Q: Should the Browns prioritize extending Nick Chubb next offseason to avoid being in the same boat as the Vikings and Dalvin Cook? Both 2nd-round RBs, vastly underpaid.
A: The future of Chubb is one of the more interesting long-term topics surrounding the organization.
The case for paying Chubb big bucks in a contract extension next offseason is strong. He’s an elite talent, as proved by leading the NFL in rushing heading into the 2019 finale. He’s a tireless worker who has the respect of coaches and teammates. He’s unselfish, doesn’t demand the ball and cares most about winning. He’s the tough, smart, accountable player the new Browns regime wants. And coach Kevin Stefanski’s offensive system relies on the running game and would benefit from having a big-time threat in the backfield.
But there’s also a reasonable argument for not paying Chubb more than $10 million a year. The running back position continues to be devalued, as the NFL increasingly becomes a passing league. Capable backs can be found for much cheaper — the fact Chubb was the No. 35 pick in 2018 helps illustrated the point — and salary cap space is better used elsewhere. The production of running backs often falls off during the second contract, and Chubb had a significant injury while at the University of Georgia.
I’ve long been critical of the Browns for not keeping their best players, so I think they should try to secure Chubb long term. But I can’t ignore the analytics influence in the front office, which would strongly suggest a huge contract for a running back doesn’t fit their plan.
I understand your point about extending Chubb next offseason but again see strong reasoning on both sides when it comes to the timing. Securing him before he can smell free agency makes sense and sends a strong message to the locker room that the hard workers and best performers will be rewarded. But paying guaranteed money before he plays a fourth season is risky given the injury history of the position and Chubb. The Browns could believe they’re better off squeezing every ounce of production out of Chubb in 2021, then seeing if a long-term deal can be reached.
One final point on running backs. I’m comfortable putting Chubb in the top five at the position across the NFL. But as you look around the league, there are way more than five “top five backs.” Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Cook, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara all have strong cases.
Q: I have followed the career of Rick Spielman closely since his high school football playing days at Massillon. Rick has been employed by one NFL team, the Vikings, since 2006. When he was appointed general manager in 2012, two of his first three seasons as GM were losing seasons. Now many consider him one of the top execs in the NFL. As we stare into the Browns future, even a little bit of bad luck might cause the Browns to continue to lose for 2 or 3 more years. In the face of turbulence, will Browns ownership demonstrate patience with this leadership team should the winds of fortune steer them more slowly towards winning?
A: You continue to bring it strong, John.
Patience has never been a strength of Browns ownership, except for the incredulous decision to bring back coach Hue Jackson for a third season despite a 1-31 record. So I don’t feel comfortable promising new general manager Andrew Berry and/or Stefanski will be given time without winning. Owner Jimmy Haslam has heaped praise on the new regime, but he’s done that in the past, only to blow it up after a year or two. He’s also made it clear he doesn’t view the situation as a rebuild, expressing confidence in the roster built by former GM John Dorsey.
So the pressure is on to win quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean playoffs or bust in 2020, but Haslam expects immediate progress. I agree with you that patience in the right circumstances pays off. And if Haslam believes he’s finally got the proper alignment of front office and coaching staff, then he should trust his hires and give them time to build the winning culture that’s been missing in Berea for far too long. I think the unusual offseason caused by the coronavirus pandemic could provide cover — at least temporarily — for Berry and Stefanski. Not practicing until training camp will hurt the new coaching staff and young team more than it will established franchises like the Ravens, Steelers, Chiefs and Saints, so Haslam hopefully will appreciate that and not hold any lackluster results against Stefanski.
Q: Scott, we have all read articles about surprise cuts, how about some surprise starters for the Browns?
— Shawn Dewey
A: This angle is more difficult. Must be the cynical sportswriter in me.
I feel like the Browns will have fewer position battles than usual in camp because of the solid roster, but maybe that presents the chance for surprise starters to emerge. So here are my top four:
Tight end — No matter how much Berry and Stefanski express confidence in David Njoku, I’m not a believer. So I could see Pharaoh Brown, Stephen Carlson or rookie Harrison Bryant working into the second starting tight end spot opposite Austin Hooper. My surprise starter: Pharaoh Brown.
Right guard — Wyatt Teller is the favorite to keep the job, but his grasp seems loose. Willie Wright, Drew Forbes and Nick Harris are the top options to take the job, and I’m going with Forbes, a sixth-round pick a year ago.
