Optimism abounds for the Cleveland Browns and their 2024 NFL season, and a pair of underrated sleepers could enhance those feelings. Linebacker Nathaniel Watson came on board in the sixth round while guard Zak Zinter earned a third-round pick. Both players have already found their way up the depth chart into backup roles.

In six seasons at Mississippi State, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Watson totaled 377 tackles, including 35 for loss, and collected 21 sacks. Also, he picked off two passes. That level of production should give him on-field opportunities to see if it translates to the NFL.

Zinter played four seasons at Michigan with 42 starts. The 6-6, 322-pound beast allowed only three sacks and five quarterback hurries in 1,141 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He pushes Joel Bitonio for a starting spot on the offensive line.

Browns LB Watson brings field smarts to the defense

Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker Nathaniel Watson (14) reacts during the first half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field.
Mandatory Credit: Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Not only did Watson put up nice numbers in college, he also reeled in awards. In 2023, he earned an honor as a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker. Also, Watson earned third-team Associated Press All-American honors. In addition, he led the SEC with 137 tackles.

But his field vision and knowledge of the game likely tipped the draft scales in his favor, Browns' scout Matt Donahoe told clevelandbrowns.com.

“”He (was) a very productive player at Mississippi State throughout his career,” Donahoe said. “He (was) one of the smarter guys they had on their defense. A lot was required out of him. So I think when you get a guy that's tough, physical, loves the game of football, I think that's a great guy to add to the program here.”

Watson's attributes include an NFL-level first-step burst and high-profile tackling skills. Also, he shows exceptional versatility as a blitzer. He owns enough size and speed to keep putting up run-defense numbers.

On the questionable side, he may not make a lot of plays in coverage. And he must hone his instincts to deal with NFL offensive schemes.

Browns G Zak Zinter has look of a rock-like line fixture

Part of the process of earning playing time in the NFL will be a little different for Zinter from other players. He suffered a broken tibia late in the 2023 season.

But his measurables grabbed hold of the Browns' brass. And they didn't let Zinter get past them in the third round. Browns general manager Andrew Berry told clevelandbrowns.com the pick made sense for the organizational approach.

“You guys all know that we'll be a team that invests in the trenches, invests in the O-line,” Andrew Berry said. “Zak, we just thought, was a rock-solid all-around player his entire career at Michigan … the heartbeat of their culture when we met with him throughout the pre-Draft process. Very smart, professional, passionate about football, and I think his blue-collar mentality will really fit well within our offensive line room.

And Berry said he believes Zinter is beyond the college injury problem.

“We felt really good about the medical,” Berry said. “There's really no concern about the leg.”

Cleveland is a team on the fringe of the NFL elite. Pro Football Today slotted the Browns at No. 12 in their pre-camp power rankings. The main question mark is what level of production DeShaun Watson can offer. If Watson performances are even above average, it could be an exciting year for the Browns.