Browns Mailbag

Browns Mailbag: Who is poised for a big jump in the 2020 season?

It's officially mid-May, and the Browns are roughly midway through their virtual offseason program.

We're at the midpoint for May Mailbags, too. Two down, two more to go and one today.

Enjoy our answers to four of your questions on this soggy Friday in Northeast Ohio.

I had a chance to catch a replay of a Browns game from a couple seasons ago. I am still impressed with David Njoku's stature on the field. His production in his first two seasons seemed to indicate a definite upside in coming seasons. Injuries were a problem last season. Any word on his return and how he may factor into a new Browns offense? -- Shaun M., Winnipeg, Canada

Njoku is healthy after dealing with a wrist injury that sidelined him for the bulk of the 2019 season. He also sustained a concussion on the play that knocked him out from early Week 2 all the way to Week 14. Njoku never really got back into the swing of things upon his return, but he enters his fourth season with the same kind of expectations he's carried into previous years.

Since his hire, EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry has been high on Njoku, who shined in 2018 with 56 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns. Berry backed that up when he picked up the fifth-year option on Njoku's rookie deal, ensuring he'll be in Cleveland through the 2021 season. In between, the Browns surrounded Njoku with a lot of help in a Browns tight ends room that struggled to pick up the slack after Njoku suffered his injuries. Pro Bowler Austin Hooper was added in free agency and rookie Harrison Bryant, who amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards in his final year at Florida Atlantic, was selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski loves utilizing multiple tight ends in his offense, and Njoku figures to have a prominent role alongside Hooper.

"I have been pretty consistent this offseason in terms of we still have a ton of belief in David," Berry said. "He is very talented. Obviously, he was not on the field much last year, but he is a guy with outstanding physical tools, he has proven NFL production and we still think the future is very bright with him here. David has always been and continues to be in our plans, and we are going to continue to add competition all across the roster."

The Browns' 2020 regular-season schedule has been released. Check out how the season unfolds with this photo gallery

I heard all pro guard Larry Warford was released from Saints for cap space. Why not go after him? - Joe P., Marlboro, New York

Now that the two offensive tackle positions are set, who do you see as the "frontrunner" for right guard? Is Drew Forbes a dark horse candidate to come in and steal the job? -- Ross L., Cleveland

We're combining these two questions because they go hand-in-hand. First, in regards to Warford, he's certainly a talented and experienced player who inevitably will land somewhere and start. Whether or not that's Cleveland remains to be seen. The Browns, for what it's worth, feel good about their internal options, and as offensive line Bill Callahan mentioned Thursday, there are plenty of them.

"I really believe we have some excellent players in there in Wyatt Teller, Drew Forbes, Colby Gossett and Willie Wright," Callahan said. "There are a lot of candidates. There will be a lot of time for competition. I think that will sort itself out as we move along. It is always such a change, and we are just going to keep assessing and evaluating the position as we move forward. There are enough candidates in there that I think someone will rise to the occasion and take over that spot."

Teller finished last season as the starter and performed admirably considering he was acquired from the Bills so late in the preseason. Forbes, a sixth-round pick last year, made a run for the job in training camp before suffering a knee injury. Gossett started four games at the position with the Cardinals in 2018. Wright was an undrafted rookie who spent most of last season on the practice squad.

"I am still getting familiarized with all the players," Callahan said. "I have not met them all yet – just only virtually I had done that with them. We have not really set a depth chart, listed a starter or named the RG position. That is up for grabs."

Who do you see on our squad that will have the most upside coming into the 2020-2021 season? -- Brandon C., Jonesboro, Arkansas

I'm going to take some liberties with this question and translate "upside" into "improved." That's at least how I'm interpreting it. "Bounceback" is also something we'll take into consideration.

Here are four nominees

QB Baker Mayfield - The third-year signal-caller enters a big season for himself and the Browns. He'll be working within the confines of another new offense, but head coach Kevin Stefanski has assured that this will be a scheme that brings the best out of Mayfield -- much like it did out of Kirk Cousins last year in Minnesota.

"Quarterback is a lightning rod. That's the nature of the beast. He knows that," Stefanski said Monday during an interview on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt.

"We've outlined some things we're going to help him with schematically and maybe technique-wise, but it's never a one-man show. Baker knows that and our team knows that."

WR Rashard Higgins - An injury derailed the first part of his 2019 season and, similarly to Njoku, never really got back in the swing of things when he returned to the lineup. His game-winning touchdown catch against the Bills was a major highlight and showed a glimpse of what he regularly did in 2018. There's a clear chemistry between Higgins and Mayfield, and Higgins will work to become a regular in the receiving corps after re-signing with the Browns earlier this month.

LB Sione Takitaki - An injury in training camp held the third-round pick back a bit and limited him mostly to special teams. He saw his playing time increase as the season progressed and made a handful of plays, but Cleveland's defensive scheme, which largely utilized just two linebackers, didn't provide all that many opportunities. With Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey gone, Takitaki has as good of a chance as any to crack the rotation and become a significant contributor.

DE Olivier Vernon - Vernon wasn't piling up big numbers but he was playing a vitally important role on Cleveland's defensive line before he suffered a knee injury that kept him out of most of the second half of the season. Vernon's importance was truly felt when both he and Myles Garrett were sidelined for most of the final six games of the season. A full season of Vernon and Garrett together could mean big things for Cleveland's defensive line.

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