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BEREA, Ohio — For the Cleveland Browns and their fans, the start of training camp has always been the start of a new year and the high hopes of ‘this is our year’. Unfortunately, far too often, once the season starts, hopes are dashed and thoughts are turned to the next NFL Draft and chants of ‘wait until next year’.
Hope springs eternal–especially for Browns fans, but 2022 could be different.
‘Hoping’ that the team will win is replaced by realistic expectations that the team ‘will’ win and build off of their influx of talent during the offseason.
That influx of talent was led by the acquisition of quarterback Deshaun Watson, along with wide receiver Amari Cooper.
However, since the trade for Watson was consummated in mid-March, most of the talk has been centered off the field on Watson’s legal situation. As the decision looms closer, it very well could determine the Browns’ fate in 2022.
The Browns have one of the strongest rosters in franchise history, certainly since the team returned in 1999. Most fans felt the team was poised for big things in 2021 after getting a taste of the playoffs in 2020.
However, an injury-riddled season, led by the torn labrum to quarterback Baker Mayfield in the second game, torpedoed the team’s hopes and the result was an 8-9 season and a non-playoff year.
In 2022, the Browns return with many key players on offense, led by Pro Bowl offensive linemen Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, and Jack Conklin, and Pro Bowl running backs Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt.
The addition of Watson and Cooper, adds two more Pro Bowl performers to the offense.
The defense was completely overhauled prior to last season and played very well in the second half of the season after they gelled and came together Nine of the 11 starters return from 2021, led by Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward returns along with last year’s top two picks in cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who are expected to be even better in 2022.
Safety John Johnson returns for his second season and is expected to have an even bigger impact this season.
Most of the key battles in training camp on both sides of the ball will be for reserve positions and depth, as most starting positions are set. We will take a look at some of the top training camp battles on both sides of the ball. We started on offense, which can be read right here:
Five Key Offensive Position Battles to Look for Browns in Training Camp
Here are top five defensive battles for training camp:
1. Interior Defensive Line Starters
Candidates: Jordan Elliott Taven Bryan, Sheldon Day, Tommy Togiai, Perrion Winfrey
During minicamp, defensive coordinator Joe Woods mentioned the above five names as players he saw competing for inside interior positions, as well as the rotation.
Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell were the two starters on the inside in 2021, but neither returned in 2022. Currently, both are still free agents. The Browns are hoping that Elliott (6-4, 303) is ready to seize the starting opportunity at one of the positions. The former third-round draft choice from Missouri in the 2020 NFL Draft, had 23 tackles, one-half sack, and a pass broken up in 2021.
Bryan (6-5, 291) is in his fifth year out of Florida. Bryan was signed as an unrestricted free agent after being a former first-round draft choice of the Jaguars. Bryan has 86 career tackles, including 5.5 sacks. He had two sacks in 2021.
Day (6-1, 293) is in his seventh season out of Notre Dame. He had 21 tackles and a sack to go with two passes broken up in 2021 for the Browns.
Togiai (6-2, 296) is in his second season out of Ohio State after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. As a rookie, Togiai had 13 tackles, a half sack, and a pass broken up.
Winfrey (6-4, 290) was a fourth-round draft choice in the 2022 NFL Draft from Oklahoma and was the MVP at the Senior Bowl.
The Browns rushing defense was in the middle of the NFL last season, giving up close to 111 yards a game. The coaches praised Elliott’s offseason and are hoping he is ready to make the leap to the starting role in year three. Bryan has a chance to be one of the starters as he was the primary interior defensive lineman brought in during the offseason. Winfrey has potential and has a good chance of being in the rotation as the season goes along, if not becoming a starter early in the season if he can impress early.
Day has been a steady contributor the previous two seasons and adds depth, as does Togiai. The coaches are hoping the former Ohio State star can push for the rotation, as well.
Glen Logan (LSU) and Roderick Perry (Illinois) are undrafted rookies who have a chance to impress in training camp and push for a place on the roster or practice squad.
If the Browns are not happy with the progress of the interior defensive linemen, they might very well look to acquire one in a trade or as training camp cuts come about.
2. Starting Linebackers
Candidates: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Jacob Phillips, Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki
The Browns’ three starting linebackers return from 2021 with Owusu-Koramoah finishing the season at weakside linebacker (WILL), Walker at middle linebacker (MIKE) and Takitaki at strong-side linebacker (SAM).
Phillips is expected to push Walker for the starting job as he missed much of the 2021 season with a biceps injury, but when he return late in the season, he received a lot of playing time.
Walker (6-1, 235) led the team with 106 tackles, one sack, and two passes broken up. Owusu-Koramoah (6-2, 221) was second on the team as a rookie with 72 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four passes broken up, and two forced fumbles.
Takitaki (6-1, 238) had 36 tackles. Phillips (6-3, 228) had 17 tackles, a sack and a pass broken up in just four games.
Woods likes to use just two linebackers and he might choose to use Owusu-Koramoah and Phillips in those situations as the pair have the speed and athleticism to cover sideline-to-sideline. Walker was a team leader last year and will be in the rotation, if not the starter.
Takitaki was used mostly on first- and second-downs and in running situations.
Second-year linebacker Tony Fields, Willie Harvey, and rookie UDFA Silas Kelly are the other linebackers currently on the roster.
