The Browns Mailbag is back from a one-week hiatus and ready to tackle four of your questions on this third Friday of July.
Do you feel that our O-line will have the time to gel before the season? It seems that if they can't we better run with a full house backfield and run the ball down people's throat. — Michael B., Delaware
That's one of the bigger questions entering the 2020 season, and it doesn't just apply to the offensive line. Chemistry is important everywhere on the field, whether it's quarterbacks and receivers establishing timing or defensive players establishing how they communicate in the vital few seconds before the ball is snapped.
The offensive line, of course, relies heavily on it, and it's a big reason why you'll sometimes see offensive lines get better as a season progresses. It's also why teams try to establish depth charts that allow as little disruption as possible when a player goes down with an injury. Simply put, the Browns will have to expedite this aspect of the game when they hit the field for training camp. It will be the same set of circumstances for every other offensive line in the league. The difference for the Browns, though, is they'll be breaking in two new tackles, rotating in different players at right guard and installing a new, wide-zone system.
For what it's worth, the Browns raved about all they were able to accomplish during the virtual offseason program. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan was particularly proud of his setup, which allowed for plenty of teaching.
"What we have done is we have really tried to take the cut-ups in all the video libraries that we have and try to give that to the players throughout our meetings," Callahan said. "It has been challenging in one way, but in another, it has been really good. We have had a lot of good dialogue. We have exposed them to the things that we want to do. It will not be as though they have not heard it before being around a wide zone system."
Pro Bowl G Joel Bitonio was similarly optimistic about what the group accomplished during the spring. He's just been through enough transitions to know that what the group does in August will be vital to what it achieves in the fall.
"You can understand from a book and paper perspective, but once you get on the field and bullets start flying and you are ready to roll so from that perspective, it will be interesting to see," Bitonio said. "It might take a couple weeks to get up to speed in that sense, but if you get your six weeks of training camp, I think you are going to have plenty of time to get the plays in and an understanding of the offense. I know we have a good foundation set."
The Browns' offseason roster on April 1, 2021
Maybe I'm an optimistic fan and call me crazy. Do you see it as a serious advantage to have two running backs the caliber we have and the coaches who'll make it work? I really think with the game plan, it'll take pressure off Baker Mayfield and keep the D fresh. This can be a DEEP playoff team! That's how the game is played during that time of the year. — B.J. L, Orange
Yes, I would agree it's an advantage, and I think a couple of things help on the coaching end of things. One, Kevin Stefanski showed a great appreciation for running the ball and utilizing Dalvin Cook during his time as offensive coordinator in Minnesota, and his wide-zone scheme should provide plenty of running lanes for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Two, the Browns brought back Stump Mitchell as running backs coach as the lone returning offensive assistant from last year's staff. Count him among those excited by the possibilities.
"I learned to appreciate everything about Nick," Mitchell said in February. "He just goes out and works and tries to get better and do the things he's not so good at and tries to be great at the things he's pretty good at. That's a good feeling. Kareem ... he's a special talent as well. It's a room of talent. We've just got to come in and do our part and hopefully we'll build off what we did last year."
I know that many experts think that the top three Browns 2020 draft picks are excellent choices, but as you look further down the list there are some very interesting picks as well. If Jacob Phillips is tough and strong enough, he could be a very important addition. I don't think that anyone has a lock on a LB slot. How do you think he will fit in? Nick Harris could be the most interesting of all … Will he be given a chance to compete for the right guard spot that seems to be up for grabs? — Robert K., Coventry
You're correct in multiple ways with your assessment of Phillips. First off, no one has been guaranteed a thing when it comes to the linebacker position. Linebackers coach Jason Tarver made it clear in a recent interview that any and all playing time would be earned at training camp, and there were no locks for any of the spots. Second, the Browns definitely like what Phillips brings to the table, specifically his versatility. That trait could allow him to compete at more than one spot.
"We wanted football intelligence. We wanted length and speed. He has those," Tarver said. "What I mean by length is how well you are able to separate from blockers and things like that, which he has done. He did that pretty well at LSU. Being only 21 and coming out early, he sort of had some things, and he has even gotten better with that in the offseason that he can do on shedding blocks and making plays, but he was highly productive."
As for Harris, the Browns have been adamant he projects best as a center, and Callahan did not include Harris when he listed off a number of players who will compete at right guard. Still, the same was said about Harris when he enrolled at Washington, and he wound up playing the position for his first two seasons before switching to his more natural fit at center. So you can't completely rule him out, but he'll likely begin camp behind JC Tretter with the other centers.
Considering the increasingly extraordinary athleticism of our punter, Jamie "The Scottish Hammer" Gillan, could you imagine our punt team utilizing that to our advantage by attempting some fake punts in short yardage 4th-down situations? — Nick D., Wayne, West Virginia
He'd certainly be comfortable with the ball in his hands, and we've already seen what he can do as a tackler. These kinds of decisions, though, are always about time and place within a game — no matter how good of shape your punter happens to be in. It doesn't matter how dynamic of an athlete Gillan is; he won't be able to sneak by a defense if they know what's coming.