After Friday night’s preseason game, I heard Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski say he’s not worried about kicker Cade York, who for the second straight week missed wide right on a field goal try he should have made.
I don’t believe Stefanski for one second.
Of course he’s at least somewhat concerned about York. There’s too much at stake in the weeks ahead for the Browns, who have put tremendous faith and investment in York as their kicker. York has plenty of leg, makes his kicks in practice and after a rocky finish to his rookie season, the Browns changed special teams coaches and York said all the right things about having the proper focus and attitude headed into his second season.
Still, for as much as anything could be considered a real concern in an extended and intentionally deliberate training camp, a kicker who’s in some state of a slump absolutely would be cause for such concern, even this early.
The regular season is still four weeks away. And I’m not insinuating that Stefanski or special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone are going to panic. It’s OK to have some concern, which they must, especially if they can turn that into some urgency for York to get things figured out.
Here’s exactly what Stefanski said Friday: “No (I’m not concerned). I think Cade is, like every young player, going to continue to learn and grow from all these experiences. So, no.”
And on Saturday, Stefanski said this when asked if there’s something the Browns have noticed in York’s misses: “I don’t think there’s a common thread. I think, to your point, it’s a small sample size. Going to continue to work. Cade’s working very hard, just like the rest of our team is. I think it’s preseason football for all of us. None of us are ready to play or coach in that first game just yet. So, we’re working through it.”
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York made the first eight field goal tries of his rookie season but went just 16-of-24 the rest of the way. He missed two PAT kicks early but none over the season’s final three-plus months. In this preseason, he missed from 48 yards in the Hall of Fame Game and from 46 versus Washington. So, I’m not sure that’s really a small sample size when it comes to having valid concerns about York. But I understand why Stefanski answered the question the way he did.
Stefanski is simply never going to publicly question or doubt one of his players. It’s not his style, and he’s not going to change that. And given that the Browns still have almost 2 1/2 weeks before they even shift into regular-season mode, I can’t really nitpick that approach.
It would be silly for Stefanski — or anyone — to jump to conclusions about the team’s makeup or ceiling based upon what was about half of the Browns’ projected starting defense getting enough pressure to record a safety against Washington. The first offense moved the ball to the 1-yard line before getting stopped in what was a textbook case of August management.
If the Browns really needed to score a touchdown there, they’d have run just about anything other than Demetric Felton Jr. up the middle followed by John Kelly Jr. getting a turn. In a real game, Nick Chubb would have scored or Deshaun Watson would have found David Njoku on some sort of play-action bootleg the way Watson has been finding Njoku uncovered now for three weeks of camp.
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The Browns just worked on goal-line-specific personnel packages in practice for the first time on Wednesday, their last practice before Friday’s preseason game. That’s a no-doubt case of a small sample size and being able to shrug off an awkward preseason situation. With the state of the kicking game, I don’t think it’s the same.
There are no real conclusions this early. The Browns wanted to play Watson against Washington just to get him in the huddle and have him make pre-snap reads in something resembling a game setting. They wanted most of their regulars to get some work ahead of what Stefanski has considered the two most important days of camp, the Monday-Tuesday joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sunday, the Browns will watch some film and break a sweat at their home facility before flying to Philly.
After these practices versus the reigning NFC champions, the Browns can really start to get a feel for what they need to accomplish in the final leg of their summer work. Both Stefanski and new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz have talked about just needing work and focusing on improvement and details in the coming weeks. When Cleveland plays its next preseason game on Thursday versus the Eagles, most regulars will sit and players competing for jobs will suit up.
For the starters, the next challenge — and the next phase of camp, really — is on the practice field in Philadelphia. For York, there’s a preseason game Thursday night — and he’s put himself and his team in a position where any kick in that game is going to be an important one.
Watson, Smith excited for challenge vs. Eagles
Watson said he’s looking forward to two days of “just work, just great competition” against the Eagles and a chance for the Browns’ offense to be almost whole against a top opponent. There won’t be full tackling, but there will be full-speed sessions in various settings.
“Most definitely this (is better than a preseason game) because you really get to call everything, you get to see everything and you get to make those mistakes that in the games, you can’t get back,” Watson said. “And having two great days going against their No. 1s — against that talent and their coaching staff — is going to be great because we get to see something different. We also get to see their full (defensive) package. They get to see our full package and what we need to work on. So it’s great against great. And we’re looking forward to it and appreciate Philly for hosting us and looking forward to going out there and competing.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Za’Darius Smith said much of the same. The Browns’ full-speed practice chances have been limited, and the No. 1 defense figures to have everyone other than cornerback Greg Newsome II (minor groin injury) available for practice with the Eagles.
