Monday, July 31, 2017

News & Views

News: Browns wide receiver Kenny Britt says rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer is on his way to becoming “one of the great ones.”

Views: Yep, that’s what he said to the media Sunday. That is not a typographical error.

Talk about hyperbole. This more than qualifies as top 10 material in that category. Check out the following.

“He’s growing each day,” Britt, who has been on the receiving end of passes from 10 different National Football League quarterbacks on two different teams in eight seasons, said of Kizer. “From OTAs, I could tell he was a different person.

“I asked him (Saturday) if the offense has slowed down for him. He said, ‘Yes.’ I could tell he’s looking at certain things. He is seeing the defense before the snap count and once he lines up, he knows there are certain things he has to do.

“He’s going to be one of the great ones.”

Britt further buttressed his remarks. “If he keeps going,” he said, “focuses on the track he’s on, to tell you the truth, he could be one of the great ones. He’s learning fast and has a strong arm.”

Many fans – not the savvy ones who know better – will gobble that up, digest it and envision nothing but good times ahead for the Browns with Kizer at quarterback. Here we go, the sycophants will think. This is the beginning of the big turnaround after all the years of frustration.

The kid has not thrown a meaningful pass in the NFL and Britt is already anointing him as a future superstar: “One of the great ones.”

Since when did Britt, whose career until last season could correctly be labeled as pedestrian, become a soothsayer when it comes to gauging the future of a quarterback who hasn’t yet reached neophyte stage in the NFL?

Since when did the wide receiver, who has caught footballs from the likes of the very forgettable Vince Young, Shaun Hill and Jake Locker, envision the future with such clarity?

Don’t take this guy seriously. Hopefully for his sake, Kizer does not.

One has to wonder why all the Britt hyperbole? Is he trying to impress someone in the front office? His coach maybe?

What is his ulterior motive? He should be concentrating on catching passes from the four quarterbacks in training camp, not forecasting the future.

There was a reason the veteran was available in the free-agent market. The Los Angeles Rams chose to go in a different direction and cut him loose. And it was only good timing that he landed in Cleveland.

If the Browns had not screwed up the Terrelle Pryor contract situation, Britt most likely would have signed elsewhere. He accepted the deal the Browns offered Pryor, who opted to sign for lesser money with the Washington Redskins.

News: Quarterbacks stats from Sunday’s practice: Kizer, 5-for-10, one touchdown pass, a sack and a batted-down pass; Cody Kessler, 3-for-7, one scoring pass and three sacks; Brock Osweiler, 6-for-12 three touchdowns and two sacks.

Views: And that tells you . . . what? The correct answer is nothing. At this stage it means bupkis.

It does not mean Osweiler is the best quarterback because he threw three scoring passes. It does not mean Kessler is the same old Cody Kessler from last season because he was sacked three times. And it does not mean Kizer still has a lot to learn because he was sacked once and had a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage.

What it does mean is that tracking the daily exploits of these three quarterbacks – their expected ups and downs – is nothing more than an exercise in futility for those trying to figure out who the starter should be against Pittsburgh in the season opener.

Hue Jackson will make that determination later on based on a whole different set of criteria than we have. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Haslam waxes realistic

It took him nearly five years since becoming owner of the Browns, but Jimmy Haslam III has finally chosen to be pragmatic about his billion-dollar acquisition.

In a let-your-hair-down session with the Cleveland media Saturday, Haslam seems to have convinced himself that success for this franchise rests in the future, and a not-too-distant future at that.

“Last year was harder than we thought,” he said of the embarrassing 1-15 season. “None of us are exactly sure what will happen this year. I know we’ll be a better team.

“So I think 2018 – and I’m not hedging my bets – 2018, 2019 you should see a substantially better football team. We feel real good about the people we have in place.”

In other words, Haslam’s pragmatism for the upcoming season helps him rein in any out-of-control thoughts of a winning campaign, let alone thinking about the postseason. He is mainly looking for (expecting?) progress.

“Are younger players getting better?” he said. “ (Coach) Hue (Jackson) and (Chief Strategy Officer) Paul (DePodesta) talk about small wins. I know they are setting goals for individual players – small wins for them individually.

“All of us want to win and win immediately. Most of you don’t know me that well personally, but I’m an extremely impatient person. But I think we’ve learned the hard way (that) if you want to do this . . . right, building through the draft and being patient and getting the right people in place is the right way to do it. It’s hard, but it is unequivocally the right thing to do.”

Jimmy Haslam impatient? Really? He almost defined the word with his knee-jerk decisions in the first four years of his stewardship with four different coaches and a merry-go-around in the front office.

It took five seasons of the most miserable football Browns fans have ever witnessed in a five-year span to produce a huge jolt of reality The Browns are 20-60 since Haslam took ownership of the club in early August in 2012 with five straight basement finishes in the AFC North.

Never in the oftentimes-glorious history of this franchise has it ever recorded a five-year span with a worse record.

