The Cleveland Browns are back in Berea—some players reuniting, others being introduced for the first time—but all getting ready for the 2021 season as training camp is officially underway.
While training camp gives the team the opportunity to start gelling as a unit, it also gives coaches and staff the first real looks at players competing for a roster spot in some of the more competitive positions on the team.
As fans head back to the training facility to watch the Browns practice for the first time since 2019, here are the most intriguing battles to keep an eye on:
After last season came to an end, the Browns lost their two starting defensive tackles in free agency—Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi signed with the Cincinnati Bengals while Richardson signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
Browns general manager Andrew Berry made sure to address the position of need in both free agency and the draft, selecting Tommy Togiai out of The Ohio State University and signing Sheldon Day, Malik McDowell, Damion Square and Malik Jackson in free agency. Andrew Billings also rejoins the line after opting out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns.
With Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney as bookends, and even more rotational talent in Takkarist McKinley, Porter Gustin and Curtis Weaver, the interior of the line has a lot to prove.
A good amount of players attended the voluntary OTAs in June, allowing many of them to meet each other for the first time and establish a bit of early chemistry while also preparing them for the competition here at camp, as Jackson said back in June.
“I think we're a good group. We all understand what we bring to the table, but I think this last OTAs really allowed us to see what each of us brings and what we all need to focus on coming back for camp so we can beat each other out because that's the name of the game,” Jackson said. “I'm excited about these guys. I'm excited to play with them and whether I start or don't start I just think we're going to be rolling and we're going to get after it.”
As the rookies learn from the vets and the vets try to edge out the rookies, seeing who gets the starting roles in a position that will likely see plenty of rotation will be a part of training camp fans will enjoy watching unfold.
The battle of the kicker tends to be an ever-entertaining but underrated part of training camp.
In 2019 it was Greg Joseph vs. Austin Seibert. Last year it was Austin Seibert vs. Cody Parkey. This year, Parkey will put his leg to the test against recently signed kicker Chase McLaughlin.
While Browns fans might have let out a groan or sigh when they heard the news of Parkey’s signing last year (no one will ever forget the double-doink, they just won’t), the 29-year-old held his own in brown and orange.
Parkey made 19 of his 22 field goal attempts last season and 43 of his 47 extra point attempts. Even more important and impressive, Parkey was perfect in the postseason, making all eight of his extra point attempts and all three of his field goal attempts.
But McLaughlin, despite bouncing from team to team and playing in a limited number of NFL games, has enough talent to challenge Parkey during this season’s training camp.
McLaughlin owns a career-long 52-yard field goal, a 78.6% field goal percentage, and 96.9% extra point percentage.
As the two kickers shake off the offseason rust, fans will either revel in, or hyperventilate over, the missed kicks and comical sound of the inevitable doink, or two, when special teams are a go at camp.
Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are the clear stars in the wide receiver room. Beckham is looking to bounce back after tearing his ACL in Week 7 last season and has been hard at work all offseason rehabbing his knee and getting prepared for full-go as soon as possible, ready to make his impact on the Browns known this year.
But the real battle will be for the WR3 position and beyond, which boasts plenty of capable talent to be plugged in there.
Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins has always had undeniable chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield and last season it appeared head coach Kevin Stefanski found the key to utilizing him in the offense in a way former coach Freddie Kitchens failed to do. Back on a 1-year deal, Higgins had expressed his desire to return to Cleveland after becoming a free agent at the end of last season.
KhaDarel Hodge, who was notably one of the Browns most clutch receivers last season, is back again. Hodge stepped up in a big way after Beckham’s injury and made big-time plays for the Browns whenever he was on the field. All 11 of Hodge’s receptions during the regular season resulted in a first down for Cleveland for a total of 180 receiving yards.
Last season, Donovan Peoples-Jones impressed in his rookie outing with Stefanski noting what an asset he is to the team on the second day of training camp.
“Donovan did a nice job for us last year as a rookie. You saw his role grow throughout the course of the season. A very intelligent football player, and we knew that from the jump with him,” Stefanski said. “He could line up everywhere and do his job. We are looking forward to seeing what he can do, as he grows and gets more comfortable with what we are doing.”
