OTAs ended last week with a bang, bringing significant moves on the depth chart, a big free agent signing and extension for a deserving Browns veteran.
No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield moved up from third to second in the QB rotation behind Tyrod Taylor, and No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward moved into the starting lineup at cornerback.
Former Eagles starting linebacker Mychal Kendricks chose the Browns over the Vikings and Raiders, signing a one-year deal worth up to $3.5 million, and the Browns signed running back Duke Johnson to a three-year extension that averages $5.2 million a year after this season.
Tyrod Taylor will look to build on the excellent offseason he’s had so far.
Here are some of the biggest questions heading into minicamp:
1. Can Corey Coleman get back in the team's good graces?
Heading into his third season, Coleman is on the hotseat to live up to his No. 15 overall draft status in 2016. If not, he might not make it to the fourth year of his contract. Coleman’s first two seasons were marred by broken hands, but he also hasn’t demonstrated the leadership or work ethic the Browns expect from a top 15 pick. Hopefully for him and for the Browns, his drop with the game on the line in the season finale in Pittsburgh proves to be a turning point for him. But Coleman has a huge strike against him in that he was the first pick of the Sashi Brown era, and new GM John Dorsey has already made it clear he’s not enamored with the acquisitions from those two years.
The Browns also upgraded the position with a player they already seem to like better in fourth-round pick Antonio Callaway. Unfortunately for him and for the Browns, he tweaked a groin in the second week of OTAs and hasn’t practiced much. If Callaway is limited during minicamp, Coleman will have more of a chance to make his mark. But if Callaway is full-go for training camp, he’ll give Coleman a run for his money. The Browns also really like the potential of sixth-round pick Damion Ratley, the receiver out of Texas A&M.
According to the analytics site profootballfocus.com, Coleman was the 102nd best receiver in the NFL last season. That’s just three notches above Kenny Britt, eight above Rashard Higgins and 12 above Ricardo Louis. For comparison’s sake, Jarvis Landry was ranked 19th.
2. Can Baker Mayfield narrow the gap on Tyrod Taylor
Mayfield is coming up the learning curve quickly in terms of working under center and mastering Todd Haley’s terminology. But he’s still far behind Taylor, who’s running Haley’s offense efficiently and throwing TD passes.
Just like in OTAs, no contact will be permitted in minicamp, so it’s difficult to get an accurate read on the quarterbacks. But working with the twos will give Mayfield a chance to showcase his arm talent with better receivers, and to work against better defenders. It will also be a confidence boost for a player who wants quicker progress. But Mayfield has a great work ethic and will work overtime to narrow the gap on Taylor. At this point, he’s still not scheduled to work with QB guru Tom House in the offseason, but he’ll do whatever it takes to improve.
One of the best things that happened to Mayfield was having a bad practice in the first OTA open to the media in week one. It included three interceptions (albeit two off deflections), and two more that were dropped. Mayfield worked even harder after that session, and looked better the subsequent two weeks.
“I don’t think I’d be here if that was a typical day at work just to be quite honest with you,’’ he said. “I hold myself to higher standard. That was definitely one of the worst days I’ve had. I’ve had a couple more bad ones but like I said, it’s not going to be perfect. It’s only the beginning of June. I’ve got some time to learn and keep growing.’’
3. Can Jabrill Peppers become the enforcer?
The Browns need a dominant safety that quarterbacks fear, and Peppers has the potential to be that guy now that he’s at strong safety instead of free. Given his No. 25 overall draft status, Peppers should aim for a Troy Polamalu-type career. Yes, eight Pro Bowls is asking a lot, but that’s where Peppers should be setting the bar. He should also be watching plenty of film of the former Steelers’ safety and other greats if he’s not already. In two of his 12 seasons, Polamalu had seven interceptions, and in one of them, he forced five fumbles. A truly great defender needs to make such game-changing impact plays. Peppers should have a much better season at his new spot, and he can set the tone in minicamp despite no contact.
4. Can Mychal Kendricks win a starting job?
Kendricks, the six-year veteran of the Eagles, chose the Browns over the Vikings and Raiders, and you can bet he didn’t come here to come off the bench. He must have had some indication that he could win a starting job, or he would've avoided an 0-16 team. Jackson said Kendricks, will start out at middle linebacker, where third-year pro Joe Schobert resides.
Schobert was added to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season, and had a solid sophomore season. Kendricks, who’s primarily played weakside ‘backer in a 4-3 scheme such as Gregg Williams’, might also have chances to fill in for Jamie Collins at strongside ‘backer depending on when both are fully recovered from their injuries. Collins is working his way back from a torn MCL, and Kendricks had an ankle scope in March. Both sat out the OTA open to the media last week.
5. What will Duke Johnson's role be?
Johnson played a lot as a the slot receiver last season, but the Browns now have one of the best slot receivers in the NFL in Jarvis Landry. The Browns also signed Carlos Hyde and drafted Nick Chubb to share the running load. So where does Johnson fit in? Likely everywhere. The all-purpose back will still see some slot duty when Landry’s on the outside and he’ll serve as the third-down back. He’ll also line up in the backfield at times with Hyde or Chubb. Haley will find creative ways to use the versatile back, including likely running the ball more. And if Johnson isn’t overworked on offense, he can also return some punts. Last year’s leading Browns receiver with 74 receptions, Johnson will have plenty to do, especially considering the Browns will likely run a lot more plays.
6. Will Josh Gordon return to Pro Bowl form?
It marks the first time in four years that Gordon has participated in OTAs and minicamp, and the Browns are hoping it translates to a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2018. The last two times Gordon returned from lengthy suspensions, in 2014 and 2017, he didn’t produce the way he was accustomed to. In his last 10 games, five at the end of those seasons, he caught 42 passes for about four a game, and only one TD. In 2014, he was still using substances and not in game shape, and was a liability for quarterback Brian Hoyer. Last season, rookie DeShone Kizer struggled with accuracy, and during a Twitter spat with then Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, Gordon wrote, “Great Win for them but let’s be serious.. Considering several of our disadvantages as a team, this kid couldn’t hold my jock strap on my worst day lol.’’
Providing he stays clean, Gordon will not only have a full offseason to prepare, he’ll have a winning quarterback in Tyrod Taylor to get him the ball. It has the makings of a productive year for the 2013 Pro Bowler.