The Browns definitely invested in the edge rusher position this offseason, capping it off by locking up Myles Garrett with a five-year extension that, at the time, made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL. Garrett missed much of the early part of camp with a hamstring injury but has looked as dominant as ever since returning to the field this week. Olivier Vernon looks poised to bounce back from an injury-shortened season in 2019 and has been giving rookie LT Jedrick Wills Jr. all he can handle. Garrett and Vernon are your unquestioned starters. Ten-year veteran Adrian Clayborn knows how to get to the quarterback, and it's been on full display throughout camp. While Chad Thomas left Tuesday's practice with a neck injury, Porter Gustin made the most of his time with the first team and has continued to shine. A former five-star recruit, Gustin joined the Browns midseason and definitely looks like someone who knows how to pressure the quarterback. It looks like Thomas, who had a career-best four sacks in 2019, is in a serious competition with the hard-charging Gustin for the team's fourth DE spot. The other DE competing for time is Robert McCray, who appeared in one game and spent four weeks on the Browns practice squad in 2019.
While he is unlikely to be ready this year, the Browns made a big waiver claim Tuesday on Curtis Weaver. Weaver is a rookie pass rusher from Boise State, where he racked up 34.5 sacks in three seasons, and a fifth-round pick of the Dolphins in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Dolphins tried to waive him with an injury designation in an attempt to get him to their IR, but the Browns (among other teams) pounced and landed an excellent pass rushing prospect for the future. Weaver received a second-round grade from The Athletic's Dane Brugler, who noted that he projects as an NFL starter.
Stock Up: Gustin
Much like the defensive ends, the Browns are set with their starters along the interior of the defensive line with veterans Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi. Richardson is one of the most under-appreciated players around the league and was a consistent bright spot for the Browns defense in 2019. He looks to be thriving in the Woods defense and has been a frequent visitor to the Browns backfield. Ogunjobi has 11 sacks over the last two years and will be unleashed to get after the QB even more in 2020. He missed some time in camp with a groin injury, but is back now and appears to be in the best shape of his career heading into the final year of his rookie contract.
When Ogunjobi was out, rookie third-round pick Jordan Elliott received valuable first-team reps. Elliott is someone defensive line coach Chris Kiffin has gushed over during media appearances, and it's easy to see why. Elliott has a natural power and speed combination that makes him an excellent pass rusher and penetrator along the interior. He has carried guards into the QBs multiple times, and it would seem he can make an immediate impact in pass rushing situations.
When free agent signing Andrew Billings opted out, it created a void along the interior for that big run stuffing DT. At 330-plus pounds, veteran Eli Ankou has stepped into that role, working with multiple units throughout camp. He has done an excellent job taking on double teams and has shown a knack for batting balls down at the line of scrimmage. Kiffin even raved about his athleticism and movement skills for a man that size.
Battling with Ankou, or perhaps trying to make a case for carrying a fifth defensive end, is second-year player Daniel Ekuale, who appeared in seven games for the Browns in 2019. Newly added Ricky Walker is also competing for snaps at defensive tackle.
Stock Up: Elliott, Ankou
Check out up close and personal photos from 2020 Browns Camp presented by Gatorade
The big question mark on defense heading into the 2020 season has centered on the team's linebacking corps. After Mack Wilson was lost for an extended period of time with a knee injury, the questions got even bigger. Wilson was in phenomenal shape, and Woods noted he was in line for a huge season. The team certainly hopes to get Wilson, who was slated for an every-down role as the WILL linebacker, back sooner rather than later.
Despite the loss of Wilson and all of the question marks, the linebackers have certainly exceeded expectations in the early portions of camp. Veteran B.J. Goodson, who has started 29 games in his four-year career, is clearly the leader of the room. He has been leading the way at MIKE linebacker throughout camp. Goodson has come up with a few takeaways in camp, always seems to be in the right place and has established himself as the most vocal member of what has been a very vocal Woods defense.
Sione Takitaki is easily one of the team's most improved players from a year ago and an offseason dedicated to improving his pass coverage/ability to play space has been on full display.
Rookie Jacob Phillips, the team's third-round pick out of LSU, was the SEC's leading tackler and is definitely a physical player. Like Takitaki, the key for Phillips will be his ability to cover and play in space. He is a very natural athlete who looks very good in pads. He will be asked to pick things up very quickly and thus far appears up to the challenge.
