Q: Hi Scott! It looks to me like the Browns could still desperately use another addition at linebacker. What would you say is their best remaining option in free agency? Would Zach Brown make sense?
— Jon H
A: I won’t argue with you about the need at linebacker. The Browns seem committed to a youth movement at the position after cutting Christian Kirksey and letting Joe Schobert leave in free agency. The depth chart is led by Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki, B.J. Goodson and third-round pick Jacob Phillips, and only Goodson has played more than a year in the NFL. So, yes, GM Andrew Berry should consider all options to strengthen the middle of the defense.
Brown was cut by the Eagles and Cardinals during last season, so he might be done. Nigel Bradham, Wesley Woodyard and Darron Lee strike me as better options to provide the coaching staff with more flexibility and experience at the position. At the right price, Bradham would be my first choice.
Q: Does defensive coordinator Joe Woods have enough talent to do what he wants to with his linebackers?
A: I’m sensing a theme of concern about the linebackers, and it’s well-deserved. On a deeper and more talented roster, linebacker is the one position that looks under-addressed. And a strong argument can be made it’s much weaker than at this time a year ago following the departures of Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey.
So I can’t confidently say Woods has what he needs. I can say GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski seems comfortable with the youth movement underway. It’s also obvious the organization places less value on the position than many fans do. So we’ll have to see if Berry adds a veteran before the season. And if he doesn’t, will the strategy come back to bite him and sabotage Woods’ plan.
Q: My expectations of any Browns front office are understandably conditioned by the consistent & historical failures we’ve witnessed in the last 8 years. With that said, it’s hard not to be impressed by Andrew Berry so far. He clearly has a high level plan and the ability to execute. Among the clues that are starting to sway me, I was impressed he had several scouts present our choices during the draft. It’s a sign of good leadership to share the stage with your team. Have you seen other encouraging signs that might help skeptics like me breathe a bit more easily that maybe just maybe the Browns are finally getting this right?
— John Palazzo
A: Berry is an impressive man. He wouldn’t have been hired as the youngest general manager in NFL history at 33 years old if he weren’t, and the characteristics that appealed to the Haslams and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta have been on display.
Berry has done a nice job preparing a plan and executing it despite a condensed timeline due to his late arrival. Not to mention the unprecedented restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic. Berry’s intelligence is unquestionable, and he brings a calming presence to the chaotic experience of leading an NFL personnel department. I also like the way he seems to get along with everyone and can build a consensus.
Of course, I’ve witnessed the same organizational dysfunction that you have, so I need to see much more before I crown Berry the savior. Talent evaluation will be the key for someone so young, new to the role and with the stain of the Sashi Brown years on him. As for having scouts talk during the draft, his predecessors did the same.
Q: While offensive line coach Bill Callahan has been mentioned frequently in terms of his importance to coach Kevin Stefanski, it seems like very little has been written about how technique-sensitive OL positions are and the impact that Callahan can have on the overall performance of this group. Do you believe Callahan will coach up Drew Forbes, Wyatt Teller and Chris Hubbard to where RG will be a strength?
A: I think Callahan’s role in the new regime can’t be overstated. He has been a head coach and is a valuable resource for first-timer Stefanski. He was also instrumental in the decision to draft Alabama’s Jedrick Wills at No. 10, providing Paul DePodesta, Andrew Berry and Stefanski with the confidence Wills can make the switch from right tackle to left tackle.
But most importantly, as you mentioned, is Callahan’s ability to coach up the line. He’s one of the most respected line coaches in the league, and will be trusted with sculpting the unit to protect Baker Mayfield and run Stefanski’s wide zone run scheme. Technique is everything on the line, and the right coach can make a huge impact.
As for right guard, I think people are worrying too much about it. A line with four strong starters should be able to plug in a fifth one, especially at right guard, and hum right along. Forbes, Teller and Hubbard provide quality choices, and the Browns trust Callahan to pick the right one and prepare him to play at a high level.
Q: With the Ravens’ strong offseason, is the gap between the Browns & Ravens larger than last season?
A: Great question.
I’m going to say no. I really like what the Ravens did in the offseason, adding key veteran pieces (defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, guard D.J. Fluker) and having another solid draft (linebacker Patrick Queen, running back J.K. Dobbins, receiver Devin Duvernay). But I also like what the Browns did in adding Jack Conklin, Austin Hooper, Jedrick Wills and Grant Delpit, to name a few of the many acquisitions. The deciding factor for me is that the gap was huge last year, with the Ravens steamrolling to 14-2 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and I just don’t think it’s as cavernous heading into 2020. It’s still sizable — and will be until the Browns prove they can contend — but the Browns won’t finish eight games back again.
Q: What full year stat line (yards/tds/int/qb rank in NFL) would confirm a “bounce back year” for Mayfield in your opinion?
A: To me, the last two slashes are most important. Mayfield ranked 31st in the league in interceptions and passer rating last year, and he must improve dramatically if the Browns are to have any hope of reaching the playoffs — and any confidence in him moving forward.
So here are the numbers you requested: 4,000/30/14/15. Those would not only be a rebound from 2019 but a progression from the rookie season that had everyone so excited.
Q: Is the Haslam ownership group truly committed to winning? I ask because so little was done to address the persistent organizational identity that the Browns perennially are helpless to defend the running game.
I get it that the sport is so much about throwing and catching, with the defensive responses about rushing and covering. But fundamentally football is about the line of scrimmage. About blocking and tackling. Aside from addressing the former with purpose, too little was done about the latter.
— Mark Leonard
A: Obviously the record of losing and constant turnover during their ownership suggests (maybe screams) no. But I do believe there’s a difference between commitment and execution. There’s no doubt the Haslams have made a ton of mistakes, many of them more than once. And while I trust they want to win, it’s fair to question their commitment to doing what it takes to get it done, including stepping back and letting their most important hires operate unencumbered for more than a two-year stretch.
But I don’t see the lack of, in your opinion, sufficient attention to the run defense as a lack of commitment to winning. I would argue they signed tackle Andrew Billings and end Adrian Clayborn in free agency and drafted linebacker Jacob Phillips in the third round to improve the run defense. They aren’t marquee acquisitions, but the organization didn’t ignore the front seven. I would also contend that stopping the pass is more important and that’s where the resources should be allocated.