As for this season, the owner appears to have learned to be cautious, if not downright reserved. “Everybody is going to want to know, ‘Well, how many games do you think you’ll win (this season)?’” he said. “I’m not going to say that, but I think you’ll see an improved football team this year.”

Of course it will be improved. When you are coming off a season when you win just one game, and they were fortunate to win that one, it is almost impossible not to be improved the following year.

File this Haslam quote for down the road, especially if the Browns get off to a slow start: “I think we’re fortunate to have Hue as a coach. I think he has established a great rapport here with the community, with the team, with us and I hope he’ll be our head coach for a long time.”

Haslam’s newfound patience and pragmatic approach to the 2017 season will be severely tested if the club is still looking for its first victory in October.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cool it with the Kizer rhetoric

Well, that didn’t take long.

First day of Browns training camp in Berea the other day and Hue Jackson is already hoisting DeShone Kizer on a pedestal, telling the media the rookie quarterback is coming along faster than expected.

“Yes he is,” said the coach. “He’s understanding the offense. I could take you back to his days at OTAs. He struggled calling the plays. The words were a lot simpler. The language was different.

“I did not see as much of that (Thursday). That is improvement. Obviously, he made some good throws and did not turn the ball over. Those things are good.”

But then Jackson caught himself and tempered his enthusiasm. “It’s just one day,” he cautioned. “We are not going to make decisions on guys in one day. We have a lot of work to do.”

Observations like that nevertheless send the wrong signal to the media and fans, some of whom view Kizer’s progress already as a sign he could soon move in and take a majority of the first-team reps as a reward.

Jackson and his coaches on offense obviously would love for Kizer to ramp up his progress to the point where they would be comfortable starting him. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts one of the four exhibition games, most likely the meaningless fourth.

There is so much, however, for Kizer to learn and be comfortable with in the next six weeks. Transitioning from college to the National Football League is hard enough for any quarterback. But for one who had only two years experience at Notre Dame, the second of which was extremely disappointing, that is asking a lot.

For example, taking the snap from the center with your hands under his hind flanks after taking every collegiate (and probably high school) snap while stationed anywhere from five to seven yards behind the center.

Easy? Not even close. The footwork involved with such a snap is so intricate and important, one false step can blow up a play.

Offense is all about rhythm and timing. Exquisite timing is essential between the offensive line, running backs and wide receivers on every play. If one aspect of a play is not executed properly, that timing is thrown off.

How many times have we heard a coach say after a blown play, “We were so close to making that play.” Close in football is not like horseshoes and hand grenades.

All 11 men have to be in synch. All it takes is one missed assignment – a failure to execute properly – and the result invariably results is negative yardage in the running game or a turnover in the passing game.

It all starts with the quarterback in a pro set taking the snap, either dropping straight back rhythmically or pirouetting and executing the play properly. One of the nuances of that part of that package is the ability to fool the opposition with ball fakes.

Again, it’s all about timing and footwork and that simply cannot be mastered in six weeks.

Quarterbacking in the NFL also requires talent from the neck up as much as, or even more so, than the neck down. Kizer has a wonderful throwing arm. But we don’t where he is at from the neck up. The great ones win from the neck up.

To be fair, Kizer is still a baby when it comes to the NFL. He is barely taking his first steps. To put him under the microscope and comment on everything he does is not fair to him.

His learning curve is huge. So let’s not put him on a pedestal just yet. Let’s not get carried away with the rhetoric that spills out of the coach’s mouth in late July and undoubtedly throughout August. It means nothing until they start playing meaningful games

Let’s not get carried away until there is something worthy of getting carried away about. And right now, Kizer’s development is clearly a work in progress and does not come even close to qualifying.

Save the platitudes until later.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A closer look

The Browns’ 2017 season begins in earnest Thursday in Berea with the entire team reporting for training camp, 90 well-tuned candidates attempting to fill 53 spots on the main roster.

They congregate with a renewed attitude following last season’s 1-15 record, the worst in the history of this once-proud franchise. Memories being what they are in sports, last season has been long forgotten for the 53 who return this season.

That means there will be 37 newcomers (or a 41% turnover) in camp through trades, the college draft and free agency. Four exhibition games will be played in the six weeks leading up to the season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10 during which many questions will be answered.

In those six weeks, coach Hue Jackson and his coaching staff will install what is hoped will be the right formulas that lead to something better, a whole lot better, than what transpired last season.

They begin with a revamped offensive line, two new faces at quarterback, a wide receivers group worse than last season, a brash new attitude on defense with new coordinator Gregg Williams featuring a new scheme, a young and very inexperienced defensive line, solid linebackers and a secondary that can’t be any worse than it was last season.

This is how I believe the Browns will look, barring any subsequent free-agent signings or trades, when they host the Steelers in September.



