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Browns Mailbag: What's going on with all the changes on the defensive line?

There's four games left, and we're handling just as many questions on this first Friday of December

Although Drew Stanton is on IR, is he allowed to participate in practice or in meetings? It seems Baker Mayfield played better when I saw Stanton around. -- Herb T., Fairview, Pennsylvania

Because Stanton is on injured reserve with a knee injury, he is not allowed to practice or play in games. That's been the case since he was placed on the list shortly before the team's Week 2, Monday night game against the Jets. Stanton, though, has been a major presence inside the quarterbacks room and on the sidelines at games. His presence is certainly felt, even though the three quarterbacks doing things at practice and at games are Mayfield, Garrett Gilbert and practice squad member Eric Dungey.

The Browns defense has four players that are worthy of Pro Bowl consideration and two of those are in the final year of their contract. Your thoughts are appreciated. -- Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

I think you're right about the number of players worthy of Pro Bowl consideration, but I'd be surprised if it reaches that level. For one, Myles Garrett was headed toward a Pro Bowl season but now won't qualify because of his indefinite suspension. Cornerback Denzel Ward, who made the Pro Bowl last year as a rookie, missed four games. Defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi have played well enough for consideration, in my opinion. Safety Damarious Randall, who is in the final year of his contract, has been solid at the back end of Cleveland's defense but has missed five games.

And then there's Joe Schobert, of course, who has as strong of a case as anyone to make his second Pro Bowl. Schobert is a top-10 player in the NFL in tackles and interceptions, and his importance to Cleveland's defense goes well beyond the numbers. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said last week that Schobert is "probably one of the best linebackers in the league," and it's hard to argue.

"He is a leader for us," Wilks said. "He commands the defense out there, getting everybody aligned and things that we ask of him. I am excited about his performance thus far this year, and hopefully, he can keep it going." 

Schobert's contract status has been well-documented, and we covered it in this space recently, too. He's been very good. We'll leave it at this: There's a lot of time between now and March.

Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Bengals Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey

Should John Dorsey draft three offensive linemen that are really quick to maximize their opportunities in the future? -- Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

This has been a hot topic in the Mailbag question bag, and as much as I dislike answering draft questions during the season, I'll indulge on this one. 

Since he took over as general manager, Dorsey has shown a willingness to attack areas of concern. Look at the secondary, for example. The Browns don't have a single defensive back from 2017 on the roster, and they haven't for a while. This year has been one of the wildest when it comes to injuries for defensive backs, yet Cleveland has largely weathered the storm. It hasn't been perfect, but it could have been much, much worse. I'd expect a similar plan of attack on the offensive line and other areas Dorsey deems worthy of an injection of depth and talent when he constructs the roster for 2020 and beyond.

Free agency comes first, but that can get mighty expensive on the offensive line. The draft is where you can get talent AND value, but finding the next Joe Thomas is easier said than done. The Browns have their first-round pick, which, depending on how the rest of the season unfolds, is likely to fall somewhere in the middle to the middle-back of the pack. They also have a handful of extra assets because of the various trades they've made over the past year. It's fair to expect the offensive line, and many other positions across the field, will be addressed via both free agency and the draft.

With the suspension to Garrett and Olivier Vernon’s injury, why were Devaroe Lawrence and Chris Smith let go? They seemed solid. -- Craig H., Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania

Neither decision was easy, but the Browns are continually looking to improve on a defensive line that has been hammered with injuries and rocked by the indefinite suspension of Garrett. The Browns have a whopping five players on the defensive line who began the season elsewhere. Three of them -- Porter Gustin, Bryan Cox and Eli Ankou -- played major roles in last week's loss at Pittsburgh.

This is not normal, but Wilks has been reluctant to make any excuses or even acknowledge it's been difficult to implement so many players who weren't even apart of the roster at the midpoint of the season.

"It is tough, but it is part of the league," Wilks said. "I have been a part of it before. I was in the same situation last year in Arizona – shuffling guys in and out and guys coming in on a Tuesday and playing on Sunday. We can't sit here and make excuses. We have to find ways to get guys in position to make plays."

There have been some positive developments amid the adversity. Chad Thomas might just be the most improved player on the roster, and Cox and Gustin have looked solid, all things considered. There's just no replacing Garrett, no matter what kind of depth you have.

"We still have to find ways to make plays," Wilks said. "Just trying to generate things up front, moving guys around, trying to create different pressures. We are never going to make any excuses, but when you look at it, we have maybe four or five guys that are here on the 53 that were not a month ago. We are not cancelling games. We have to find a way to get our guys in position to be successful, and that starts with me."

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