Q: Do you think the Browns’ faith that “alignment” will lead to success reflects past frustration at navigating normal levels of disagreement? In any team, trust is built by quick, fair & skillful problem resolution. I cannot find another NFL team where the manager of the head coach & VP of operations is also full-time CEO of another business (Pilot Flying J). Jimmy Haslam has two complex full-time jobs.
In a good organization, smart, strong-minded people, even if strongly aligned around one strategy, are still going to disagree. Chaos has tripped up every Browns leadership team. I see better talent on this team & I do like coach Kevin Stefanski & general manager Andrew Berry very much, but is this belief in alignment really a false expectation that our owner won’t have to arbitrate disagreement? Thoughts?
— John Palazzo
A: A lot to digest here.
In reply to your first question: an emphatic yes. The organization’s extreme emphasis on alignment is undoubtedly in response to the relationship failures since the Haslams took ownership in 2012. It started almost immediately with CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi and continued through last year’s conflicts between GM John Dorsey’s personnel department and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta’s analytics department.
The Haslams deserve the ultimate blame for installing these regimes and their inability to get them to work together. Jimmy Haslam’s role with Pilot Flying J may be a factor, but I’m not confident his total attention to the Browns would have made any difference. In fact, I appreciate Haslam’s philosophy of putting people in charge, giving them abundant resources to do their jobs and then getting out of the way. The biggest downfall of ownership has been a series of bad hires in the most important of positions. And I don’t believe early conflict resolution would’ve mattered much.
I also don’t think the Berry-Stefanski pairing creates a false expectation that Haslam won’t have to arbitrate disagreement. I believe Berry and Stefanski know each other well enough — along with DePodesta — and share the same philosophies that the fires that have consumed Haslam and the organization won’t pop up.
Q: I know it’s early but what veteran could be a training camp casualty?
— Randy Clar
A: It’s never too early to look ahead to camp, talk about possible cuts and project the regular-season roster.
The nature of your question suggests a move that would be at least a mild surprise. So here are my top five, ranked from most to least likely:
Cornerback Terrance Mitchell — He was brought in by the previous administration and could open camp fifth on the depth chart. He’s still a quality backup and only 28 but could lose his job to a younger, cheaper body.
Receiver Rashard Higgins — He is loved by fans and re-signed as a free agent because he feels he has unfinished business. But the Browns won’t use a lot of three-receiver sets in Stefanski’s system and Higgins isn’t an impact player. He’ll have to beat out at least two of his competition — KhaDarel Hodge, Damion Ratley, Donovan Peoples-Jones, D.J. Montgomery, Taywan Taylor and JoJo Natson.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon — I know Berry and Stefanski spoke in support of Vernon after the draft but I can’t get past his $15 million salary. If Jadeveon Clowney signs, that would make the Vernon release automatic. But even if Clowney doesn’t agree to terms, the emergence of Chad Thomas and Adrian Clayborn or a high-profile cut by another team could spur the Browns to dump Vernon to save money.
Right guard Wyatt Teller — He’s the early favorite to remain the starter after finishing 2019 in the lineup but doesn’t have the resume to make him a sure thing. Whether it’s Drew Forbes, Willie Wright, Nick Harris, Colby Gossett or Chris Hubbard, Teller could lose his spot and tumble down the depth chart to the waiver wire.
Tight end David Njoku — I don’t see this happening but it wouldn’t cause me to fall off my chair. He’s been far too inconsistent in his three seasons, showing only limited flashes of the potential that made him a first-round draft pick. A sloppy camp from Njoku coupled with strong performances by Pharaoh Brown and Stephen Carlson could lead to a surprise trade or release.
Q: What sort of impact do you think Kareem Hunt will have in our passing game?
A: Immense. Important. Impactful. You pick the adjective.
Nick Chubb isn’t going to lose snaps at running back, so the coaching staff must find a way to get Hunt on the field then get him the ball. Third-down back is the natural role but it’s not enough. So with the lack of a big-time No. 3 wideout, it makes sense to also use Hunt there.
The coaching staff took this approach last year and it worked, as Hunt caught 37 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown in eight games. He might not have the ideal body type for a slot receiver, but he’s a good route runner with good hands and is a better playmaker than the other options. New coordinator Alex Van Pelt said the coaching staff needs to see Hunt on the practice field to determine exactly how to use him best, but I’m confident the No. 3 wideout role will be part of its plan.
Q: Scott, will the Browns starters play more in preseason games this season due to maybe not getting enough reps in minicamp and training camp with the COVID restrictions?
A: I certainly think so.
Stefanski hasn’t commented on that to my knowledge, but I’ve heard other coaches around the league suggest that approach. It just makes sense.
Not only will Browns players have not practiced since December — free agent pickup Jack Conklin played into January with the Titans — when training camp starts, they will be learning new systems on offense and defense. The extra snaps, whether to get familiar with the schemes or create chemistry with teammates, will be valuable.
Some coaches might conclude the risk of injury just isn’t worth it and stick to the normal preseason playing time, but I expect many to make an exception in this unusual year.
Q: Given the likelihood defensive coordinator Joe Woods will primarily feature a scheme emphasizing only two (or fewer) linebackers, rarely using the full 4-3 alignment, might it lead to working end Olivier Vernon as the strongside ’backer when it is?
Success in doing so would better justify retaining him even if Jadeveon Clowney were added, as there would be a significant role for him beyond as an essential pass-rushing piece. He could report at a lighter weight, should that be a factor in enhanced long-term health, taking pressure off his legs and perhaps extending both his career and his viability as a legit threat.
Mostly, this thought is about putting more seasoned and proven playmakers on the field at the same time.
— Mark Leonard
A: Vernon does have experience playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and I agree the Browns need more proven players at linebacker, but I think it’s a stretch to ask him to play linebacker in a 4-3. There’s too much athleticism and running required for him to add that role, no matter how many pounds he dropped.
I get your point about increasing his value but I don’t see a scenario other than as the starting end opposite Myles Garrett. The Browns seem willing to pay his $15 million salary for 2020 to stay there — unless Clowney accepts their offer.
Q: In spite of the terrible results on the field, I am a fan of the Haslam ownership for two reasons. One reason is more ideological: I like analytics. The other is more ethical: The Haslams have taken diversity seriously from the start. Could you comment on the latter?
A: You won’t get an argument from me regarding the Haslams’ record of diversity when it comes to hiring with the Browns. Ray Famer, Sashi Brown and Berry as general manager and Hue Jackson as coach sent a powerful message. While I disagreed with the decision, retaining Jackson to start a third season despite his 1-31 record was also a strong statement. Many black coaches across the league, including Jackson with the Raiders, have been fired sooner with much better records.
The Rooney Rule has come under intense scrutiny this offseason — and rightfully so — but it’s never been a concern for me with the Haslams. With that said, a commendable hiring record doesn’t equate to ethical behavior across the board. I can’t forget what happened at Pilot Flying J under Jimmy Haslam’s watch, even if he denied knowing about the fraudulent practices.