Candidates: Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan

Who starts: Osweiler

Who makes cut: Kizer and Kessler

Comment: It is almost inconceivable to think Osweiler won’t be under center in the season opener against the Steelers. He is by far the most experienced and best paid quarterback on the roster. Kessler faced the Steelers in one game last season in relief of Josh McCown. He completed half of his 14 passes, threw one interception and was decked four times. The Steelers would love to see him in there in the season opener. And throwing Kizer in there would be an unmitigated disaster from the opening kickoff. If Osweiler is not the starter, hold your breath, Browns fans.

Running back

Candidates: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr., George Atkinson III, Matthew Dayes, Terrence Magee

Who starts: Crowell and Johnson

Who makes cut: Atkinson and Dayes

Comment: Keeping three running backs is the norm with a fullback on the roster. But with Jackson determined to run the ball more this season, keeping four is the wisest move in the event injuries take a toll. Crowell is clearly the between-the-tackles runner who can help move the chains. Johnson, who very well could find himself playing a lot of slot receiver this season, is a slashing, cutback runner who is hard to bring down in the open field. Atkinson can return kickoffs, and Dayes, the fireplug rookie, are insurance.


Candidate: Danny Vitale

Starter: Vitale (unchallenged)

Comment: In order to be more unpredictable, Jackson has to use Vitale more than he did last season. Playing in a limited capacity, his number was not called once in the running game and he caught only four passes for 27 yards. If all he is good for is blocking, he had better do so at a Pro Bowl level to warrant a roster spot.

Wide receiver

Candidates: Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, Mario Alford, James Wright, Rannell Hall, Leslie Jordan, Josh Boyce, Richard Mullaney

Who starts: Britt and Coleman

Who makes cut: Louis, Higgins, Hall and Alford

Comment: It is hard to imagine that the Browns’ receiving corps be any worse than last season’s. And yet, the club is plumbing the depths of badness again this season. If it were not for the New Jets purging their roster, especially with wide receivers, in an effort to land the next No. 1 draft choice, the Browns again would have the worst wideouts room. Britt is this season’s Terrelle Pryor with less talent. Coleman has all the talent in the world, but seems fragile based on his rookie season. He has a lot to prove. And the bench offers little relief. It is by far the weakest area on this side of the ball. The other candidates have a lot to prove after a poor 2016.

Tight end

Candidates: David Njoku, Seth DeValve, Randall Telfer, J. P. Holtz, Taylor McNamara

Who starts: Njoku and DeValve

Who makes cut: Telfer

Comment: An interesting – and promising – aspect of the offense. Youth definitely will be served here with Njoku, the rookie, and DeValve, the pro sophomore. The upside: Both are athletic and eager to learn. The downside: Neither is known for blocking, an important part in Jackson’s run game. They most likely will play a large role in the passing game, however. If blocking is required, the oft-injured Telfer is your guy unless Jackson gets creative and employs a defensive lineman (Danny Shelton?) in short-yardage situations.

Offensive line


Candidates: Joe Thomas, Shon Coleman, Cameron Erving, Rod Johnson, Matt McCants, Zach Sterup

Who starts: Thomas and Coleman

Who makes cut: McCants


Candidates: Joel Bitonio, Kevin Zeitler, Spencer Drango, John Greco, Chris Barker

Who starts: Bitonio and Zeitler

Who makes cut: Drango and Greco


Candidates: JC Tretter, Austin Reiter, Anthony Fabiano, Marcus Martin, Gabe Ikard

Who starts: Tretter

Who makes cut: No one

Comment: The key to the Browns’ success – or lack of success – on offense this season depends solely on the performance of this group. The addition of Tretter and Zeitler and return to health of Bitonio makes this the best offensive line since the 2014 group of Thomas, Bitonio, Alex Mack, Greco and Mitchell Schwartz. And yet, there is the uncertainty of Tretter and Bitonio playing a full season, each man dealing with injury issues the last few seasons. If Coleman does not beat out Cameron Erving at right tackle, shame on him. This group is better at run blocking than dropping back to protect the quarterback, an essential quality to help attain Jackson’s goal of a well-balanced offense. Fifth-round pick Rod Johnson fails to make the cut and winds up on the practice squad. Some believe he will eventually succeed Thomas at left tackle.



Candidates: Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Xavier Cooper, Carl Nassib, Nate Orchard, Cam Johnson, Tyrone Holmes, Desmond Bryant, Karter Schult, Jamal Marcus

Who starts: Garrett and Ogbah

Who makes cut: Orchard, Nassib, Bryant and Johnson

Comment: If nothing else, the Browns will be a more frequent visitor to opposing teams’ backfields this season in Williams’ belligerent approach than they were last season’s passive defense. Last season’s total of 26 sacks should be surpassed by game 10. Garrett, Ogbah, Orchard and Nassib are natural pass rushers who should flourish in the new scheme. Bryant and Johnson, who will double as an outside linebacker on occasion, are better against the run. No longer will third-and-long favor the opposition.


