It's hard to argue that the offensive line is not the strongest position group on the Browns' roster. (Cleveland Browns)
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
In his second season as Browns GM, Andrew Berry attacked the defensive side of the ball.
He signed seven veteran free agents at every level of the defense, added five players in the draft, gave a big signing bonus to an undrafted defensive tackle and took a flier on a defensive lineman who’s been out of the game four years while dealing with legal and personal issues.
Berry didn’t totally ignore the offense, re-signing two receivers and adding a speedy receiver and specialist player in the draft, along with an offensive lineman.
All of which leaves the Browns’ roster – on paper -- stronger than ever.
But which position groups are strongest and which are still suspect?
The TLOD Browns position group power rankings sort it out.
1. Offensive line
Projected starters: LT Jedrick Wills, LG Joel Bitonio, C JC Tretter, RG Wyatt Teller, RT Jack Conklin.
Projected top backups: OT-OG Chris Hubbard, OT-OG James Hudson (r), C-OG Nick Harris.
Others of note: OT-OG Michael Dunn, OG Blake Hance, OG-C Anthony Fabiano.
Coaches: Bill Callahan, Scott Peters.
Summary: According to Spotrac.com, the Browns will spend more on their offensive line in 2021 ($53.4 million) than any NFL team. You get what you pay for. This is the top unit on the Browns and arguably the best line in the NFL. Bitonio, Teller and Conklin are All-Pro caliber. Wills was one of the top three rookie offensive tackles in 2020 and figures to get better after making the transition from right to left without the benefit of a normal offseason program in 2020. Tretter is a war horse in the middle, never missing a snap four seasons in a row despite knee problems that make him a fixture on the daily in-season injury report. The projected top backups all have the versatility to play two or three positions. Supervising everything is Callahan, who is recognized as one of the top three line coaches in the NFL, and Peters, a former center and guard embarking on his second season of coaching.
2. Running backs
Projected starters: RB Nick Chubb, FB Andy Janovich.
Projected top backups: RB Kareem Hunt, RB D’Ernest Johnson, RB Demetric Felton (r).
Coach: Stump Mitchell.
Summary: No other team can boast of having a former NFL rushing champion (Hunt) as its No. 2 running back. The “two-headed monster” of Chubb and Hunt is unique, yet having the two on the field together is a resource so far untapped because of unfortunate circumstances (a Hunt NFL suspension in 2019, the lack of an offseason program in 2020). Although Hunt fell 159 yards short of giving the Browns two 1,000-yard rushers, they totaled 1,908 yards, 18 TDs and 4.9 yards per rush. Hunt had five additional receiving TDs. I still believe pairing them together in the same backfield would present better mismatch problems than multiple tight ends.
Very, very good
3. Defensive line
Projected starters: LE Jadeveon Clowney, LT Jordan Elliott, RT Andrew Billings, RE Myles Garrett.
Projected top backups: DE Takk McKinley, DE Curtis Weaver, DT Tommy Togiai (r), DT Malik Jackson.
Others of note: DE-DT Malik McDowell, DT Marvin Wilson (r), DE Porter Gustin.
Coaches: Chris Kiffin, Jeremy Garrett.
Summary: First, Myles Garrett alone lifts this group into the very, very good class. Now, add Clowney, another No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, and McKinley, yet another first-round selection. If Clowney and McKinley can just stay healthy and available, their presence alone could push Garrett to his first defensive player-of-the-year season. With Sheldon Richardson departed, the tackle positions are mostly projections of younger talents, such as Elliott, in his second year, and rookies Togiai and Wilson. The wild card is McDowell, who was a highly-rated prospect with Seattle from Michigan State in 2017 before running afoul of the law and serving a prison sentence. McDowell is Berry’s first venture into controversy, which makes him a highly intriguing prospect.
4. Wide receivers
Projected starters: Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., Rashard Higgins.
Projected top backups: KhaDarel Hodge, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz (r).
Coach: Chad O’Shea.
Summary: The Browns’ $39.4 million spending on this position ranks third in 2021 behind Miami ($44.5 million) and Tampa Bay ($43.6 million). The bulk of the spending, of course, is on Landry and Beckham ($30.5 million). Beckham figures to be the No. 1 question mark on offense. Is he the problem or the solution, the wrench in the offense or the missing link? After Landry and Beckham, the rest of the group is under-rated. Higgins is pixie dust to Baker Mayfield, Hodge is increasingly dependable, Peoples-Jones can be a star and Schwartz might be the fastest rookie in the NFL.
