CLEVELAND — The NFL’s preseason games have been canceled so the Cleveland Browns won’t be able to use exhibition games as keys to unlock important answers.
The Browns were originally scheduled to visit the Chicago Bears (Aug. 15) and Green Bay Packers (Aug. 22), then host the Minnesota Vikings (Aug. 30) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sept. 3) as they tuned up for their regular-season opener, which is slated for Sept. 13 on the road against the defending AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens.
But the NFLPA’s push for enhanced health and safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic led the league to acquiesce to the players’ demand for no preseason games.
Those games amount to glorified practices. Starters don’t play much, if at all.
But preseason games still serve as trial runs and can be valuable in shaping a team, especially for a first-year head coach like the Browns’ Kevin Stefanski.
Stefanski and his staff haven’t had their players on the field yet because spring practices — otherwise known as organized team activities and minicamps — were wiped out by the global health crisis as the league pivoted to online learning.
Below are some of the questions the Browns must answer in training camp without receiving the benefits four exhibition games would provide in a traditional buildup to the regular season.
1. How will the Browns adjust to their new schemes?
Stefanski is implementing the Gary Kubiak-inspired offense he ran last season as the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.
The running game is powered by wide zone blocking, and it’s intended to be the perfect complement to play-action passing. Rhythm and timing are essential to duplicating the pre- and post-snap looks of the running and passing plays in this system.
New Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods is employing a 4-3 scheme, which is the base alignment Cleveland has used since it drafted standout end Myles Garrett first overall in 2017.
But sub packages are deployed the vast majority of the time in the NFL, and Woods explained in May he would like to transition to a dime system. In Woods’ second and final season as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos in 2018, his primary sub package was dime, which features six defensive backs. Determining the best personnel groupings doesn’t just happen overnight.
2. Who will call the offense’s plays?
Stefanski called the Vikings’ offense for the final three weeks of 2018 and all of last season, including two playoff games. But he has been adamant he wants to give new Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt a legitimate chance to handle play-calling duties in Cleveland.
Stefanski had planned to use preseason games as test drives for Van Pelt as the play caller. So Stefanski will need to decide whether practices will be enough to make him comfortable with assigning Van Pelt those duties.
3. Will quarterback Baker Mayfield be able to master his revamped footwork?
Mayfield’s uncharacteristic accuracy woes last season were tied to problems with his footwork.
Van Pelt has been working with Mayfield in a virtual setting on adjusting his stance in the shotgun formation by positioning his left foot forward instead of his right and on eliminating a large stagger step he used while dropping back from under center.
Experimenting with those changes in practice is one thing. Doing it against a live pass rush is another. The latter won’t happen until Week 1 against the Ravens.
Van Pelt believes Mayfield’s footwork will be vital to the rhythm of the passing game as the 2018 No. 1 overall pick attempts to get in sync with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
4. Can Jedrick Wills get the job done at left tackle?
With veteran offensive line coach Bill Callahan leading the charge, the Browns became confident Wills could immediately start at left tackle after playing right tackle throughout high school and college. It’s one of the main reasons new Browns General Manager Andrew Berry drafted the University of Alabama product 10th overall in April.
Unfortunately for the Browns and Wills, circumstances beyond their control have robbed the player of crucial practice time, and now he won’t be able to use preseason snaps to become more comfortable with his new position.
Switching sides can be a daunting task for an offensive tackle. Wills is being asked to do it as a rookie who’s in an unprecedented situation.
Of course, Wills isn’t the only NFL newcomer whose climb has become steeper. No preseason action puts the entire class of 2020 behind the eight ball.
5. How will position battles play out?
The Browns have open competitions for starting jobs at right guard and all of their linebacker spots.
Wyatt Teller and Drew Forbes are the main contenders at right guard. Teller started the final nine games of 2019, so perhaps he’ll have the edge with Forbes unable to use preseason games to build a resume limited to just two appearances as a rookie special teamer last season.
B.J. Goodson, Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and rookie third-round pick Jacob Phillips are the candidates of note vying at linebacker. Goodson has 29 career starts, Wilson 14 and Takitaki one.
Players on the roster bubble traditionally rely on preseason games to present their cases for making the team. So the competition for countless backup jobs among players on the back end of the roster will likely be determined largely by who impresses special teams coordinator Mike Priefer in practices.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Browns coverage at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.
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