Brock Osweiler looks like a legit factor in the Browns' QB battle, not a salary dump

Many thought Brock Osweiler's days as a starter were over when he was sent to Cleveland in a splashy deal for draft picks—even the Browns didn't bill him as the prize acquisition of the trade. So far, he's proving to be much more than a throw-in.
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BEREA, Ohio — This is not a sideshow. It’s not doing a favor for a veteran player, nor is it merely trying to make the best of a bad situation.

O.K., maybe it’s a little bit that last one.

No matter how they reached this point, though, this much was clear as the rebuilding Browns wrapped their three-day mini-camp Thursday: Brock Osweiler will enter training camp next month with every opportunity to win the starting quarterback job.

“I’m speaking from my heart: He has been great,” Browns quarterbacks coach David Lee said. “His questions have been great. He has a lot of questions, but he oughta have. He knows how to play, he knows systems and when a read doesn’t make sense to him, there’s a reason it doesn’t because of somewhere he’s been before. I can’t speak of where he’s been before but I’ll tell you right now … he looks like a guy that’s played before. He’s great at the line of scrimmage, he’s great in the huddle, [has a] calming effect.

“Is he the QB yet? We ain’t got one yet, but he’s in the mix, for sure.”

This is a long way removed from March 9, when Houston traded Osweiler to Cleveland and the Browns’ official press release on the matter highlighted the acquisition of a 2018 second-round draft pick. “Cleveland will also acquire Houston’s 2017 sixth-round pick (188th overall) and QB Brock Osweiler for the Browns’ 2017 fourth-round compensatory pick (142nd overall),” the release read.

At the time, it appeared little more than a salary-dump deal—the Texans clearing Osweiler’s $16 million guaranteed salary for ’17 off their books; the Browns obliging with their excess cap space.

The outlook shifted over the ensuing weeks, in large part because Osweiler has impressed the Browns’ coaching staff. Hue Jackson at the end of OTAs called Osweiler a “pleasant surprise”, a phrase Lee repeated Thursday.

“You can say what you want, but [Osweiler] in the last two years has taken two different teams to the playoffs,” Lee said, “and there’s nobody else in that room that can say that, plus this is his sixth year of experience. We’ve got no experience. [DeShone] Kizer’s been here four months, the other two [Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan] were rookies last year.”

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Argue if you want (and you should) the notion that Osweiler “took” either the 2015 Broncos or the ’16 Texans to the playoffs. He was benched in both instances, the latter after securing a high-priced deal as a free agent. But he does have 21 career starts, and 36 total appearances, under his belt.

Considering how NFL coaches treat experience as if it one day may replace paper money as official currency, that playing time matters.

“Pressure is something that we all want to ignore, but at the end of the day it is there,” Osweiler said during a press conference Wednesday. “We have pressure to get our job done, to help our team win football games. That can’t be replicated until you’re a full-time starter in the NFL ... you don’t know how to handle that on a week to week basis.”

Osweiler ran the second-team offense throughout mini-camp, while Kessler and Kizer split time with the 1s—Kessler took the earlier snaps Tuesday and Thursday; Kizer had them Wednesday. Those reps matter, of course, but the order in which they are doled out will carry a lot more weight in July and August.

Reading into them also would be easier on a team with a more settled roster. While Kessler and Kizer had the benefit of working with top WR Kenny Britt during those team drills, receivers like Josh Boyce, Rannell Hall, Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins cycled through. In other words, especially with receiver Corey Coleman missing from practice due to injury, the Browns are far from having their depth chart pinned down.

Kessler’s edge comes from the year spent in the system. He started eight games as a rookie in 2016 after being taken in Round 3 out of USC. Cleveland lost all of those Kessler starts en route to 1–15, but again: Experience counts.

Kizer is the shiny new toy, a bit of a gift delivered the Browns by the rest of the league when he slipped to the No. 52 pick in this year’s draft.

“His big-play ability, that’s what that dude’s gonna give this football team if he ever becomes the starter one day,” Lee says. “The way his ball moves and jumps off his hand and gets to the receiver in a hurry … that’s what I see in him, is a big, strong guy, which is defined in this division by Ben [Roethlisberger] and by Joe Flacco, and this kid’s in that mold."

