Friday, June 7, 2019

More questions and thoughts

First, before resuming with more questions with regard go the Browns and the 2019 season, some thoughts about the recently concluded minicamp and the OTAs that preceded them . . .

Do not fall into the trap of taking seriously the goings on. It’s so easy to glom onto just about everything that goes on during these workouts and extrapolate them into something special.

There is one underlying fact that should dampen any and all of the enthusiasm the media is reporting. These guys are working out in shorts, jerseys, helmets and no pads.

These are exercises are designed to make the beginning of training camp late next months that much easier and comfortable for the players. That is all. They are nothing more than indoctrination for what lies ahead.

So when we how hear how great a player – let’s use safety Jermaine Whitehead as an example here because we’ve heard a lot about him– has looked and the coaches really like him, pay no attention. That’s nothing more than blather that is lapped up by the media.

Their job is to report what they see and hear. I don’t care and give little or no credence to what coaches say at this time of the season. It’s nothing more than white noise.

For example, coach Freddie Kitchens, tickling his hyperbole gene, went a little overboard with his impressions of the offensive line following rookie minicamp early last month.

“This is the best offensive line I have ever been a part of and I have been in the league for 13 years,” he said. Yes he did. He continued, “I have never seen a group collectively this good.” Really? In 13 years?

And then there’s this after the Browns lost out recently in the Gerald McCoy sweepstakes: “I expect our defensive line to be the strength of our football team. Nobody wants to talk about them, but I expect them to be the strength of the team.”

Better than the offense? We’ll check in on that one roughly halfway through the season.

Now when the pads and full uniforms appear, that’s when my radar perks up and I start paying attention to coaches and their observations. That’s when the real competition commences.

So don’t get too excited now because those names that are mentioned now very well might either disappear or give way to those who perform much better with all their equipment on.

Oh and one more thought: Odell Beckham missing the OTAs was not a big deal. Far from it. This bonding nonsense is bullroar. He’ll be fine with his new teammates. His gravitas paves the way.

Now the questions . . .

Is raw talent enough to achieve the major goals this season?

Not really, It depends on much the players buy into what the coaching staff is trying to accomplish. The true test is whether the coaches are able to synch up and take advantage of the various talents of the players.

Baker Mayfield needs to feel comfortable running the offense. He’ll operate this season with a whole different playbook after playing last season with Todd Haley’s playbook, which was tinkered with in the final eight games by Kitchens.

New offensive coordinator Todd Monken has to figure out what plays Mayfield likes to run; what routes his receivers enjoy running; determine the strengths and weaknesses of his linemen and adjust accordingly; and generally create an offense that is unpredictable.

Last year’s team overachieved. What can the fans expect this season?

They overachieved last season because they grew weary or being the butt of jokes. This season, they will be anything but. Winning will be a little more difficult because as favorites to win the AFC North, they have bull’s-eyes on the back of their uniforms.

How do they handle a bad start, a distinct possibility given the weird schedule out of the starting gate?

That’s a situation that falls squarely in the laps of the coaching staff. Kitchens and his men would have to convince the team their talent will eventually overcome such an obstacle and to continue to believe in the staff.

­­­Is it ridiculous to suggest Mayfield will fall victim to the sophomore jinx?

Mayfield is such a strong presence, it’s hard to think he would be hampered by such a possibility. He’ll probably be asked during training camp by some outsider and undoubtedly channel Bryce Harper with his reply: “That’s a stupid question.”

And it is. But count on it being asked, anyway. No, he won’t fall victim. He might even flourish like Dan Marino did in his sophomore season in Miami when he threw for nearly 5,100 yards, 48 touchdowns and took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl.

Denzel Ward suffered two concussions in his rookie season. What is the over/under on how long it will take for No. 3 to arrive?

Six games. I’ll take the under unless he changes his tackling technique.

Will Greedy Williams win starting job opposite Ward?

Yes. Only an injury will stand in the rookie’s way. He’ll also prove he can stick his nose in running plays.

Is the offensive line as good as some believe?

Not changing my response. Unless offensive line coach James Campen is a true miracle worker, Mayfield will spend a lot of time this season scrambling. Only Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter are reliable.

Who wins the major position battles?

Joe Schobert is still the middle linebacker; Genard Avery plays more at defensive end than linebacker and racks up a lot of snaps; Morgan Burnett beats out Whitehead at strong safety; Austin Corbett opens at right guard; Trevon Coley is the third defensive tackle; fifth-round pick Austin Seibert dispatches Greg Joseph and is the new placekicker; and Rashard Higgins is the No. 4 receiver.

