5 Browns Position Battles Heading Into Preseason Finale
With just their preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons to play, the Cleveland Browns have a number of positions to decide on in the coming week.
The Cleveland Browns were able to defeat the New York Giants 17-13, but they still have some looming questions on their roster including a few players who popped in the game. Between now and the conclusion of their exhibition finale against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday Night Football, the Browns have several decisions to make as they prepare to set the final roster.
1. Connor Davis vs. 10th Offensive Lineman for backup tight end
Connor Davis has everything one could love about Darren Fells when he was with the Browns. Davis is massive at 6'7 1/2" and between 260 and 270 pounds. As a formere offensive tackle, he can reach drive block, but as he showed against the Giants, he can catches passes. Much like Fells, they may not be going far but he's a welcome target to have since he's the size of a minivan and is difficult to miss for a quarterback.
The injury to Stephen Carlson, which will keep him out for the year, opens up the Browns to keeping a fourth tight end option and Davis stands out as the favorite.
The Browns also have Jordan Franks and even utilized Johnny Stanton in that role, but Davis is the only viable option at this point. Franks is short and inconsistent. He's more of an H-back and played fullback in college. It did not help his case that he dropped a pair of passes against the Giants.
Stanton has had two terrific preseason games, but while he can do a few things in various roles, he's ultimately a backup fullback to Andy Janovich.
When they waive him, either another team will claim him or the Browns will get him back on the practice squad and can utilize him if Janovich is unavailable for a game.
Davis offers a skill set the Browns do not have at tight end. His frame, blocking and occasional receiving are all useful. However, they might be able to get Davis on the practice squad and if they can, they'd be able to activate him as needed and keep a 10th offensive lineman. That's pretty valuable consider the talent the Browns have at that on the line.
They could utilize an offensive lineman as a tight end in jumbo packages if they wanted. Kendall Lamm caught a touchdown pass in that capacity last year against the Tennessee Titans. The Browns could line up someone like Chris Hubbard, Michael Dunn or Blake Hance as a tight end and just run over the opponent.
The Browns would probably like to keep four tight ends, but they have an embarrassment of riches on the line and might want to keep as many as possible.
2. Nick Harris vs. Blake Hance for backup center
This only comes up as Hance played center for the Browns against the Giants and save for one snap issue between he and Case Keenum, he did pretty well. Harris was out due to a knee injury and it's not clear what the extent was, but even if he's fully healthy, there's a little bit of a debate here.
Harris is a center only. He proved to be abysmal at guard as a rookie and while added strength and experience will help, he's always going to be at a slight disadvantage there. His lack of height can be exploited.
He looked improved as a center in the preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. More powerful, sure of himself and he looked like he did as a Washington Husky getting out in front of screens with his speed.
Hance is significantly bigger than Harris. A shade under 6'6", Hance offers more weight and positional versatility. He can play guard and was able to step in and play tackle in the postseason last year, doing a decent job against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Being a center only is fine when the starting center, but it becomes a disadvantage as depth. Hance being able to potentially play all five spots works heavily in his favor. Harris is younger at 22 years old while Hance is 25.
The Browns might not be able to get either through to their practice squad, but if they were to chance it, Harris might have the better chance since he's only a center and he's a scheme specific one at that, which is what makes for an interesting decision.
It's difficult to know if the Browns felt like Hance did enough in this game and any practice leading up to it to be confident in him if iron man J.C. Tretter were to go down, but they may be willing to chance it.
The ankle injury suffered by offensive tackle Alex Taylor may cause Browns to stash him on injured reserve for the year. Should that prove the case, there could be yet another wrinkle added to the mix, likely rendering this particular issue a moot point.
If Taylor is out for the year, beyond the starting five offensive linemen, the Browns would have Michael Dunn, who seems the safest of any backup offensive lineman at this point. In addition to Dunn, they would have Harris and Javon Patterson at center, Drew Forbes and Colby Gossett at guards along with James Hudson III, Greg Senat and Chris Hubbard at tackle, plus Blake Hance at everything.
Patterson seems the likeliest to be released and likely will end up on the practice squad. That leaves only seven players and the Browns are in a great position to keep five of them if they only have three tight ends. The injury to Taylor may ensure the Browns keep Chris Hubbard rather than trade or release him to clear up $4.96 million in cap space. It's possible that was the thinking all along and this just makes it easier.
