Editor's Note: Over the next two weeks, Nathan Zegura, Andrew Gribble and Anthony Poisal will be giving their takes and predictions on some of the hottest topics surrounding the Browns as they prepare for training camp.
Training camp is all about competition, and there will be plenty of it when the Browns hit the field next week.
Which area could produce the most surprising results? Andrew Gribble, Nathan Zegura and Anthony Poisal tackle that question in today's installment of "10 for '21."
Poisal: I feel like there will be at least one surprising player to emerge from the defensive tackle competition and build a strong season in 2021. I mentioned Jordan Elliott as a possible candidate for a big role in one of our previous questions, but Tommy Togiai, a 2021 fourth-round pick, could find his way to the top of the depth chart as well. The Browns are also bullish on the talents of Malik McDowell, a 2017 second-round pick, and Marvin Wilson, one of the top undrafted free agents from this year. Don't sleep on Damion Square, either — he hasn't missed a game in the last four seasons. Malik Jackson and Andrew Billings might appear as the two favorites to start, but there is truly nothing guaranteed for any of the eight guys currently at the position. That could leave room for plenty of surprises once the depth chart is settled.
Zegura: The room that has been the most remade for the 2021 season is without a doubt the defensive tackle room and the influx of both youthful and veteran talent has set the stage for a competition that could go in any number of directions. Of the eight defensive tackles in camp, only one, Elliott, played snaps for the Browns in 2020. Elliott has been tabbed by both coaches and front office personnel to have a major breakout in his second season and is expected to push for significant playing time. Billings is one of the biggest and strongest defensive tackles in the league who is noted for his run-stopping and space-eating abilities. Prior to opting out of the 2020 season, Billings had started 30 of his last 32 games for the Bengals and he is currently penciled in as a potential starter for the Browns in their base defense. Joining Billings in that projected starting lineup Jackson. Jackson excelled for defensive coordinator Joe Woods when the two worked together in Denver, and the Pro Bowler has notched double-digit quarterback hits in seven straight seasons. He's regarded as one of the better interior pass rushers in the league. Square has managed to stay productive in this league since entering back in 2013 and has appeared in 91 career games with 24 starts. Sheldon Day has appeared in 60 career games with two starts and spent time with the Browns in 2020. Those veterans will be competing for roster spots and playing time with a trio of young, talented players. Togiai was one of the strongest players in the draft, and a quick study of his tape reveals a deceptively quick penetrator who can get after the quarterback as well as dominate the point of attack in the run game. Could Togiai push for a starting spot immediately after an incredibly productive career at Ohio State? That could be one of the big stories to watch in camp, because I believe it would lead to a real shakeup in that room. Wilson was expected to be a first-round pick in the 2021 draft according to many early mocks, but a variety of factors caused those projections to change. The Browns aggressively pursued Wilson, who was one of the top DL recruits in the county, and offered him one of the most lucrative UDFA deals in the NFL this season. Woods raved about what Wilson could bring to the table and he will compete for a spot on this roster. Finally there is McDowell, who was one of the most physically impressive players on the field this offseason. At 6-foot-6, he really stands out with his size among the interior defensive linemen. McDowell was considered a top-10 talent in the 2017 NFL Draft, but off the field issues pushed him down to pick No. 35. Those issues are the reason why McDowell has yet to play a snap in the NFL, but the Browns gave him one last chance to get his career back on track. His talent is undeniable, and if McDowell's focus is in the right place, he could end up as the biggest surprise of the 2021 Browns training camp. There is so much talent and so much up in the air with the defensive tackles that frankly no outcome would surprise me. You have eight very talented players competing for an expected four spots, so none of these players want to have even one off day in training camp in what will be among the most intense battles on the roster. The good news is I expect this room to exceed expectations when the games start to count because they will be talented and battle hardened by the time September rolls around.
Gribble: When you have as much stability as the Browns have on offense, it's hard to pick any group on that side of the ball, especially when the word "surprise" is in the question. That's why I've got to stick with defense, but I'll go in a slghtly different direction and pick linebacker. The Browns rotated players at the position last year much more than in years' past, as four players received regular snaps throughout the course of games. Now, the Browns enter 2021 with most of those players back — Jacob Phillips, Malcolm Smith, Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki — to go along with the addition of rookies Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields II and key free agent pickup Anthony Walker. On top of that, the Browns have made it clear they hope to utilize more nickel and dime in 2021, which, in turn, could mean more and more plays in which just two linebackers are on the field. That's not to say there will just be two jobs available. What matters most on this Browns defense is flexibility and versatility, and that's what the players will look to show they can bring to the field. No jobs are set in stone at the moment and the opportunity is there for a surprise or two.