Candidates: Danny Shelton, Jamie Meder, Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley, Trevon Coley

Who starts: Shelton and Ogunjobi

Who makes cut: Brantley and Meder

Comment: Ever since they were welcomed back into the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been unable to stop the opposition in the run game. In the 18 seasons since then, they have surrendered 39,958 yards infantry style. That averages out to 2,220 yards a season or 138.7 yards a game. They have been under 2,000 yards a season twice – in 2012 (1,898) and 2013 (1,781), when they were 5-11 and 4-12, respectively. Wonder why they couldn’t win? They couldn’t stop the run. That will stop this season – or at least improve. With Shelton and either of the rookies plugging the middle and preventing double teams, the Browns have a good chance this season to put up a run defense that permits less than 100 yards a game on the average.


Candidates: Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins, Dominique Alexander, Joe Schobert, Tank Carder, Deon King, Kenneth Olugbode, Ladell Fleming, James Burgess, B. J. Bello

Who starts: Kirksey and Collins

Who makes cut: Alexander, Schobert and Carder

Comment: The Browns most of the time will line up in the nickel on defense with two linebackers and five defensive backs behind the line. Which means Kirksey and Collins will be three-down backers who will undoubtedly lead the team in tackles. Kirksey is more of an inside guy who has played outside, while Collins is more comfortable and effective playing outside. Both are solid tacklers. Cam Johnson can also drop back from defensive end and play some outside backer on occasion. The three backups will mainly provide relief with all three also playing on special teams.


Candidates: Joe Haden, Jason McCourty, Jamar Taylor, Brien Boddy-Calhoun, Marcus Burley, Channing Stribling, Darius Hillary, Alvin Hill, Trey Caldwell, Najee Murray, J. D. Harmon, Howard Wilson (injured)

Who starts: Haden and McCourty

Projected depth: Taylor, Boddy-Calhoun and Caldwell

Comment: If Haden is healthy, he should benefit from Williams’ man-to-man philosophy and make a strong comeback. But that is a big if. McCourty is more effective in zone coverage, leading some observers to believe he might be better suited for free safety. If that is the case, look for Taylor, who played surprisingly well last season, to move in opposite Haden. The interceptions total should easily eclipse last season’s 10 picks with increased pressure on the quarterback

Strong safety

Candidates: Jabrill Peppers, Ibraheim Campbell, Derrick Kindred, Justin Currie

Who starts: Peppers

Who makes cut: Campbell and Kindred

Free safety

Candidates: Calvin Pryor III, Ed Reynolds II, Kai Nacua

Who starts: Pryor

Who makes cut: Reynolds

Comment: Peppers is a lock at strong safety with Williams using his versatility on that side of the ball to play all over the field. Sometimes, he will have coverage responsibilities with a tight end or running back coming out of the backfield. Other times, don’t be surprised to see Williams moving the rookie up and be a key part of a blitz package. Kindred is valuable because he can play either safety.

If McCourty slides back to free safety, Pryor could become the dime back. Reynolds surprised when he filled in nicely due to injuries late last season and should survive the cut.

Special Teams


Candidates: Cody Parkey, Zane Gonzalez

Who starts: Gonzalez


Candidate: Britton Colquitt (unchallenged)

Long snapper

Candidate: Charley Hughlett (unchallenged)

Punt and kickoff returns: Peppers, Johnson Jr., Alford, Atkinson

Comment: Unless he absolutely tanks during the exhibition season, Gonzalez wins his competition with Parkey, who missed five goal-goal attempts (of 25) last season, all between 40 and 49 yards. Colquitt averaged 45.3 yards a punt last season, placing 22 of his 83 punts inside the 10 and only two resulted in touchbacks.

Peppers will be the man for all seasons, much as he was at Michigan the last two seasons, and should be the primary punt returner in addition to his strong safety duties (and perhaps several shots at running back). Johnson made just one fair catch on his 18 punts. Alford flashed on kickoffs last season with a 23.8-yard average on eight returns.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Special teams, odds & ends, fill in the blank

The most overlooked phase of football by fans is special teams. What teams do to move the football and stop the opposition from doing the same is more prominently in their focus.

Coaches, however, realize the importance of the punting and kicking games and the defensive side of that aspect of the game.

That said, we take a look at what awaits the Browns in 2017 in the form of questions seeking (and getting) answers.

What is the most important aspect of specials teams?

With punting and kickoffs, it is all about field position. Same with defending in all phases of the kicking game. Pin the opposition as deep in their territory as possible when punting and kicking; shorten the field in the return game.

And where did the Browns rank last season?

They were average in the National Football League when it came to special teams. They ranked roughly in the middle of the pack when ranking that phase of the game.

So how does that bode for this season?

It will change dramatically this season with the arrival of Jabrill Peppers, who dazzled fans at the University of Michigan the last two seasons with his skills in the return game, averaging 13 yards on punt returns and 26.8 yards on kickoffs.

How does that compare with what the Browns did last season?

