Q: We obviously have to ask now: It looked like Jakeem Grant Sr. was going to make the team. How does his injury change the roster makeup for the initial 53?
A: The Browns could simply replace Grant with another return specialist, but I don’t expect that to happen. Jaelon Darden is the best internal option but missed all of the preseason and most of camp with a leg injury and doesn’t have the resume of Grant. And finding a high-level returner on the waiver wire or through a trade is difficult. So I’d expect Donovan Peoples-Jones to return punts and a combination of Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong to return/fair catch kickoffs.
The return of receiver Marquise Goodwin from blood clots makes this exercise more interesting. He’s going to be on the 53-man roster, which I wasn’t expecting after he missed all of camp. So he could be viewed as a one-for-one swap with Grant. But the Browns had to know Goodwin was getting closer and were planning for him and Grant to make the team, which would’ve meant seven receivers (Amari Cooper, Elijah Moore, Peoples-Jones, Cedric Tillman, Goodwin, David Bell and Grant). Without a return specialist, I don’t think they’ll keep seven wideouts, which means Austin Watkins Jr. gets cut with the hope he comes back on the practice squad.
So I expect Grant’s spot to be used on the defensive line. They’ll need to use one on end Alex Wright, who will likely head to short-term injured reserve as he recovers from knee surgery, and coordinator Jim Schwartz wants to rotate a lot of bodies.
Q: At what point is Denzel Ward’s career in jeopardy? This is his fourth concussion since being a pro.
A: The short answer: right now.
You just never know with a brain injury. Each one is unique and each player reacts differently, so I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to ask that question about Ward given his concussion history. Even if he’s cleared to play by the opener, at some point he would have to question whether putting himself at further risk is the smart move.
Q: Could the Browns have spared themselves this kicking angst had they hired a full-time kicking coach? One of the Browns guardrails is to learn from innovative sports orgs and their division rival Baltimore Ravens are the only NFL team with a full-time kicking coach. As a benchmark of innovation, the Ravens having a full-time kicking coach would seem to stand out as a smart move.
— John Palazzo
A: It’s certainly a worthwhile question given the mess the Browns found themselves in with Cade York. But I don’t think it’s that simple. A lot of great organizations don’t have a specific kicking coach and manage to do just fine.
It’s true that kicking is a unique skill that requires the proper expertise to coach it correctly. But the league’s best special teams coaches know enough and have outside resources available, including the kicker’s personal coach. I also don’t think you can connect Justin Tucker’s unparalleled success in Baltimore to the kicking coach. I think he would’ve been just as good in Cleveland.
I also believe York’s biggest problem is mental, so a sports psychologist would be more valuable than someone who specializes in mechanics. Maybe the ideal kicking coach is an expert in both areas.
Q: At what point do the DTR chants start raining in from the Dawg Pound? Over/Under Week 4.
A: Give me the over.
I know everyone loves the backup quarterback, but if fans turn on Deshaun Watson and want rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson that soon, this season will be an unmitigated disaster.
There’s still reason to doubt how good Watson will be and if he’ll ever return to his Pro Bowl form, but I expect him to be much improved over last year and give the team a chance to win nearly every week. The nightmare scenario is he doesn’t mesh in coach Kevin Stefanski’s system, Watson doesn’t make enough plays from the pocket and they start 1-3. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Q: You’ve seen training camp and all of the OTAs. Barring injury, will the Browns post double-digit wins this year?
A: Getting to the heart of the matter. I love it.
I’ve been telling my buddies for much of the offseason they’ll win 10 games. I haven’t made my official season prediction yet, but I’m going to give you a yes.
Q: The club has oddly allowed to go public the use of Elijah Moore out of the backfield. One wonders why. Yet maybe what needs to be considered is that DPJ may be used in a Cordarrelle Patterson-like role, where his size and physicality, as well as the running skills that have made him a return specialist, are employed out of the backfield, opening an outside role for Austin Watkins Jr., who is possibly the team’s foremost downfield receiving threat.
Another consideration I’d employ when deciding whom to keep is “Which player would I most fear losing on waivers?” I’d much more so regret losing Watkins than David Bell, who has no outstanding physical characteristics distinguishing himself from a multitude of others.
— Mark Leonard
A: I know there’s not really a question here but I found your email interesting and wanted to respond.
I don’t think Peoples-Jones has the quick twitch necessary to be a true threat out of the backfield. I know he’s been OK as a punt returner and had the touchdown last year, but it takes awhile for him to get up to speed. That’s not the same with Moore, who has excellent quickness.
As for Watkins as a deep threat, the return of Goodwin in that role likely makes him expendable. Goodwin is faster.
Your waiver argument is right on. That should play a significant role in deciding who gets cut. I also tend to agree with you on the Watkins/Bell argument. Watkins was certainly better in camp and the preseason, and Bell doesn’t have any elite traits — his hands top the list. But I can’t see Berry cutting two third-round receivers in the same year.
Q: Most teams have multiple kickers during camp so as not to burn out only one. Very unusual Browns didn’t do this. Why?
— Tom Tokar Tomar
A: It looks worse considering York’s meltdown, but the Browns were completely convinced York was the answer and they didn’t want to use one of the 90 camp roster spots on a second kicker. They did a good job managing York’s reps — they use a machine for many kickoffs — as to avoid too much wear and tear.
Q: How many consecutive seasons have they not had a legitimate kick returner?
A: Josh Cribbs’ last season in Cleveland was 2012, so let’s go with 10. Travis Benjamin was a threat in the next few years but mostly as a punt returner.
They even tried Justin Gilbert among the failed experiments at kick returner.
Q: If receiver Anthony Schwartz goes unclaimed, he’s back on the Browns and goes to IR right?
A: Because Schwartz was waived with an injury designation (hamstring), you’re correct. But because it’s a short-term injury, what will likely happen is the sides reach an injury settlement when he’s been cleared and he becomes a free agent. I think the Browns are done with him and don’t plan to keep him on IR all year.
Q: I get that the Browns cleared salary cap space in 2023 because they can roll it over to 2024, but in the back of the Browns’ mind is the extra cap space they now have in 2023 also a hedge just in case there is an injury to a key player.
— John Palazzo
A: They’re not going to need or use the $38 million in cap space, but I’ll grant you the room created allows them flexibility if an injury or weakness creates a need during the season.