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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Candidates: Jabrill Peppers, Ibraheim Campbell, Derrick Kindred, Justin Currie
Who starts: Peppers
Who makes cut: Campbell and Kindred
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.
Candidates: Cody Parkey, Zane Gonzalez
Who starts: Gonzalez
Candidate: Britton Colquitt (unchallenged)
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.