The regular season has finally arrived.
The Browns are opening the year on the road in Charlotte, where they'll kick off against their former QB, Baker Mayfield, and begin a season that has followed an offseason with no shortage of storylines leading up to Week 1. Jacoby Brissett will look to start his first of 11 games as the Browns' starting QB on a crisp note, and the Browns will be turning to their strong run game and steady defense — a group that contains many of the same faces from a year ago — to keep them ahead in Charlotte.
What are the biggest questions for the Browns in Game No. 1? Let's dive in.
1. How will the Browns handle the matchup against their former QB?
Players and coaches have said all week that they're not allowing themselves to get tangled up in one of the top storylines of their first game — nothing has changed in their pregame prep work because they're playing against Mayfield.
It's the Browns versus the Panthers. Their defense versus their offense. The idea of stopping any sort of "revenge" isn't in the discussion for why a win would be huge this week.
"My matchup is really the left tackle, the left guard and center," defensive end Myles Garrett said. "I don't think I'm going out there after one man in particular … There's a lot of guys we have the bullseye on. It's not a matter of going after one guy."
Sure, the Browns have at least somewhat of a grasp on what to expect from Mayfield, and Mayfield has an idea of what the Browns will do to stop him. The Browns must be smart in disguising their defensive coverages and have done their due diligence in how the Panthers have adapted their offense to Mayfield's strengths, but stopping him means winning battles against some of the other top guys on Carolina's offense — like 2022 sixth-overall pick OT Ikem Ekwonu, All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, a receiver who's topped 1,000 yards each of the last three seasons.
"We can't focus on the uncontrollable, which is what they do with (Mayfield)," LB Anthony Walker Jr. said. "We can only control what we do and how we execute against the basis of their offense, and play off of that."
Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams first regular season game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday
2. How fast can the offense start with Jacoby Brissett?
The Browns aren't going to ask Brissett to be a superstar QB.
They know their biggest strength will be their run game, which they'll certainly look to use early to build a lead and help make the game more manageable from Brissett's perspective.
By starting fast and building that lead, the Browns will be able to continue to use their run game even more to fatigue Carolina's defense and put Brissett in positions to pass the ball in safe situations — in other words, minimizing the amount of times the offense faces third-and-long.
"(Head Coach) Kevin (Stefanski) has been preaching to us that we have to make sure we come out and get off to a fast start," Brissett said. "This is our first one. We have to be ready to go."
A fast start and early lead is always important to win games comfortably.
It's especially important when a new QB is playing his first game.
3. How does the defense stop McCaffrey?
A strong argument can be made that the most important goal the Browns must achieve to win Sunday is slowing McCaffrey.
He's one of the most versatile running backs in the league and the heartbeat of their offense, but he's exactly the type of player the Browns have designed their defense to stop — particularly at linebacker.
Speedy guys such as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Jacob Phillips were brought to Cleveland to patrol the field from sideline to sideline. They know their tackling angles must be sharp to stop McCaffrey from breaking tackles and running free along the egde, and the onus will largely fall on them, as well as Walker and LB Sione Takitaki, to keep McCaffrey contained.
Owusu-Koramoah knows the guys are up for the challenge.
"I think it is always an excitement when it comes to playing guys of high caliber, playing in the NFL, period, going against guys who are top-rated and going against guys who are also getting paid like you are getting paid," he said. "It will be an exciting process, and it will be an exciting game to watch."
4. What's the situation at returner?
The final roster battle the Browns needed to sort out before Sunday was officially decided this week at returner.
Demetric Felton Jr. will be the primary guy for kick and punt returns. The role was initially supposed to go to Jakeem Grant, a Pro Bowl returner the Browns signed this offseason who unfortunately suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in training camp.
Felton averaged 7.1 yards per return on 32 punt returns and 19.1 yards per kick return in nine attempts last season as a rookie. He had no prior experience in punt returns before 2021, but after he placed a heavy emphasis on improving in that area this offseason, special team coordinator Mike Priefer believes he's ready for the role.
"He has worked extremely hard in his ball security, tracking punts, catching punts and just the little nuances of where your hands are, your elbows, your feet, your body position and how to track it, get to the spot and move your feet to adjust and those little things," Priefer said. "Hundreds and hundreds of reps since last year in terms of the spring, training camp and then this past week. He is, I do not want to say comfortable because I never want my returner to be comfortable, but I want him to be confident. I think he is much more confident than he was a year ago."
5. Will Conklin be active?
The biggest lingering injury question the Browns have heading into Sunday is about Conklin, who was limited in practice this week as he tested the strength of the knee that suffered a season-ending injury last year. He's gradually worked the knee back to full strength over the last month in practice.
A 2020 All-Pro at right tackle, Conklin would provide the Browns a huge boost up front if he's able to play. He'd be replaced by either second-year vet James Hudson III or seventh-year veteran Joe Haeg, who was signed Monday, if he's not quite ready.
"I want to get through (Saturday), see where Jack is and then make a decision," Stefanski said.