This week, thesidelinereport.com takes a look at the AFC North’s respective teams and how they shape up going into training camp. We’ll examine the current roster, likely camp battles and subsequent roster cuts, and what each team must do to address weaknesses. Today: the Cleveland Browns.
Roster and Depth Chart
After years of flailing, the quarterback hierarchy is finally settled in Cleveland, with second-year incumbent Baker Mayfield poised to improve on his excellent rookie season. Among the current backup options, only veteran Drew Stanton appears to be a lock, and it’s suddenly doubtful the Browns will carry more than two quarterbacks into the regular season. Obvious cuts: Garrett Gilbert, David Blough (either is a practice squad option)
The Browns are technically carrying six running backs on the current roster (although 5.5 might be more appropriate, as free agent pickup Kareem Hunt can’t participate until Week 9 due to a league-mandated suspension). There’s little question second-year back Nick Chubb will handle the bulk of the carries, but his immediate backup is still in debate, as third-down option Duke Johnson is embroiled in a contract dispute and the rest of the RB slate seems less than inspiring. At this writing, veteran Dontrell Hilliard (also a kick returner) appears to be safe, but any extra help will have to come from undrafted rookies D’Ernest Johnson and Trayone Gray, with only one expected to make the final roster. There may be more additions in camp. This will be an area to watch.
The Browns are sporting one of the more accomplished wide receiver corps in the NFL, with the top two spots ably manned by occasionally-frustrating standout Odell Beckham Jr. and über-possession wideout Jarvis Landry. That leaves nine players fighting for a maximum of four roster slots. Barring injury, expect holdovers Rashard Higgins and Antonio Calloway to be retained, with emerging second-year wideouts Damion Ratley and Derrick Willies strong possibilities as well. The remainder will be extracted from a middling bunch of undrafted rookies including possible KR/PR Ishmael Hyman. Obvious cuts: Dorian Baker, DJ Montgomery, J.T. Hassell
The offensive line’s starting five appears tentatively set with LT Greg Robinson, RT Chris Hubbard, LG Joel Bitonio, RG Austin Corbett and C J.C. Tretter, although both tackles could see competition from holdover Desmond Harrison and former Texans starter Kendall Lamm. Among the guards, Corbett also appears vulnerable to veterans Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann. There should be some healthy competition among this group, as no one beyond Tretter appears to be a lock just yet.
The tight end group will be headed by third-year man David Njoku, who’s expected to finally cash in on his immense talent. Returning TE Seth DeValve is an obvious lock, and free agent signee Demetrius Harris should see time as well. The remaining trio of Orson Charles, Pharaoh Brown and undrafted rookie Stephen Carlson will be fighting for one roster slot, so expect the best blocker of the bunch – probably Brown, as he also occasionally spends time at FB – to be retained.
The addition of edge rusher Olivier Vernon bolsters an already impressive defensive line led by third-year end Myles Garrett, who will be backed up by young-but-promising veterans Chris Smith and Chad Thomas. The interior features a solid rotation of fresh bodies, including veterans Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, former Raven Carl Davis, Trevon Coley and second-year DT Trenton Thompson. Richardson and Ogunjobi are expected to start, although we should see this group in any order at any time. Most of the expected cuts will come from the overcrowded DE slate: Anthony Zettel, Collin Bevins and Jarrell Owens
The linebacker unit could be problematic for the Browns as overall depth appears to be an issue, so one can envision a lot of camp pickups to address it. As it is, the starting slate of WLB Genard Avery, MLB Joe Schobert and SLB Christian Kirksey is solid and should remain so as long as the defensive line maintains a substantial push, which they’re expected to do. Current backups Adarius Taylor and 2019 third-round rookie Sione Takitaki provide some quality depth, and ILB options Ray-Ray Armstrong and surprising rookie Mack Wilson are capable backups at this point. Possible cuts: Willie Harvey, Wyatt Ray
Barring injury (sadly a real concern for the Browns), the secondary should be exceptional with the return of standout corner Denzel Ward and the addition of brash-but-talented rookie corner Greedy Williams, who will most likely rotate in the slot with expected starter Terrance Mitchell. Veteran Phillip Gaines is expected to back up at both CB spots, while 2019 seventh-round CB Donnie Lewis Jr. will probably see a lot of special teams duty. The safety unit has expanded to include former Steelers SS Morgan Burnett and former Chiefs SS Eric Murray, who should provide one of the more interesting and competitive camp battles in the AFC North. FS Damarious Randall should continue his steady play, ably backed up veteran Jermaine Whitehead and 2019 fourth round FS Sheldon Redwine, who will also assist at SS as needed. Expected cut: Jermaine Ponder
PK Greg Joseph should expect little competition after he provided the Browns with some much-needed kicking stability in 2018, and longtime P Britton Colquitt is a near-certainty to match his career averages of 45.5 yards per kick. KR/PR Antonio Calloway is expected to resume his return duties, possibly assisted by RB Dontrell Hilliard. Barring a substantial dropoff, quality longtime LS Charley Hughlett will remain in that capacity until at least 2021, when his current contract expires.
Stay tuned for the Cincinnati Bengals’ review Thursday.