Veterans Malcolm Smith and Tae Davis will push Phillips for time in the team's three-linebacker sets alongside Goodson and Takitaki. Smith was brought into the fold Sunday and is a former Super Bowl MVP who has appeared in more than 100 games since joining the league in 2011. Smith is trying to get up to speed quickly to be a valuable role player for the Browns, who desperately needed another veteran presence. Davis has four career starts in the NFL but has primarily been a special teams ace. He has looked good in camp and is definitely physical at the point of attack.
Converted safety Montrel Meander, last year's UDFA standout Willie Harvey and rookie Solomon Ajayi all have had their moments in camp. Meander is natural in coverage, while Harvey is an undersized tackling machine and Ajayi is all hustle. Their ability to make the final roster will likely depend on their special teams contributions.
Stock Up: Goodson, Takitaki, Phillips
So far, the cornerbacks have proven to be the most consistent and deepest group of playmakers on the Browns defense. The depth, unfortunately, has had to be highlighted due to a recent rash of injuries at the position.
Denzel Ward is your unquestioned top corner on the outside and the former Pro Bowler looks noticeably bigger heading into his third season. He should thrive in the DB friendly scheme, and his 95-yard pick-six in a team goal line period has been one of the top plays of the entire training camp. Greedy Williams has been the starter opposite Ward since Week 1 of his rookie season, and the second-year player was having a very solid camp until a shoulder injury forced him to miss the most recent practice. Both Ward and Williams have spent every free moment off to the side working on their technique, especially press technique, with their defensive back coaches.
Former first-round pick Kevin Johnson opened camp as a slot corner and made an immediate impression. Johnson was one of the best players on the field in the early going and earned the nickname "Cover Johnson." Unfortunately, a freak injury forced Johnson to the hospital with a lacerated liver. He was back on the sidelines Tuesday and is being evaluated on a week-to-week basis.
Veteran Terrance "Money" Mitch has been enjoying his typically excellent training camp with multiple interceptions and daily pass breakups. He has missed the last two practices with a knee injury, but Mitchell has been playing so well, you would think the team will try to find a way to get him on the field.
Newcomer M.J. Stewart Jr., a 2018 second-round pick of the Buccaneers, was claimed off waivers one day into training camp. He has made an immediate impact in Berea while filling in for Johnson as the nickel. Stewart has an interception and has shown a knack for getting into the backfield as a blitzer and in run support. It looks like a change of scenery is exactly what he needed, but he, too, has been recently sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Hopefully Williams, Johnson, Mitchell and Stewart will all be back on the field shortly because they have looked like an excellent unit thus far.
Many young players have really stepped up this camp — perhaps no one more than Donovan Olumba. The Browns brought the 6-foot-2 Olumba into the mix in March after he was released by the Cowboys, and he has been really opened eyes. His size certainly stands out, but Olumba has played his way into the mix as an outside corner. He has rarely allowed any completions when targeted, even when working against the team's top offensive players. Special teams ace Tavierre Thomas has also shown good speed and mirroring skills while working in the slot.
Top UDFA A.J. Green, veteran Robert Jackson and last year's seventh-round pick Donnie Lewis Jr. are also getting lots of opportunity of late with the injuries in the cornerback room. Green certainly has flashed his skills working on the outside, as has Jackson, who was on the Browns active roster for six games in 2019. There may be too many quality players to keep, and GM Andrew Berry will face some very difficult decisions at this position.
Stock Up: Johnson, Stewart, Mitchell, Olumba
This group, which was to feature three new faces among the starters, was also off to a strong start in camp, but the impact of the season-ending injury to second round pick Grant Delpit can't be minimized.
Delpit was very much looking like a potential steal of the draft as a natural, versatile playmaker. Unfortunately, he won't see the field until the 2021 season. Veterans Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph are your likely starters at free and strong safety, respectively. Sendejo, a 10-year veteran, has patrolled the back end of the defense every day in camp and has a couple of interceptions to his credit. Joseph has been working pretty much every other day since being activated from the PUP list and had his best day Tuesday when he intercepted two passes. Both Sendejo and Joseph can play both safety positions, and the two will be counted on to play major roles.
Sheldrick Redwine is now poised to play a big role in Woods' big dime looks. He started five games a year ago and is currently the top backup at the free safety spot.
With Delpit out, undrafted free agent Elijah Benton has been the team's top backup at strong safety. Rounding out the safety room are UDFA Jovante Moffat and J.T. Hassell, the latter of whom appeared in four games for the Browns last season primarily on special teams.
Stock Up: Everyone has to step up with Delpit out