Q: As a veteran Browns fan, I have some déjà vu thinking back to the 1979 Browns. That team was 4-1, had a thrilling win over Dallas and confidence heading into a Week 6 game vs. Pittsburgh. Things went downhill quickly starting that week, the team just missed the playoffs and injuries were one of several factors that bogged that wonderful team down.
Should the already banged-up Browns lose any more talent, do we have enough depth to contend for a playoff spot?
— John Palazzo
A: I have vivid memories of the 1980 Kardiac Kids team but don’t really remember 1979 — I was 6 years old. The 1979 edition finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs after losing its final two games.
As for 2020, the 4-1 start has me fully expecting the Browns to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. And you’re right, one of the only things that could derail them is injuries. They’ve already been tested at linebacker and safety and have managed to survive, and the overall depth of the roster is much improved from a year ago. My worry would be a long-term injury to an “irreplaceable player.” In my mind, that list is defensive end Myles Garrett, receiver Odell Beckham Jr., cornerback Denzel Ward and maybe left tackle Jedrick Wills. If any of those players were lost for the season, the coaching staff might not be able to make up for the absence.
Q: Next to Hue Jackson, has there been a more disappointing Brown than Olivier Vernon? Might as well have flushed his money down the drain. What’s sad is he’s necessary to help Garrett!!!
A: It’s completely unfair to put Vernon in the same sentence as Jackson. Vernon hasn’t come close to meeting the high expectations after former GM John Dorsey traded for him, but Jackson had perhaps the worst coaching run in NFL history with the Browns, going 3-36-1.
Vernon’s biggest issues in two years with the Browns are slow starts to the season and the inability to stay healthy. I thought he played well during the middle of last season, setting a strong edge against the run and getting three sacks in a five-game stretch. Then he hurt his knee in Denver and was done. This year, he’s been bothered by abdominal and groin injuries and was inactive in Weeks 2 and 3. But when he’s on the field, he is still powerful against the run. The issue is a lack of sacks, although he did pressure Philip Rivers a few times last week. You’re right, for the Browns defense to reach its full potential, Vernon needs to take advantage of Garrett drawing so much attention and sack the quarterback.
Vernon certainly hasn’t been worth the approximately $25 million he’ll make in two years with the Browns, but he remains a quality NFL player when healthy.
Q: Are there discussions on an extension for Terrence Mitchell, Larry Ogunjobi and Wyatt Teller?
A: There should be, but I’m not sure GM Andrew Berry will commit to paying any of them.
Mitchell and Ogunjobi are in the final year of their deals, so extensions could be finalized at any time. Teller has a year-plus left on his rookie contract, and negotiations can’t start until after this season. Let’s look at each case individually.
Ogunjobi would be my priority among the trio. He was a third-round pick of the organization, has played well, continues to get better and is everything Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski want in a player — tough, smart and accountable. He’s the type of player that should be part of the foundation. But Ogunjobi told me recently the Browns hadn’t approached him about an extension, and Berry drafted Jordan Elliott in the third round in April. I could envision a scenario in which Berry decides never to spend big bucks on a defensive tackle, choosing instead to roll in youngsters and inexpensive veterans.
Mitchell is playing himself into a sizable contract as he fills in for Greedy Williams, who’s yet to play and is on injured reserve with a nerve injury in his shoulder. Mitchell isn’t a shutdown corner, but he’s experienced and solid and has allowed coordinator Joe Woods to help elsewhere with his play calls — safety and linebacker. Mitchell was never a full-time starter in his previous six years, so he’s moving into a higher tax bracket. While the Browns would be in big trouble without him, I still wonder if Berry will pay him market value to return in 2021. Berry could instead decide to spend a couple of high draft picks at the position.
Teller seems to me most likely of the three to get an extension because Berry has made a commitment to the line and Teller was off to such a strong start before suffering a calf injury last week. But with big money allocated at the other four line spots, Berry might resist paying a right guard top dollar.
Q: If Sheldrick Redwine or Andrew Sendejo get injured, who would be their replacement? Already so many injuries at safety.
A: How fast can you get to Pittsburgh and suit up?
The Browns are incredibly thin at safety with Karl Joseph (hamstring) and Ronnie Harrison (concussion) ruled out for today. The only backups for Sendejo and Redwine on the depth chart are undrafted rookies Jovante Moffatt and Elijah Benton. Neither has spent any time on defense in an NFL game, so if Redwine or Sendejo were forced to leave, nickelback M.J. Stewart Jr. could get the call. The Buccaneers tried him there but decided it didn’t work.
Q: Regardless of the outcome of the Steelers game, the Browns will leave Heinz field as legit playoff contenders. Are there any reasonable trade scenarios you can envision that would solidify the Browns postseason hopes?
A: I appreciate the question and know Berry will spend plenty of time exploring options. I haven’t done enough research to give you specific names — I’ll put it on my list of things to do — but know the positions I’d target.
They’re all on the defense. Safety and cornerback would be the top priorities, but I’d also search for an end to add to the pass-rushing mix.
Q: It must also be acknowledged by this vocal dissident regarding LB decisions since the end of last season that the corps has been quite impressive. It is stuffing the run behind the surprising work of Sione Takitaki and B.J. Goodson. Malcolm Smith was an astute addition and made a very underrated, timely play on a wheel route in the left corner of the end zone Sunday vs. a good RB threat. Jacob Phillips has appeared solid, at least when healthy, showing exciting upside. Mack Wilson is back, bringing some promise.
It is not inconceivable Taki and BJ play on run downs, replaced by Smith and Wilson on later, ideally long-yardage conversion downs.
— Mark Leonard
A: I know it’s not a question but I thought your point was worth including. The linebackers remain a concern, but I have also been impressed with how the coaches have been able to piece together a solid performance from an unimpressive collection of options. The run defense ranks fourth, and that would be impossible without solid play at linebacker. And you’re 100 percent correct about Smith, who’s helped in coverage, including on the wheel route you mentioned. I think the next step for the group is for Wilson to take on a bigger role.