoby Brissett working in the facilities this past few months, Harris has been able to gain some chemistry with the two.

Can he contribute? Immediately.

How will the defensive tackle position look on opening day?

Two years in a row, both starting defensive tackles were not re-signed which has meant that two years in a row both starting positions are up for grabs.

Cleveland Browns OTAs
Taven Bryan
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The best bet is veteran Taven Bryan, a former first round draft pick who has needed a new opportunity to show that is worthy of the praise he received at some point.

Who will win the other spot is a logjam. The most obvious is Jordan Elliott, a former third round pick of the Browns who has been waiting his turn. But last season was supposed to be Elliott’s shining moment to become the starter which went to the two Maliks instead. Each season Elliott has regressed and in fact last year was given fewer snaps as the season wore down.

Also in the mix is Tommy Togiai who could just become the starter. Unlike Elliott, Togiai’s snap count increased as the season rolled along. He is a hustler and seems to be ready to jump into Year 2 and claim that spot. His motor never stops and he doesn’t quit on plays ever. A hard worker who has a real shot of starting.

Others in the shuffle include rookie fourth rounder Perrion Winfrey (when he finally signs), veteran Sheldon Day, plus undrafted free agents Roderick Perry and Glen Logan. The recently-signed Isaac Rochell has also played defensive tackle although he is considered a rotational defensive end.

Will K Cade York come as advertised?

You don’t often see a kicker being drafted higher than the fifth, sixth or seventh rounds. So when the Browns took York with the 124th pick in Round 4, there were a lot of eye brows raised.

Not that York doesn’t deserve the high marks. He does. He was the best kicker in this year’s draft and GM Andrew Berry was tired of going through kickers who came out of the gate strong but faltered as the season rolled towards the finish.

Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Kickers score points. They elevate the scoreboard. And the game remains whichever club has the highest points at the final gun is proclaimed the winner.

One of Berry’s priorities this past off-season was to make sure that special teams were vastly improved.

Last season Cleveland ranked last in the NFL on conversion rates on field goals at 72.7%.

York has a very strong leg and can nail kicks outside the 50-yard line. This may eliminate some of the plays in which you can’t punt and the yardage needed on fourth down is a bit too far.

The Browns have drafted highly-touted kickers in the past who did not pan out. In 2017 Zane Gonzalez of Arizona State was the Groza Award winner, an Unanimous All-American plus broke the record for most points scored in a college career. He also kicked three field goals of 50+ in a single game which tied a record. Cleveland selected Gonzalez in the seventh round to which he lasted one year plus two games into his second season.

Two years later, the Browns picked Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert in the fifth round. He was a First Team All-Big 12 and kicked the most career points in FBS history with 499. Yet, he was released after a Week 1 loss into his second season as well.

York has been named First Team All-SEC plus Second Team All-American. Hopefully he can replicate his college success at the next level instead of being dumped onto the highly acclaimed past kickers pile.

So far in the various camps the Browns have held York has impressed. Let’s keep that going.

Who will win WR3?

The answer to this will come after who will win WR2. Right now, that should be Donovan Peoples-Jones.

With the third receiver spot, do not for one second think this will become an easy decision. There are numerous qualified contenders.

Who sticks out the most is veteran free agent Javon Wims. He has good size (6’-2”, 221 pounds) with good hands. He needs more experience in that he has played in 33 games with just seven starts. He can be that big presence with long arms to box out defenders.

Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout
David Bell
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The next best option to watch is third round pick David Bell. Considered a playmaker, suddenly he was labeled as a slow playmaker with his 40 time of 4.65. But make no mistake he is a polished receiver with a ton of college starts. Bell had his best season to date with 93 receptions for 1,286 yards with six touchdowns last year. He also had 39 rushing yards on three carries and is a very good downfield blocker. In his three years at Purdue, he had 29 starts.

Bell was a well-known receiver that shined in the Big 10 Conference.

Anthony Schwartz had a year in which his rookie numbers were not impressive, but comes into camp looking to improve. There will be a lot of pressure on Schwartz to prove he is more than just a speed guy. Like Bell, he was also a third round pick. Teams expect third round selections to produce sooner than later. Schwartz is not a return man, so receiver on jet sweeps plus catches are his only ways to contribute.

Detroit Lions v Cleveland Browns
Ja’Marcus Bradley
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Ja’Marcus Bradley is a player that has hung around and keeps getting called up. He runs a 4.48 40 and has good hands as well. He has a limited sample base but has NFL game experience.

The Browns also selected Michael Woods in the sixth round to compete. Among Woods’ attributes include his physique, work ethic, smart, arm length, a crisp route runner and able to disguise his route breaks. His weaknesses are tight hips, a one-speed route runner and not very elusive against press coverage.

Others include Mike Harley, Jr., Jakeem Grant (also a kick returner), Demetric Felton (also a kick returner), Isaiah Weston and Travell Harris.

What role will Chase Winovich have?

The Browns depth chart on April 13 listed Myles Garrett and Chase Winovich as starting defensive ends. The following day, that list was changed to Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.

Winovich came to the Browns in a player-for-player swap with New England that sent LB Mack Wilson in exchange for the pass rusher Winovich.

Cleveland Browns Madatory Minicamp Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Winovich the rookie did not have any starts, but played in all 16 games. He eventually was able to get in on the defensive line rotation to which he had 5.5 sacks and 26 total tackles along with 10 QB hits plus four tackles for loss. His second season he started nine games on the defense with 48 total tackles with 5.5 sacks.

Through the first nine games of his rookie campaign, he had matched his scouting report. Year 3 was supposed to be his breakout year, but he began training camp on the PUP list with an undisclosed injury. Winovich returned to action in August.

However, things did not go as planned for both Winovich and the defense. Through the first six games, he had just seven tackles, one quarterback hit and zero sacks in 78 defensive snaps. His greatest contribution was on special teams as he played snaps in the kicking game.

Winovich then suffered a hamstring injury in the second half of the Week 6 matchup against Dallas. Winovich limped to the locker room and was listed as questionable to return then ruled out. Two days later he was placed on IR.

Right now the prognosis is that Winovich will allow Clowney the opportunity to rest and be energized while at the same time bring in a high-motor guy. On the other side, rookie third rounder Alex Wright will be Garrett’s substitute. This will give the defense some fresh legs at all times.