How does the Browns defense look right now?
By: Michael Welsh
The preseason in the NFL is well underway and we are starting to see how younger players are performing in the league. Most starters aren’t playing in order to avoid any major injuries. The Cleveland Browns have played two preseason games and they have won both, looking like a well-oiled machine the entire time. Kevin Stefanski appears to be in total control of the team and the players have bought into the transformed culture in The Land. There is a lot to be excited about if you’re a Browns fan.
The offensive side of the ball is essentially running it back from the 2020 season and because of this, everyone has been anxious to see how the revamped defense would perform. On both sides of the ball, depth is very important and so many players are fighting for roster spots. Let’s take a look at how the offense, defense, and special teams have performed so far.
Players such as Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, and Odell Beckham Jr have yet to see the field. That doesn’t mean the offense hasn’t been exciting, though. Quarterback Case Keenum has started both games and because he has experience playing under Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota, he has appeared very comfortable. It is nice knowing the Browns could still be competitive if something happened to Baker Mayfield. Third string quarterback Kyle Lauletta has looked impressive as well, making some nice throws in the Jaguars game. He might end up on the practice squad.
One thing we learned in both preseason games is that Cleveland is absolutely stacked at wide receiver and running back. Donovan Peoples-Jones has shined, catching everything thrown his way. KhaDarel Hodge and Damion Davis have looked sure-handed as well. There are going to be some tough decisions to be made with this wide receiver room. In addition to all of them, rookie running back/wide receiver hybrid Demetric Felton has looked fantastic in both games, displaying great hands and elusive speed in open space. It will be interesting to see where he ends up on the roster.
In the running back room, things are a little more set in stone. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt round out the best one-two punch in the NFL, but depth is always needed. D’Earnest Johnson has looked good, specifically in the game against the New York Giants. He had some key runs in 2020 when Nick Chubb went down with injury. It is likely that he will make the roster and the third string running back, and Demetric Felton will be kept as a wide receiver.
Where the offense has shined is the offensive line. Not one starter has played and the backups have overall been exceptional. That has to be such a relief for Kevin Stefanski to have so much depth in such a vital area. They won’t be able to keep all of them, but rookie James Hudson, Blake Hance, Nick Harris, Michael Dunn, and Drew Forbes all have a shot to make this team. It’ll just come down to how many they decide to keep. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who is arguably the best offensive line coach in the NFL, said he truly believes all of their backups could be starters in the league. High praise from him, so expect other teams to quickly scoop up who the Browns do not keep.
Much like the offense, most starters haven’t played yet on defense. Adding to that, unfortunately for the Browns injuries have piled up on that side of the ball. Most of these injuries aren’t season ending, but they did lose linebacker Jacob Phillips for the season due to a tendon tear. A big blow for a player most expected to take a nice step in 2021. Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and Grant Delpit have been dealing with hamstring issues, but they are expected to be ready by week one.
The secondary and linebackers have had some good moments in the preseason, and some moments where they looked like young rookies. First round pick Greg Newsome displayed good coverage skills in the first preseason game and he will most likely win the starting job opposite of Denzel Ward, especially since Greedy Williams has been dealing with numerous injuries. The most impressive safety by far has been Richard LeCounte. He has two interceptions in two games and has shown great closing speed and play recognition. The Browns may have gotten a steal in Lecounte, who could see a lot of playing time this season. Moving to the linebackers, the hype is real for rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. He looked like a stud in the game against the Jaguars, recording eight total tackles, one sack, and three tackles for a loss. He played less in the Giants game, which has lead most to believe that he will be the week one starter against Kansas City.
Probably the biggest question mark on Cleveland’s defense is the interior defensive line. Malik Jackson hasn’t played yet, so Andrew Billings, Tommy Togiai, Jordan Elliot, and Malk McDowell have gotten most of the snaps. Billings has appeared decent, but also looked very slow and unimpressive at times. Keep in mind that he didn’t play at all in 2020, so rust could be hard to shake off. Rookie Tommy Togiai has played well, recording a sack and getting several pressures. Perhaps the most impressive is Malik McDowell, who finished as the highest graded player for the Browns against the Giants. Lots of intriguing decisions to be made on the defensive line.
Cleveland’s special teams has been a bit rocky in the last few years. While they saw some success in 2019, 2020 had some ups and downs. Third year punter Jamie Gillian had a down year in 2020, but he was battling a groin injury throughout the season. He should return to his 2019 form this Fall. Cody Parkey was going to return as the kicker this season, but he suffered a season-ending injury this past week. He was battling Chase McLauhlin for the job, but with his injury, Chase will proceed forward as the Browns kicker. He is in his third season, so it could go either way interns of success.
Demetric Felton returned some punts and he had flashes of possibly securing the job. The coverage units on both punts and kickoffs have looked fine overall, except in the Jaguars game where they nearly gave up a return that was called back due to penalty. Who Andrew Berry and company decide to keep will be vital to the special teams unit, so if players want to make this roster they will need to contribute to special teams. There will be some compelling decisions to be made in the coming days.