Duke Johnson Jr., the primary punt returner last season, averaged 6.5 yards per return. Mario Alford averaged 8.5. The club overall averaged 6.7 yards on 30 returns.

Kickoff returns, handled mainly by Ricardo Louis, George Atkinson III and Alford, weren’t much better with a club average of 18.6 yards on 34 returns with a long of 36 yards. The Browns clearly missed Travis Benjamin in those departments.

So theoretically, it appears as though the Browns have solved their return problems with Peppers.

Theoretically yes. But this is the NFL, where there is much more emphasis on special teams than in college. That’s a challenge Peppers, who owns wonderful instincts in the return game, will face.

And if successful, how will that impact the Cleveland offense?

It all goes back to field position. A successful return game shortens the field. It is always better to begin drives as close to the opponent’s goal line as possible. Last season, the Browns began many drives after kickoff returns around their 20-yard line. The goal this season should be stretching that average start much closer to the 30 or 35.

As for punt returns, doubling last season’s average of 6.7 yards should be a minimal goal for special teams coach Chris Tabor. And with Peppers, that appears to be a goal that can achieved.

But won’t his performance as a returner be diminished somewhat by his role as the starting strong safety?

It shouldn’t. He is young and most likely eager to show the coaches how valuable he can be with his versatility. In addition, coach Hue Jackson might draw up a few plays for Peppers as a running back.

So how many touchdowns will he score?

Let’s see. How about two as a returner, another pair as the strong safety and at least one as a running back. How’s that for blatant optimism?

What about kickoffs and punts?

Britton Colquitt returns unchallenged as the punter. He figures to be less busy than last season – 83 punts and a 45.3-yard average with no blocks – if only because the offense is marginally better than last season.

The placekicker will be the winner of the Cody Parkey-Zane Gonzalez duel with the latter, a seventh-round pick in the last draft, the favorite. Parkey joined the Browns last season after an early-season injury to Patrick Murray and performed well.

But the Browns did not choose Gonzalez to just challenge Parkey. They picked him because he was college’s best kicker last season for Arizona State. He has a powerful leg that can reach the end zone with a large degree of consistency on kickoffs.

Last season’s Lou Groza Award winner – a definite plus in Cleveland – also nailed all but two of his field goal attempts, including a seven-of-nine performance beyond 50 yards. But that was in the rarefied Arizona air. He will find late fall and early winter weather much more challenging in Cleveland.

Odds and ends

If the Browns get off to a bad start again, does Jackson survive the season? It all depends on how well – or poorly – they play. Three of their first four games are against division rivals, two at home.

The key will be game five at home against the awful New York Jets, who have cleared the decks in order to beat the Browns to the top pick in the 2018 college draft. Lose that game and Jackson’s sweat glands spring into action.

Who will lead the team in receptions at the end of the season? Believe it or not, Duke Johnson Jr. It wouldn’t surprise if Jackson uses the versatile running back as a slot receiver occasionally because of his sure hands and ability to break tackles in the open field. He’s got better hands than any of the wide receivers.

Which of the two rookie defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley or Larry Ogunjobi, becomes a major contributor? Fans, of course, want both to step up and contribute. Ogunjobi, a higher draft pick than Brantley, probably will get the first shot. But Brantley stood out at a more high profile program at Florida and could surprise.

Over/under on how many sacks the team records this season. An optimist would say 40, which would be 14 more than last season. I feel somewhat optimistic with the new scheme up front and change of attitude.

Over/under on how many sacks the offensive line will surrender this season? An optimist would say 48, 18 fewer than allowed last season. I feel somewhat optimistic there, too, but only if the offensive line stays healthy.

Over/under on how many games offensive linemen Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter play. Based on their injury history. Eight would be the number. And that is being optimistic.

When will the Browns win their first game of the season? Presupposing they lose their first four games, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that is a strong possibility, sign up the Jets as the Browns’ first victim in game five.

Who benefits most from the switch to a four-man defensive front? Definitely Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard and Carl Nassib. Each excelled as down linemen in college and now each has a better chance than last season to get up close and personal with opposing quarterbacks in Gregg Williams’ scheme.

How many interceptions can Browns fans expect this season? They had 10 last season. With an improved pass rush, that figure could reach at least 16.

Fill in the blank

The team strength is . . . ostensibly the offensive line.

The team’s biggest weakness is . . . clearly the secondary.

DeShone Kizer will make his starting debut as a professional in game number . . . three in Indianapolis against the Colts.

The most important newcomer to the Browns is . . . defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The rookie who makes the biggest impact will be . . . defensive end Myles Garrett.

He will wind up with . . . sacks. Nine

The leading tackler will be . . . Tie between linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey with more than 120 each..

Jason McCourty, a career cornerback, opens the season as the starting . . . cornerback opposite Joe Haden.

Duke Johnson Jr. will have (more or fewer) touches than last season. More.

Kenny Britt will have (more or fewer) receptions than Terrelle Pryor had last season. Fewer. Pryor had 77. Britt had a career-high 68 last season. His previous best was 48.

