JD Bagley, @jdbagley5
With the 2019 NFL preseason wrapped up, the most highly anticipated Browns team since their return to Cleveland 20 years ago, is set to begin regular season play in less than a week. The city and fans could not be more excited to see what’s in store after a very active offseason by John Dorsey and Co., bringing in talented players including but not limited to Odell Backham Jr., Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and Greedy Williams. Although there are some flashy names among that group, the nucleus of this entire operation, a man by the name of Baker Mayfield, is set to begin his 2nd NFL season with hefty expectations under new Head Coach Freddie Kitchens. It’s only a matter of time before we get to see the new-look Browns take the field against the Titans on Sunday. Can they live up to the hype?
Looking in hindsight on the Browns preseason, in his first year at the helm, Freddie Kitchens felt it wasn't necessary to play his starters very long into games, if at all. Notable players who saw little to no playing time include Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward among others. Kitchens wants his team healthy and ready to go when it truly matters, and as of now, that seems to be the case with no significant injuries to discuss. Odell Beckham Jr. has been battling a hip injury throughout camp and the preseason but is on track to play Week 1. The only other noteworthy injury to monitor is that of RB Kareem Hunt. Hunt underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia last week. The expected recovery timeline is 4-6 weeks, so as long as everything goes as planned he will be ready to go Week 10 vs Buffalo when he returns from his 8 game suspension.
From the beginning of training camp all the way to the final preseason game, the Browns had a couple of key position battles with starting jobs on the line. One of which, was Cleveland’s 2019 2nd round draft pick CB Greedy Williams vs veteran CB Terrance Mitchell. Greedy made some amateur mistakes throughout the process which was expected out of the rookie, but he also received rave reviews from the coaching staff complementing his feisty man to man coverage and ball skills. As of this moment in time, it seems that Mitchell will be the Week 1 starter opposite Denzel Ward, but don’t be surprised to see Williams on the field for a fair share of snaps and at some point this season, cease the starting job. One of the other marquee position battles was a 3 man clash for the starting RG spot with the departure of Kevin Zeitler. Going in, it was 2nd-year player Austin Corbett’s job to lose after Dorsey selected him with a 2nd round pick in 2018. After poor showings throughout for Corbett, it was journeyman Eric Kush who has emerged as the favorite to start against Tennessee. Some less notable roster battles also occurred this preseason. The fight for the final two WR spots on the roster was a close contest between Jaelen Strong, Derrick Willies, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, Braxton Miller, and Damion Ratley. With Antonio Callaway suspended for the first 4 games, there were 3 spots that needed to be filled for the beginning of the season. Two of which went to Derrick Willies and Damion Ratley, the third belonging to newly acquired WR Taywan Taylor from the Tennessee Titans. This season the Browns will have some new faces both placekicking and punting the football. After a rough start to camp, rookie 5th rounder Austin Seibert found his groove going 6 for 6 on field goals in the final 2 preseason games to give him the nod over Greg Joseph. On the punting side of things, the “Scottish Hammer”, otherwise known as Jaime Gillan, had a very solid camp winning the starting job over veteran Britton Colquitt who was quickly scooped up off waivers by the Minnesota Vikings.
Week 1 Preview:
In one of the top games of the Week 1 NFL slate, the Cleveland Browns will be taking on the Tennessee Titans from FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday at 1 PM/EST. CBS’s number one broadcast team made up of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, and Tracy Wolfson will be on the call for Freddie Kitchens’ head coaching debut. Baker Mayfield looks to start right where he left off the 2018 season, leading the Browns to 5 victories in their final 7 games and breaking the rookie passing TD record previously shared by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. He will be equipped with a plethora of weapons to attack a Titans defense that gave up just the 3rd least amount of total points last season. We can talk about the Browns skill position players all day and that’s great, but the real key for this offense’s success Sunday will be how the offensive line can hold up and protect Mayfield. Throughout the preseason as a whole, the line has looked shaky at best. Losing Kevin Zeitler is a bigger deal than any Browns fan wants to admit because of the return the team got for him, but he was a true staple up front leading all guards in pressure percentage with players of over 250 snaps last season. Now there is uncertainty at the position with Eric Kush stepping in as the presumed starter, along with the fact that starting LT Greg Robinson has yet to repeat the success he had over the final 8 games of 2018 when he took over as the starter. With guys like Jurrell Casey, Cameron Wake, Raashan Evans, and Harold Landry rushing the passer, the offensive line will have a tall task at their hands.
Switching over the defensive side of the ball, this seems like a game where the Browns defense may have to carry more of the load than people anticipate. After bolstering all levels of the defense, this unit should be able to defend the run and pass much more efficiently than they did in 2018. Marcus Mariota struggled mightily last season starting 13 games but only tossing 11 TD’s and throwing for the least amount of passing yards in his 4-year career. Not having starting LT Taylor Lewan for this game due to suspension has Browns’ pass rushers salivating. Although we saw very limited action from Myles Garrett this preseason, he looks primed for his best year as a pro with added help on the defensive line. Matching up against backup tackle Dennis Kelly may land him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. It’s very likely that the Titans will be a run-heavy team in 2019, relying on bruising RB Derrick Henry to wear down defenses. If the Browns can slow him down enough to the point where Titans first-year OC Arthur Smith has to put the game in Marcus Mariota’s hands, the defense should be in good shape.