Is Duke Johnson Jr. in a Cleveland uniform for the season (and home) opener against Tennessee?

That’s a toughie. If the Browns can’t get anything better than a future sixth-round draft pick, yes. If they can talk some team (New England?) into parting with a fifth, then no and Dontrell Hilliard becomes the team’s third running back.

Johnson needs to shut up now and be professional at his job. Training camps are scouted all the time and if anyone out there on the National Football League landscape believes he will look better in another uniform, something will happen.

Time now to think about whether the Indians can make a playoff run (think wild card) and who the Cavaliers will select in the NBA draft before turning our attention to the Browns the last week in July.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Asking away

Questions looking, seeking, sometimes begging for answers as the Browns now take time off until late next month when they reunite in Berea to prepare for the 2019 season . . .

With not even arguably the most star-studded roster in at least three decades, the biggest concern is whether first-time head coach (at any level) Freddie Kitchens can handle all that talent and the obvious pressure of living up to lofty expectations and predictions.

The easiest answer is why not? His casual, down-home approach in OTAs and minicamp suggest he is quite comfortable in his new role.

The honest answer is we won’t know until at least midseason. How Kitchens handles the unevenness of the first half of the schedule, which will wreck the seasonal rhythm players like, will be a factor.

Getting his team to play games on national television three times in the first five weeks will be a challenge. It’s not at all like preparing a team to play every Sunday afternoon at 1 o’clock. Preparing a National Football League team to play is a meticulous exercise that requires exquisite timing.

We don’t know how he will handle game management, clock management, personnel groups (don’t forget he’s calling the plays on offense) and tactical and strategic situations during games. He’s a blank slate in that regard.

He is being counted on to succeed by a fan base that has fallen in love with his honesty and sense of humor. That will change as the season unfolds. His toughest job, besides making certain his team in ready to play, will be keeping an even keel.

This question will be adequately answered by the bye week in week seven.

Are fans expecting too much from this team?

Based on the overwhelming positive vibes emanating from Browns Nation around the globe, a resounding yes. Anything less than a division championship will not be acceptable, especially after finishing so strong in the second half of last season.

Unrealistic expectations?


And what if the club gets off to a bad start in the first half dozen games? It’s entirely possible.

That will test the mettle of everyone connected with 76 Lou Groza Blvd. How the team reacts to that will be the key to how they finish.

Breaking down the team, where are the strengths on both sides of the football?

On offense, it’s clearly at the skilled positions. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has become the unquestioned leader on and off the field. He has become the face of the franchise (Odell Beckham Jr. notwithstanding). He has shown maturity and leadership skills well beyond his years.

As he goes, so will go the Cleveland offense. It is incumbent on that offense to make certain he plays 16 games this season. There is no reason to believe he won’t with the war chest of talent General Manager John Dorsey has assembled around him.

Whereas as the Browns owned the worst set of receivers in the NFL (not even arguably) for a couple of seasons not long ago, they now own the best group with wideouts Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins and tight end David Njoku.

They also boast one of the best running backs rooms in the league with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt (once he returns at midseason from suspension) and either Duke Johnson Jr. (if he is not dealt) and/or Dontrell Hilliard. The only weakness on that side of the ball will be dealt in just a bit.

Defensively, Dorsey has made sure that new defensive coordinator Ted Wilks will have a much stronger unit with which to work than Gregg Williams had last season.

Defensive end Olivier Vernon is clearly a step up in talent from the departed Emmanuel Ogbah and will make a perfect partner for Myles Garrett. Look for plenty of parties at opposing quarterbacks this season from those two. Sheldon Richardson, meanwhile, is the perfect complement for Larry Ogunjobi inside.

The secondary will be the big beneficiary because of a much better pass rush. Wilks now has two lockdown corners in Denzel Ward and rookie Greedy Williams, which allows him to unfurl his dark side – the blitz.

Because of the quality depth in the secondary, it would not surprise to see
Wilks show a 4-2-5 look frequently in the pass-happy league the NFL has become the last decade. It also would enable him to better utilize his numerous blitz packages.

And the weaknesses?

Both reside in the trenches. The more problematic lies on the offense.

This is not a high quality offensive line. Gone is the Browns’ best lineman last season, Kevin Zeitler, who went to the New York Giants in the Beckham-Olivier trade. Whoever replaces him will be a definite downgrade.

If Austin Corbett isn’t that guy, consider him a leading candidate to labeled a bust after being taken at the top of round two in the 2018 college draft, although he might be wind up ay center when JC Tretter eventually leaves.

Can Corbett play up to the standard set by Zeitler?

