The days surrounding the Hall of Fame Game were not kind to the Cleveland Browns on the injury front, and now the remade pass-rush group has encountered some serious depth issues.
Second-year defensive ends Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas have knee injuries and will miss extended time, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday. Wright and Thomas have basically been fourth and fifth in the defensive end lines through various drills and alignments, and both have played with the first defense.
During Monday’s practice, running back Jerome Ford — the clear No. 2 behind Nick Chubb — limped off and was taken to the training room. Ford’s exit came just minutes after guard Drew Forbes, who’s been playing with the No. 2 offense and competing for a roster spot, was carted off with what the team said was a back injury.
There was no immediate word on a prognosis for either Ford or Forbes, but the Browns are prepping for Wright and Thomas to miss time, and perhaps even regular-season games. Wright, a third-round pick in 2022, has also been competing for some inside snaps in Cleveland’s various pass-down packages. Thomas, a seventh-round pick last year, was not guaranteed a roster spot after the Browns’ offseason acquisitions of Za’Darius Smith and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, but Thomas entered camp with a chance to crack the rotation.
Cleveland feels good about its top three of Myles Garrett, Smith and Okoronkwo, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has planned to utilize a bunch of different pass rushers. The Browns are still thin at defensive tackle — in terms of proven production and in training camp raw numbers — and now face a situation that could alter the team’s thinking ahead of the Aug. 29 deadline to cut the roster to the regular-season size of 53. That’s still three weeks away, but the Browns started free agency in March by addressing the defensive line and continued to make additions there throughout the spring. There was never going to be any preseason certainty with Wright after his quiet rookie season, and now the Browns are scrambling to fill snaps.
Fourth-round rookie Isaiah McGuire will now get extra chances, and an extra spotlight from the team’s decision-makers, over the next several weeks. Because of the depth issues in the edge-rush group, the Browns on Monday signed Charles Wiley, who previously spent time with the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens. During Monday’s practice, McGuire and Sam Kamara — a holdover from the practice squad at the end of last season — lined up at the end spots with the No. 2 defense. The Browns also have two undrafted rookie defensive ends, Jeremiah Martin and Lonnie Phelps.
With a home preseason game Friday against the Washington Commanders and joint practices in Philadelphia Aug. 14 and 15, these young players are in line for their longest exposure and evaluation of the summer. Stefanski has twice declined to talk publicly about his plan for playing time in this week’s preseason game, but it’s been believed since the beginning of camp that quarterback Deshaun Watson and most of the team’s regulars would play at least some snaps in this game. Stefanski’s plan has been to assess his starters in next week’s practices versus the Eagles and use the Aug. 17 preseason game in Philadelphia to evaluate backups and young players.
Checking on the pass game
During Monday’s rain-soaked practice, the No. 1 offense brought some life to the sparse crowd with a string of touchdowns in a red zone seven-on-seven period. Over two seven-on-seven sets in the same camp period, Watson threw touchdown passes on five consecutive plays. Donovan Peoples-Jones caught two of them.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 7, 2023
The offense is supposed to score during those short-range periods against no pass rush, but after a few practices during which most competitive pass periods were won by the defense, Monday’s results were probably welcomed by Stefanski. It’s not like the passing game has been bad or consistently dominated, but the last time Watson strung together a bunch of downfield completions or “wow” type of plays was relatively early in camp.
Elijah Moore is still getting a bunch of targets, and Peoples-Jones is still making a bunch of impressive catches in traffic. We’re seeing more reps and more chances for rookie Cedric Tillman, but overall, the defense — especially when the first-team secondary has been whole — has come up with more than its share of stops. Sunday was an especially forgettable day for the pass offense in competitive settings, so we’ll score Monday as a nice bounce-back and remind all that it’s still early in camp. Next week in Philadelphia, we’ll be watching Watson and the pass offense closely.
