The Cleveland Browns dropped Saturday’s game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13-12, giving the team their first loss in 2019. While there were some solid performances, head coach Freddie Kitchens, quarterback Baker Mayfield, and others have not been shy about their dissatisfaction concerning the game. The “dress rehearsal” raised more questions than it answered. Here are the three biggest.
3. How much will the rookies play?
The Odell Beckham Jr. trade left the Browns without a first-round pick, but general manager John Dorsey still managed to infuse the roster with plenty of young talent, including cornerback Greedy Williams and linebackers Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson. But for the first time in a long time, Cleveland may not be starting any rookies in Week 1.
Williams seems to be the fourth cornerback in the rotation after Denzel Ward, Terrance Mitchell, and nickelback T.J. Carrie. Wilson was nearly perfect in the first preseason game, but has since struggled. Takitaki has missed the past two games (and those weeks’ practices) with a hamstring injury.
All three players should be key special teams contributors, but it will likely take them a while to earn significant time on defense.
2. Who is going to provide depth at WR?
One or two wide receiver spots were up for grabs as the preseason started, but that number has since increased to possibly three as Antonio Callaway is suspended for the first four games of 2019. There are plenty of contenders, but none of them played well against Tampa Bay. Jaelen Strong and Derrick Willies, the leaders in race, struggled with drops, and Ishmael Hyman and Dorian Baker didn’t do much to help their causes.
Now, 2018 sixth-rounder Damion Ratley (who has missed the entire preseason to this point, as well as nearly all of training camp) and recently-signed Braxton Miller have entered the mix. There are enough mouths to feed at the top of the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean the Browns should feel comfortable with unreliable players further down.
1. Will the offensive line hold up?
On paper, Cleveland has perhaps the best group of skill players in the entire league, along with one of the best young quarterbacks. But none of that will mean much if the offensive line can’t keep Mayfield upright, and they were unable to do that against the Buccaneers, who don’t have a great front-seven to begin with.
Left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter are both among the best at their respective positions, but the rest of the line is a huge question mark. Left tackle Greg Robinson has yet to come close to living up to his status as the second overall pick in 2014. He played better than Desmond Harrison last season for the Browns, but that’s not saying much. Robinson struggled against the Buccaneers, giving up a few pressures and quarterback hits, as well as being flagged for holding.
Right guard Eric Kush is attempting to fill in for the traded Kevin Zeitler, and is having a hard time. His starting spot isn’t in question at the moment, as even though rookie Drew Forbes is developing quickly, he is still a ways off, and 2018 33rd overall pick Austin Corbett has been a massive disappointment and is currently relegated to the backup center spot.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard isn’t the worst-case scenario at right tackle, but he’s not ideal either. He is also overpaid and will likely be released after the season.
The line gave up consistent pressure while the starters played, making Mayfield’s off night even worse. The offensive line needs to be figured out, and fast. Whether that’s trading for someone like Trent Williams, Laremy Tunsil, or Joe Haeg, or just simply a matter of more practice time together as the first team, if something doesn’t change, the entire season could be derailed. And that’s not an overreaction, it’s fact. If a quarterback isn’t comfortable with standing in the pocket and throwing, the offense is never going to reach the heights that it could. The sudden retirement of Andrew Luck should give Dorsey and company a renewed sense of urgency to improve the trenches.