They could keep Senat over Hubbard since Senat is younger and cheaper. That doesn't seem likely as the Browns know how valuable Hubbard was last year when they needed him to fill in at three spots on the line at points.
If the Browns were to release Harris, betting he'd make it to the practice squad, release Gossett or Senat with the assumption they will land elsewhere, the Browns could end up keeping almost all of the offensive linemen they wanted, which would be a pretty big coup for them.
They could, probably should make a trade somewhere.
3. Sheldon Day vs. Marvin Wilson vs. Malik McDowell for backup defensive tackle
The Browns have been fortunate to have a few viable options in their defensive tackle room that are good enough to make the final 53-man roster. Unfortunately, no one has truly separated themselves from the overall group.
Malik Jackson is a lock to make this team and it still seems as though Andrew Billings is the starting nose, despite some uneven play in the preseason, which seems more of an effort to get him in shape than truly evaluate him. He was better against the Giants than the Jaguars, which is a step in the right direction, but he can be a major addition to this defense this year if he plays to the level he's shown capable throughout his career.
After Jackson and Billings, it becomes pretty underwhelming. Much of this is a product of youth at a position that favors age and experience, both to physically handle the rigors of the NFL and to understand how to deal with what opponents are trying to do.
Jordan Elliott, now slimmed down to be a true three, has had some flashes, but he really hasn't been that steady. Still, the third round pick seems pretty safe to back up Jackson with the hope that he will continue to improve.
Behind Billings is where it gets murky. Tommy Togiai, one of the fourth round picks for the Browns in the 2021 season, has the physical tools and ability to potentially be the best pick they made this year. However, he will be just 22 years old September 19th and he never played over 300 snaps in a collegiate season.
Togiai has shown impressive flashes, both with power and quickness, so even if it's likely to be somewhat uneven this year, he's not going anywhere.
That already makes four defensive linemen on this team. They do seem likely to carry five as the position is both incredibly important to them in terms of what it does, but also because they have really divided up the position into roles. Pass rushers and run stoppers. Jackson can do both, but he's more suited to rush the passer.
Billings, Togiai and Marvin Wilson are suited to be run stoppers. Jackson and Elliott are pass rushers with Malik McDowell potentially contributing there as well. Sheldon Day can do a little bit of both as well, but he is what he is. He's not likely to get better, but rather try to maintain over the course of the season. Wilson and McDowell have meaningful upside that could be attractive to the Browns future.
The Browns have to weigh the present against the future as well as having an honest discussion about reliability. Day is the most reliable of the three options. Wilson has not been due to health while McDowell has not been due to off field issues dating back to an ATV action shortly after he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks. That accident has reportedly had a lasting impact on McDowell.
The Browns would have a ton of insight when it comes to McDowell, which may make it an easy decision one way or the other in terms of keeping him.
McDowell was impressive in the first NFL game he's played in his career. Granted, often against guys who may not be likely to make the team, but he showed he could be dominant at the point of attack, both as a run defender and pass rusher.
On a two-point conversion attempt, McDowell fired with low pad level through a gap and bubbled the play to the right where teammates could corral the ball carrier and stop him short. He also showed some pass rushing ability in this contest.
The other aspect that could work in McDowell's favor, though he has yet to do it in the NFL is playing the role of big end. That's something Malik Jackson could also do, but hasn't really been asked to do at this point. The Browns desperately need more pass rush from their defensive line and McDowell could be an avenue to get it.
Coming into the season, it seemed like the best case scenario and perhaps the optimal situation for McDowell would be to be on the practice squad for a year. Given his issues off the field, that certainty within the Browns organization might paid off for him handsomely both on and off the field.
However, he may have made enough noise that he might get claimed elsewhere. The Browns will have to decide if they are willing to risk it. It's worth pointing out that McDowell is 25 years old, only three months younger than Billings.
Marvin Wilson is a rookie, but he's powerful at the point of attack. He looks exactly like the type of 1-tech nose team would want. The Browns were willing to give him a signing bonus that effectively made him the team's eighth round draft pick this year.
Cutting him would give him bonus money, but if he doesn't get claimed on waivers, would be a magnificent practice squad option that might even see the field this year. In the event the Browns were to decide not to re-sign Billings after this year, Wilson could potentially take over that role along with Togiai.
