After 11 public practices and a Wednesday walkthrough, the Browns are ready to put on their game uniforms and take the field against an opponent not wearing brown and orange.
They'll host the Washington Redskins in Week 1 of preseason action Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium. Here are our keys to the game.
1. Stay healthy
This is going to be the first key for each and every one of these four preseason contests. This Browns team is very talented, and while the preseason is important for getting ready for the regular season, it is also meaningless in terms of wins and losses.
As such, the key stars should be treated with the utmost caution. Getting out of preseason as healthy as possible is as important as scoring touchdowns.
This isn't a team-wide approach, of course, but some star names should be expected to be on the sideline wearing bucket hats instead of helmets and shoulder pads. That is more than OK.
2. Establish the run
We're not talking about the importance of Nick Chubb on the ground, but we are referring to the offensive line's ability to open holes for the running backs listed after Chubb. That includes the right guard battle, which veteran Eric Kush appears to be leading at this point. He can further solidify his slight advantage with a stellar game, but Austin Corbett can gain some ground with a solid performance, especially since fellow competitor Kyle Kalis could be sidelined with a stinger. It's also an opportune situation for veteran Bryan Witzmann to get a healthy amount of reps at both guard positions, as he was working at right guard in the absence of Kalis earlier this week, and for Corbett to see some in-game time at center as well.
Lastly, rookie Drew Forbes could get a chance to see reps at tackle and guard at actual NFL game speed, which would naturally be helpful for his development. In all, establishing a rhythm on the ground will make everything else a little bit easier for the many men tasked with handling the job up front.
As for the guys actually running the ball, Dontrell Hilliard should get his first opportunity of 2019 to show his ability in front of Browns fans Thursday, and we can also expect significant playing time for backs like D'Ernest Johnson, Trayone Gray and A.J. Ouelette. We have a feeling fans will enjoy watching Hilliard play. His offseason and training camp performances have helped elevate his standing within Cleveland’s offense.
3. Make your kicks
This one doesn't really need to be explained, but we'll do it anyway.
The Browns entered this offseason with a clear need to find a reliable kicker. They started with Zane Gonzalez, moved on to Greg Joseph during the 2018 season and added Austin Seibert via the draft. We're waiting for one to separate himself from the other, and so far, there's not much to speak of.
Joseph has been slightly better than the rookie Seibert through the first 11 days of training camp, but all of that can change with a preseason performance or two. Right now, it's one of the most important position battles on this roster.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer told us last week on Best Podcast Available he analyzes each kick equally, but naturally, in-game kicks carry more weight. They're under more scrutiny and should be a better indicator of how a player might perform in the regular season. Seibert and Joseph both need to seize the moment and prove they're worthy of a job the Browns must fill before September arrives.
4. Seize the moment
Weeks 1 and 4 are the most important of the preseason for the bubble guys on the roster, and with an increased overall level of talent, these battles for jobs will be fierce, as there are few to go around. Preseason games hold a lot of weight in these competitions and could sway players' cases drastically in one direction or the other.
From a positive standpoint, that could mean a spot on an NFL roster in September. Plenty of players have earned their keep by first dazzling in the preseason before becoming household names in this league.
But there's equal risk in not achieving and letting the opportunity go by the wayside. As Freddie Kitchens says, earn exposure or be exposed. The lights will be bright on Thursday night.