Again, if the Browns feel they do not have the depth at the position, they might look for a veteran linebacker in a trade or through waivers.
3. Third Cornerback
Candidates: Greedy Williams, AJ Green, Martin Emerson, Herbert Miller
The Browns appear set on the outside with Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward and last year’s first-round pick Greg Newsome. However, the Browns traded top slot cornerback Troy Hill to the Rams during the NFL Draft.
Williams, a former second-round draft choice, returned in 2021 after missing the 2020 season due to injury. Williams has played mostly on the outside and might play opposite of Ward on the outside on third down with Newsome moving to the inside.
Williams (6-2, 185, 4th season, 24, LSU) had 40 tackles, seven passes broken up, two interceptions, and a forced fumble in 2021 after missing the 2020 season with an injured shoulder. After being a second-round draft choice in the 2019 NFL Draft, Williams started 12 games, opposite Ward, and had 47 tackles with two passes broken up. He missed four games as a rookie with a hamstring injury and has now missed 22 of 34 games in his two seasons. He is in the final year of his rookie contract.
Despite Williams being the favorite to be the third cornerback, the Browns did use their top pick in the third-round of the 2022 NFL Draft on Emerson. He could push Williams for playing time, as could Green in his third season.
Emerson (6-2, 201, Rookie, 21, Mississippi State) was the Browns’ top draft choice in 2022 in the third round (68th overall) of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Green (6-2, 198, 3rd season, 24, Oklahoma State) had nine tackles, five passes broken up, an interception, and a fumble recovery. He led the team in special teams tackles with eight.
Also, Miller (6-1, 201, 2nd season, 24, Florida Atlantic) has had a good offseason and he flashed some potential last season, playing in nine games. He played in four games with the Bucs in 2020.
Shaun Jolly, Reggie Robinson and Parnell Motley are other cornerbacks on the roster, but are not expected to be competing for a starting job. However, anything is possible with a strong training camp and preseason. Robinson and Motley have played in a combined six NFL games, while Jolly is an undrafted free agent rookie.
The Browns return their top three cornerbacks from 2021 and four of the top five. Andrew Berry did trade the top slot cornerback but feels that Newsome can step inside and play the position. Training camp and the preseason will determine the rotation, but the injuries suffered at cornerback in 2021 prove the need for depth.
4. Fourth Safety
Candidates: Richard LeCounte, Nate Meadors, Luther Kirk, D’Anthony Bell
The Browns return their top three safeties from 2021: John Johnson, Grant Delpit, and Ronnie Harrison, but need to find depth as defensive coordinator Joe Woods likes to use three safeties in his defensive schemes.
The biggest battle at safety appears to be for the fourth safety position. M.J. Stewart filled that role last season, but he left in free agency, as did Jovante Moffatt.
LeCounte (5-11, 196, 2nd season, 23, Georgia) would appear to have the inside track on the position as he is the only safety behind the top three who played last season for the Browns. LeCounte was drafted in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft from Georgia. He had two tackles as a rookie.
Besides LeCounte, the other candidates presently on the roster, have no experience.
Meadors (5-11, 189, 1st year, 25, UCLA) was on the Browns’ practice squad in 2021. Kirk (6-1, 205, 1st year,25, Illinois State) was acquired via waivers from the Falcons.
Bell (6-1, 211, Rookie, 25, West Florida) is an undrafted rookie free agent.
The Browns’ safety position should be much better than in 2022 with the familiarity and continuity with the system, but the Browns need to find depth at the position. If none of the newcomers show they can handle the role, the Browns might be looking at the waiver wire for depth as training camp moves along.
Candidates: Corey Bojorquez and Joseph Charlton
The Browns have completely overhauled their punting position by bringing in two free agents in Bojorquez and Charlton and moving on from Jamie Gillan and Dustin Colquitt.
Bojorquez (6-0, 217, 5th year, 25, New Mexico) was signed as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Bojorquez punted for the Packers the last two seasons. In 2021, Bojorquez had an average of 46.5 yards per punt. In his first four years with the Bills and Packers, Bojorquez has a career average of 45.4 yards per punt.
Charlton (6-5, 190, 3rd year, 25, South Carolina) was signed as a free agent during the offseason after punting for the Panthers and Jaguars in 2021. Charlton’s career average is 44.3 yards per punt.
The Browns moved on from Gillan near the end of last season, but Colquitt, his replacement, turned 40 years old before the 2022 season and the Browns decided to get younger. The Browns chose to delve into free agency to bring in two punters to compete for the job, but Bojorquez has the better pedigree and should be the favorite to be the team’s punter over Charlton. As a free agent, the Browns signed Bojorquez for $1.5 million in 2022, while Charlton is under contract for $895,000.
Third, Fourth Edge Rushers
Candidates: Isaac Rochell, Stephen Weatherly Alex Wright, Curtis Weaver, Chase Winovich, Isaiah Thomas
Behind Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, the Browns need to find depth. Winovich would have the inside track to be the third edge rusher after coming over in a trade, but Rochell and Weatherly were signed as free agents to provide experience and depth.
Weaver has missed most of the past two seasons due to injury. Rookies Wright and Thomas are hoping to provide depth and battle to get into the rotation, but much will depend on their progress in the preseason.
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