I just wanted to start by saying I hope everyone is hanging in there and being safe during this difficult and unusual time. I hope the Browns discussion can serve as a distraction.
Q: “So far, so good” thus far in free agency. Based upon reports I should be feeling pretty good but I’ve been a Browns fan for a long time. … We have yet to fix the most important hole: left tackle. Are we inquiring about trades or free agency or are we looking at the draft for the solution? Also, the new CBA gives everyone 2 extra roster spots. Any thoughts on what positions those extra 2 will be coming from, or will it be less strategy and more on injuries?
— Andy Johnston
A: I would expect the Browns to draft a left tackle early, no matter what they do in the rest of free agency. They need a long-term solution and the draft class is rich in high-end tackles. But I don’t think that eliminates the Browns from considering an option at left tackle before the draft. For instance, if Jason Peters were willing to sign a one-year deal at a reasonable cost ($14 million?), I’d be all for the Browns signing him as the starter for 2020 and letting him show the draft pick everything he knows. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up, because I think a tackle at No. 10 still is the most likely scenario.
How teams use the extra roster spots will be interesting. I expect one of them to go to the offensive line, especially with an extra lineman allowed to dress on gamedays for an emergency. The other spot would probably go to defensive line or secondary, where bodies are essential, but I wouldn’t rule out teams keeping a third quarterback after some have chosen to go with two lately, including the Browns for most of last year.
Q: First, if Tampa or the L.A. Rams offer a third-round pick this year and a fourth next year, do you think GM Andrew Berry would trade Kareem Hunt? Secondly, would YOU do this trade?
— Keith Parsons
A: I don’t think Berry would, and I’m basing that off his decision to use the second-round restricted free agent tender on Hunt. If Berry’s goal was to trade Hunt, he could’ve used the third-round tender. It would’ve cost the Browns less if Hunt didn’t receive an offer from another team, and it would’ve encouraged teams to make a run at signing Hunt. With the second-round tender, I think that eliminates all suitors and means Hunt will be with the Browns in 2020.
I would make your proposed deal. With the receivers the Browns have, and coach Kevin Stefanski’s commitment to using two tight ends and a fullback, I’m not sure Hunt will have as significant a role as he did in the final eight games last year. With Nick Chubb as the workhorse and the other choices on offense, I would take the two picks, especially with Hunt likely leaving after 2020.
Q: Do the Browns see Sione Takitaki as a starter? Otherwise the roster is really lean.
A: That’s a great question, and one I can’t answer with authority. If John Dorsey were still the general manager, I’d feel confident saying yes because he used a third-round pick on Takitaki. But GM Andrew Berry, coach Kevin Stefanski and coordinator Joe Woods have no history with Takitaki, so I think it’d be premature to assume he’s a starter. I think he’ll have to come in and earn a job.
And you’re 100 percent right. The linebacker room is lean, even with Mack Wilson returning and B.J. Goodson signed to a one-year contract last week. Takitaki must be penciled in as a starter for lack of options, but I expect more additions to the position either through free agency or a trade, and definitely in the draft.
Q: You thought John Dorsey was a hero in the making. When fired, you wrote a scathing column and did not seem happy with Andrew Berry being GM. As we watch a VERY well-prepared Berry execute a great plan, do you now recognize Berry as an intelligent team GM without an ego, the opposite of JD?
A: You’re going a little overboard with “hero,” but your point is taken about Dorsey’s firing. I didn’t think it was a good idea and would still argue he’s the best talent evaluator the organization has had since its return (Phil Savage and Tom Heckert would be the only competition). I believe the Haslams could’ve found a way to fire Freddie Kitchens and keep Dorsey rather than blowing up the front office yet again.
My opinion of Dorsey doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Berry has done. I never doubted he’d have an intelligent plan. He’s incredibly smart, disciplined and a hard worker, and we’ve seen him execute his strategy effectively through his first free agency as a GM. I think it’s too early to say Berry doesn’t have an ego, even though his personality is certainly less in-your-face that Dorsey’s. Berry deserves credit for his strong start, but the true test of his ability as a talent evaluator will be the draft. It’s a lot easier to identify talent after players have been in the league for four years.
Q: Mr. Petrak, at the risk of sounding like a sycophant, I’d like to say that I thoroughly enjoy your Q and A columns. Do you feel that the Browns realize they can’t fix all of their problems in the draft this year, and therefore they are signing free agents to one-year contracts?
A: I appreciate the kind words, and the questions.
I have no doubt Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski identified more holes on the roster than could be filled in the draft, especially with only four picks in the first three rounds. Berry’s aggressive approach at the start of free agency made it clear he knew he couldn’t just rely on the draft. I view the one-year contracts as another admission of that. For example, they know they need safeties and linebackers and must find some before heading into the draft. I also think finding “stop-gap” solutions at a variety of positions provides greater flexibility in the draft, which is valuable. Besides perhaps left tackle, Berry won’t be forced into addressing a specific position in the early rounds.
