The Cleveland Browns enter the “dress rehearsal” third preseason game with a 2-0 record and a boatload of expectations for 2019. The team is arguably the most talented group in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean they are without flaws or preseason intrigue. Here are three players to watch in this week’s battle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
3. LB Mack Wilson
The rookie fifth-round pick had a brilliant NFL debut, intercepting two passes and returning one of them for a touchdown. In Week 2, he struggled, missing three tackles and allowing receptions all three times he was thrown at.
Wilson has plenty of talent and a real chance to earn himself a big role in Cleveland’s defense, but he must be more consistent. He had some great plays against the Indianapolis Colts, but his missed tackles came in crucial situations that nearly cost the Browns the game, such as straight-up missing a sack on a perfectly schemed and perfectly timed third down blitz.
Consistency is something that nearly all rookies struggle with, so this isn’t a major issue right now. But Wilson finds himself in a unique position, and needs a good showing on Friday to prove himself as more than just a special teamer this season.
2. WRs Jaelen Strong, Derrick Willies, and Damion Ratley
Last week, Cleveland’s wide receiver depth chart was nearly set; Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and Antonio Callaway were all but guaranteed the first four spots on the roster.
The questions was whether the Browns would decide to keep five or six wideouts, and who that final player or players would be. Contenders included Jaelen Strong, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, Derrick Willies, D.J. Montgomery, Damion Ratley, Ishmael Hyman, and Dorian Baker.
With two strong preseason performances, Montgomery appeared to be a good bet to make the team, but he is now on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Furthermore, Callaway was suspended for the first four games for substance abuse, which frees up another WR spot, at least temporarily.
Strong has bounced around the league since he entered in 2015, but due to injuries, has yet to find a home. He’s had a strong preseason thus far, including a QB rating of over 140 when targeted.
Willies was expected to make the roster going into training camp, but is locked in a fierce battle. He was with the team in 2018, playing in five games. He caught only three passes, but one of them was a critical third-down reception for 39 yards that led to a game-winning field goal against the Baltimore Ravens.
He is the biggest receiver on the team, which could give him an advantage. Ratley was a sixth-round pick last year, and after playing a decent amount as a rookie, has missed the majority of training camp due to an injury.
For now, there could be three open WR slots for the current group to fight over. It’s a very competitive battle, but it seems as if Strong, Willies and Ratley are the frontrunners. That said, they are all end-of-the-roster players, for which nothing is guaranteed.
1. RG Eric Kush
Kush has the massive shoes of Kevin Zeitler to fill, and despite working with the first team for the majority of camp, along with the disappointing performance of Austin Corbett, Kush has yet to be officially named the starting right guard.
He had a disastrous first preseason game when the Washington Redskins came to town, but bounced back with a very good performance against Indy. RG may be the only starting position that is not set in stone, so Kush needs to have a good game on Friday.
Kush will be blocking Ndamukong Suh, so he’ll have his hands full. Protecting Baker Mayfield needs to be Cleveland’s top priority, and Kush must be a major part of that.