With the preseason over, the first wave of transactions officially processed and the Cleveland Browns working toward making themselves better ahead of Tuesday’s deadline to have their roster trimmed to the regular-season size of 53, what’s left for those in charge to answer? Let’s explore.
1. What’s going to happen with the kicker?
Cade York’s miserable preseason has put the Browns in a difficult position. There’s just no way the team can trust York after his misses in the last two preseason games, but for 16 months York has been the only kicker on the roster. Asked directly on Sunday if the Browns expect York to be their Week 1 kicker, coach Kevin Stefanski said those decisions and the discussions around them will remain internal.
“I’ll reiterate: I think Cade is very, very talented,” Stefanski said.
The Browns have to realize that York isn’t translating his practice makes into game situations, but there’s no clear indication as to how they’ll handle the position around Tuesday’s roster deadline. Will they trade a late-round pick for another team’s second kicker? Will they release York? Will they keep York and hold an internal competition of some sort with a player they add later?
There are options, but there are no obvious ones. Presumably, the Browns have been monitoring kicking situations across the league for multiple weeks. Sunday just marked the first time Stefanski expressed anything other than a full commitment to York.
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The New England Patriots have to make a choice between rookie Chad Ryland and 38-year-old Nick Folk, their kicker for the last four seasons. If the Browns want an older kicker, there are also two notable free agents in Mason Crosby, who spent the last 16 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, and Robbie Gould, who’s been in the NFL since 2005 and spent the last six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Former Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez went through camp with the 49ers and was going to become available, but he’ll be sidelined for the foreseeable future due to a calf strain.
The Carolina Panthers already cut Matthew Wright, who has previously kicked for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Los Angeles Chargers will have to decide between Dustin Hopkins and Cameron Dicker, and the New Orleans Saints will have to decide between incumbent Wil Lutz and undrafted rookie Blake Grupe.
Gould, 40, made both of his tries from 50-plus yards last season and made 85.4 percent of his regular-season kicks over the last two years, which is just below his career make percentage of 86.5 percent. Gould is 29-of-29 on playoff field goal tries in his career.
Crosby, who turns 39 next week, doesn’t have the range he once had but still made 86.2 percent of his field goals last season. He had a bad year in 2021 when current Browns punter Corey Bojorquez was his holder. Those past operational issues are the root of the external discussion about potential holding issues affecting York, but those involved with the Browns have repeatedly said they don’t think there’s been a problem in that area.
Crosby recently tweeted a video of himself making kicks and telling NFL teams, “I ain’t hard (to) find.” There’s some thought in NFL circles that Gould wants a lot of money and believes his clutch-kick resume warrants that. So maybe he wanted to play the waiting game and hope that a desperate team would pay him handsomely.
The Browns aren’t the league’s only kicker-desperate team, and there are several ways things can go as Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET roster deadline nears. The Tennessee Titans cut Michael Badgley on Sunday, leaving themselves no kicker on the roster to start the week.
2. What’s the impact of Sunday’s news?
The Browns had a busy day with a trade, 14 other player moves and the surprising announcement that Marquise Goodwin will soon go from the non-football illness list to the active roster. Goodwin had been dealing with blood clots, and there was no indication of when he might be cleared to return.
MARQUISE IS BACK IN ACTION!! 🙌
Goodwin is cleared to come off the NFI list and is in the process of returning to football activities. pic.twitter.com/PHoDsWAN8O
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 27, 2023
Now that he’s going to be activated, that obviously affects the shaping of the wide receiver group this week. But it also should boost the passing game, as the Browns signed Goodwin in March after acquiring Elijah Moore. Goodwin has game-changing speed and has made a career of running under deep passes.
Once he’s back, he’ll play a certain number of snaps in that role and give the offense more options, both in personnel packages and in play designs. If he catches a couple of deep ones and helps Cleveland keep Moore and Amari Cooper fresh, the Browns will be better than they would have been without Goodwin.