Q: Do you expect Olivier Vernon, Kareem Hunt, David Njoku and Odell Beckham Jr. to all be on the team on opening day?
A: To me, Vernon is the biggest question. The longer the Browns go with him on the roster, the greater the chance of him playing in 2020 under his $15 million salary. And I don’t have a huge issue with that. If Andrew Berry can’t find a better option for the opposite defensive end to Myles Garrett, it’s worth one year at a huge price for the best player available at a key position.
As for the other three players you mentioned, I feel most confident Hunt will be here Week 1, followed by Beckham and Njoku. However, I expect all of them to be here. The only way that changes is if another team makes a strong trade offer, and I don’t see that happening.
Q: Why is Olivier Vernon still on this team? I believe there are better players out there that would cost us the same or cheaper.
A: Speaking of the devil. The argument is whether there are better players out there than Vernon. The top choices left in free agency are Jadeveon Clowney and Everson Griffen. Clowney is better than Vernon but would be just as expensive and want a long-term deal. Griffen is 32 years old but could make sense at the right price.
I’m fine with dumping Vernon, but only after a suitable replacement is acquired.
Q: What do you expect from the Browns new uniforms and how will they be revealed in light of COVID-19?
A: I’m not a huge uniform guy, so I haven’t given this a ton of thought. But I do expect them to be a “classic” version rather than a radical departure. I just think the majority of the fan base prefers tradition.
As for the rollout in these unique times, I’m sure the Browns are trying to figure that out right now. With the uncertainty of when a return to normalcy could happen and the condensed time frame of the NFL calendar when that does happen, I could see the Browns doing a major reveal online.
Q: What specifically does the Director of High Performance accomplish for the Browns? Or what is his job description?
A: Shaun Huls was hired for the role after seven seasons in the same job with the Eagles. The Browns describe the job as overseeing the strength and conditioning, sports science, nutrition and player development aspects of the organization. In short, he’s going to try to make sure the Browns are using all their resources to maximize player performance. And it’s a helluva title.
Q: Starting lineup as of now?
A: Love the question.
Here we go: QB Baker Mayfield, RB Nick Chubb, WRs Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, TEs Austin Hooper, David Njoku, LT (first-round pick, I’ll guess Mekhi Becton), LG Joel Bitonio, C JC Tretter, RG Drew Forbes, RT Jack Conklin.
And defense: DEs Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, DTs Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, LBs Mack Wilson, B.J. Goodson, Sione Takitaki, CBs Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, Ss Karl Joseph, Sheldrick Redwine.
Forbes and Redwine are the biggest leaps and could easily be replaced. And Kevin Johnson would be the nickelback.
Q: How seriously would the Browns consider Josh Gordon?
A: Not at all. They’ve moved on, as they should have.
Q: Will Kevin Stefanski fix Baker Mayfield? Is OBJ going to produce more? How are Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt going to be deployed?
A: Fix might be too strong, but I believe Stefanski will be a big help to Mayfield after his regression in Year 2. I think Stefanski and coordinator Alex Van Pelt will coach Mayfield harder and smarter while their system will make life easier for him. If Mayfield is committed to working as hard as he can, being in top shape and learning the new offense, I expect him to rebound and surpass his rookie performance. With the talent around him and an improved line, he won’t have any excuses.
I think Beckham will also rebound. With all his talent, 1,000 yards feels like the floor for him. I know the Browns have a lot of weapons who will want the ball, but Beckham’s natural ability – assuming he stays healthy – should allow him to fly past 1,000 yards. And another year with only four touchdowns would be unacceptable.
Chubb should be the workhorse, with Hunt serving as the third-down back, a slot receiver and the featured back when Chubb needs a break. With the addition of a fullback, it will be interesting to see how much Stefanski uses Chubb and Hunt together in the backfield.
Q: IYO what will the NFL Draft look like?
A: I can’t speak to the bells and whistles, but I think you’ll see Commissioner Roger Goodell at a podium announcing the picks in a room with representatives from the 32 teams spread out at a safe distance. From a TV watching experience, I think all you’ll be missing is the players walking on stage and the fans at the draft. And this year, the boat in the Bellagio fountain.
Q: Scott, I love the talent of Odell Beckham Jr., so don’t get me wrong, but I’m still not sure he won’t become problematic in Kevin Stefanski’s run-first, two-tight end offense. Will OBJ be OK with sharing the ball if they win?
A: You have a reasonable concern, especially after Beckham was obviously unhappy last year when he didn’t get the ball. For him to be satisfied, the Browns need to win and he needs to make an impact. For him to be quiet, they must win.