The 2018 Cleveland Browns are expected to be a much improved version of the team who won zero games in 2017. Better quarterback play, important veteran additions through trade and free agency, and youthful players gaining experience all should contribute to the Browns winning multiple games in a season for the first time since 2015. However, as one might expect from a team whose starting quarterbacks for their last three wins were Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, and Josh McCown, there are still many questions amongst the starting positions to be answered.
For the purposes here, starting position questions are classified as a starter without proof of capability to be at or near league average in the NFL for the upcoming season. There might be different measures of hope the player can achieve that level, but it is hope, not confidence. In the current era of the NFL, having such questions within a roster are not uncommon. Reducing the amount of answers that wind up in the negative column is what separates the competitive teams from the dregs.
If the Browns are going to be able to pull themselves out of the tailspin that has seen the franchise win less than six games in all but one of the last 10 seasons, then they will need to figure out most of the following positions.
Flanker: Josh Gordon1 and Jarvis Landry are a good wide receiver duo to begin a group. However, since Landry is best as the slot receiver, someone has to man the flanker spot. The current supposition is that former first-round pick Corey Coleman will get the first chance to do so, but he has yet to impress with his skills on the field nor be capable of remaining healthy for a full season. He has some talent, but he needs to show it in 2018.
Left Tackle: Shon Coleman struggled at right tackle last season, and Austin Corbett was evaluated as a player likely to move to the inside by most draft analysts. Maybe one of them seizes the role, but replacing Hall of Famer Joe Thomas is no easy task.
Center: Unlike Kevin Zeitler, J.C. Tretter underwhelmed after being a prized offensive line free agent addition for the 2017 season.
Right tackle: Chris Hubbard only started 14 games over the last two seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is expected he should be capable of manning the position, but he needs to show it on the field.
Tight end: David Njoku has talent, but the 22 year old wasn’t great at blocking even if we grant him a reprieve for his 53% catch rate. He ‘might be’ good but also ‘might be’ below average for a starting TE. WFNY’s Jake Burns showed there were some improvements and lots of potential here, so the hope is he will make a leap in Year 2.
The Cleveland Browns tight end unit was just not good enough in 2017. Alongside the wide receivers, it lacked the necessary consistency in the passing and running game to contribute a successful offense. There is plenty of potential within the group, but the long-term success or failure of the group will rely heavily on the younger players developing into key roles within the organization. Njoku has the ability to be a top five tight end, but player development isn’t always as smooth as we hope it will be.
Three-tech defensive tackle: With Larry Ogunjobi manning the other spot, the question becomes who will start beside him. Gregg Williams and the defensive staff are already stating/hinting that Chad Thomas and the other defensive ends will take turns at defensive tackle on third downs, which isn’t much encouragement for those there on earlier downs. Caleb Brantley has shown a few sparks though can get swallowed up too often. Trevon Coley is the other option though he does not get nearly enough push into the backfield. Perhaps all three can combine into what would be one average starter.
Cornerback: There is usually a steep learning curve for rookie corners and Denzel Ward will be facing some of the best wide receivers in the NFL all season long. The thought though is that a cornerback taken as a Top 4 NFL Draft pick should be able to approach league average. The question resides on the other outside spot (slot should be quite fine). There are many options (depth is great), but E.J. Gaines struggled in the Gregg Williams system when he was with the Rams. T.J. Carrie is coming off a career year, but he was wretched the year before. The Browns should be able to find one of their depth corners to step up, but the identity is a bit unknown at this point.
Free Safety: The plan appears to be to convert both Damarious Randall and Briean Boddy-Calhoun to play free safety with Jabrill Peppers transitioning to strong. Anytime there is a position switch, there is a big risk it blows up in the face of the team.
Linebackers: The trio of Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, and Jamie Collins is great against the run. There are issues with each of them in coverage though, which needs to be fixed.
Third defensive end: Admittedly, this position is getting a tad greedy though is pushed by the selection of Chad Thomas rather than a pure pass rusher. The third defensive end is a pseudo-starter as top-3 get similar snaps nowadays. It will be interesting to see if Thomas is up to the task.
- assuming he stays off the suspended list [↩]