Goodwin coming back also means either David Bell or Austin Watkins Jr. won’t make the initial 53-man roster. The Browns had a couple of expected wide receiver moves Sunday when they placed Jakeem Grant Sr. on season-ending injured reserve and waived/injured Anthony Schwartz. The likely outcome with Schwartz is an eventual injury settlement that ends his run with the Browns ahead of what would have been his third season. That 2021 opener in Kansas City was a long, long time ago.
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The Browns acquired running back Pierre Strong Jr. in a trade that sent offensive tackle Tyrone Wheatley Jr. to the offensive line-needy Patriots. Keep your expectations low with this one, but there’s a good chance Strong will be active for the season opener. The Browns were able to trade from a position of strength to take a shot on Strong, who serves as insurance with running back Jerome Ford out and could compete for the kickoff return job with Grant injured.
3. What’s still to be settled?
The Browns need a kicker and a kickoff returner. They probably need a punt returner, too, but Donovan Peoples-Jones can do it if necessary. They have to make injury related roster decisions on defensive ends Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom are rehabbing from knee surgeries, and linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, who suffered a knee injury in the preseason finale that Stefanski said will keep him out for multiple weeks.
Are the Browns done at spots such as defensive tackle, tight end, running back and cornerback now that Denzel Ward is in concussion protocol? Some of those answers might depend on who becomes available on Tuesday.
Cleveland was able to trade quarterback Joshua Dobbs last week in large part because Dobbs knows the Arizona offense being coordinated by Drew Petzing, the Browns’ quarterbacks coach last year. In May, the Browns got Za’Darius Smith in a trade with Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who worked for the Browns before landing in Minnesota in early 2022. Cleveland got Moore in March after trying to land him last October. The lines of communication remained open, and connections matter at this unpredictable time of year. If a player who previously played under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz or special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone becomes available, the Browns might be more likely to pursue that player than another at his position.
Will the Browns work out another trade with the Patriots and land Folk? We’ll see, but there will be movement even outside of each team’s usual roster cuts.
Across the league last year, there were eight trades processed on the day teams had to get their rosters to 53. All eight were either a player for a pick, or a player and a pick with a better pick coming in return. There were 33 waiver claims last year made by 17 different teams on the first day after the roster deadline. In 2021, there were 27 claims awarded to 18 different teams. Given that the Browns have made two trades since Thursday and that they’re presumably going through a kicker search, it appears a safe bet that at least one more external addition is coming.
Browns final 53-man roster projection ahead of cutdown day
With Sunday’s transactions and the release of 14 players — all of which were unsurprising — the Browns are now at the roster size of 76. They’ll get to 53 by Tuesday, then sign 16 players to the practice squad. Add in the probability of one or two external additions to the active roster and a handful of new guys joining the practice squad as it churns over the course of September, and basically all but about 10 players currently on the roster are in line to play for the Browns at some point this season.
That’s why depth matters. That’s why drafting matters. And that’s why teams don’t take any transaction lightly, even player-for-player swaps involving players who weren’t going to make their previous teams.
After the Browns made three notable restructures of veteran contracts and traded Dobbs last week, they have a league-high $38.8 million in available cap space, per Over The Cap. And while they have the flexibility to continue their all-in approach, those moves are mostly about cap rollover for the team’s future. Over The Cap has the Browns $31.3 million over the projected 2024 salary cap (and before the rollover of anything remaining from the 2023 cap) based on their current contracts. Deshaun Watson currently is set to play under a cap number of $63 million 2024-2026, so every available penny of rollover is going to be needed for Cleveland to keep its current core together.
The timing of those restructures was mostly about getting business handled before all involved switched into regular-season mode, allowing the team’s decision-makers to have a better gauge of how much financial flexibility they have for the next two to 12 months. Do I also think the timing was a little about shifting the focus away from the mediocre drafting and the potential holes in this roster created by blowing too many draft picks? Well, I could be convinced.
For now, though, all focus is on Tuesday. The Browns have continually shown they’re open for trade business — and that there’s too much at stake this year to leave any avenue unexplored.
(Photo of Cade York: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)