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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. 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, starting on offense.
Here are our top five offensive position battles to watch in training camp.
1. No. Two Wide Receiver
Candidates: Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz, David Bell, Javon Wims, Ja’Marcus Bradley
In 2021, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were the starting wide receivers as training camp opened and both had disappointing seasons for the Browns. Landry’s was injury-riddled, while Beckham helped derail the season by orchestrating his way out of Cleveland and ultimately, won a Super Bowl with the Rams, despite tearing his ACL in the championship game.
The acquisition of Cooper to become the No. 1 receiver is set, but it is unclear who will be the starter on the outside opposite of him. Many thought the Browns would sign a veteran to play opposite of Cooper, but it appears the Browns have chosen to let Peoples-Jones and Schwartz battle it out for the starting position on the outside.
Peoples-Jones (6-2, 204) has shown big-play ability in his first two seasons and many feel is ready to blossom in his third season. Peoples-Jones had 34 receptions for 597 yards, including three touchdowns. His 17.6 average led the team.
Schwartz was drafted in the third round in the 2021 NFL Draft, primarily for his speed, but he had a sub-par rookie season, largely due to injuries after showing promise in the season-opening loss to the Chiefs. Schwartz caught 10 passes for 135 yards (13.5 avg.) with one touchdown.
Bell could be in the mix, as well, but he is considered to be in line to play more in the slot after being the third-round draft choice (99th overall) out of Purdue in the 2022 NFL Draft. Wims is a four-year veteran and Bradley has been with the Browns the past two seasons.
Rookies Michael Woods and Isaiah Weston are also candidates on the outside but are not expected to be in contention to start as rookies.
2. Starting Center
Candidates: Nick Harris vs. Ethan Pocic
The Browns chose to release center J.C. Tretter in a cost-cutting move this offseason after Tretter had missed just one game over the last four seasons with the Browns, starting 64 games since 2018. The obvious choice to replace Tretter was Nick Harris, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Harris has started just one game in his career at center–last season against the Packers–but showed enough to give the Browns confidence to turn the position over to him. Harris started one game as a rookie at guard. He has played in 23 games in his first two seasons.
Harris (6-1, 293) is just 23 years old from Washington.
The Browns signed veteran Ethan Pocic, a former second-round draft choice of the Seahawks, as an unrestricted free agent. Pocic is a six-year veteran who has played in 57 career games, including 40 starts. Pocic started ten games for the Seahawks in 2021.
Pocic (6-6, 320) will turn 27 on Aug. 5 from LSU.
Brock Hoffman (6-4, 302) is an undrafted 23-year-old rookie free agent from Virginia Tech, who is expected to battle for a position, but likely on the practice squad. Seventh-round draft choice, Dawson Deaton, from Texas Tech was a center in college, but the Browns have him listed to start the season at guard.
3. Slot Wide Receiver
Candidates: David Bell, Anthony Schwartz, Jakeem Grant, Mike Harley, Travell Harris, Demetric Felton
With the battle for the second wide receiver position already going on, the Browns are also trying to fill Landry’s role as a slot receiver. Peoples-Jones is the favorite to start opposite of Cooper on the outside, thus Schwartz and Bell are the likely favorites to be the third receiver.
Bell was drafted in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, while Schwartz was drafted in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Bell (6-1, 212) has the size to play inside and outside. A lot will depend on how quickly Bell is able to get up to speed in training camp and the preseason, as to whether he will be in the rotation.
Grant was signed as an unrestricted free agent, primarily to be the return specialist. He is a Pro Bowl return specialist, but there is some thought that the Browns will use Grant on offense in packages where he will be involved in reverses, jet sweeps, and other plays to get him out in space. The Browns planned to use JoJo Natson in his first season with the Browns in a similar role before he was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Felton played the slot at times when Landry was injured and was working more and more with the receivers in the offseason and at the veteran minicamp.
Harley (5-10, 180) is a 24-year-old undrafted rookie free agent from Miami (Fla.), while Harris (5-8, 182) is a 23-year-old undrafted rookie free agent from Washington State.
4. Backup Offensive Tackles
Candidates: Chris Hubbard, Drew Forbes, James Hudson, Alex Taylor, Ben Petrula, Elijah Nkansah
The Browns return four of their starting five offensive linemen from 2021. Left guard Joel Bitonio and right guard Wyatt Teller are coming off of Pro Bowl seasons. Left tackle Jedrick Wills overcame some early season injuries in 2021 and the Browns are hopeful for a breakout third season. Right tackle Jack Conklin is coming off of a season-ending injury and the Browns are hopeful he will be ready for the regular season.
Center J.C. Tretter is the lone starter not returning, but the Browns are expecting Nick Harris to take over the center position.
The remaining roster spots are for three to five backup offensive lineman roles. Blake Hance, Michael Dunn, and Hjalte Froholdt were backup interior linemen in 2021 and with Harris slated to be the center, Pocic will likely be the backup center.
Hubbard, 31, is coming off the second season-ending injury that kept him on injured reserve. If he can return healthy, he will serve a key role in backing up both tackle positions. He can also play both guard spots. With Conklin coming off of a severe injury, the Browns need to have a quality tackle ready to step in.
Hudson is in his second season after being a fourth-round draft choice. Forbes was to be in competition with Teller for the right guard position in 2020 until he took the COVID-19 opt-out. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan was high on Teller and Forbes prior to camp in 2020, leading people to believe that Forbes could also be in a position to be the top reserve offensive lineman last year, but spent the season on injured reserve. Forbes played tackle in college.
Taylor was on the practice squad the past two seasons. Nkansah is in his first year from Toledo.
Petrula was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent and received $150,000 to sign with the Browns after a stellar career at tackle at Boston College.
5. Third Tight End
Candidates: Miller Forristall, Marcus Santos-Silva, Zaire Mitchell-Paden, Nakia Griffin-Stewart
With the release of Austin Hooper, David Njoku becomes the Browns’ top tight end after signing a long-term extension with the Browns. Harrison Bryant is expected to move into the second spot in the tight end room.
However, in Kevin Stefanski‘s offense the first two seasons, Stefanski has employed multiple tight end sets often, including many three, tight end schemes.
However, after Njoku and Bryant, the Browns have very little experience in the tight end room. Of the other four tight ends currently on the roster, they have three NFL games experience with no receptions among them.
Forristall (6-5, 245) was with the Browns in 2021, mostly on the practice squad, but did play in two games with no receptions. Forristall was originally an undrafted free agent from Alabama, who signed with the Titans practice squad in 2021, before joining the Browns after being released by the Titans.
Santos-Silva (6-6, 261) played basketball at Texas Tech and is trying to make the transition to football. Mitchell-Paden (6-5, 257) is an undrafted rookie free agent from Florida Atlantic. Griffin-Stewart (6-5, 252) is in his first season from Pitt.
Griffin-Stewart was signed as an undrafted rookie by the Vikings in 2020. He has had stints on the practice squads of the Packers, Giants, and Chiefs. He’s played in one career game since 2020.
Third Running Back — D’Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, Jerome Ford
Behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Johnson proved that he could be a very good running back himself, but will the Browns keep the top three on the roster again? Ford was drafted in the fifth round and Felton was drafted in the sixth round in 2021 and it will be hard for the Browns to keep more than four on the active roster.
Punter — Corey Bojorquez vs. Joseph Charlton
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