Dropped passes were a big part of the offense failing to get any flow on Sunday. Amari Cooper dropped two passes Sunday, and he rarely drops anything. Moore and Austin Watkins Jr. both had highlight-reel catches in the early one-on-one drill, but completions of more than a couple of yards were hard to come by for the rest of what was a pretty light practice.
Watkins is interesting. He was added to the roster the day the Browns departed for Greenbrier because of what the team hoped would be a temporary shortage at wide receiver. Watkins has made a notable play in just about every practice, and he caught a touchdown pass in the Hall of Fame Game. He’s been in NFL camps before, but it’s not just experience that’s getting him open. With Daylen Baldwin (hamstring injury in the Hall of Fame Game) now done for the season, Watkins can play his way onto the practice squad and perhaps line himself up for a chance to help later in the season.
Moore’s leaping catch Sunday versus Denzel Ward that made its way around the Twittersphere came at the end of the one-on-one period. Stefanski said the last rep was not supposed to involve those two, but since the last rep has pushups at stake for the losing group, Moore and Ward forced their way to the front of the lines. Though these practices have mostly been light, and that won’t change under Stefanski, there are still competitive elements.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 6, 2023
Ahead of schedule?
Monday marked the first time we saw wide receiver/kick returner Jakeem Grant Sr. and linebackers Sione Takitaki and Anthony Walker Jr. in full-team drills. Takitaki made the defensive play of the day with an end zone interception of rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, on what was otherwise another impressive day for Thompson-Robinson.
Grant, Walker and Takitaki are all working their way back from major injuries, and they’ve essentially been alternating practice days and focusing on individual drills. A reintroduction into full-speed work marks at least somewhat of a milestone for each, and we’ll see where things go from here. Takitaki and Walker are going to be on the team; we just don’t know exactly how they’ll fit into Schwartz’s defensive rotations. Grant is guaranteed nothing, but the Browns signed him 17 months ago expecting him to revive their return game and help at least occasionally on offense.
When Grant has been active in practice, he’s generally been at the front of the line on kickoff and punt returns. If he can make enough progress to be impactful over the final two weeks of work ahead of roster cuts, he’ll have a chance to make the team and win the return jobs. With fellow speedster and return-game option Jaelon Darden having missed the last five practices with a leg injury, the return jobs are still wide open. Stefanski said earlier in the week that no decision had been made about Ford’s likely role on offense, excluding him from again being the kickoff returner. Demetric Felton Jr. will also continue to compete for both return jobs and the No. 3 running back role.
Things I’m watching
• Among the players who got Monday off: Cooper, Ward, Smith and Jack Conklin. Add in Garrett, Joel Bitonio and Chubb and you might have a guide for who will sit on Friday. Again, that’s more of an educated guess than anything else — and it’s all based on the assumption that the injury situation doesn’t force the Browns to deviate from their original plan. I’d be surprised if Walker and Takitaki played in the preseason before the final game, but we’ll see how Stefanski ultimately decides to handle things.
• With Thomas Graham Jr. (ankle injury in the Hall of Fame Game) done for the season and Greg Newsome II getting at least this week off to deal with what the team believes is a minor groin injury, there are reps up for grabs at slot cornerback in various defensive packages. Look for Mike Ford, A.J. Green and rookie Cameron Mitchell to get plenty of action in the next eight days.
• This is the time of camp when the Browns go from the installation stage to the refinement stage of things. Monday, that included some situational drills with the offense working against the shadow of its own goal line and later working with a lead inside the two-minute warning. With Cleveland in a clock-killing jumbo package, Chubb broke free and ran inside the 5-yard line before falling down to preserve the simulated win and avoid the disaster that last year’s New York Jets game became. It’s fair to say Stefanski had that play on the chart a long time before he ever decided on what the rest of Monday’s practice would look like.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 7, 2023
Tuesday is the players’ mandatory off day. The Browns will hold an open practice Wednesday ahead of their lone home preseason game on Friday against Washington. The team departs for Philadelphia on Sunday ahead of two days of joint practices with the Eagles
(Photo: Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)