Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature answered five of my questions regarding a few areas in anticipation for Thursday’s preseason bout between the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns. Like the Saints, the Browns are looking to turn the tides on their losing ways, and both teams arguably have reasons why they can.
Brock Osweiler is being toted as the team's starting quarterback against the Saints. What do you make of his realistic chances to keep that title once the season rolls around?
It's been quite the quick change of demeanor when it comes to Brock Osweiler and the Cleveland Browns. When the team first acquired him during the draft, the front office was pretty blunt about the fact that they only absorbed Osweiler's $16 million salary so they could have an extra second-round pick. Most Browns fans appreciated the creativity of the move and believed it was a foregone conclusion that he would be cut or traded before training camp even came around.
During the offseason programs, I think the Browns' coaching staff started to see what fans have picked up on over the past week: even if Osweiler isn't performing like a high-caliber quarterback, right now, he's definitely the guy who gives Cleveland the best chance to win and push the ball down the field. Cody Kessler, who was No. 1 on the depth chart until this past Monday, was supposed to work on his arm strength this offseason. And although early offseason reports said that it had improved, when fans saw him in practice, he was much of the same: an accurate, short-range passer who defenses can learn to sit on. I don't think there is any going back to Kessler as a starter right now, so it comes down to Osweiler or DeShone Kizer for Week 1 of the regular season. My money would be on Osweiler making that start. For that to change, Osweiler would have to make more then a handful of bone-headed throws over the next two weeks, at which point head coach Hue Jackson could be compelled to let the rookie Kizer learn on the fly.
The Browns upgraded their offensive line, and Isaiah Crowell looks to have a big year because of it. What's the assessment of both the offensive line and Crowell thus far?
The offensive line is by far the best unit on the Browns, and should probably be regarded as a Top 3 unit in the entire NFL. At left tackle, Joe Thomas is a future Hall of Famer and continues to play at such a level in his 10th year. Left guard Joel Bitonio has had injury issues the past two years, but when healthy is an above average lineman. Center J.C. Tretter was signed this offseason from the Green Bay Packers. Although he's new to the club, it's expected that he'll bring a sense of stability at the position, something that was sorely lacking in 2016 with former first-round pick Cameron Erving starting there. Right guard Kevin Zeitler has been darn-near a Pro Bowl caliber player the past several years for Cincinnati, and signed a lucrative deal with Cleveland. The only competition is at right tackle between Erving and second-year man Shon Coleman. Coleman is the favorite to win, but we'll be using this preseason to determine how competent he can play the position.
Although Isaiah Crowell has never actually cracked 1,000 yards rushing in a single season, the impression is that he is in store for a breakout season to where he could be a Top 5 running back in the NFL when it comes to rushing yards. He is dangerous when he reaches the second level and is tough to bring down, leading to a lot of big plays last year. The issue the past two years for him has been the fact that, to no fault of his own, the offensive line has been lacking in personnel or injured, leading to penetration in the backfield before he even got the football handed off to him. That problem should go away, and I think a lot of fantasy owners are going to be rushing to get Crowell as a must-start back before long.
How much do you expect the starters to play on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball? Who are some of the players to watch after that?
I expect the starters to be given the full first quarter of play, as that is what Hue Jackson did last year. Some veteran players, like left tackle Joe Thomas, defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, and cornerback Joe Haden, might see only a series of action because they really don't have anything to prove at this point of their careers. After the starters exit, here are three players for fans to watch: (1) RB Matthew Dayes, (2) WR Jordan Leslie, and (3) FS Kai Nacua. Dayes was a 7th round pick, but the feeling is that Cleveland is largely converting RB Duke Johnson to a slot receiver this year, paving the way for Dayes to be the guy who spells Crowell on running plays. Leslie has had a lot of receptions in camp on the second-team offense, so the good thing is that he's doing something to get open. Cleveland's depth chart at receiver is very unproven, so anyone who steps up their game, like Leslie has been doing, has a shot to move up the depth chart. Nacua is an undrafted free agent safety who had a great reputation in college for making play after play on the football. He's been buried a bit on the depth chart in camp, but it'll be fun to see if his ball-hawk skills are on display in the second half.
Myles Garrett will obviously be a focal point of the Browns defense in 2017, how has he looked in training camp and what are some realistic expectations out of him against the Saints?
I did an article earlier this week on 5 players whose stock has risen since the start of camp. That type of article is typically meant to highlight lower-profile players, which makes Garrett an atypical choice to include. However, his inclusion is indicative of just how dominant of a camp he’s had to date. Coming off of a foot injury earlier this offseason, Garrett returned to training camp looking 100% from the get-go, bringing a confidence, charisma, work ethic, and the results one could only dream of from a first overall pick. Every practice, he’s beating rookie offensive tackle Rod Johnson for touch sacks. His one day against veteran left tackle Joe Thomas was quite the spectacle, and Thomas is praising him as already being one of the game's best. And then at last Friday’s stadium scrimmage, Garrett logged four touch sacks in what was an abbreviated type of game. I don't want to set expectations super high on him for the Saints game, because he has mostly been going against second-team left tackles in practice...but the quickness and bend he's shown have been eager to see how he fares against first-teamers.
Hue Jackson's first season was forgettable with the Browns. What big changes in personnel and players do you feel are the biggest additions for this year's team?
I've already mentioned the offensive line being upgraded, and that'll lead to a much greater commitment to the running game from a playcalling perspective. Other than that, the big difference is the addition of Gregg Williams to Cleveland. The team changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3, although they'll be in the nickel for much of the game. A playmaker was either added or re-inforced at all three units -- Myles Garrett on the defensive line (first-round pick), Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey at linebacker (both received extended contracts), and Jabrill Peppers in the secondary (first-round pick). It brings a whole new attitude and playmaking mentality to the defense that was sorely lacking on a group that I often referred to last year as being "historically bad”.