The Cleveland Browns report for training camp tomorrow, which officially kicks off perhaps the most anticipated season in franchise history. The team has playoff aspirations, and is considered by some as a legitimate Super Bowl contender after a busy offseason. Cleveland may be the most interesting team in the NFL, which means there will be no shortage of interesting storylines to follow during the preseason. Here are three to keep an eye on.
3. Weak position group battles
The Browns are one of the most talented teams in the league, but that doesn’t mean they are rock-solid at every position. There are three major areas of concern at this point. The offensive line was one of the NFL’s best when pass-blocking last season, but right guard Kevin Zeitler was traded to the New York Giants.
This leaves a hole that 2018 33rd overall pick Austin Corbett is likely to fill, although undrafted journeyman Kyle Kalis saw the majority of first-team reps during OTA’s. Greg Robinson was better than Desmond Harrison last season, but wasn’t great. He has All-Pro talent, but hasn’t been able to get even close to reaching it.
Chris Hubbard will earn $7.3 million this season,and had a very shaky 2018. Former Texan Kendall Lamm will push him for the starting spot. Left guard and center (Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter) are set, but the rest of the offensive line could end up being a big problem. Cleveland cannot afford to have Baker Mayfield consistently on the ground. New offensive line coach James Campen is regarded as one of the best in the business, so hopefully the entire unit will see improvement under his instruction.
The starting defensive line looks like one of the best units in football; Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Olivier Vernon should be able to provide consistent pressure on opposing QBs and dominate against the run game. The problem is the depth behind those four guys. Garrett and Ogunjobi played a ridiciulous amount of snaps last season, which led to both players being gassed at the end of games and unable to keep up their level of play deep in the fourth quarter.
Richardson and Vernon don’t help with that. Second-year DE Chad Thomas, a third-round pick in 2018, needs to show he can provide some good depth snaps, as he played in only four games last season and didn’t register a single stat. Having great starters is important, but those guys can’t play the whole game. Right now, Cleveland lacks depth on the defensive line.
The linebacker group wasn’t great to begin with, and that was before releasing starter Jamie Collins. The Browns did draft Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson, but they are likely to be special teams players for now. Christian Kriskey was injured for a good chunk of last season, and really has not been very good since 2016. Joe Schobert is one of the NFL’s elite coverage linebackers, but he also led the league in missed tackles.
New Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will likely play with an extra defensive back for the majority of snaps, which means only two LBs would see the field. Cleveland needs bounce-back seasons from their starters, as well as one of the rookies to show they can help.
2. How Odell Beckham Jr. will fit in the offense
The Browns offense was already going to be pretty good in 2019, and that was before adding one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. On paper, Beckham takes Cleveland’s O from good to great. But it’s not going to be easy. The Browns have a lot of mouths to feed; Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, and David Njoku, as well as Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt (after week 8), and (tentatively) Duke Johnson Jr.
Beckham is the best skill player the team has, so getting him the ball should be the priority for Mayfield. But the plethora of other weapons cannot be ignored. Not everyone is always going to get their usual touches from week to week, and they must be okay with that.
If the Browns are winning, there shouldn’t be any issues. But if the team begins to struggle, there could be some dissatisfaction going around. That’s up to head coach Freddie Kitchens, offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and Mayfield to address.
1. The Duke Johnson situation
Whether justified or otherwise, Johnson felt disrespected when the Browns signed Kareem Hunt. It’s still unclear why exactly he feels this way. It’s probably not due to playing time; Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the season, and Johnson signed a three-year $15.6 million contract last offseason after Cleveland had signed Carlos Hyde and drafted Nick Chubb.
Johnson has requested a trade, and fired his agent for being unable to get a deal done, hiring Drew Rosenhaus, perhaps the most infamous of NFL agents. Johnson is a fantastic receiving back who could play WR full-time if his team wanted to, and the Browns would be losing an offensive weapon by trading him. He likely wouldn’t fetch much anyway; since 2002, the only RB who has been traded for more than a fifth-round pick was, coincidentally, Cleveland’s Trent Richardson in 2013.
Neither the coaching staff nor the front office seems in any hurry to move on from Johnson, although the relationship between the player and team doesn’t appear to be salvageable at this point. Still, Johnson has shown up to all mandatory activities this offseason, and that isn’t expected to change tomorrow. If the Browns don’t have to trade Johnson, they won’t. But there may come a point when the distraction to the team isn’t worth keeping Johnson around.