The starters won’t play much, if at all, but that doesn’t mean the preseason finale Thursday night in Chicago is worthless. It’s all about determining the final spots on the 53-man roster.
Running back and tight end may be the only areas of the team where the positions are set. At every other position group, from quarterback to kicker, questions remain.
Here are several decisions head of football operations Sashi Brown and his staff will have to make before the attention shifts completely to the Week 1 matchup against the Steelers.
STAY OR GO?
Quarterback Brock Osweiler will be paid $16 million no matter what this season. All of it will come from the Browns unless they can find a team willing to trade for him and absorb part of the salary.
Yet speculation persists that the Browns could cut Osweiler.
It doesn’t make sense.
There are more than 16 million reasons to keep him, and at the top of the list is experience. He’s the only quarterback on the roster who’s won a game in the NFL, going 14-9 in the last two seasons, including the playoffs. Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan are the other backup options to rookie starter DeShone Kizer, and they are both in their second year in the league.
More importantly, Osweiler is much better than Kessler and Hogan. So if Kizer were to get hurt early in the season, Osweiler would provide, by far, the best chance to win.
By cutting cornerback Joe Haden and defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, the Browns have saved enough cash to rationalize cutting Osweiler. It still doesn’t make sense.
The Browns were better with Haden and they’d be better with Osweiler. The organization was willing to take on the $16 million salary to get a second-round draft pick in 2018, so it should be willing to pay the players that give it the best chance to win now.
If the Browns keep Osweiler, the question becomes should they use a roster spot on a third quarterback. If the answer’s yes, it’s not a slam dunk it should be Kessler, a third-round pick who started eight games last year as a rookie.
Kessler has looked awful in training camp and the preseason, while Hogan led the winning touchdown drive Saturday night against Tampa Bay and is the superior athlete.
I’d go with Kizer and Osweiler and keep Hogan on the practice squad.
Brown tried to trade Osweiler and couldn’t. He wanted to trade cornerback Joe Haden but failed and cut him Wednesday. He somehow convinced Kansas City to give up a conditional fifth-round pick in exchange for offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who has flopped at every position on the line and has a calf injury.
Brown has shown a penchant for trades with 16 during his less than two years in charge and could be itching to pull off one more before the season. If he’s set on acquiring another draft pick or strengthening an area of weakness, offensive lineman John Greco could be the only asset other teams value.
Greco is slated to be the sixth man with the Browns but has shown the ability to start at center and both guard spots. A team with playoff hopes and a need on the interior line could be intrigued.
The return would have to be worthwhile for the Browns — a third-round pick should do it — because there’s a steep drop-off among the backups after Greco.
Coach Hue Jackson has been waiting for one or two of the young backup receivers to assert themselves. It hasn’t happened, so it’s time for Brown to swallow his pride, put aside his ego and go out and improve the receiving corps.
Brown drafted four receivers in 2016, and only first-rounder Corey Coleman has looked anything like a consistent contributor. Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins have been given a plethora of opportunities but shown only flashes, and Jordan Payton doesn’t belong in the league. Brown can’t continue to wait and hope.
The No. 3 receiver is critical in today’s NFL and the Browns don’t have one. Running back Duke Johnson could help fill the void, but Brown needs to augment the position through a trade or waiver claim.
The bottom of the roster will be different Monday than Saturday afternoon, with the Browns expected to take full advantage of their position atop the waiver wire. They will likely claim between five and eight players, which is a significant turnover days before the season.
They should target receiver, linebacker, safety and cornerback, with more than one pickup possible at each of the positions.
Tackle is another possibility. If Erving had remained on the roster, he would’ve been the swing tackle, the guy active on gameday to fill in at either tackle spot. Without Erving, there’s no obvious answer for the position of necessity.
Rookie Rod Johnson, a fifth-round pick, could be given the job but he spent camp working on the left side and giving up sacks to No. 1 pick Myles Garrett. An upgrade would be useful.
The moves with Haden and Erving showed yet again Brown has no problem moving on from high draft picks that he didn’t make.
So it won’t be a surprise if defensive end Nate Orchard and defensive tackle Xavier Cooper are cut. They were second- and third-round picks in 2015 and supposed to join first-rounder Danny Shelton in transforming the defense.
It didn’t happen.
Both are likable guys but have lacked production. Orchard had a good preseason opener then hurt his groin and remains out. Cooper has slid down the depth chart and will likely lose out to rookies Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley.
More high picks cut so early in their careers is another reminder that the Browns won’t be good until they draft better.