Browns Mailbag

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Browns Mailbag: Where will the biggest position battles be in training camp?

Before you get the grill going, we're answering three of your questions heading into the three-day holiday weekend.

Who would you consider the top candidates to serve as kickoff and punt returners this season? -- Nick D., Wayne, West Virginia

The Browns are looking to improve in both of these areas. That much has been made clear in interviews special teams coordinator Mike Priefer conducted throughout the offseason. While improving in a number of areas on special teams, the Browns ranked 16th in the NFL on punt returns and 20th on kickoffs in 2019. Cleveland used four different returners on both punts and kicks. Priefer expects both the blocking and the actual returning to be better in 2020.

"At the end of the day, I think we need to hold up better, hold up on punt return better, protect with our drops better on kickoff return," Priefer said. "We have to have more production from our returners. We left some yards on the table, whether it was not hitting the seam right or going down too easy on an arm tackle. Those are the areas we want to improve on."

All of that indicates the Browns likely will be open for competition at both kickoff and punt return. Some usual suspects from last year like Dontrell Hilliard, Tavierre Thomas, D'Ernest Johnson and Taywan Taylor should be in the mix. The Browns added a couple of significant competitors over the past couple of months in free agent signing JoJo Natson and sixth-round WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

Natson was the Rams' main man on both kicks and punts over the past two seasons. In three years, Natson has returned 61 career punts for 467 yards for a 7.7 average and 35 kickoffs for 722 yards with a 20.6 average. Peoples-Jones, meanwhile, returned two punts for touchdowns during his three seasons at Michigan while averaging 8.7 yards on punt returns. He did not return kicks.

What role will Andy Janovich be playing when on the field? I think this was one of the best offensive moves Browns made in the offseason, with an added caveat of him staying healthy and being used enough to function to the best he can be. I read Andy has pretty good hands besides his great blocking skills. -- Neil S., Ontario, Canada

This was definitely an under-the-radar move made by the Browns at the beginning of the new league year. Kevin Stefanski loves using fullbacks in his offense, and Janovich is one of the few true fullbacks in a league that doesn't deploy them the way it used to. Last year as offensive coordinator of the Vikings, Stefanski used fullback C.J. Ham in 34 percent of his offensive snaps, second of all fullbacks in the league. Ham was primarily used as a blocker for Dalvin Cook, one of the league's top running backs, but he also contributed as a pass-catcher (17 receptions) and a very occasional runner (seven carries). This matches what Janovich has done throughout his career. He has 13 carries and 22 receptions over four seasons. 

All of this, of course, excites Janovich, who is leaving a Denver team that also used the fullback quite often but wasn't intending to in 2020.

"It's unbelievable," he said in a recent edition of 'Working from Home.' 

"You just look at it and think this can't be real. This is a dream offense."

What are the most critical position competitions to monitor during training camp? -- Nick D., Wayne, West Virginia

This is a great question largely because it gets me excited to watch football in the sunshine. It truly can't come soon enough.

Competition will be everywhere on the field whenever the Browns get back to business, but these are the areas where it may be a little bit more wide open.

Right guard

The Browns made major offseason moves to address their needs on the offensive line. The tackle positions are now settled thanks to the signing of Jack Conklin and the first-round pick of Jedrick Wills Jr. Now, the Browns need to find an answer at right guard, and all indications are they'll look for a starter among a bevy of young, internal options. That group includes Wyatt Teller, who started the majority of games to end last year, Drew Forbes, Colby Gossett and Willie Wright.

Wide receiver

The Browns know what they have in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, both of whom are recovering from offseason surgeries. The rest of the room will be settled during training camp, as a number of different young receivers compete for spots in the rotation. Rashard Higgins is back after a tough 2019 campaign, and he'll be going up against the likes of Peoples-Jones, Natson, Taylor, Damion Ratley and more.

Linebacker

With the respective departures of veterans Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert, this room looks as different as any heading into 2020. Veteran B.J. Goodson was added in free agency and Mack Wilson returns after starting 14 games as a rookie. Otherwise, it's pretty wide open in a group that also includes former third-round pick Sione Takitaki, who saw his playing time increase as his rookie season progressed. The Browns often deployed just two linebackers last season but that could change in 2020, making it even more important that multiple players rise to the occasion.

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