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Browns Mailbag: What's the latest in the competition at defensive tackle?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

It was an off day for the players at the CrossCountry Mortgage Campus — a well-deserved one, at that, after Sunday's productive Orange & Brown Practice at FirstEnergy Stadium — but we're plowing ahead with another round of questions.

We've got three to tackle on this warm and humid Monday — the same number of practices that separate the Browns from their first preseason game of 2021 on Saturday in Jacksonville.

With the expansion of 17 games and only three preseason games, are they going to expand the 53-man roster to help just in case that extra game for a chance of players getting hurt? — Paul S., Burbank

The 53-man roster isn't going anywhere, but the NFL did carry over a number of tweaks that were implemented during the 2020 season. Among them are the multiple adjustments to the injured reserve list. On top of shortening a player's required stint on the list to three weeks — it was previously six — the NFL is allowing teams to return players from the list on an unlimited basis. In the past, teams had been limited to just a couple of players coming off the list per season. Additionally, practice squads will remain at 16 players — up from 12 — and teams will have the ability to protect four of those players per week, meaning another team would not have the ability to sign them away to their active roster. Up to two of those practice squad players can be elevated to the active roster on game day, essentially expanding the roster from 53 to 55. Per the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, active rosters for games can expand from 46 to 48 given that at least eight of those spots are allocated to offensive linemen.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said he and his staff are keeping the 17-game schedule in mind as they go about their business in training camp.

"You have to take it into account," Stefanski said. "It is not just for training camp. It really builds into how you proceed throughout the regular season and keeping that in mind."

Is it possible for injured players such as Tony Fields II or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to start as a redshirt year as the Browns bring them up to the curve? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

We'll keep an eye on Fields, who has yet to participate in practice after suffering an injured foot shortly after reporting for camp. It's a different foot injury than the one Fields, a fifth-rounder out of West Virginia, had earlier in the year and it's uncertain when he'll return. In a recent interview on Cleveland Browns Daily, linebackers coach Jason Tarver praised Fields and expressed excitement about his future.

As for Owusu-Koramoah, he's acquainted himself nicely in his first week of practice after spending the first few days on the reserve/COVID-19 list. After Sunday's Orange & Brown Practice, Owusu-Koramoah admitted he wasn't as up to speed as he thought he would be but he's received plenty of opportunities to flash the kind of speed, quickness and toughness the Browns loved when they made him their second-round pick. He's spent his time working behind Mack Wilson at the WILL and is poised to get some really good experience Saturday against the Jaguars. 

"I try to treat it as just another game, but in the back of my mind I know it's not just another game," Owusu-Koramoah said. "It's the first time I get to put on an NFL jersey. Reality is going to set in and I'm going to be appreciative for it. I'm looking forward to it and working my butt off so I can succeed with all of my goals I have for that game.

GM Andrew Berry has put a lot of personnel into the mix for DT. What's the depth chart looking like early on, how many DT's do you think we will keep on the 53-man roster, and who best looks to be the run stoppers/pass rushers or can do both of this group? — Philip H., Saint Clairsville

This is a good question and one that doesn't quite have a clear cut answer at the moment. Here's what we know: Veterans Malik Jackson and Andrew Billings have been the primary options with the first defense. A mix of Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai, Sheldon Day and others have worked with the second and third groups. Malik McDowell, an intriguing prospect at the position, suffered an oblique injury Sunday at the Orange & Brown Practice and his status will be monitored in the coming days. The Browns have not done full tackling and likely won't do much of that outside of the preseason games, but Stefanski and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin have said the team has been able to get good evaluations at what should be considered a wide open competition.

"We added a lot of good players to the room," Kiffin said. "We lost some good players, and we added some good players. Right now, it is about this team and this unit getting better as we go here through training camp and getting these pieces to learn how to work together."

When it comes to run-stopping, everyone that lines up at the position will be asked to contribute. In terms of experience doing it and physical stature, there may be no one better prepared to do the job than Billings, who dropped 20 pounds between minicamp and training camp and appears to be fitting in nicely after opting out of the 2020 season. 

"All of the rotations need to be played out and we will see how that goes, but certainly, when you are talking about his strength in there at the nose position – whether he is playing shade or a 2I – he brings power to the game," Stefanski said. "That can show up certainly in the pass game to push the pocket."

Jackson is a seasoned veteran who has been one of the top players at the position for years. He came to Cleveland with winning in mind and looking to get back to his old form after battling through injuries during his two seasons with the Eagles. 

"Malik has done a great job. He is a pro's pro," Stefanski said. "There is a schematic fit with him, but also, he practices hard. The guys enjoy being around him. He brings a lot of energy to what we are doing. Like you mentioned, he has been on a bunch of good defenses. We are excited to have him as part of that group. It is never a bad thing when you have a veteran in there who has been there, who has gone through it, who has been on good football teams and who understands this scheme. I think it is really important."

Stefanski had some nice things to say recently about Togiai, the fourth rounder out of Ohio State who is looking to find a role in the room during his rookie season.

"I really like what Tommy has been doing," Stefanski said. "Going all of the way back when he first showed up here on campus, just in the meeting room, in the weight room and on the field, does everything that is asked of him and does it the right way. I see him getting better with some of the technique work that he is getting with Coach Kiff and (assistant defensive line) Coach (Jeremy) Garrett out there. Tommy is really putting in the work, and I am seeing it show up. 

As far as numbers go, the typical numbers for defensive tackles ranges from four to five. Last year, the Browns kept four and then swapped one out the next day by claiming Vincent Taylor via waivers.

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