As the Cleveland Browns prepare to open training camp in the coming days, it's time to take a look at how the final roster could shape up and the decisions the teams will have to make at the end of August.
The welcome challenge facing the Browns is they're really talented. They have more than 53 NFL caliber player on their roster and they won't be able to keep them all, so whether it's trades or cuts, they be letting go of players they would love to be able to keep. The majority of the NFL will be circling the Browns, looking to scoop up any players they let go in order to improve their own situations.
With that in mind, it's about getting a sense of where the numbers makes sense for positions and as a result, where the Browns could be making choices. So while this is a projection, it's trying to lay out the discussions that will be happening in Berea and what could alter them.
Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum (2)
Between the talent on the roster as well as the talent the Browns have in their top two quarterbacks, keeping a third is a waste of a spot that can better utilized on anything else. If Kyle Lauletta is good enough to be claimed or someone were to trade for him, the Browns would simply sign another one to the practice squad. There's no sense in keeping three at this point.
Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Demetric Felton (3)
The battle for the third running back spot between Demetric Felton and D'Ernest Johnson is likely going to come down to three things. First, special teams. Felton is projected to help at multiple spots in that area while Johnson did return some punts and kicks.
Another angle that might impact this decision could be the possibility of getting them to the practice squad. Johnson is absolutely good enough to be on an NFL roster, but it's possible he's overlooked on waivers and the Browns can get him on the practice squad. If the Browns were confident Felton would get there, they could waive him as well, but his skill set and the fact he's a rookie might be more sought after on the open market.
Lastly, the last issue issue that could hurt Johnson is finding a traditional tailback to stash on the practice squad is easier even if they really like Johnson. For example, John Kelly and Tre Harbison could end up on the practice squad and play a traditional role. Felton has a more specialized and sought after skill set, being able to play some running back, even if it's almost exclusively as a receiving threat and then some wide receiver.
Andy Janovich (1)
Some argue that Janovich is somehow not that important to the offense, but he's fantastic at his job. When it comes right down to it, he's better at what he does than any other player they would keep in his place at their respective spot.
The premier zone blocking fullback, maybe the Browns should utilize him more because he is so effective. Hopefully, he'll catch more passes this year because he was wide open and dropped some passes last year.
Johnny Stanton will once again likely be on the practice squad and be activated on gameday if they want a fullback due to injury.
Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz, KhaDarel Hodge (6)
Despite the number the Browns are keeping, this isn't terribly difficult to figure out as long as everyone is healthy. It's possible the Browns could find someone they like better than Hodge, but he was a pretty solid player that fits everything the Browns want to do, the type of person they want on their team and he can play special teams.
If the Browns don't need to count on him offensively the way they did last year, he may contribute more on special teams, but he can step in and contribute if they need him. Hodge can block, stretch the field and every pass he caught in 2020 went for a first down. He just needs to stay healthy.
Alexander Hollins was acquired at the end of last season for his speed, but he never played. The team likes Ja'Marcus Bradley, who was on the practice squad last year and led the receivers in receptions and yards against the New York Jets when the team was down their top four. He's redundant with Higgins and Landry on the team.
Austin Hooper, David Njoku, Harrison Bryant, Stephen Carlson (4)
The tight end group is the least compelling group on offense. The Browns know who they like and they are simply hoping they continue to improve. There are some players the team is evaluating who are interesting, such as the enormous Connor Davis and Jordan Franks.
One or both could make the practice squad. Connor Davis is particularly interesting because he's built like an extra lineman and played offensive line in the past. For a gameday activation, they could utilize him as a long, strong extra blocker in their zone scheme.
Jedrick Wills, Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin, Drew Forbes, Alex Taylor, James Hudson III, Nick Harris (9)
This is going to be bloodbath as the Browns have multiple legitimate NFL players they won't be able to keep at a position where teams never have a surplus. The pandemic played a huge role in the Browns unique situation, forcing them to look for players to replace three offensive linemen who opted out in 2020 - Drew Forbes, Colby Gossett and Malcolm Pridgeon (no longer on the team). That enabled them to find Michael Dunn and Blake Hance, both of whom who contributed for the Browns in the playoffs.
The most notable player not listed is Chris Hubbard. I'm torn on Hubbard. On one hand, he's can play guard and tackle, the team loves him and he was critical to the team's success playing both tackle spots and right guard at different points in the season.
The problem is he's set to earn $4.91 million this season while the three players kept over him earn a combined $2.41 million in 2021. Less than half of the total Hubbard is due. Those players are specifically geared to thrive at specific positions including Forbes at guard as well as Hudson and Taylor at tackle. Hubbard is a serviceable tackle and an underwhelming guard. They're also significantly younger than Hubbard, who is 30. Forbes and Taylor are 24. Hudson is 22.
Hubbard is good enough to start on another team given the state of the NFL along the offensive line. I think he could fetch a decent trade offer, but they might let him walk out of respect for his immeasurable contributions to the team in 2020, allowing him to choose his next team.
Greg Senat could end up on another team as he did last year, signed from the Browns practice squad by the Dallas Cowboys.
Dunn, Hance and Gossett could all potentially be traded. Javon Patterson likely ends up back on the practice squad as a center, guard combo.
Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Takkarist McKinley, Andrew Billings, Malik Jackson, Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai, Marvin Wilson, Curtis Weaver (9)
The safe bet is that the Browns will keep five defensive tackles, so long as everyone is healthy. Between the way they have divided up the labor of the interior position between true nose guards and up field penetrators as well as the amount of young, unproven players they have, they will need all of them.
I believe Tommy Togiai could end up being the best pick of the Browns 2021 draft haul, but that doesn't change the fact that it's an incredibly difficult position to play early. The sheer physical difference between college where players are maybe 24 to the NFL where guys are approaching 30 is steep. The season is also much longer, so it's a real challenge even if he's only as a role player.
Marvin Wilson could be a nice player behind Billings at the nose.
The real question is whether the Browns deem it necessary to keep five edge players. If they don't, the final spot might come down to Curtis Weaver, Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson. The development of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah might have a bigger impact here than people expect.
Malik McDowell's best case scenario was always on the practice squad. He needs to prove he can be reliable and rebuild his body after spending time in prison. If he can simply get his life together and stay on the practice squad the entire year, that would be a massive success for McDowell.
I could be proven wrong, but I don't think Sheldon Day or Damion Square were ever serious contenders to make the roster and were always veterans who could get reps in practice and try to prove themselves for other teams while helping the rest of the Browns roster improve.
Cameron Malveaux, who spent last year on the practice squad and played a few games last year for the Browns, might get grabbed by another team. Romeo McKnight is a rookie that would be a great candidate for the practice squad.
Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki, Jacob Phillips, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tony Fields II, Elijah Lee (6)
This is a super competitive group, because so much depends on how the Browns view themselves and how many versions of the same type of player they will want.
For example, Malcolm Smith was excellent for the Browns last year in that undersized, nickel linebacker role. However, both JOK and Fields play almost the exact same role. It's not unreasonable to think that a safety like Grant Delpit could also operate in that role. So it's entirely about how much these younger players show in training camp that would make them feel good about letting go of Smith.
The other notable player not listed shouldn't be a surprise. Mack Wilson has to prove he knows what he's doing at linebacker, so there is enormous pressure on him not only to show major improvement, but he needs to do it quickly. If not, the Browns will likely not hesitate to move on in favor of players like Phillips and the further development of Takitaki to fill out that MIKE spot.
That might not be the end of Wilson in a Browns uniform, however. Don't be shocked if Wilson was to be waived by the Browns and put on the team's practice squad if no one else claims him. He's been dreadful to this point, but he's only 23. And he is a far more intriguing prospect on the practice squad than the 53-man roster even if it's grooming him for special teams.
Montrel Meander is the other player that would not make the team. He also could end up on the practice squad as he continues to transition into an overgrown safety, linebacker hybrid.
Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome, Greedy Williams, Troy Hill, A.J. Green (5)
The first four seem obvious but the last one will be a battle. After the 2020 NFL Draft, the Browns gave Green what amounted to be guaranteed money equating to a sixth round pick. Green received praise from Ward for his work with the team, though he never broke into the lineup.
The Browns will need him to prove himself and it would help if they could get another option they like in the slot. However, their safeties might be part of the solution for that issue, which could make keeping Green, who has largely operated as a boundary corner on the roster.
M.J. Stewart had a great game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, but he's a tweener even as a slot player. The Browns have players like Grant Delpit who could play the same role and likely get more from it. JOK could also potentially contribute in that role, which is why it's difficult to see Stewart make the final roster.
Robert Jackson is a corner largely in name only as he's really a special teams player, but he did play two games last year when the Browns were pinched on options. He's got an NFL body, but it may be tough for him to win the job unless the Browns decide to keep six corners.
Rookies Kiondre Thomas and Emmanuel Rugamba will have their chance to make a splash in camp and change minds. One or both could end up on the practice squad.
John Johnson III, Ronne Harrison, Grant Delpit, Richard LeCounte III, Jovante Moffatt (5)
This is one of the more difficult positions to project after the first three, which are obvious and critical to what the Browns want to do on defense.
The Browns could do a couple different routes. They could view linebackers like JOK and Tony Fields as a safety hybrid that can play strong safety in a pinch, thereby making it more prudent for the Browns to keep true free safeties with coverage skills as depth. Richard LeCounte III and Sheldrick Redwine would fit that category.
The other option is keeping more traditional safety roles, keeping a true free and a more tadeonal strong. That could create a path for someone like Moffatt, who is built more like Karl Joseph.
Moffatt has been on the Browns practice squad the past two seasons and might be ready to earn that full time job.
The odd man out would be Redwine. He and LeCounte do the same thing. Neither one tackles anything, but the difference is that Redwine has not really improved since he was drafted in 2019. He showed more promise at the end of his rookie year than the two years since, which is disappointing.
Elijah Benton will be competing for one of those jobs as well. He was with the Browns all of last year on the practice squad.
It would not be a surprise if the Browns make a move somewhere down the line to acquire another safety to fill out this group, but with the last year and a full offseason, they may be ready to promote Moffatt or Benton to the final roster.
Cody Parkey, Jamie Gillan, Charley Hughlett (3)
The Browns expect more from Parkey in terms of leg strength, but he was pretty consistent in 2020. Gillan had COVID-19, so it's difficult to know just what kind of impact that had on him, but he was pretty mediocre much of the year. Hughlett is solid.
Chase McLaughlin will do his best to beat out Parkey, but will likely end up on the practice squad.