4. Joe Jackson vs. Curtis Weaver vs. Porter Gustin and the unknown for backup defensive end
The biggest question when it comes to edge defenders is the status of Takkarist McKinley. Kevin Stefanski acknowledges that he has had conversations with the free agent addition but will not reveal any details or updates on his situation.
If for whatever reason McKinley is unable to contribute, be it for a few games or the season, the Browns suddenly get remarkably thin on the edge behind Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
Presumably, Porter Gustin is the favorite to be the next man up, though it's worth pointing out he looked far better when he was the fourth option rather than the third. Then, it becomes Joe Jackson against Curtis Weaver.
It always stood out that despite the fact that Cameron Malveaux was activated and played ahead of Jackson in games at times last season, the Browns never waived Jackson. He was on the active roster the entire season, only playing in 71 defensive snaps for the year.
Yet he endured. In the preseason, Jackson has been solid but unspectacular on the edge. He's huge, which works in his favor. Like with Clowney, Garrett, Jackson and even McDowell, Jackson is long and has plenty of size. He left the University of Miami at 6'4 1/2" 275 pounds and he doesn't look as though he's smaller now.
He has done a nice job playing contain and squeezing the run. Jackson hasn't shown much juice as a pass rusher but he displayed good closing speed against the Giants. He's still just 24 years old as well.
Meanwhile, the Browns put in a claim for Curtis Weaver when the Miami Dolphins waived him with an injury designation last year. They then put him on injured reserve for the season where he was able to rehab his foot injury and then work on his body. He was praised by any number of sources including general manager Andrew Berry, who noted how he had changed his body in the offseason.
There's no question that Weaver is in better shape and his body looks much better than it did when he was coming out from Boise State. He's been a decent run defender through two games, but has shown little, if any juice as a pass rusher to this point. He just turned 23 years old, so giving up on him doesn't make much sense, but it's really difficult to justify giving him a roster spot at this point.
Assuming another team does not claim him on waivers, Weaver could benefit from a year on the practice squad. He has good hands and decent technique, but he needs to be more explosive off the ball.
Joe Jackson might be the favorite to win the fourth defensive end spot in the event Takk McKinley is unavailable, but the Browns might also be looking for some help outside the organization to improve the situation.
5. KhaDarel Hodge vs. Anthony Schwartz's hamstring for the final wide receiver spot
It's still an unknown just how good the Browns wide receivers are. They have a significant amount of money and big names in the room, but it has yet to produce as was envisioned when it was put together.
What's clear is that the Browns have at least six NFL caliber wide receivers with a third round rookie in Anthony Schwartz unable to showcase much due to an ailing hamstring.
Schwartz has Olympic caliber speed and could also play gunner for the Browns, but they need him on the field. They've been extremely protective of Schwartz dating back to rookie minicamp. How much of that is precautionary is a mystery.
If it's a real problem, the Browns could potentially place Schwartz on injured reserve to start the season. The problem with that is they would need to waive a player to make space to do that just as they did with Drew Forbes in his rookie season.
Janovich might be such a player the Browns could make that happen.
Hodge was at times the third receiver on the Browns last year. Along with Donovan Peoples-Jones, he's the only other receiver on the team with that combination of size and strength. He also offers speed to stretch the field and is a terrific blocker.
As with Schwartz this year, hamstring injuries forced Hodge to miss eight games last season. When he was in games, every pass he caught was either a first down or touchdown. That has continued in the preseason where he made a couple nice catches against the Giants.
The Browns could theoretically trade Hodge. However, if the Browns do want to put Schwartz on the injured reserve list with the intent of bringing him back later, they would presumably prefer to have Hodge on the active roster. Plus, teams counting on Hodge to be released would then be forced to trade for him to get him on their team for week one of the season.
If the Browns were to trade Hodge rather than try to play roster gymnastics, they could simply keep Davion Davis on their roster until Schwartz is ready to go. He's got size and continues to show well in the preseason, would be a nice practice squad player for this team.
Hodge could be a nice third or fourth receiver on plenty of teams in the NFL. Getting moved from the Browns could be the best thing for him in terms of his career development and earning power. He is scheduled to earn $2,133,000 this season, which could be decent savings for the Browns and a pretty cheap acquisition for most anyone else.