The season-opening quarterback will be . . . Brock Osweiler.

The biggest surprise on the roster in the season opener will be  . . . Brock Osweiler.

The Browns will win . . . games this season. You fill in that blank.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Questions seeking answers: Part Deux

Rarely is a coach the most important addition to any football team on any level. But it’s hard not to point to Gregg Williams as the Browns’ most important addition this season.

The voluble and very much out there new defensive coordinator of the club will bring qualities to the Cleveland defense that have been missing for way, way, way too long: Nastiness and attitude.

If the players play with the same intensity Williams coaches, if they channel his in-your-face aggression, if they embody everything he stands for when it comes to playing the game of football, Browns fans are in for a treat this season.

Not since the days of Marty Schottenheimer more than a generation ago have Cleveland pro football fans been treated to the kind of defense that reflects the blue-collar ethos the city used to be famous for in the early days of the Dawg Pound.

The Browns under Schottenheimer, as a defensive coordinator and head coach, played smart, aggressive football. Mistakes were rare. Victories were plentiful. And the fans became spoiled with good reason.

In part two of our overview of the 2017 Browns, we take a look at the defense, at Gregg Williams’ defense and what we can expect.

As we did with the offense, we start with the guys up front, the grunts who do not get nearly enough credit and set the table for those who labor behind them.

First of all, how much of a problem will the defense have shifting from a hybrid 3-4 scheme last season to what most likely will be a 4-2-5 look this season?

Not much at all because the Browns last season utilized college pass rushers as outside linebackers for the most part. Players like Emmanuel Ogbah and Nate Orchard now move back to defensive end, where they are more comfortable and productive.

And what makes them more effective there?

Ogbah and Orchard, along with returnees Carl Nassib, Cam Johnson and Xavier Cooper (who can also play tackle) and top draft choice Myles Garrett can concentrate on doing what they do best and that’s attacking the quarterback, a trait Browns fans haven’t been treated to in many seasons. Look for the Browns to significantly improve on their 26-sack season a year ago.

It’s not all about sacking the quarterback. What about stopping the run, something they haven’t been successful at for many seasons?

That’s the good part. Switching to a four-man front enables Danny Shelton to be the player the club thought it drafted a couple of years ago. While he improved last season as a nose tackle, he is much better suited to play next to a fellow tackle, avoiding much of the double and triple teams he faced in his first two seasons.

When facing one-on-one blocking, Shelton has proved to be almost impossible to handle. He clearly will be the greatest beneficiary of Williams’ defensive philosophy, improving his pass rush as well as stopping the run.

And who will play next to him?

That’s the intriguing part. Right now, veteran Jamie Meder has the inside track. But rookies Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley, both extremely explosive off the ball and owning the nastiness Williams likes, should give Meder stiff competition in what could be the best battle in training camp.

What about Garrett? Where does he fit in?

In the starting lineup, of course. You don’t sit the overall No. 1 draft pick. He is good enough to be a three-down player. His biggest problem will be adjusting to the speed and quickness of the National Football League after dominating on the college level.

Seems to be an awfully young defensive line with three rookies, a couple of pro sophomores and three third-year guys. How much of a concern will that be?

Not much. Better to work with a talented young group and let them develop. Anyway, chances are one or two of the youngsters might not make the cut unless Williams wants to have more than eight linemen at his disposal.

Okay, let us turn to the linebackers, a role that will be diminished somewhat by the Williams’ scheme, which focuses on the pass rush and a mostly nickel look in the secondary. Who stands out there?

Right now, it appears as though Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey have a lock on that role. Both are coming off solid seasons and there is no reason for Williams to do anything more than cheer them on. Both are aggressive, smart and have a nose for the football.

And with 10 linebackers in training camp, it will be interesting to see how many Williams keeps. The favorites appear to be returnees Tank Carder, Dominique Alexander and Joe Schobert.

That takes care of the front seven. What about the secondary, an area a lot of people point to as the weakest on the team?

And it’s with good reason they do. The defensive backfield was absolutely hammered last season. It didn’t help that the defensive line was unable to drop opposing quarterbacks, who merrily strafed almost at will. Converting third-and-longs became commonplace against the Browns to the tune of 45.1% of the time.  

That secondary surrendered 261 yards a game, 36 touchdowns, three 400-yard games, five 300-yard games, picked off only 10 passes and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 64% of their passes. It was an offensive free for all in the Cleveland defensive backfield. And it is still the club’s Achilles’ heel.

Okay, let’s break it down. There are whopping 19 defensive backs in camp (or will be when Jabrill Peppers signs his rookie contract). (Update: He did Sunday.) That’s more than 20% of the roster. First, the cornerbacks.

There are a dozen of them. And none really stick out to the point where fans can rely on them. Brien Boddy-Calhoun and Jamar Taylor were minor surprises at the position last season, but both were prone to occasionally giving up big plays.

