Browns Mailbag

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Browns Mailbag: Who has the best chance to be a ‘surprise’ starter?

We’re back from a much-needed two-week vacation and thankful for Nick Shook’s bang-up job of filling in for the most recent edition of the Browns Mailbag.

Now it’s time to get back to work. Here’s five of our answers to five of your always great questions.

How is Olivier Vernon adjusting opposite Myles Garrett? He will play against right tackles and that’s where most teams run the ball. Is he good against the run or more of a pass rusher? -- Gurjit S., Rocklin, California

It’s a little too early to make any sweeping judgments on how Vernon is adjusting to playing on the opposite side of an elite, Pro Bowl pass rusher, but he’s certainly excited for the opportunity. The players around a pass rusher can make life easier or harder on him depending on their ability, and Vernon finds himself in a situation where he should be surrounded by a better supporting cast than he was last season in New York. He’s also back at defensive end after playing as a 3-4 linebacker last season.

“It is back to a 4-3 defense. That is what I have been used to playing my whole career,” Vernon said. “We have a lot of guys right now that can play inside and outside. We have a lot of talented guys on this defense and on this defensive line, as well.”

While Vernon may primarily line up against right tackles the most this season, it might not be an every-down thing. The Browns likely won’t hesitate to move their guys around and flex the versatility they possess along the defensive line. With that in mind, Vernon ranked a very solid 28th among defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers against the run in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. He had just 27 snaps against right tackles last season and around the same number the previous year. In 2016, Vernon had two sacks, three hits and 18 hurries in his 187 snaps against right tackles.

Much was written about Cleveland being awarded the 2021 NFL Draft. Why was the NFL Hall of Fame never mentioned in any of the articles? It is only an hour away from the draft and where all players hope to be enshrined after their careers are done. -- Lee F., Wadsworth

While the Hall of Fame won’t be used as a central location for the festivities, it hasn’t been forgotten in the eyes of David Gilbert, the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission President and CEO who led the charge to bring the draft to Cleveland. He made that abundantly clear in a May conference call.

“Having the Pro Football Hall of Fame an hour down the road will also help make a phenomenal experience for the people who are here,” Gilbert said. “If you have 100,000-200,000 or whatever that number is of out-of-town football fanatics that are coming to Cleveland for the draft, we will make it as much as we can every bit of an experience for them also to spend that extra day to go."

Check out the best photos of the 2019 rookie class this offseason by team photographer Matt Starkey

The last two years in the fifth round of the draft Dorsey has drafted Genard Avery and Mack Wilson. Have the Browns ever had two bigger steals? -- Mark F., Ashtabula

Avery is coming off a very solid rookie season and is poised to have a bigger role in 2019. Wilson had a strong offseason and will compete for playing time at training camp. Let’s just let that second part unfold before going as far as you did in the question. Wilson has a ton of talent and was expected to be selected much higher than he was. He’s embraced that snub and hopes to use that chip on his shoulder as extra motivation entering his first NFL season.

“I feel like the organization doesn’t just draft players to draft players, so I feel like there’s an opportunity out there,” Wilson said. “Just go compete, work hard, learn as much as I can from the older guys. I’m going to work hard every day. I’m not just going to be a guy that comes in here and be a body. I want to contribute as early as I can.”

It was nice to hear that Gary Barnidge was recognized in your 53-man roster that CBD constructed. He was one of my favorite players during the lean years and it was strange to me he never got another real chance after his release in 2016. My question is, where is he now and why do you think he did not get another NFL opportunity despite a successful 2015 campaign? -- Mark M., Brighton, Massachusetts

Fantastic timing with this question. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Athletic’s Tom Reed wrote an in-depth profile of Barnidge that provides all of the answers. Barnidge, who resides in Green Cove Springs, Florida, told The Athletic he had interest from a few teams and received some offers after his release from the Browns, but the financials in those deals weren’t close to what he was previously making. He opted to walk away rather than play for what he believed was too little for what he’d accomplished.

“I don’t need to have football in my life,” Barnidge told The Athletic. “I’m more than a football player. I’m an actual person who has a lot of interests. Football was my job. I loved game days. But football wasn’t something that I had to play to define who I am. I wasn’t that desperate to get back in the game.”

The Browns have made enough moves in the offseason and returned enough major players from last year’s roster to make this question trickier than it used to be. Offensively, the biggest potential surprise -- if you want to even call it that -- could occur at right guard, which appears to be a three-man race among Austin Corbett, Eric Kush and Kyle Kalis at the moment. Kalis, a Lakewood native who played at Michigan, would be, perhaps, the most off-the-radar name from that group, but he’s garnered plenty of respect since joining the Browns during the second half of last season.

“He has come in, he put his head down, he is a weight room guy, he is strong, he has good footwork and he does the right things and he asks the right questions,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “He is showing some serious growth this offseason. I think last year he kind of got thrown in at the start of the year so he did not really have a chance to digest the whole offense. He is growing. He has showed some good things, and I think he is riding hard in the competition with Corbett, Kush, (Bryan) Witzmann, and all those guys.”

It feels like a broken record because we’ve written about him so much, but the biggest candidate for this distinction on defense would be safety Jermaine Whitehead. The midseason waiver claim worked with the first-team defense all throughout OTAs and minicamp and is in the mix for legitimate playing time on a defense that could easily deploy more than two safeties in a variety of formations.

“I had Jermaine last year in Green Bay. He probably played the safety position the best for us last year,” pass game coordinator/secondary coach Joe Whitt said. “We didn’t play very good defense, but he was a very important part of what we were doing, and he’s going to be a very important part of what we’re doing here. He’s valuable. He’s tough. He’s physical. He can play close to the line. He can cover tight ends. I’ve been pleased with what he brings to the defense.”

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