The Browns’ depth at defensive tackle took a big hit Tuesday when Andrew Billings opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns.
Billings signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract as a free agent in March, which tolls to next year. He was slated to join a rotation on the interior with Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi and rookie third-round pick Jordan Elliott and possibly compete for a starting spot.
“We believe in having depth along the defensive line,” general manager Andrew Berry said on a Zoom call. “We think that we have a number of guys who are really talented players. We have added a number over the course of the spring.
“It really is going to be a next-man-up mentality. It is no different than if you are dealing with an injury in season. We have some younger players that will push for more playing time, so we are excited about that. Hate to lose Andrew, but certainly understand and are 100 percent supportive of his decision.”
The offensive line depth received a blow later Tuesday when third-year guard Colby Gossett informed the team he was opting out, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram. The move became official Wednesday.
Gossett, who started four games for the Cardinals in 2018 and spent 15 weeks on Cleveland’s practice squad last year, was expected to compete for the starting right guard spot. Drew Forbes, another candidate at right guard, opted out last week.
Elliott, the No. 88 overall pick, figures to take on a larger role, assuming he can get up to speed without an in-person offseason program and no preseason games. Daniel Ekuale and Eli Ankou are young veterans who could step into the rotation, and Jeffery Whatley is an undrafted rookie out of South Alabama.
The loss of Billings, 25, is significant on a line whose lack of depth was exposed at the end of last season when suspensions and injuries struck. He started 37 games in three seasons for the Bengals before becoming a free agent.
He was a fourth-round pick in 2016 and has 80 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his career. He started 14 games last year, totaling 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and a sack.
Billings was the third Browns player to opt out of the season, following offensive linemen Forbes and Drake Dorbeck. Billings made his decision after reporting to Berea for the first stages of training camp.
Players have until Thursday at 4 p.m. to opt out of the season. The decision is irrevocable.
“For all those guys, it is deeply personal and an individual choice,” Berry said. “We will know at that time if there are more guys, but suffice it to say organizationally, we support all those guys we understand that it is a difficult decision.
“We support the three guys who have opted out so far, and I look forward to them being back with the team next year.”
FIT AND TRIM
After earning praise for his participation in the virtual offseason program, quarterback Baker Mayfield has impressed in his return to the facility.
“Baker has really been outstanding this entire spring and summer — level of engagement with the coaching staff, getting up to speed mentally with the system and his interaction with his teammates,” Berry said. “He came back and added 4 pounds of lean mass, cut body fat and came back in terrific shape.
“I know he is really excited about the upcoming season, and he has done a really nice job of what I would call almost creating community and really bringing guys together, as difficult as that can be as everybody has really been trying to function virtually. We are all really excited about him entering the year.”
THE RIGHT TIME
Berry scouted defensive end Myles Garrett at Texas A&M, was part of the group that drafted him No. 1 in 2017 and spent two seasons around him with the Browns. So when the organization was allowed to sign Garrett to a contract extension this offseason, Berry didn’t hesitate, despite Garrett having been suspended for the final six games of last season.
Garrett signed a five-year, $125 million extension July 15, which at the time was the highest for a defensive player in NFL history. The Chargers’ Joey Bosa moved into the top spot with a five-year, $135 million deal.
“I really feel very comfortable with Myles both the player and the person, understanding that he made a mistake last year,” Berry said. “In terms of what he does on the field, in terms of what he does while he is in our building and in terms of what he does in the community, just feel great about the player and the person.
“For us to have an opportunity to have him under contract for the next seven years, we thought that was really a great opportunity for our organization, and obviously it gives him long-term security, as well. I felt like we really had enough information to know how he was going to respond.”
Berry also brought back Olivier Vernon, the other starting defensive end, with a restructured contract. Vernon was due a non-guaranteed $15.25 million salary in 2020, the final year of his contract. The new deal guarantees him $11 million.
“We feel good about really both of our bookends,” Berry said. “We think that Myles and OV can be a really strong duo for us this upcoming season. Obviously we want to make sure that OV stays healthy and stays on the field. We think that we can be tough to block upfront when those two guys are really going.”
BACK IN THE FOLD
Berry acknowledged he was “a little bit” surprised when tight end David Njoku requested a trade early last month. Njoku rescinded the request Saturday and tweeted he’s “all in” after returning to Berea and talking to Berry.
“Since the spring and definitely since he has been back, he has been very engaged with our coaching and performance staffs,” Berry said. “He has shown up in terrific shape. I do think there is an element of getting back around your teammates, your coaches, the excitement of training camp.
“We have been very consistent that we think David can be a big part of where we are trying to go as a team this year and that we think he has an important role to play for the roster and for this team. We think we are in a pretty good place right now.”
The Browns activated running back Dontrell Hilliard and undrafted rookie safety Jovante Moffatt from the reserve/COVID-19 list and placed undrafted rookie receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley on it.
Hilliard and Moffatt were placed on the list July 26 after reporting to camp. The list is for players who either test positive or have been in close proximity to someone who has.
Bradley, who went to Louisiana-Lafayette, joins backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert on the list. Punter Jamie Gillan was activated from the list Monday.
** Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted he has received plans from the Browns and Bengals for having limited fans at games this season and is reviewing them.
** Berry opened the interview by recognizing the death of longtime Channel 8 meteorologist Dick Goddard, who worked for 43 years as a statistician on the Browns radio broadcasts.