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Browns Mailbag: How are the Browns looking behind Myles, Clowney on D-Line?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

New day, same old Browns Mailbag.

We're entering regular season mode, and we're taking the opportunity to update our cadence. You always want to keep your opponents guessing.

So, from now until the end of the NFL season, we deliver on Tuesdays. It starts with three questions on the first Tuesday of September.

Willie Harvey could have been useful as a practice squad member, especially with uncertainties of 17 weeks and effects of Covid-19 still. What determines a cut versus a practice squad? — Joy P., St. Louis

It's important to remember the practice squad is very fluid. Though it's set at 16 now, there will be plenty of changes as the season unfolds.

Harvey was with the team throughout training camp in 2019 and was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster for two games before suffering a season-ending injury. He also spent the 2020 preseason with the team, giving him a handle of Joe Woods' defense. That was evident during the preseason when he was signed just a couple of days before appearing in the team's second preseason game against the Giants.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski was asked recently about how the team views the practice squad when it pertains to having players ready to go for the upcoming game versus developing players for future roles with the team. Ultimately, there's only so much room for a number of players at specific positions, and the Browns have six linebackers on the active roster and another (Elijah Lee) on the practice squad.

"I do not think that there is a specific number, but you definitely have guys that could play in Week 1, and you definitely have guys that you are looking at for next season that you want to develop and take a look at," Stefanski said. "It varies.

I hear so much skepticism about our DE depth but do you think with Myles, Jadeveon, Takk, Joe Jackson … even sliding Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell at times gives us better depth than we give ourselves credit for? What do you think? — Thad L., Youngstown

For the Browns' defensive ends, everything starts with what Garrett and Clowney bring to the table as one of the NFL's best one-two punches off the edge. Neither saw the field during the preseason, but there's plenty of optimism about what they can do as a tandem after all of the work they've put in behind the scenes. With Clowney in particular, the Browns have the versatility and capability to play these dangerous pass rushers at multiple spots.

"He is very hard to block so when it comes to gameplans, I definitely feel like we need to move him some because he is a little bit lighter," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "When it comes to rushing the passer with the guys we have up front, we can move him around and we can create one-on-one matchups with whoever we want. I am happy to have that in my arsenal. It will be on display at some point."

McKinley gives the Browns another versatile option off the edge who can not only spell Garrett or Clowney for parts of the game, but also join the tandem on the field in situations where the Browns really want to flex their versatility. Jackson, who was very productive throughout training camp, gives the unit more experience and depth. That total of four is what the Browns carried through the majority of 2020, so the makeup of the group is nothing out of the ordinary.

As for the potential of Jackson and McDowell coming off the edge, that's another wrinkle Woods can deploy when he sees fit. Both players, it should be clear, are defensive tackles first but they can certainly help the team in a pinch if they're light on bodies at the end positions.

All told, the Browns have nine defensive linemen with a variety of skill sets, and they'll be counting on all of them in some fashion this season.

"You have seen this system over the years is you do wave a bunch of guys on that D-line to keep them fresh," Stefanski said. "That is why Coach Kiff (defensive line coach Chris Kiffin) and (assistant defensive line) Coach (Jeremy) Garrett work really hard with all of those guys, and we are going to count on all of those guys."

How many offensive plays, on average, do the Browns get? What was their average last year? Do you see running 70-75 plays a game as more probable than not with this offense? If 70-75 can happen, do we use 25 of them on runs? — Jeff L., Sydney, Australia

The Browns in 2020 ran 1,022 plays in their 16 regular season games. That's good for an average of 63.875 plays per game. That total was tied for 20th in the NFL. Perhaps more importantly, the Browns ranked 11th in yards per play (5.8). 

Which stat is more indicative of success? The Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and three other playoff teams (Ravens, Packers and Seahawks) ran fewer total plays than the Browns. Of the teams ranked ahead of the Browns in yards per play, only three (Texans, Vikings and Raiders) failed to qualify for the postseason.

The Browns had a nearly 50-50 split between runs and passes (495 to 501) in 2020. It remains to be seen whether or not that stays the same in 2021.

"We felt like we did some good things offensively so we will continue to be better in those areas," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. "At the same time, we are always creating and always coming up with new scheme and new plays to counter off of our core play. That is always evolving."

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