We’ve got five questions for five Browns games already in the books for this week’s edition of the Browns Mailbag.
Could we see either Duke Johnson or Seth DeValve make the move to wide receiver with the injury to Rashard Higgins since both have a history of a high number of receptions? -- Jon G., Massillon
That we’re at this point, wondering just how the Browns can replace Higgins over the next few weeks, is a testament to how much the third-year receiver has improved. It wasn’t too long ago when Higgins was released and placed on the practice squad. He had a couple of big games last season but really started to impress at training camp this past summer. His role as the third receiver in Cleveland’s offense is a valuable one, and he was playing it as well as he has all season before going down with a knee injury. He’s second on the team with 244 receiving yards and third with 16 receptions.
Replacing Higgins, though, likely will start with one of the team’s other receivers, not Johnson or DeValve. Undrafted rookie Derrick Willies filled the void nicely Sunday, logging 26 snaps and catching the first three passes of his NFL career. None was bigger than his 39-yard catch and run that ultimately set up Cleveland’s game-winning field goal. Willies was the first man up Sunday and he very well could be the next man up for Sunday’s game and beyond. Don’t forget about Rod Streater, who saw extensive action Sunday, and rookie Damion Ratley, who was inactive.
“We have some good candidates here,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said Monday. “I like our guys that are here.”
As for DeValve and Johnson, it’s hard to envision a dramatic change in their workload. DeValve, who has been dogged by multiple injuries since the start of training camp, saw his most extensive action of the season Sunday and caught a 26-yard pass. Johnson got more snaps than any running back and delivered three huge carries to set up Greg Joseph’s game-winning kick. Johnson, of course, is a more than capable receiver, but he’s at his most dangerous when he’s making those plays out of the backfield.
With the emergence of Nick Chubb in the running game, what are the Browns plans for Duke Johnson? -- Cary G., Fort Wayne, Indiana
I don’t think one thing has to do with the other. Chubb got more work Sunday than he had in previous weeks but Johnson wound up with the most snaps among the team’s running backs. After the team’s Week 2 loss to the Saints, Jackson was adamant the team would do what it could to get Johnson more involved in the offense. Against the Raiders, it was through the air, as Johnson caught five balls for 45 yards. And Sunday, as mentioned in the previous answer, Johnson was entrusted to get the yards Cleveland desperately needed to put itself in field-goal range.
“I gave him a little bit of a hard time for the 15-yarder. I told him he should have broke it and should have got the walk-off right there,” veteran running back Carlos Hyde said. “I was giving him a hard time, but I am happy for Duke. He puts in a lot of work. He is another guy that works so hard and continues to get out there and [work hard]. It is a good feeling.”
The Browns' 53 man roster as of September 1, 2019.
With the nucleus of this Browns team seemingly set for the next few years, what needs are you expecting the Browns will be looking to fill in free agency and the 2019 draft? Should I be watching out for any specific promising college players as future Brownies? -- Benji C., Lansing
As I mentioned in last week’s Mailbag, it’s far too early to start examining the team’s plans in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Browns have scouts all across the country checking on players and taking in games in person. Cleveland has a bunch of picks, and the hope is the team’s first-rounder isn’t as early as it’s been the past few years. As Browns general manager John Dorsey has already shown, though, it doesn’t particularly matter which round the players are landed: There’s a good chance they’ll make an impact. Areas on the roster to always keep in mind are both sides of the line of scrimmage. You can never have too many bodies at those positions and you can never have too many pass rushers. Cleveland’s a little light on wide receivers at the moment, but there’s optimism about the youngest members of the group, such as Antonio Callaway, Damion Ratley and Derrick Willies.
I’m a Browns fan for about four years now. I was going over our roster and am wondering what you could tell me about Darren Fells, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end that if, given a try, might be the next Gronkowski, given his height and weight. Thank you for your time. -- Marty C., Ridge, New York
“The next Gronkowski” might be a stretch, but Fells has filled a valuable role in Cleveland’s offense. He’s a blocker first but has shown the ability to make big-time catches. None was bigger than his 49-yard touchdown against the Raiders, his first of the season and eighth in his five-year career. Fells, who played basketball for years overseas before coming to the NFL, got a late start to football but has established himself as a true professional at his position. He was an under-the-radar signing for the Browns but an important one.
Was just wondering about Denzel Rice. Do you know if he was ever a return man in college? He has the Josh Cribbs attitude on special teams defense. If he would play like Josh as a return man, maybe we would have something. Just wondering. -- Duff H., Minster
Rice returned one punt for 8 yards during his senior season at Coastal Carolina, and that was it. Before being listed as inactive for Sunday’s game against the Ravens, Rice was as busy as anyone on the Browns’ struggling special teams units. Tuesday’s release of cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon could pave the way for Rice to resume that role against the Chargers this coming weekend. A player to keep an eye on for special teams moving forward is rookie running back Dontrell Hilliard, who was elevated from the practice squad Tuesday. Hilliard returned 18 kickoffs for 278 yards at Tulane and handled returns during the second halves of most of Cleveland’s preseason games.