That’s asking too much. Replacing one of the league’s best interior linemen with a rookie – he barely played last year – is a huge challenge. Fans should be satisfied if Corbett takes over at right guard and is at least decent.

What about the tackles?

They’re also worrisome. Greg Robinson, who signed a prove-it kind of contract after upgrading left tackle in midseason last year, is a Mayfield favorite. But he is also a holding penalty waiting to be called. And Chris Hubbard was a major disappointment last season at right tackle.

Yes, the Browns permitted only five sacks of Mayfield in the final eight games last season. And yes, Robinson also committed a flurry of untimely penalties in doing so. The only saving grace there is new offensive line coach James Campen, considered by many around the league as one of the best.

Dorsey must be somewhat suspicious of the line’s quality, too, signing veterans Kendall Lamm, Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann as free agents in the offseason. If nothing else, there is quality depth along the line, if not quality itself.

Defensively, the line has some standouts, but quality depth at tackle (missing out in the Gerald McCoy sweepstakes didn’t help) is also a situation that will be watched carefully. How the Browns perform in the trenches on both sides of the ball will determine where they finish.

When the team reconvenes late next month, what will be training camp’s best battles?

Corbett vs. probably Kyle Kalis at right guard; Williams vs. Terrance Mitchell opposite Ward at cornerback, the rookie vs. the wily veteran; placekicker Austin Seibert vs. Greg Joseph, the fifth-round pick against the third-year man; Morgan Burnett vs. Jermaine Whitehead at strong safety; Trevon Coley (coming off a down year) vs. Carl Davis and Brian Price at defensive tackle; and draft picks Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson at linebacker vs. veteran Joe Schobert at middle linebacker. Polar opposites: Takitaki is the high-motor guy who flies undisciplined around the field; Wilson is the Nick Saban-coached disciplinarian who is readier for the NFL.

What about Genard Avery? Where does he fit in? He looked like he belonged last season.

Might be used as sort of a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. Could line up on the edge on one play and drop back in pass coverage on the next. He’s solid at both facets of the game.

Overall, as previously mentioned, trench warfare – winning a majority of the battles along the line of scrimmage – is what will be the guiding light as the 2019 season approaches.
(More questions tomorrow)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Tapping the brakes

We’re still three months away from launching the most eagerly awaited season since the National Football League graciously allowed Cleveland back into the party 20 years ago.

The Browns’ season opener at home against Tennessee can’t arrive soon enough for the fans, and the excitement that has been ratcheted up by the recently concluded OTAs and current minicamps has done nothing to quell that enthusiasm.

While the Indians struggle and Cavaliers vainly attempt to recapture that championship feeling, the Browns enjoy a high not felt along the lake shore for more than 30 years.

General Manager John Dorsey has in a stunningly brief period of time assembled a war chest of talent that has captured the attention – and to a certain extent the imagination – of the media and vaulted his team into a gigantic spotlight.

A majority of pundits around the NFL see the makings of a future Super Bowl team, a notion that seemed preposterous as recently as six months ago. But that lofty goal has its flaws.

After an offseason that has seen Dorsey dramatically improve the defensive line, secondary, running game, passing game and overall roster depth, the excitement has provided even more energy for the club’s fan base.

And yet, questions about how that will all play out in 2019 nevertheless exists for the Browns. That certainly is not so say they will fall short of expectations. Way too early to suggest that.

Because they have never been in this situation (after wandering in the NFL desert for the last 20 seasons), it’s easy to see why fans have glommed onto the notion nothing will stop this edition of the club.

Butt there are those – and they are in the distinct minority – who suggest the brakes be pumped at least a little on what appears to be runaway optimism for this team. That falls under the category of unrealistic expectations.

It has been said in hackneyed fashion over the years that paper does not win football games. It’s true. I have seen good teams with solid rosters fall short of expectations. I have also seen teams with less talented rosters overachieve.

Because the NFL season is so short and each game in vitally important, emotion often becomes a large factor in the fine line that separates winning from losing. Give me a team of less talented overachievers and I’ll beat your more talented underachievers more often than not.

It’s nice to dream of erasing 20 years of awful football in just one season and restoring the pride in which Cleveland professional football fans once held their team. But let’s not get carried away yet.

Too many things – good and bad – can happen along the way. You never know what bumps lurk in the 17-week, 16-game road to the postseason. And that is what stands to temper whatever enthusiasm builds.

In the next couple of days, I’ll examine many of those questions, provide answers for some and then save the rest until later in the summer when the whole thing comes together as coach Freddie Kitchens and Dorsey assemble the finished product.