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Mailbag: Who’s ready to take next step and be an All-Pro?

Q: If you were to bet an amount of money that is significant to you, what player on the Browns who has never been an All-Pro will become one this year?

— Shawn in Parma

A: All-Pro is a great qualifier. Too many players get invited to the Pro Bowl, whether through the original vote or as alternates. Being named an All-Pro is much more difficult. I’ll give you my pick and runners-up.

Rookie linebacker Nathaniel Watson ready if called on, has skills to be leader on defense

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I’d put my money on tight end David Njoku. He took a long time to reach his potential but finally got there last year — his seventh in the league. He was downright dominant at times, set career highs with 81 catches, 882 yards and six touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl. He’s matured on and off the field, is a strong blocker and still has room to grow, as he’ll turn 28 in July. San Francisco’s George Kittle was first-team All-Pro last season, with Detroit’s Sam LaPorta on the second team. Njoku belongs in their company.

Cornerback Denzel Ward is a three-time Pro Bowler but hasn’t been an All-Pro. He’s certainly talented enough but needs to play a full season — or close. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had a breakout season in 2023 and made the Pro Bowl for the first time. All-Pro would be a logical next step.

Zone Coverage Podcast


Q:
It seems the new kickoff rules will benefit smart special teams coaches who can adapt quickly. How do you view Bubba Ventrone? Is he one of the better ST coaches in the league?

— @DeanSchleicher

A: I agree that coaching will have a huge impact with the drastically different new rules, especially at the start of the season. I believe Ventrone is one of the better special teams coaches and will have the Browns in a good spot. Ventrone was a stud special teamer, played and coached under Bill Belichick and had elite players and units during his coaching tenure with the Colts.

Notes: Za’Darius Smith explains new haircut, decision to come back

I’m not sure this was necessary, but Ventrone even donned a helmet and took the field during the offseason to get a feel for the changes. And he’s not alone in trying to solve the mystery of the new rules. Coach Kevin Stefanski and consultant Mike Vrabel have been part of the meetings.


Q:
If the time Coach Stefanski talks about offense, defense and special teams during his press conferences is an indicator of how he portions his focus during game weeks, it’s clear he spends much of his time on offensive game planning. In particular, I get the impression defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was largely left to his own devices last season and the results were amazing. However, as the 2023 season progressed, a handful of teams with good QBs succeeded in countering Schwartz’s approach, especially vs. the Texans in the wild card.

Do you agree Stefanski spends most of his time on offensive planning during game weeks, and if so, with Ken Dorsey on board, would it make sense for Stefanski to spend more time on defensive and special teams game strategy? Surely Coach Stefanski’s innovative offensive mind could be put to more use by sharing how he might attack the Browns D were he that week’s opposing offensive coordinator?

— John Palazzo

A: I don’t think there’s any question Stefanski spends more time with the offense. Most of his background is on that side of the ball, and as the play caller he needed to be heavily invested during the week.

It’s also fair to say he trusts Schwartz and Ventrone and gives them plenty of autonomy. That doesn’t mean Stefanski isn’t involved with the defense and special teams during the week and on gameday. And I have no doubt he’s vocal with Schwartz with his perspective as an offensive coach.

As for Dorsey, I see him having a larger role than former coordinator Alex Van Pelt. The offensive system the last four years was Stefanski’s, with input from Van Pelt. This year Dorsey will have much more influence on the scheme and playbook.

If Stefanski winds up having Dorsey call plays, he will have extra time to devote to defense and special teams. I just don’t think that’s necessary and believe Stefanski giving up play calling would be counterproductive. He’s good at it and should continue in the role.


Q:
Conventional wisdom held that the Browns D was lights out at home and not so good on the road. But when you looked at who they played and when at home it concerns me the road D was more of who they are.

Week 1 Cincy and a banged up Burrow. Tennessee was not scoring. Arizona and a rookie QB. A bad Pittsburgh offense at the time. Jax and the Bears moved the ball. Even the signature win vs. SF kicked off three straight weeks of a stagnant offense for Niners.

Is the D as good as the talk or am I just pessimistic after all the years of disappointment?

— Mark Davis

A: I believe the home-road discrepancy was real and more about the venue than the opponent. The performances and energy were just so different to dismiss. But your examples and question are valid.

I have mixed feelings when I reflect on last year’s defense. Some of the numbers proved dominance — passing yards, third-down conversions and first downs. But the defense wasn’t good enough in the red zone and its advanced metrics fell short in comparison to the No. 1 ranking that’s based solely on yardage.

So I don’t think the defense was as good as many portrayed — and Schwartz would agree — but I think you should lean toward optimism. The defense was legitimately good, has plenty of top-end talent and has room to get even better in Year 2 under Schwartz.

Q: What is your honest bet on number of games played in the upcoming season for: Nick Chubb and Deshaun Watson (assuming no new injuries)?

— Shawn in Parma

A: With your ending caveat, the Watson prediction is easy. He’s ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery, I fully expect him to be ready for Week 1 and don’t think the broken bone will be an issue again. So without a new injury, put him down for 17 games.

Deshaun Watson looking ‘like himself,’ set to progress from every-other-day throwing schedule in minicamp

Chubb is a much tougher call. He needed two surgeries to repair the torn ligaments and other damage in the knee and won’t practice until training camp, at the earliest. His availability for the start of the season is in doubt and the Browns will proceed with caution. Because of the severity of the injury and a previous surgery on the same knee, I’m going to be conservative and say eight games for him in 2024.

And I’d never give you a dishonest bet.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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