In addition to all of the talent returning from last season, there are some new players in the wide receiver room that will make narrowing down the position a little more difficult if they perform well at training camp.
Adding the speedster Anthony Schwartz and the versatile Demetric Felton, who is also a running back, to the rookie receiving roster, as well as re-signing former Akron Zip JoJo Natson, there will be some very talented players who don’t make the roster because there just isn’t enough room.
As the wide receivers battle it out through camp, fans can expect to see some wild catches, some intriguing footwork and bursts of speed across the field as each player works to showcase their talents and earn a spot on the roster.
One of the most questionable positions on the roster last season, the Browns have bolstered the room with talent this offseason and the fate of some players will likely come down to how well they perform through camp and the preseason.
Mack Wilson, who struggled immensely last season, will look to bounce back and prove himself capable of being a valuable piece to this Browns defense. According to Stefanski, he’s already put himself in a good position to start camp.
“Mack is in a great place. He is working really, really hard. He had a great offseason, both physically and mentally. What he did within the scheme, I thought he did a nice job,” Stefanski said. “This is a competition, and we are all competing. Now, we are going to start in one place, but everybody is fighting for those jobs every single day. Mack is doing a nice job.”
But Wilson has some competition, like Stefankski said, as he looks to earn his place on the roster. With Sione Takitaki looking to have a big third year and veteran Malcolm Smith back with the Browns, the linebacker battle already had potential to be tough.
And then the Browns, as they worked on the defense this offseason, added Anthony Walker, who will play MIKE linebacker and will call plays for the defense, as safety John Johnson III confirmed Thursday.
Stefanski addressed that as well, adding that then-rookie Jacob Phillips took on that role last season, a reminder that Phillips, who missed parts of last season with a knee injury, is also a contender for a starting linebacker position.
With Montrel Meander, Elijah Lee and Tony Fields II, who is currently dealing with a foot injury, all at camp as well, watching the linebackers push each other and seeing who edges their way to the top will be a top battle this year.
This is the position that general manager Andrew Berry might love the most, saying at the end of last season that “in terms of the position, you can never have enough corners. You really can’t, especially in this defense. That is always an area that we will want to be deep going into the year.”
And Berry made sure he stayed true to his word, adding a plethora of talent to the room in acquiring Troy Hill and drafting Greg Newsome II. They’re part of the training camp roster that also consists of Kiondre Thomas, Emmanuel Rugamba, A.J. Green, Brian Allen and the more well known M.J. Stewart, Greedy Williams and defensive star Denzel Ward.
With Ward starting on the outside, and Hill a top candidate for playing in the slot, the fate of Newsome and Williams will be a battle to keep an eye on as Newsome, the first-round draft pick, looks to earn a starting role and Williams looks to bounce back from his shoulder injury and prove himself on the field.
Newsome doesn’t believe that he’s an automatic starter and knows he has to earn it.
"Nothing is given. Everything is earned. At this point, I'm trying to learn from some of those older guys like Greedy [Williams] and Denzel [Ward] and Troy [Hill] and just learn the coverages and just go out there and try to compete as best as I can. And whatever coach needs me to do, that's what I'm going to have to do," Newsome said.
While he learns from the players with NFL experience, the battle to become a starter is one that Newsome is ready for.
“I think it's just competing, at the end of the day. You've got to compete every single day and that's how you're going to earn whatever you get. So I'm just going to come out here, compete my best and just showcase my talents and what I can do,” Newsome said.
With a need for depth and rotational assets at cornerback, seeing who the Browns keep on the roster and how each player is used moving into the regular season is something fans will likely be very interested in monitoring.
As Friday marks the first day for fans to attend training camp, all eyes will be on some of these positions as the players look to impress their coaches and the organization to remain on a team filled to the brim with talent.
Browns safety John Johnson III may have described the positions battles the best:
“Everyone has to prepare like a starter. There’s going to be a depth chart, there’s going to be starters Week 1, but that might change by Week 5. Everyone’s just got to work hard, push each other to be the best that they can be and if you’re the best version of yourself—ultimately the starters may be the starters but it can always change,” Johnson said. “So if we all prepare like starters and push ourselves, it’ll all workout.”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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