Take a deep breath. Exhale. Repeat as needed. The torment of the off-season is over. The coverage fillers about hair color, who’s vacationing where and OTA attendance have gone by the wayside, as actual football is now being played. The Cleveland Browns kicked-off their 2019 preseason on Thursday evening vs the Washington Redskins with a 30-10 win in front of a raucous home crowd at First Energy Stadium. Although a team’s future success is rarely predicated on preseason wins and losses, one measurement that can be made is the growth, performance, and potential of individual players. These games provide the opportunity for rookies, borderline roster players and those competing for more significant roles to showcase their abilities in an actual game format. With that said, below are the three players I believe had standout performances in the first preseason game, including film, statistics, and discussion:
Higgins was one of the NFL’s most efficient wide receivers in 2018. Per Sharp Football, he had the highest success rate in the league on deep left passes (minimum seven targets). Further, from weeks 9-17, he generated a 131.0 passer rating when targeted, which was fifth-best in the league (minimum 30 targets). The fourth-year wide receiver showed no lag in performance in Thursday night’s game, accumulating 98 yards on five receptions for one touchdown. His best play of the night was a 40-yard reception from backup quarterback Drew Stanton: The Browns were positioned 2nd and 5 from the Redskins 41-yard line with 4:16 left in the first quarter. The offense was lined up in a single-set-back formation and “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs), with running back Dontrell Hilliard in the backfield, wide receiver Antonio Callaway split right, wide receivers Jaelen Strong and Higgins split left and tight end Pharaoh Brown tight left. Stanton fired the ball to Higgins on the over route, who forced two missed tackles and fell just shy of the end-zone after the full-body stretch:
Higgins is currently the No. 3 wide receiver in the Browns offense. His reliability, consistency, and sure-hands set up the potential for a breakout season in the fused Freddie Kitchens/Todd Monken offense that will emphasize 11 personnel and a deep-attack passing game.
The Browns drafted Wilson in the 5th round (155th overall pick) of the 2019 NFL draft. The rookie WILL linebacker from the University of Alabama has turned heads during training camp, displaying the coverage ability, aggressiveness and movement that teams covet at the linebacker position. Wilson’s stellar training camp performance continued in his first NFL game action, amassing three tackles and two interceptions. His best play of the night was a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown:
The Redskins were situated 2nd and 1 from their own 33-yard line with 11:03 left in the second quarter. The offense was lined up in shotgun formation and 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs). Rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins targeted running back Byron Marshall on the rail route, but the ball was floated and intercepted by Wilson. He proceeded to scamper 40 yards for the Browns touchdown, stiff-arming Haskins along the way:
Wilson’s ability to cover in the passing game has been apparent since his days at Alabama. Per Pro Football Focus, he saw 44 targets in the passing game in 2018, which were the most in the SEC among LB prospects. He allowed the fifth-lowest passer rating (90.3) on these targets. It will be difficult to keep Wilson off the field if he continues the dominant performances throughout training camp and preseason. His best opportunity for playing time will be as a linebacker/safety hybrid in the big nickel defensive personnel grouping, which includes four defensive linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and three safeties. With the growing trend of teams passing out of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs), his potential big nickel role could be prominent against opposing offenses, especially in coverage versus tight ends. As defensive coordinator Steve Wilks previously stated, “When you look at him out in space, he plays well, good change of direction. When you look at the match-ups throughout this league, a lot of times you do not really have safeties that can cover these big tight ends so you need a linebacker that can run. That is the mode that we have right now. He fits that mode right there being able to cover a tight end as well.”
Callaway’s 2018 rookie campaign was ripe with a combination of big plays and inconsistencies. The most intriguing aspect of his game was in the deep passing game. Per Pro Football Focus, Callaway led the Browns in average depth of target (14.51 yards) in the 2018 season. Further, he had 287 deep receiving yards, which was 4th among all rookie wide receivers. He displayed a different aspect of his game Thursday night, with an emphasis on routes/targets less than twenty yards downfield. His best play of the night was an 18-yard reception from third-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert:
The Browns were positioned 3rd and 4 from their own 42-yard line with 7:27 left in the second quarter. The offense was lined up in shotgun formation and “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs), with running back Dontrell Hilliard in the backfield, wide receiver Jaelen Strong split right, wide receivers Rashard Higgins and Callaway split left and tight end Pharaoh Brown tight right. Gilbert delivered a bullet at Callaway’s knees in the middle of the field, who maintained control of his body and made the difficult catch for a Browns first down:
Callaway has the potential and ability to fill the fourth wide receiver role on a team with an abundance of talent at the position. The above catch is a perfect example of the type of plays he must make in the 2019 season to maximize production on a projected limited target share.
Higgins, Wilson, and Callaway all have the ability and potential to have breakout seasons on a Browns team poised to take control of the AFC North. Each player will have the opportunity to again showcase their talent in preseason game two on August 17 vs the Indianapolis Colts.