“I would say they have a great O-line in Philly,” Smith said. “To get to go against them, it’s really gonna show what our guys up front are about and what our defense is about — our whole team, really. It’s a very important two days. It’s the preseason and we played a little bit (against Washington), but in those joint practices, we’ll really get a lot of team reps, two-minute situations, one-on-one pass rush — a lot of stuff that’s gonna show us where we are as a team.
“We’re not there yet. We’re not all the way there yet. It’s the middle of training camp and we’re just working. Out there, it will be (more good) work.”
Stefanski confirmed that linebacker Jacob Phillips will miss the 2023 season after suffering a torn right pectoral muscle against the Commanders. Phillips tore his left pectoral muscle last season and was one of four Browns linebackers who finished the season on injured reserve. Anthony Walker Jr. (torn quad tendon in September) and Sione Takitaki (torn ACL in December) just returned to full-team drills last week, so the linebacker situation remains in flux. Phillips had spent the summer playing as an outside linebacker with the No. 1 defense.
With running back Jerome Ford out at least for the next week with a hamstring injury, the Browns plan to sign veteran running back Jordan Wilkins. As of Saturday evening, no move on either adding Wilkins or placing Phillips on injured reserve had been made official.
Stefanski said he was “hopeful” but uncertain if wide receiver Elijah Moore would be able to participate in the joint practices. Moore left the game against Washington after two touches due to a rib injury, but X-rays were negative. Stefanski said Moore was “day to day” and added that the Browns had some other players who would be classified similarly ahead of the Philadelphia trip, but he did not elaborate.
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The play calling on the lone series for the starters versus the Commanders confirmed what we’ve known since the spring: Moore is going to be heavily involved with this offense, and from a variety of different positions. These joint practice sessions would almost certainly be the only time the full offense will get live work versus another opponent in August. Chubb, Joel Bitonio and Amari Cooper didn’t play in the preseason game against Washington, and even if Watson plays in Kansas City, there’s no reason to believe the thinking with the team’s other veteran leaders would change.
Watson was 3-of-3 passing on the one drive Friday night but had just 12 yards through the air, so we’ll see if Cleveland — specifically with Njoku and Cooper — can find some success throwing the ball downfield against the Eagles’ secondary.
Which players could use a big week?
Besides the obvious (and aforementioned), which players could really use a big week in Philadelphia? Let’s go over a few, in no particular order.
Undrafted rookie safety Ronnie Hickman Jr.: His two interceptions on Friday were a heck of a way to make an impression, and there’s certainly a path to Hickman being on the active roster at some point in the near future. He’ll likely get a lot of opportunities to make more plays this week. He might even play the full four quarters Thursday night.
Wide receivers Austin Watkins Jr. and David Bell: Watkins had another productive preseason game, and he’s made a noteworthy catch almost every day in camp. Bell has had a rather quiet camp, but he caught a touchdown pass against the Commanders. Moore’s potential absence would move lots of players up the depth chart, and Bell is still working to secure a roster spot. Bell just never got many chances during his rookie season. He’d be wise to take advantage of every chance that comes his way the next two weeks.
Defensive tackles Siaki Ika and Tommy Togiai: Ika is going to be on the team, but he needs to show coaches that he’s going to be ready in four weeks. Ten-year veteran Shelby Harris was signed last week and presumably will work in these practices. Harris is going to be on the team and in the rotation, so who gets bumped? Togiai led the defensive tackle group in snaps versus Washington, but it feels like he’s currently on the outside of the group that will ultimately comprise the rotation.
Running back Demetric Felton Jr.: Though Kelly was the statistical star of the Hall of Fame Game, the Browns mostly used Felton with the first offense versus Washington. The injury to Ford will give Felton plenty of chances to show he’s worth further development, and this is a big week for Felton to prove he’s up to the task as a pass protector. One other thing to watch is Cleveland is currently short on healthy runners and Philadelphia has five quality running backs on its roster. Felton and Kelly aren’t just competing against one another.
Undrafted rookie linebacker Mohamoud Diabate: Phillips is out for the year. Veteran Matthew Adams remains out with a calf injury. Diabate got some run with the first special teams units against Washington, and this week he’ll get live chances versus running backs and tight ends from a team that made the Super Bowl last season. He’s a long shot to make the initial 53-man roster, but the Browns like what they’ve seen so far. Undrafted rookie edge rusher Lonnie Phelps is another player who’s up a couple of spots in the rotation due to injury issues and will get a bunch of snaps this week.
(Top photo of Cade York: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)