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Could Harrison Bryant become an ex-Browns player after this year’s training camp?

Lack of production last year coupled with health issues this year are some issues

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The Cleveland Browns’ offense since Kevin Stefanski was hired as the head coach has relied on a lot of two-tight end sets. This requires two good athletes to man those positions.

When Stefanski took the helm, he inherited first-round draft pick David Njoku who was known in college as a skilled receiver with great leaping abilities and ran good routes but could not block his grandma.

NFL: JAN 01 Browns at Commanders Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The starting tight ends at the time were the 6’-7” Demetrius Harris and Pharoah Brown. Both were known for their blocking prowess so Njoku was considered the receiver this group was missing. In Stefanski’s first NFL draft, the Browns selected TE Harrison Bryant of Florida Atlantic in the fourth round. Bryant was the Mackey Award winner for the nation’s best tight end and surprisingly was still sitting there in Round 4.

Bryant was seen as another good blocker and a second set of good hands. He had the size needed for an NFL tight end standing 6’-5” and a beefy 230 pounds. He signed a four-year deal for $4.064 million with a $769,028 signing bonus.

He made the final roster and played sparingly in his rookie year with 24 receptions for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Not exactly great stats, but as a supplemental player it was considered a natural beginning. He was named to the PFWA NFL All-Rookie Team.

In his sophomore campaign, it was basically more of the same from Bryant. He ended the 2021 season with 21 receptions for 233 yards and three touchdowns.

Cleveland Browns v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

In both seasons he was noted as an above-average blocker and seen as an asset to the running game. Going into last season, he had secured the Number 2 tight end spot and was expected to elevate his game with greater stats.

That didn’t exactly happen.

His third-year numbers were just 239 yards on 31 receptions with a single touchdown. The catches and total yards were a career-high for Bryant - if you could call them that. What happened to him becoming this valuable asset in the passing game? Why was he regulated to being mainly another blocker? His 42 targets were also a career-high, but nowhere near what was expected of a skill position player competing in his third season who played in all 17 games with nine starts.

Anyone who plays fantasy football does not have Bryant on their team, or vegetating on his bench for that matter. In any week you can find him on the waiver list ready to be picked up.

New deal, new money – and new talent

The 2022 season concluded with Bryant listed as TE2 ahead of Brown. In the off-season, GM Andrew Berry signed Zaire Mitchell-Paden (6’-5”, 257 pounds) and Miller Forristall (6’-5”, 245 pounds) who were both two former Browns. Then early in the free agency period, Berry inked Jordan Akins away from the Houston Texans and free agent rookie Thomas Greaney (6’-6”, 250 pounds) from Albany. Brown was not re-signed.

Akins (6’-4”, 245 pounds) had been QB Deshaun Watson’s starting tight end while the two were teammates with the Texans. A lot of Watson’s Pro Bowl success was tossing balls to Akins who has 1,755 career yards on 151 receptions with eight touchdowns.

The Akins’ signing was viewed as a safety net for Watson because of the familiarity of the two and the prior success they had endured. Watson’s three Pro Bowl seasons were while he was teammates with Akins.

After three lackluster seasons with Bryant in the lineup, there were questions.

Going into his contract year this season, he was set to make $2.73 million. By his 2022 reception numbers, that would equate to him making $88,065 per catch, which of course did not make much sense. As Bryant had played every game last year, the numbers compute to just 1.8 catches per game. Needless to say, that is horrible.

What came next during the off-season was a restructured deal.

The two parties agreed to a one-year deal for $1.75 million with incentives that could develop into $4 million. What the new deal did was open up $1 million in salary cap funds, plus does not keep Cleveland in debt with a player who isn’t producing with the expectations from a Mackey Award winner. The thought process was that $2.73 million was a lot to pay a player projected to become third string. Now if Bryant exceeds expectations, he is able to make more money than his original deal.

Camp this year

Then there is the surprise production of Forristall in practice and in preseason games. Against the Washington Commanders, Forristall caught all four of his targets for 66 yards and moved the chains on key downs.

For Mitchell-Paden, he had three catches for 39 yards in the Commanders game, and in the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Jets, he caught three receptions for 22 yards.

Forristall has also impressed in practices.

Cleveland Browns v Buffalo Bills Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Bryant has missed quite a few practices and all preseason games due to a non-football health issue since August 1. No information from the Browns has come out about what exactly a “non-football health issue” actually means, but Bryant has been seen on the sidelines for a few practices. He has also been running and working with trainers during and after practice.

The signing of Akins should mean he will be installed as TE2. Before the preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland released their depth chart for that week and listed Njoku as TE1, Akins TE2, Bryant TE3, and Forristall/Mitchell-Paden as TE4. Of course, the team had no intention of playing Bryant against the Eagles so that wasn’t a true picture.

Bryant was inactive for the Philly game. Forristall and Mitchell-Paden had just one target each and caught both passes for minimal production but blocked well.

Because Bryant has been a modest contributor as a target so far, his absence from training camp practices can only hurt his chances of making this roster going forward.

In the past three seasons, the Browns have kept three tight ends. This was mainly due to the fact that the offense was geared toward using two-tight end sets quite a bit. But this year, if the coaching staff opens it up for a more aerial attack, there may or may not be a tight end on the field for most of the game. In the event of four-receiver sets plus a lone running back, the tight end is the odd man out.

With this in mind, will the Browns keep just two tight ends? If so, this would free up a roster spot in order to retain another defensive end, offensive lineman, or perhaps an additional defensive back. None of these positions a club can have too many of.

There have been several media outlets that have suggested that Cleveland move on from Bryant. Not a release mind you, but a trade.

This may become a reality if the coaching staff decides to keep only two tight ends. And if they believe that Akins is an upgrade over Bryant, what’s next? Who knows? Akins just might become the biggest sleeper on this roster.

Akins is not a burner, but he can jump being a former basketball player. He has a history with Watson during seasons that saw Watson take home Pro Bowl hardware while they were teammates.

What do the Browns do about Harrison Bryant?

When he was drafted, the view was that he was a future star for this offense that could lead to some big things. Now that he has played three seasons, the obvious aspect is that his numbers are below average which appears to be his trend. Perhaps a more productive guy like Forristall could fill his spot on the roster if the coaching staff believes a third tight end is warranted.

One thing Bryant has been is consistent – if you think a tight end’s contribution each season with just over 200 yards a season is any kind of a plus.

It just may be the time has come to close this chapter. There are some that don’t believe Bryant can make this year’s roster. Perhaps the Browns can reach out and get whatever is offered for Bryant. There are certainly a number of tight end-needy teams who would want to take a chance on this player no matter what his stats have been.

Or haven’t been.