Defensive tackle — Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi look like locks to retain their starting spots. But Berry signed Andrew Billings as a free agent and drafted Jordan Elliott in the third round. I really like Ogunjobi but could see Billings forcing his way into the starting lineup.
Linebacker — Nobody, including the coaches, knows who the starters will be, so no matter who I list could qualify as a surprise. I’m assuming Mack Wilson will be one of the mainstays, but I feel like I’m going out on a limb by saying third-round rookie Jacob Phillips could steal a starting spot from Sione Takitaki, last year’s third-rounder.
Q: With the unpredictable future with the coronavirus and the possibility of several players going down with it for the two-week quarantine cycle, what would you think of teams keeping a full 90 players to tap into during the season? Still have your 55-player roster and practice squad, then create a third classification that will not see the field unless a player goes down with COVID-19 or another injury. In this scenario other teams cannot raid your practice squad or larger extended roster. That way you have a large group ready to plug in just in case of the unlikely scenario of 10 or more players going down at one time.
— Phil Rojak
A: I think it’s inevitable players on every team will test positive for the virus, so you’re correct in thinking the league must come up with several contingency plans.
The 90-man roster would certainly make it easier to deal with the temporary loss of players, but I don’t think the NFL will agree to paying salaries for that many players. More likely is allowing free movement between the 55-man active roster and the 12-man practice squad in order to allow teams to field the full 48-man gameday roster. The interesting thing will be if the league changes its rules so teams can’t sign players off other teams’ practice squads to their active roster. That would seem to make sense this season, although a pay raise for those players is needed to make up for money lost if they had been signed to another active roster.
The trickiest issue for the league will be how to handle a surge of positive tests. Is there a number that would force the postponement or forfeiture of a game? Or that would require an entire team to quarantine for two weeks? The league still has plenty of issues to address before training camps are scheduled to open in late July.
Q: What is the downside, if any, to signing Clay Matthews? Reasonably priced, good production still, great leadership, proven winner?
A: The only downside to giving Matthews, 34, a look in training camp is him taking away playing time from a young linebacker.
But there are concerns whether he’s still the same Pro Bowl player from five years ago and how he’d fit in the Browns’ 4-3 scheme. I could be wrong, but I view Matthews as more of a pass rusher — eight sacks last year with the Rams — than an every-down linebacker who can cover tight ends and running backs. So I’m not sure he eases the concern at linebacker, or how he’d fit with Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon and Adrian Clayborn in a pass-rush rotation at end.
But if Matthews is willing to sign for the veteran minimum and fill a specific role, his presence would have great benefit on a young team without many proven winners.
Q: I’ve not seen anyone other than myself complain how Andrew Berry took us from 4 selections in the top 97 to two in the first 87 — just to add a 2021 #3 — particularly at a time when maximizing guys on affordable rookie pacts seemed to be the plan. And when several quality prospects were still available in Round Two after Grant Delpit’s arrival.
Did not this rendition of “aggressiveness” disturb you?
Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa as the strongside run-stuffing DE heading for a 10-12-year career of physicality, dependability and durability surely enticed me, reprising the Carl Hairston profile. He should’ve been Berry’s immediate target, especially as the 2020 Browns do not need seven draftees so much as we needed 4-5 top-shelf ones.
While AB was sitting on his hands, complacent after fortifying next spring’s haul, the balance of the league was exhibiting admirable aggressiveness, with oodles of picks swapped between 55 and 60 and two more before the round was out.
To me, this was when the draft was winnable, with the contenders knowing it.
An opportunity to make hay was missed. Multiple later-round picks and other expendable assets should’ve been packaged for something exceptional in this range, rather than evidently prioritizing next year’s class. What about now over tomorrow?
— Mark Leonard
A: You’re going to have to get used to a balance of trying to win now and preparing for the future under the new regime. The acquisition of future draft picks will always be enticing for chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and Berry, and the opportunity to acquire a third-rounder in 2021 was too good for them to pass up. (Even though it’ll likely be at the bottom of the round because the Saints are Super Bowl contenders.)
But I do get your point about a lack of aggression. I just think Berry didn’t value Epenesa and others as much as you did. And if he’s not enamored with a certain player or group of players, trading down will always be his choice. I also don’t think Berry views this is a go-for-it season, which influenced his approach to the draft.