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3 key Browns who cannot become injured in 2023

Sadly, the entire season may ride on these guys

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, the Cleveland Browns seem to have assembled a very good roster going into training camp. The defense has improved with proven veterans while the receiver room has the makings of being one of the best the franchise has ever had.

There are many conflicting predictions on where the 2023 Browns will finish.

NFL Network analyst Adam Rank has Cleveland at 6-11-0. Kristy Acuti of Browns Fans Only, a Facebook fanpage, is predicting a 14-3-0 finish. Pro Football Network, Jaiden Howland of Sportsnaut, and Chris Easterling of the Akron Beacon Journal all have a predictable 10-7-0 whereas CBS Sports flips the record 7-10-0. FOX Sports and Stadium Rant are giving a 9-8-0 record. Marcus Donald of The Mr. Deacon Experience Browns Podcast has a prediction of 11-6-0. Barry Werden of Yahoo! Sports is saying Cleveland will finish 8-9-0.

Needless to say, the Browns will be competitive this year. The offense has the ability to be one of the league’s most potent.

This begins with the NFL’s best offensive line, a great receiver group, and one of the league’s best running backs in Nick Chubb.

Special teams should be better, and hopefully new DC Jim Schwartz will amp up this defense and find a way to plug those running lanes that everybody and their grandma exploited last season. Cleveland may also have one of the finest defensive secondary units this year.

The Browns have been ranked the 11th best “core” roster in the NFL this year.

With all that being said, there are some concerns. In fact, there might be a few land mines just waiting to explode that maybe this year’s roster cannot get around as they attempt to right this ship. All starting players are important, but many positions have able bodies that can come in and play well if the starter is hurt.

Then there is the flipside. Maybe nobody has taken the time to closely examine the lack of quality depth in three critical positions.

Here are players that if they become hurt and miss significant time - or the entirety of the season - the Browns are in deep trouble.

RB Nick Chubb

Every season Chubb (5’-11”, 227 pounds) is in the Top-3 of NFL rushing leaders. He is a stud and his cereal is pretty tasty.

During the entire duration of GM Andrew Berry’s employment with the Browns, Cleveland has had a great running back group with plenty of talent. There has always been peace of mind with the depth of running backs on the roster.

Buffalo Bills v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Kareem Hunt was a starting RB and the NFL rushing leader in 2017 with one Pro Bowl nod. With Chubb in the backfield, it was like having Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell all over again.

Then D’Ernest Johnson received more experience and was called upon when both Chubb and Hunt were injured in 2021 as he had 146 yards against the Denver Broncos and was named FedEx Ground Player of the Week. He was a player who could spell both of the seasoned veterans and was relied upon to carry the load. Some media outlets noticed Cleveland had three starting-caliber running backs on the roster.

In free agency, Johnson signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Hunt remains a free agent.

So what does this do for the Browns in 2023? What if Chubb becomes injured and is out for a significant amount of time? What then?

NFL: DEC 11 Browns at Bengals
Jerome Ford
Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The thought process going into this season is that former fifth-round draft pick Jerome Ford (5’-10”, 210 pounds) would back up Chubb. A bruising type-back similar to Chubb, Ford has the ability to excel as the backup running back as he gains experience. But keep in mind he was a rookie last year and had his own injury issues which forced him to miss games. Is he a capable backup? Can he take the entire load every game and rush for 25 carries every contest if Chubb becomes injured? Can he?

Take a look at who is fighting for the third running back position on this roster.

John Kelly (5’-10”, 208 pounds) has been a mainstay on the Browns practice squad and has even found the roster for several games so he is the most qualified. Kelly has played in 13 games over four seasons with zero starts, 32 rushes for 96 yards with zero scores, and two receptions. But is he a quality backup if Ford became the interim starter?

Demetric Felton (5’-9”, 190 pounds) is another player who has had some carries at running back when he is not flip-flopping playing receiver. He is fighting for a roster spot this year. In his rookie year, he played in 16 games with two starts. Last year he took snaps in just eight contests with another two starts. As a runner, he has eight carries for 20 yards. As a receiver, his stats are 20 catches for 189 yards.

The other two running backs on the roster are undrafted rookie Hassan Hall (5’-10”, 196 pounds) out of Georgia Tech and Nate McCrary (6-0”, 210 pounds). Neither of these players has any actual NFL game experience and most likely are practice squad additions.

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

Hall played in 54 college games between Louisville and Tech with 386 attempts for 1,820 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also had 50 receptions for 340 yards so the versatility is there. McCrary was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2021 and bounced around three clubs until the Browns inked him to a reserve/futures contract in January.

So, that is Cleveland’s running back room in a nutshell. It is very obvious that Chubb must remain healthy all year. That means 17 games and into the playoffs.

Unlike every other year under Berry’s watch, the depth at running back is a huge drop-off from Chubb. If he becomes injured, either a seasoned veteran must be brought in, Ford becomes this wonder child, or the Browns are in deep caca.