So where does Joe Haden fit into this picture? Now in his eighth season, this veteran is arguably on the downside of a career that began so promisingly. Nagged by injuries the last couple of seasons, Haden needs to be completely healthy in order to play the kind of aggressive defense demanded by Williams.

At one time regarded as one of the best press cornerbacks in the NFL, he needs to get back to that style, Williams should provide him with that opportunity. If he’s healthy and works hard, he is young enough – he’s only 28 – to once again become the corner Browns fans appreciated a few years ago.

The Browns signed Jason McCourty, an eight-year veteran, to bolster their cornerback roster. If he doesn’t beat out Taylor or Boddy-Calhoun to play opposite Haden, he could man the slot in Williams’ 4-2-5 look. Other possibilities are Marcus Burley, Trey Caldwell and Darius Hillary.

And the safeties?

Seven of them: four strong, three free. The most intriguing, of course, is Peppers, who probably will begin the season as the strong safety, where his main duties would be run support and checking the tight end and running back out of the backfield.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Williams uses Peppers as a walkup linebacker in certain pass situations, much the same way the Pittsburgh Steelers used Troy Polamalu and Arizona Cardinals occasionally use Deone Bucannon, who splits his time between linebacker and safety. Returnees Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell provide veteran backup.

Free safety probably will wind up as a fight between Ed Reynolds II and Calvin Pryor III in a battle of Roman numerals with Pryor owning the edge.  Reynolds started seven games for Cleveland last season after injuries racked the position. Pryor, obtained from the New York Jets for Demario Davis, has started 38 games in his three-year career.

And finally, can it be assumed head coach Hue Jackson will cede complete authority of the defense to Williams?

Guess here is he better. Any interference likely will cause more friction and inner turmoil than Jackson, who had enough of that last season at 1-15, is willing to take on. If the defense goes sour this season, don’t blame Jackson, who has enough problems with the offense.

Tomorrow:  Special teams, odds and ends and fill in the blank.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Questions seeking (and getting) answers

The 2017 season officially gets under way for the Browns Sunday in Berea when rookies report to training camp. Three days later, coach Hue Jackson and his staff welcome the veterans and preparations for the season begin in earnest.

The first few days will be spent getting acquainted with 37 new faces occupying spots on the 90-man roster. That’s a radical turnover from last season’s unforgettable 1-15 season.

That includes 20 rookies as the Browns begin phase two of their plan to almost totally reshape the team. They will field one of the youngest teams in the National Football League this season.

And with youth, of course, comes struggle. Fans bore witness to that last season with a roster littered with first-year professionals. All of which provokes many questions. Here are answers to some of them.

In the first of a two-part look at the 20117 Cleveland Browns, we feature the offense . . .

Let’s start with the offensive line. Better than last season’s?

By far. Then again, it doesn’t take much to be better. Last season’s group surrendered an embarrassing 66 sacks, a club record that most likely will never be broken.

Adding (right guard) Kevin Zeitler and (center) JC Tretter in free agency and getting left guard Joel Bitonio back from injury helps immensely. It would help even more if Bitonio and Tretter can remain healthy for 16 games, which has proven difficult in the past.

Joe Thomas returns at left tackle, of course. Who plays right tackle?

It had better be second-year man Shon Coleman, who will battle Cameron Erving for the job. If Erving wins out, it will be a turnstile to the quarterback in the passing game.

What about the depth along the OL?

Definitely better than last season with the acquisitions of Zeitler and Tretter. John Greco and Spencer Drango coming off the bench in the event of an injury is a definite upgrade from last season. Can’t say the same for Erving, though.

Odds the offensive line will cut in half those 66 sacks?

Not in half. That’s way too optimistic. But look for a significant reduction like around 40 to 45, an improvement of a little less than a sack and a half a game.

Jackson is zeroing in on a more balanced offense this season. What are the odds he will be successful in his effort achieve that goal?

That depends almost entirely on how successful the Browns’ running game is. It sure wasn’t last season, although it averaged 107 yards a game, thanks mainly to a 231-yard game in the season finale in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rested many starters.

The running game last season went through a terrible eight-game stretch midway through the season, seven of which produced ground games of 27, 40, 68, 45, 33, 33 and 58 yards.

If the offensive line can provide enough running room for Isaiah Crowell, who came thisclose to a 1,000-yard season in 2016, Duke Johnson Jr. and, maybe, rookie Matthew Dayes, then Jackson’s 50-50 goal has a chance at becoming a reality and strengthens the club’s ability to prolong drives and keep the defense rested.

How many touches will Johnson average and how much of a factor will he be in the passing game?

If Jackson truly wants to diversify his offense, Johnson has to be a big part of it. He has arguably the surest hands on the team and is the team’s most effective runner in the open field.

Problem is Jackson still runs him between the tackles on occasion. Johnson is more of a slasher who is more effective as a cutback runner. He needs at least 15 touches a game to be effective.

Enough about running backs. What about the wide receivers? Is the current corps better or worse than last season’s?

