Q: Do you think we will see games this season with fans in the stands?
A: We’re not messing around this week. Getting right to the second million-dollar question facing the NFL.
The No. 1 hurdle for the NFL is whether football can be played at what’s deemed to be a safe level. While the science continues to evolve — former Browns beat writer Bill Rabinowitz had a good article about a potential return of college football in the Columbus Dispatch — I believe the league and the NFL Players Association will reach an agreement on acceptable playing conditions. Assuming the risks can be mitigated, there’s too much money to lose on both sides to not play the season. The league has been steadfast there will be a season, and I agree. Whether it begins on time in September, with training camp in late July, is too early to tell.
Your question about fans is much trickier. The league would come under great scrutiny and leave itself vulnerable to tremendous backlash if it opened to fans too soon and an outbreak of the virus could be traced to a game. I think it’s nearly impossible we’ll have full stadiums — maybe a vaccine will be ready by the Super Bowl — but I could see partial attendance allowed, with extra attention paid to social distancing. The NFL and its teams are better equipped than other leagues to handle a loss of stadium revenues because of the huge TV contracts, but they will want to salvage as much money as possible. So while it’s way too early to say for sure if fans will be allowed, I’m guessing they will be but on a limited basis.
And that will open another huge can of worms: Which fans will get the precious tickets?
Q: Despite initial positive reviews on their draft, I don’t think round 3 played out the way they were hoping. Is there any additional insight on that?
A: I really liked the Browns’ draft. I didn’t love the third round.
I liked the trade down with the Saints from No. 74 to No. 88 because adding a third-round pick in 2021 is good value. But I thought the Browns should address linebacker or defensive end. Instead, they took Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. While I would’ve preferred an edge rusher, if Elliott turns out to be a disruptive force in the middle, the pick is solid. But Elliott had only six sacks in college and struggled with maturity issues. The pick was about potential rather than production. It could also signal a willingness to let Larry Ogunjobi leave in free agency after the season, which I wouldn’t like.
LSU linebacker Jacobs Phillips filled a need at No. 97, which I appreciated. He was a tackle machine for the Tigers, which should help a traditionally poor run defense, but I have questions about his coverage ability and wonder if his ceiling is too low.
When we look back on these selections, Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis (No. 84 to the Rams), Texas receiver Devin Duvernay (No. 92 to the Ravens) and Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison (No. 98 to the Ravens) will be the “ones who got away” to keep an eye on.
Q: I’m curious about your thoughts on the ongoing changes to the Rooney Rule, i.e., compensating teams for the “development” of people who move into the General Manager or Coach position. Using Andrew Berry as an example, he was vice president of player personnel for the Browns for 3 years, and vice president of football operations with Eagles for one. Would the Eagles get the credit for “developing him”?
— John Hampton
A: I have many thoughts about the changes — discussed and instituted — to the Rooney Rule. So I’m glad you asked.
My overriding thought is that the suggestion of such drastic measures at least shows that the commissioner’s office understands how poorly the rule is working in improving minority hiring. Even if the rule was effective at its start, it no longer is. And Commissioner Roger Goodell recognizes that and wants to change it. I applaud that.
As for the draft pick compensation resolution that was tabled last week, there were too many critics for it to pass. I didn’t have a problem with the changes that would incentivize organizations to hire minority coaches through the improvement of draft picks. But I heard enough minorities, including ESPN’s Louis Riddick, who wants to be a general manager, to understand the problems, including putting minority hires in a difficult spot as people could then question the validity of the hiring. The improvement in draft position, however, wasn’t enough for a team to go out of its comfort zone. But it may have been enough to give the tie to the minority, which would be a good thing.
The draft pick improvement won’t happen this season. Instead, the rule was expanded. Teams must interview two minorities for head coaching vacancies, while adding to the jobs that require a minority be interviewed, including coordinators. This will help, but may not be enough to make a significant difference.
As for your question regarding Berry, I believe the Eagles would’ve gotten credit because he made the jump to GM from them. But the resolution was tabled, so maybe it’ll be tweaked before being brought up again.
The bottom line: I’m willing to listen to any ideas that promote minority hiring.
Q: JC Tretter was elected President of the NFLPA in March and I’ve been impressed thus far with his effective leadership of the players. The 2020 collective bargaining agreement passed by a razor thin margin, 60 votes out of 1,978.
A provocative thought here: If NFL owners see player unity as a threat, would a succession plan at the Browns center position quite possibly be about more than building depth. I was one of many fans surprised to see the Browns grab C Nick Harris in the draft. Harris looks to be a great value in the 5th round but the Browns certainly have more pressing needs than building depth at a position Tretter has reliably filled for 3 years now.
— John Palazzo
A: It’s always fair to wonder if someone out in front of a contentious issue will face repercussions. The president of the NFLPA certainly qualifies, and I must say the thought crossed my mind when Harris was drafted.
But I have no reason to believe the Browns are unhappy with Tretter serving in the role or would seek retribution — or even to rid themselves of the potential distraction. Tretter has been a model employee and teammate since the Browns signed him in 2017. He hasn’t missed a snap despite injuries, was rewarded with a three-year, $32.5 million extension in November and the new regime has expressed its commitment to him.
I agree the pick of Harris was a bit of a head-scratcher, especially at the time. The Browns had much more pressing needs than backup center. But the more I learn about Harris, the more I’m OK with the selection, especially considering the pick was obtained in a trade earlier in the draft. Tretter will be the starter this year, but it’s OK to wonder for how long.
Q: Can all the money the Browns currently have under the cap be carried to future years to help pay for upcoming huge paydays? The answer affects whether or not I’d like them to pursue Jadeveon Clowney.
A: The Browns can carry as much of their leftover salary cap space as they like forward to the next season. So while they lead the league with more than $37 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com, there is reason to preserve it.
As you alluded to, Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and others will be eligible for extensions soon, and the cap space will come in handy. While Clowney would take a good chunk of it, the Browns could offset $15 million by cutting end Olivier Vernon. The Browns have either decided they like Vernon better, or Clowney isn’t happy with a one-year deal.
Q: Can you predict the Browns’ starting offensive line in Week 1?
A: Jedrick Wills at left tackle, Joel Bitonio at left guard, JC Tretter at center and Jack Conklin at right tackle.
Am I forgetting anyone?
Oh, yeah, the only difficult selection of the bunch. I’m going with Drew Forbes at right guard. Wyatt Teller is the favorite after starting the final nine games last season, but Forbes, a sixth-round pick a year ago, showed potential in training camp and practice as a rookie. The lack of a normal offseason program could hurt Forbes’ chances to win the job, but I’m willing to go out on a limb. I thought former starting right tackle Chris Hubbard could enter the mix, but line coach Bill Callahan didn’t mention him as a candidate when he talked recently.