LB Anthony Walker

When Walker became injured last year with a ruptured left quad tendon - the worst injury of his career - chasing down a screenplay in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers the air completely left the defense. You could hear it in the stands. This “pfffffsssssttt” just reverberated in FirstEnergy Stadium as the sellout crowd uttered a collective hush.

For several seasons, former DC Joe Woods favored the 4-2-5. Playing against some very good passing teams, Woods wanted that extra defensive back in the game whether it was a cornerback or a safety.

The problem with this defense it basically leaves the middle of the defense wide open. When normally a middle linebacker would line up over the center, now suddenly the only two linebackers in the game become shifted to line up in the guard/tackle gaps. This meant that both defensive tackles had to maintain their gap integrity in order to close up the middle alleyway on running plays.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Which of course didn’t happen. The Browns were wide open up the middle and most teams took advantage of this.

Walker was placed on IR and he never returned to the lineup. He had 13 tackles in two-and-one-half games. The season before he had 113 tackles for Cleveland’s defense. That kind of production is paramount to this year’s defense. DC Schwartz relies on a middle-zone playmaker.

After Walker’s injury, the middle of the defense was filled by Jacob Phillips who was inconsistent and often out of position. When he went down with his own injury after he tore his left pectoral muscle, then it was Sione Takitaki’s job. But he suffered a knee injury in Week 13 and subsequently found IR his new home. Then it became a who’s who to fill Walker’s position.

Tony Fields, Deion Jones, Tae Davis, and Reggie Ragland all had snaps in the middle. To show how critical losing Walker became, out of these players, only Fields remains on the roster in 2023.

Walker is the defense’s vocal leader. He is the heart of this unit, is already acclimated with his defensive teammates, and is comfortable with his coaches. After finishing his rehab he should be ready for training camp.

His biggest strength comes on the field as a communicator. When healthy, Walker has put up consistent numbers.

If he again misses multiple games, this defense will struggle.

QB Deshaun Watson

Yep. Go ahead and ask the question. C’mon - it has to be said and said out loud.

“What happens to the Browns offense if Deshaun Watson is injured and misses significant playing time?”

There. You may not feel better, but it must be addressed. That is why every vehicle has a spare tire. The last thing anyone wants is to go through the hassle of trying to call a tow truck or find a way to a tire store. So, you prepare.

Are the Browns prepared in case Watson cannot play?

Recently on DBN, we assembled some Browns experts and gathered their thoughts on this very same question. Here’s the link:


This must be addressed, and taken seriously. Watson is a running quarterback who will get hit multiple times each and every game. He has been very durable to this point, but we all know it only takes one hit.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Watson is poised to have a really great season and regain his spot in the Top-10 of league quarterbacks. He has had the time to remove the thick coating of rust he played under in the last six games last season. He averaged under 200 yards a game for that six-week stretch and often sailed passes. He was very inconsistent. Watson has stated that he feels great and is completely healthy. The Browns are all in on Watson because they have no choice but to be with that monster contract they game him.

But the answer to the question of if he cannot play? Backup Josh Dobbs (6’-3”, 220 pounds) becomes the new starting QB for Cleveland.


The entire time Berry has been employed with the Browns, he has made certain that there was a seasoned quality backup quarterback on the roster.

Until this year.

With the Baker Mayfield era, veteran Case Keenum played clipboard holder. When he was signed, he had 62 NFL starts under his belt and helped guide the Minnesota Vikings to a 13-3-0 record in 2017 as their starter. Last year with Watson, journeyman Jacoby Brissett was the backup.

Currently. the backup roles are Dobbs, Kellen Mond (6’-3”, 211 pounds), and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson (6’-2”, 205 pounds), a fifth-round pick and the draft’s 13th-ranked quarterback.

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Josh Dobbs

Dobbs was on the Browns’ roster last season and had a very good preseason. When Watson was activated from his 11-game suspension, Berry released Dobbs. Knowing that this player may be Cleveland’s starter at some point is concerning because the franchise did not value his talent last year whatsoever.

What is more concerning is the end of Dobbs’ season in 2022. He was signed by the Tennessee Titans who had QB injury issues. He started the Titans’ final two games. They needed one win to secure a Wild Card spot.

As the starter, Dobbs lost both games. In fact, in Week 18, the Titans needed a win to clinch a playoff spot. He was a good game manager and went 20 for 29 attempts for 179 yards with a touchdown plus a pick as they led for most of the contest. But his fumble late in the game was returned for a score that killed their playoff chances and ended their season.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

That is who Cleveland is facing as their possible starter if something was to happen to Watson.

Those two Tennessee starts are Dobbs’ only NFL starts. He has thrown a total of 85 passes in actual NFL games. Mond has played in one NFL game with three passes attempted. DTR is a rookie.

Watson should have another Pro Bowl year. But injuries, like tires, are unforeseen calamities. Does anyone see this as a disaster waiting to happen? If the backup plan is to sign a veteran free agent like Carson Wentz or Matt Ryan in the event Watson cannot play, why isn’t he already in camp getting reps each week with tutelage on the offensive scheme?

Or is Dobbs/Mond/DTR the backup plan?