Q: When OBJ went down with his injury, it was predicted that our offense would suffer — no deep threat impacting the passing game and opposing defenses crowding the line of scrimmage and thereby also affecting the running game. Why hasn’t this happened?
— Bob from Akron
A: That’s a deep question.
First, let me say that I’m not sure it can be completely answered yet. The games played without receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — I’ll include the Bengals game in which he got hurt on the second offensive snap — were three in terrible weather conditions and three against poor defenses. If the Browns are going to miss Beckham, it would happen against the league’s best defenses, which includes the Ravens tonight. The Ravens have All-Pro cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who are aggressive in press man coverage and could make life difficult for Nos. 2 and 3 receivers Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Beckham can beat man coverage and scares defenses, while Higgins and Peoples-Jones don’t.
It should also be pointed out that the offense, in general, and quarterback Baker Mayfield, in particular, have improved with experience in coach Kevin Stefanski’s system. I view that as separate from the loss of Beckham, and assume the offense and Mayfield would’ve also played better as the year progressed if Beckham were still on the field.
As for the running game, it hasn’t been quite as effective as earlier in the season (four games under 140 yards since Beckham was hurt). Obviously it still ranks second in the league, so the drop-off has been subtle and included games without Nick Chubb, but I’m not sure I’m ready to say the lack of Beckham hasn’t had any impact.
Q: Health aside (which is huge), is Denzel Ward already better than Joe Haden?
A: Another toughie.
I think Ward has already proved to be more talented than Haden. He has more speed and quickness than Haden ever did, which allows him to do more things, including cover any receiver. And at this stage of their careers, Ward is a better player than the 31-year-old Haden.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better player than Haden was in his prime. I believe it would be a disservice to Haden to discount the success he’s had throughout his career, including Pro Bowl appearances in his second and third seasons. Ward made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2018, missed last year and appeared headed back this season before the calf strain.
My final answer: It’s too early to move Ward ahead of Haden on the list of best Browns cornerbacks since 1999. I’d rank them 1-2.
Q: Random fun question. If somehow, in a far off universe, the Eagles offered Carson Wentz for Baker Mayfield straight up, would you want the Browns to say yes?
A: I would’ve answered differently a month ago, but it’s a no right now.
Wentz’s decline has been startling and made me wonder if he’ll ever regain his MVP form of a few years ago. Meanwhile, Mayfield played the best game of his career last week and hasn’t thrown an interception in 156 passes. I never lost the belief that Mayfield could be a franchise quarterback, but he must throw with consistent accuracy to achieve that recognition.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t dismiss the trade request out of hand. There’s a lot still to like about Wentz, including his size, arm strength, athleticism and toughness, and I believe he could be saved by the right coaching staff. If the Browns didn’t have Mayfield, I’d be good taking a shot with Wentz. But they have Mayfield, and that trade isn’t nearly as appealing as it once might have been.
Q: Should we be a little panicked with our two top CBs in Ward and Greedy Williams rarely being available?
A: Who am I to tell anyone to panic? But it’s definitely worrisome.
I’m not ready to label Ward injury-prone, even though tonight will be the 10th game he’s missed in less than three seasons. He had two concussions as a rookie but has avoided them since. He had a hamstring strain last year, and now a calf strain. These issues wouldn’t keep me from offering him a big-money extension in the offseason — he’s that good.
Williams is tougher to get a good gauge on. He missed four games as a rookie last year with a hamstring injury and hasn’t played a snap this season after a shoulder injury in training camp. Stefanski called it a nerve injury and hasn’t had a substantial update since Williams was placed on injured reserve. It feels too early to give up on him, but his lack of availability should prompt general manager Andrew Berry to bring in another starting-caliber corner in the offseason.
Q: Is there a role for Marvin Hall moving forward, or does it look like a bad-timing scenario for him with KhaDarel Hodge possibly back next week?
Q: Does Hall return kicks or punts?
A: Two Hall questions for the price of one.
Hall’s role would be minor regardless of Hodge’s availability, but I think he’ll have one when he’s up to speed with the offense. Hall has speed that no one else in the receiving room does, and Stefanski will find a place for it, either with deep routes, bubble screens or end-arounds — as a decoy or getting the ball.
Hall could make his greatest impact as a kickoff returner. He’s returned 29 kickoffs in less than three years in the NFL, averaging 22.1 yards. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds he seems better suited for punt returns, but he’s only returned three in his career.
Q: With the extra players on the taxi squad in 2020 and the unique circumstances, how has life changed for the average taxi squad player? Do they get much chance to showcase their talent or are they kept at a distance from the regular squad?
— John Palazzo
A: Life hasn’t changed too much, except there’s a greater opportunity to be elevated to the active roster with the new rules in place during the pandemic.
They practice and are in the virtual meetings with the rest of the team. I know some teams have separated their practice squads, but the Browns trust their protocols so they haven’t done that in practices.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer did mention last week that the practice squad guys are a bit isolated, as many live out of a hotel. Without the normal time hanging out at the facility or around town, they haven’t had the typical NFL life.