Worse. It might be the worst in the NFL. Well maybe the New York Jets’ wideouts are a bit worse. But there is no argument that can honestly disprove that notion with regard to the Browns, especially after the departure of Terrelle Pryor, the only legitimately dangerous wide receiver on the roster last season.

Is there anyone on the roster now who can duplicate Pryor’s 77-catch, 1,007-yard effort in 2016?

No. Pryor caught 45.8% of the club’s completed passes last season and accumulated 49.6% of the total yards by the position.

Well, what about Kenny Britt, who was signed as a free agent after Pryor left for Washington? Didn’t he have 68 receptions for 1,002 yards last season with Los Angeles last season?

Sure did. But which Kenny Britt did the Browns sign? The one who had a career year last season or the one who averaged 34.4 receptions and 554 yards in his first seven NFL seasons?

With an extremely young and inexperienced corps behind Britt, odds are he will come a lot closer to the numbers in his first seven seasons than the ones he put up last season.

But don’t wide receivers take longer to develop?

Yes, but Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton had such poor rookie seasons, it’s hard to imagine any of them making up for considerably lost ground. And Corey Coleman couldn’t stay healthy long enough to be reliable.

Is Coleman brittle or a star on the horizon?

Brittle wide receivers do not go far in the NFL. Perhaps it’s a bit premature to label Coleman as brittle right now, but he isn’t exactly off to a blazing start from an injury standpoint as a professional.

What about Josh Gordon?

Can’t discuss him until – or if – Commissioner Roger Goodell unshackles him. He may have already destroyed his career.

The tight end picture changed with Gary Barnidge’s departure and the drafting of David Njoku. How much of a factor are Njoku, Seth DeValve and Randall Telfer (if he can stay healthy long enough) in Jackson’s offensive scheme?

They will play a large part in both phases of the offense. Expect to see a lot of a two-tight end looks, especially in the running game. Njoku most likely will be a three-down tight end who will get plenty of looks in the passing game.

And whose passes are these young receivers going to catch? Who will be under center in the season opener against Pittsburgh?

The guess here is Brock Osweiler to begin with unless he is so abysmally bad in exhibition games that Jackson opts for either Cody Kessler or DeShone Kizer.

Kessler is a concussion – he had two last season as a rookie – waiting to happen. And throwing Kizer in there against the Steelers in the season opener would be – trying to be kind here – not advisable.

If Jackson wants to get anything out of Kizer, he must initially shackle him to the bench for several games, put a clipboard in his hand and let him learn all about the NFL from a safe place. Otherwise, the coach is messing with the kid’s future.

When Kizer does start, whether it’s through injury or incompetence, how much will Jackson dumb down his game plans?

If he is smart and really cares about his young quarterback, he will keep it as simple as possible.

Odds Osweiler will be on the roster at the end of the season?

Very good unless he suffers a season-ending injury early on.

Tomorrow: The defense and special teams

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Berea shutdown

Shhhhhh . . .

It sure is eerily quiet at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. these days.

It’s so quiet, in fact, one can almost hear air slowly escaping from the hundreds of footballs at the site.

Just about everyone who is anyone is gone. Off to enjoy that rarity in the NFL world: A vacation. A chance to escape and enjoy a normal life for a couple of weeks.

It is what counts as the offseason in the National Football League. That time when those who run the Browns actually take time off to recharge the batteries and begin a countdown to training camp.

It’s the time when all the plans that have been made for the 2017 season are shelved temporarily and just about everyone takes a well-deserved break before gearing up for the new season.

About the only news coming out of Berea these days centers around why rookie safety/return specialist Jabrill Peppers has not signed a contract.

Some fans are getting a little bent out of shape, which keeps those who cover the team from forgetting about professional football for even a little bit and enjoying a little R&R themselves.

Peppers will sign a contract. Count on it.

His representatives and the Browns just need to iron out some language and the amount of guaranteed money they disagree on in the contract to nail his signature.

Peppers’ representatives also fronted for Joey Bosa last year and held him out of the San Diego Chargers’ training camp until just before the start of the 2016 season. The former Ohio State defensive end went on to become the NFL defensive rookie of the year.

Bosa’s recalcitrance to sign last year cannot be compared to the Peppers situation. He was the third overall draft. Peppers was the 25th overall selection in the 2017 lottery. Negotiations parameters are not the same.

What you cannot count on from Peppers is when he will sign. Odds are he will do so sometime between now and the season opener in early September against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

OK, just messing with you. It most likely will happen between the time the club opens training camp on July 23 (when rookies report) and July 26 (when the rest of the club reports).

Sometime in those four days, when Peppers sees his fellow rookies in camp and in uniform and being coached up, he will develop an itch that needs to be scratched.

He is too important a piece in the revamped Browns secondary and he knows it. The sooner he reports to camp, the better it is for all involved.

It would not be wise for the Browns to be pound foolish, especially with someone they expect to be an impact player.