Q: In your opinion, how far behind does the pandemic put the Browns? Specifically, it’s mid-May and the vast majority of staff and players have yet to meet in person. Thoughts?
A: Coach Kevin Stefanski has repeatedly insisted the Browns aren’t at a disadvantage because the entire NFL is operating under the same set of rules. I respectfully disagree.
Stefanski has never been a head coach. His staff spent just over a month together before being forced to disperse when the NFL shut down team facilities. He has yet to meet the vast majority of his players. The staff must install new systems on offense and defense. Teams with returning coaches and playbooks don’t have these problems.
I appreciate Stefanski refusing to use the lack of a normal offseason as an excuse. And I believe him when he says the virtual offseason program is going well. I just think it’s impossible for a new staff to accomplish as much without having the players in the building and on the practice field. The Browns are always a few steps behind the Ravens and Steelers because they’re constantly changing general managers, coaching staffs and systems. The challenges of 2020 make it that much harder to close the gap. Stefanski is intelligent and confident but has been dealt a difficult opening hand.
Q: What positions do you expect general manager Andrew Berry to upgrade, if any, depth or otherwise, during remainder of 2020 offseason?
A: Berry’s been adamant he’ll always look to improve the roster through any means, but he should focus his attention on certain areas. I’m repeating myself, but until he adds another veteran, linebacker is the position of greatest need. Berry and Stefanski seem comfortable going young there, but I’m not ready to trust the combination of Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki, B.J. Goodson and Jacob Phillips. Berry should be on the lookout for the best available veteran.
Defensive end, cornerback and receiver would be next on my priority list.
Even with Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon and Adrian Clayborn, the Browns could use another pass rusher.
A team can never have enough cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson — Cleveland’s top three — have varying degrees of injury histories. Undrafted rookie A.J. Green helps, but there’s strength in numbers.
Receiver isn’t as pressing, but the quality of depth behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry is dicey. Rashard Higgins, Damion Ratley, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge are the top contenders.
Q: I’m tempted to ask just how dumb James Harrison actually is, but let’s go with something less obvious. Has the media been told anything or been given any hints as to what they might expect for covering games during the upcoming season? Social distancing in the booths and media areas? Remote press conferences? Did the draft and subsequent team pressers provide any hints?
— Phil S.
A: I went to high school with a Phil S. What a coincidence.
The NFL nor the Browns have made anything official about media coverage once the season begins. But it’s certainly something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing with others in the business.
Fortunately for the NFL, it should have plenty of examples from other sports on how to handle media coverage. NASCAR returned Sunday, the PGA Tour is starting soon, and then hopefully Major League Baseball and the NBA. I’m sure the NFL will learn from the experiments of others as it tries to keep the players and media healthy, and I could see a variety of scenarios, from no media at games to a select few serving as pool reporters for the larger group.
Reporters will always believe more access is better, so giving up anything from what we’ve fought to maintain will be difficult. But these are unusual times, so concessions must be made. I still believe, however, a small number of reporters should be on site, especially for training camp. There’s too much going on, on too many fields, to rely on team-provided video for a complete picture of the practices that have historically been open to the public and media. And there’s plenty of space for a handful of reporters to spread out.
At the least, social distancing of reporters will be required in the press box and interview rooms. At worst, all interviews will be conducted remotely, as has been the case for the last two months. And it seems inevitable that locker rooms will be closed to reporters. While this makes sense at the moment, I must say locker room access is invaluable to the job of a reporter and needs to return when the threat of the virus has disappeared.
Q: What percentage chance do you give one of the undrafted free agent backs making the team as the third running back?
A: I’ll go with 40 percent that Georgia’s Brian Herrien or Charlotte’s Ben LeMay makes the roster.
In their favor is their position. It’s common for undrafted or low-round picks to stick at running back. In fact, the men they’re trying to beat out — Dontrell Hilliard and D’Ernest Johnson — were undrafted.
Working against the rookies is the lack of an offseason program to get acclimated and the game experience of Hilliard and Johnson. The separator could be special teams, because with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the third back won’t play much, if at all, on offense. If one of the rookies flashes in the kicking game in the preseason, he could stick.
The rookies should benefit from being reunited with former teammates. Herrien shared a backfield with Chubb at Georgia, and LeMay played with defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi at Charlotte.
Q: The NFL has stated that it won’t ease the rules for players entering the supplemental draft this year. What exactly are the rules for a player entering the supplemental draft and would you be in favor of loosening those rules for this year due to the situation we are all in?
— Keith Parsons
A: The supplemental draft is only for players whose eligibility has changed since the NFL Draft. Browns fans remember Bernie Kosar manipulating the system to land with his hometown team, but the supplemental draft is mainly for players who’ve been ruled ineligible for the following college football season. (The red flags were there with Josh Gordon.)
I see your point about unusual times, but the NFL is afraid of anarchy. If it opened the supplemental draft to all seniors-to-be who were worried there won’t be a college football season, there could be a flood of players. While that would make sense for the individual players, it would create chaos for NFL teams that haven’t thoroughly scouted them. It would also overload rosters with rookies.
Perhaps most significantly, it would have a giant impact on college football. With hope remaining that a college season is played in 2020, the NFL is unwilling to open this door. If we knew for sure the college season would be scrapped, then I’d be all for allowing the college players to make the jump. But until that happens, I’m OK with the NFL sticking to its setup.
Q: Another idea for a rule change: If any player causes another player to leave the game due to an illegal hit, the player flagged must also leave the game and can’t play again until the injured player is able to play. He would not get paid for any games he is suspended from. This could reduce illegal hits because it would cost the offending player $$ instead of just a penalty.
— Bob Jacobs
A: I’ve heard this suggestion plenty. And while I understand the reasoning, I don’t think its application is practical.
First of all, just because a hit is ruled illegal doesn’t mean it was intentionally illegal. The game is played at warp speed.
Perhaps more problematic is that the team of the injured player could choose to sit him if he’s not as good as the offending player. It’s like a scrub trying to draw a superstar into a fight so they both get ejected. But in your scenario, the injured party would have final say, rather than the officials.
While the system isn’t perfect, I’m OK with the officials deciding whether an ejection is warranted during a game, then the league handing out suspensions afterward. And while the severity of the injury suffered might be worth considering, the length of recovery shouldn’t be the primary factor in the punishment.