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The Browns would love Kizer to be their future at QB, but how soon will that moment arrive? Lee added that his rookie is “a long way from being ready,” with just training camp and the preseason left before Cleveland’s season opener against Pittsburgh.

“How many really great young talents had to start Day One, bad things happened and they’re sitting, looking up at the ceiling in the meeting room, thinking, ‘What’s going on with my life?’” Lee said. “You’d love to not put him in there until he’s ready, but we don’t know when that is.”

With all of Cleveland’s QBs, the goal this spring and summer has been to clean up fundamentals. Lee describes both Osweiler and Kizer as “long striders,” an issue in mechanics that often leads to inaccuracy in the passing game. The goal for Kessler, meanwhile, has been to add velocity to his throws so he could drive the ball deep. “He was always accurate,” said Lee, “but he wasn’t really that deadly accurate past 15 yards, but he’s gotten better and better.”

Anyone who saw Osweiler flail in 14 regular-season starts last season (and again in a playoff loss to New England) knows how dismal his game can be when he’s reeling. For all the stability Cleveland’s staff feels he brings to the QB room, the improvement obviously has to be there on the field, too.

Even Thursday, as the Browns worked on two-minute drills during an abbreviated practice, it was a mixed bag for Osweiler. He did manage to complete his task: Take the offense from its own 37 into field-goal range, starting with 1:04 left on the clock. He also nearly threw an interception to Briean Boddy-Calhoun—the second-year CB was unable to tiptoe the sideline after an errant deep ball; it’s hard to say, without the benefit of a replay, whether Osweiler misread the play, there was a miscommunication with his receiver or the receiver simply slipped for a moment. And a second pass flew dangerously into the secondary for an incompletion, as one of those aforementioned “long strides” led to Osweiler overshooting a target across the middle.

“Brock knows it,” Lee said. “It’s just when we start moving around, the bullets start flying, his legs get long again like daddy long legs and that’s when he gets in trouble and the ball sails. It comes out of his hand too high, because of his long stride, his body doesn’t catch up. Any passer gets long, the ball comes out too early. Their brain says, ‘Let it go,’ but their body hasn’t caught up with their front foot, so the ball sails. It’s a lot of work to get a guy to master the footwork.”

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At what point, if any, does it become too late to make those fixes? In hindsight, Osweiler’s fit within Bill O’Brien’s Texans scheme turned out to be a clunky one, but can the now 26-year-old QB eliminate enough bad habits of the past to win another chance as a starter?

“I think the biggest thing, and I think coming off last season, is protecting the football,” Osweiler said, on the main element he needs to work on this summer. “I think I did a pretty good job in 2015 protecting the ball; last year I didn’t do a good job. I had a very large focus on making great decisions with the football, and I feel like I’ve done that this camp.”

All of this figures to weigh on the Browns, and on Jackson specifically, until someone separates himself from the pack. “For me, I have to continue to solve the quarterback issue because that is where it starts,” Jackson said. “Everywhere else, we are really growing. Not that we are not growing at quarterback, but just having a guy and saying, ‘This guy can run our organization, run our team and play at a high level and help us win.’ That is always going to be the question all of you will have until we solve it.”

So, who is the favorite right now? If Jackson and his staff know the answer, it seems nothing shy of a congressional hearing would get the answer out of them. Even then ...

Congressman: “Who is your starting quarterback?”

Hue Jackson: “I don’t know if I can answer that in an open setting.”

The Browns just barely sidestepped a winless campaign last season. They have not finished over .500 since 2007 and have not been in the playoffs since ’02. Making this roster competitive again always loomed as a sizable task, and that hard truth remains at almost every position, let alone at QB. It is understandable that Jackson would explore all avenues—and take as much time as he needs—before trying to formulate any conclusions.

Which means there was little reason to bury Osweiler, and his huge cap hit, on the bench. It didn’t work out for Brock in Denver or Houston, but he landed in an entirely different spot here.

Kessler held the starting job in the past. Kizer, if all goes well, will take over in the future. As for the present ...

“Obviously, I want to be the starter of this team,” Osweiler said, “and I’m working every single day to put myself in position to earn that starting job.”

At the very least, he’ll have a shot.