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Browns Mailbag: Is there an under-the-radar pass rusher ready to make an impact?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

Four for the Fourth?

Let's do it!

We haven't heard anything about Curtis Weaver during the preseason as we talk about potential difference makers. His film looks a lot like Myles Garrett. I know we have a bunch of pass rushers, but Weaver looks exceptional! — Brian H., Gladstone, Michigan

If you haven't heard anything about Weaver, you must not be listening to Cleveland Browns Daily! Nathan Zegura and Beau Bishop have talked a bunch — for good reason — about Weaver, who definitely looks ready to roll after he spent his rookie season on the sidelines, out for the year with a toe injury. The former fifth-round pick out of Boise State got a full year in the Browns' system, and he's banking on that helping him as he works to secure a spot on the 53-man roster.

"I'm thinking about it every day," he said. "I'm just fiending to get back, but at this level, you just have to be patient."

An opportunity awaits Weaver — who looked to be in great shape and was fully active during minicamp — even though the Browns added two significant pieces to the defensive end position in free agency with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley. He'll be competing with the likes of Porter Gustin, Cameron Malveaux, Joe Jackson and others for one of the final spots in the rotation. 

"Those are the type of guys that we're going to give them every opportunity to grow, and they have to put the work in to make it happen," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said earlier in the offseason. "I love Curtis, and really, you can put him with the second-year players, or you can put him with the rookies and say this is truly his first year with us."

Andrew, with the potential of nine new starting players out of 11 on defense, do you feel that the defense could struggle some the first half of the season with everyone learning what their new teammates are doing next to them? Do you believe that the offense may have to score more the first half of the season to make up for those defensive struggles or do you feel the defense will hold its own no matter what? — Dennis P., Findlay

This has been a common question throughout the offseason, and the honest answer is I have no idea. You're right about all of the changes on the defense: They're significant and the number you tossed out there — nine of 11 — is certainly realistic. That said, it won't catch the Browns' coaching staff by surprise and, well, they know who's on the schedule Week 1. To defensive coordinator Joe Woods, this is a good problem to have because he knows his group got better this offseason.

"It is my job to go in there and our job as coaches to teach these guys the scheme, the techniques that we are using and to rep it. That is what the offseason is for and that is what training camp is for," Woods said. "You are going to have things that you are going come across and adversity throughout the season, but as long as we can establish our defensive scheme and guys can execute, I feel like it will not be as much of a problem as people may think it will be. Again, there may be six or more starters [added to the roster], but I am excited about that just in terms of what we were able to bring in."

Myles Garrett agreed. He said he believes the defense will come together "quicker than most people anticipate."

"There are a lot of guys who have played some good football that we have added to our roster so I won't be surprised if they come in here and start making plays immediately, just because that is what they have been doing," Garrett said. "Our defense is not absolutely exotic. They come in, they are smart and they are quick as a whip, and they will be able to catch on and follow suit."

Andrew, I haven't heard much talk about special teams. What players that the Browns have acquired this year do you think will impact special teams? — Jeff S., Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Let's start with some new options at the returner spots. Though he was with the team last year, JoJo Natson can be essentially viewed as a new option after missing most of 2020 with a torn ACL. Sixth-rounder Demetric Felton is also in the mix of a competition that will include WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR Ryan Switzer and RB D'Ernest Johnson, among others. Third-round WR Anthony Schwartz didn't return punts or kicks in college, but he could have a future as a returner, particularly on kicks. He could also be an option at gunner, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said.

Some other new players to consider in special teams roles: basically all of the Day 3 rookies. That would include T James Hudson, DT Tommy Togiai, LB Tony Fields II, S Richard LeCounte and Felton. Those rookies, along with a number of other returning players, will play a key role in helping the Browns improve on special teams — something Priefer has made a priority heading into 2021.

"That will be the constant message in training camp," Priefer said. "Constant improvement every single day, not so much to get the stats better but to put our team in position to win."

Has it been determined yet how the practice squad will work? I liked how it was done last year with the extra number of players available and also the ability to call up four each week. — Merlyn B., Bellefontaine

Nothing is official yet, but NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported earlier this month the NFL was likely to keep the expanded, 16-man practice squads as well as the rules that allowed players to come back from injured reserve much faster than in previous years. Those rules, which stipulated players must miss just three weeks before returning from injured reserve, also allowed teams to place an unlimited number of players on the reserve list — a significant change from the past, when teams were limited to as few as one per season. When a player is on injured reserve, he does not count toward the 53-man limit, meaning teams are free to add a healthy player to the roster.

Pelissero reported the decisions would likely be made official closer to the start of the season.

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