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Training Camp

5 matchups to watch in joint practices with the Colts

We're packed and ready to head west to a city familiar to those deeply involved with the pre-draft process: Indianapolis.

We'll be trading frigid temperatures and early sunsets for quite the opposite this time around. The Browns will spend Tuesday through Saturday in the capital of Indiana, practicing with the Colts on Wednesday and Thursday before facing them in a Week 2 preseason game on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Two joint practices mean plenty of opportunities to see how these Browns stack up against legitimate NFL competition. The Colts finished 10-6, won a wild-card playoff game in 2018 and are built by general manager Chris Ballard, who has a similar background to and history with Browns general manager John Dorsey. This is no cupcake.

Here are five matchups we're watching this week in Indianapolis.

1. Myles Garrett vs. Anthony Castonzo

We've spent much of this training camp watching Garrett terrorize whichever tackle has lined up opposite him, including the Browns' starters, who are not slouches by any means. Garrett will receive a quality test in Castonzo, a former first-round pick who has been considered in the league's upper third of tackles for the last five years.

The Colts' offensive line (and offense as a whole) got off to a slow start in 2018 in part because it was working with a makeshift offensive line featuring two rookies. They started their drastic turnaround when Castonzo returned from a hamstring injury and Mark Glowinski shifted to right guard, creating a line that jelled almost instantly and propelled their offense into contention.

Garrett has shown every sign that he's poised to have a true breakout season after making the Pro Bowl in 2018 and has made it clear he's aiming for 20 sacks in 2019. We'll see his first matchup with someone not wearing brown and orange this week. Individual periods -- often where we'd see one-on-ones -- should be a treat to watch.

2. Denzel Ward vs. T.Y. Hilton

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble made this excellent point on Monday's Best Podcast Available: Ward has rarely faced a receiver like Hilton in his young NFL career.

The most similar opponent with whom Ward battled in his first season was Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, who found some success in Week 1 and plenty more in Week 8 of 2018. Hilton is a similar speed demon with excellent hands and a knack for the big play, averaging at least 15.9 yards per reception in all but one of his seven professional campaigns. Last season was Hilton's second best of his career, logging 76 receptions for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns in just 14 games played.

Ward likely won't face him on every down, but he'll get enough matchups to get a good idea of where he is as he enters Year 2.

3. Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson vs. Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson

We saw the potential of Cleveland's revamped front four early in this camp, and it's even clearer when they aren't on the field how effective they can be when playing together. This week is the perfect barometer for how much damage they could cause this season.

Quenton Nelson, the No. 6 overall pick in the same draft that landed the Browns Ward (No. 4) and Baker Mayfield (No. 1), earned All-Pro honors as a rookie and lived up to, if not exceeded, every lofty expectation placed on him coming out of Notre Dame. The road-grading guard is looking to continue such success in his second season. When teamed with center Ryan Kelly, a fellow first-round pick out of Alabama (2016), the two form a nasty double team.

The responsibility for taking on such double teams and occupying both blockers falls on Richardson and Ogunjobi, depending on pre-snap alignment and whichever play the Colts decide to run. Richardson and Ogunjobi are both effective penetrators against both the run and the pass and have proven able to clog up the middle.

They won't meet a better interior line than this one during the preseason, or in the first four weeks of the regular season.

4. Linebackers vs. tight ends (on both sides)

After he failed to find reliable footing in Detroit, Eric Ebron exploded in his first season in Indianapolis, catching 66 passes for 750 yards and an eye-popping 13 touchdowns in 2018. His touchdown total in 2018 was more than his combined touchdown total in his career in his first four seasons.

That will be a problem for Browns defenders in red zone periods.

But on the flip side, Cleveland has a linebacking corps that includes the athletic Christian Kirksey and rookie Mack Wilson, who has demonstrated an innate ability to locate the ball in the air and intercept it frequently. It's uncanny and could serve as the difference in this matchup.

The Browns also boast a deep tight end group featuring a ton of height. David Njoku sat out of practice Monday, so his status is slightly uncertain, but 6-foot-7 Demetrius Harris and 6-foot-6 Pharaoh Brown are the Nos. 2 and 3 tight ends on the unofficial depth chart released Tuesday. That height advantage should mean some red-zone victories for these Browns.

5. Darius Leonard vs. Browns interior OL, and Joe Schobert vs. Colts interior OL

This matchup is at least somewhat related to No. 3, because it is a defensive line's job to keep linebackers free from blockers. And since we're talking both teams here, that should be a goal of each defensive line.

We'll start with who the Browns need to block.

Darius Leonard is a tackling machine, leading the NFL in tackles as a rookie with 163 (the next closest defender was 19 tackles shy of Leonard). That was enough to earn him All-Pro honors in 2018 and should explain to you how difficult he is to block. He's athletic, rangy and quick to the ballcarrier.

The Browns will need to stop that in order to succeed on the ground.

Eric Kush seems to have a decent hold on the right guard position at this point, but he won't be operating alone. How he and Joel Bitonio work with and off of center JC Tretter will tell us how well this line should be able to clear space for Nick Chubb and Co., because whoever works off an interior double team needs to get to second level effectively to really rack up chunk plays.

Leonard is a tough one to wrangle. Schobert has proven to be difficult to block at times, too, but he should expect more attention than usual. That's not to say the Browns' interior defensive linemen can't do their job, because they most certainly can. But this is a high-quality offensive line, and we should also mention right guard Mark Glowinski's effectiveness down the stretch in 2018, since we didn't in the point about Nelson.

I had this Colts group in the top five offensive lines in the NFL in 2018, and they're back at full strength. They could be a top three unit. That's a great test for the Browns in the middle of August.

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