Projected starter: Baker Mayfield.
Projected backups: Case Keenum, Kyle Lauletta.
Coach: Alex Van Pelt.
Summary: Mayfield’s steady improvement in coach Kevin Stefanski’s offensive system and under Van Pelt’s emphasis on mechanics portend a breakout season at the quarterback position. Finally situated in a stable environment with continuity of coaching and an offensive system that suits him, Mayfield could reach the level of play expected from a No. 1 overall pick. The Browns believe their Super Bowl window is widest in the two years left under Mayfield’s rookie contract – after which an imminent contract extension could result in cutbacks at other positions.
Projected starters: John Johnson III, Grant Delpit, Ronnie Harrison.
Projected backups: Sheldrick Redwine, Richard LeCounte (r), Jovante Moffatt.
Coaches: Jeff Howard, Brandon Lynch.
Summary: Johnson was an under-radar key to the Rams’ No. 4 ranking in defensive DVOA last season. He, and the return of 2020 second-round pick Delpit, enable coordinator Joe Woods to deploy a three-safety alignment for up to 40 percent of the time. Johnson, Delpit and Harrison could befuddle quarterbacks’ pre-snap reads by lining up anywhere. Each has similar physical characteristics and skill-sets. Adding the speed of a third safety figures to be Woods’ chess piece to defend quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and, ultimately, Patrick Mahomes.
Projected starters: Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome (r), Troy Hill.
Projected backups: Greedy Williams, M.J. Stewart, A.J. Green.
Coaches: Jeff Howard, Brandon Lynch.
Summary: When I first started covering the NFL, the axiom about the cornerback position was, “You’re only as good as your third cornerback.” Now it’s “You’re only as good as your fourth cornerback.” Whoever “loses” the cornerback battle opposite Ward – Newsome or Williams – becomes that fourth quarterback because Hill is penciled in as the third corner to cover the slot receiver. So consider that for a moment: The Browns’ fourth cornerback will be either a first-round rookie or a second-round pick in his third season. That’s not bad.
8. Tight ends
Projected starters: Austin Hooper, David Njoku.
Projected backups: Harrison Bryant, Stephen Carlson.
Coach: Drew Petzing.
Summary: The Browns are tied with the Eagles for first in spending on tight ends ($17.5 million). I don’t think they got the right bang for their buck last year. Njoku’s guaranteed raise to $6 million – and his late-season awakening – probably inched him ahead of Bryant for the No. 2 position heading into training camp. Hooper made one of the spectacular, clutch catches of the 2020 season in the divisional playoff game against the Chiefs, but his overall production (46 receptions, 425 yards, four TD) did not justify his four-year, $42 million free agent contract. And his salary cap number more than doubles to $8.25 million in 2021.
Projected starters: Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki, Jacob Phillips.
Projected backups: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramah (r), Malcolm Smith, Mack Wilson, Tony Fields (r).
Coach: Jason Tarver.
Summary: This group is a mystery, other than Walker, late of the Colts, who probably will be on the field all the time. The rest of the questions won’t be answered until after preseason. Where does JOK fit in the Woods defense? Did Takitaki’s INT in the wild-card win over the Steelers secure him a starting job.? Can Phillips, a third-round pick in 2020, stay healthy and fend off a challenge from JOK? Can Wilson shrug off a bad 2020 season and retain a roster spot? Ultimately, can the lightest linebacking corps in the NFL stop the run when it matters?
Projected starters: PK Cody Parkey, P Jamie Gillan, LS Charley Hughlett, KR-PR Anthony Schwartz.
Projected backups: KR-PR Demetric Felton, KR D'Ernest Johnson, PK Chase McLaughlin.
Coach: Mike Priefer.
Summary: Parkey should be able to win a second season as place-kicker; he was a perfect 11 for 11 on kicks in the two playoff games. The rest of the core special teams is fine. But a return specialist has to be groomed from among Schwartz and Felton. In any case, the Browns have not had a consistent, breakaway threat since Travis Benjamin (three punt return TDs in four years).