Building Blocks: The Cleveland Browns

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]In the Building Blocks series, writers from Inside the Pylon will discuss the current roster of those teams on the outside looking in of playoff contention in 2017. In a roundtable format, the writers will talk about what players currently look like keepers for the long term, with the potential for being key contributors to the next successful run for the team. To provide some quantifiable structure, we will treat it like an expansion draft model where 10 players can be protected. These pieces are meant to deliver hope to those who have none left for 2017. The NFL is a league filled with parity and any team’s fortune can turn with a little luck and the right building blocks in place.

Browns Front Office: Joseph Ferraiola, Jeff Feyerer, Michael Nuttle

Jeff Feyerer: Oh, the Cleveland Browns (cue Mike Nuttle shaking his head)! Apparently they decided to sit 2017 out, but we all sort of knew that was going to happen in the first place with the amount of draft picks and youngsters they’ve been hoarding over the years.

We’ll leave the ownership and coaching out of this discussion and frame it within the context of: If you were running the Browns, who would be the 10 players you would keep to build around…if there are 10.

And it looks like right off the bat we agree on our ten (in alphabetical order): OG Joel Bitonio, WR Corey Coleman, LB Jamie Collins, EDGE Myles Garrett, LB Christian Kirksey, QB DeShone Kizer, TE David Njoku, EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah, SAF Jabrill Peppers, DT Danny Shelton,

I’ll start with the easy one.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]EDGE Myles Garrett

Michael Nuttle: Don’t think any discussion needs to be had around Myles Garrett. Even in a limited number of games, he has proven to be a force. Health is a question right now, but from a purely football perspective, he’s got the goods.

Jeff Feyerer: Figured that one was easy because you’re wearing a Garrett jersey while we discuss this. Okay, who would you throw out there next?

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]LB Christian Kirksey

Michael Nuttle: Next on my list would still be on the defensive side of the ball in Christian Kirksey. He flew under the radar for his first two seasons, but last year I think you saw him take a big step forward as a cornerstone on the defensive side of the ball. He’s a smart linebacker who plays fast and isn’t afraid to hit people. And he’s young and locked up for a few years now with his contract, too.

Jeff Feyerer: That’s a great point about his contract because that obviously plays a role here too, but did it come into consideration about using one of the ten spots on an inside linebacker where most of the league has determined that position is relatively fungible?

Michael Nuttle: So in Gregg Williams’ 4-3 (and he has been using 3 LBs a lot more than I thought he would be this year), he’s actually been holding down the OLB spot opposite of Collins with Joe Schobert handling inside linebacker duties.

Jeff Feyerer: I guess I should have phrased that more as a “non-pass rushing” linebacker given there is no firm structure on defense anymore. Kirksey would have been one of my selections as well so we have two locked in.

Dan Hatman: For LBs who are more mid-tier pass and run defenders, I can understand a bit more of the decrease in valuation. That said, quality 3 down ILBs can be really impactful. Does Kirksey, in your opinion, present the type of quality coverage and run defense necessary to be that impactful? Or is this a situation of him being a better player than others on the roster?

Jeff Feyerer: A little bit of both feels like a cop out, but that’s the case. Kirksey has struggled in pass defense, but Cleveland has done a nice job mitigating those shortcomings by blitzing him more often, where he’s excelled. Plus, I would say his ability in run support far outweighs any deficiencies in pass coverage. I also think at 25 he still has some development left. But, I think if there was an option as a more prime position, Kirksey may not have been kept.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]SAF Jabrill Peppers

Jeff Feyerer: I’m going to stay on the defensive side of the ball and I understand he’s very much a work in progress, and I’m interested to hear your take on it. The Browns are still figuring out how to use him, but I just think there’s way too much natural ability there to not include him.

Michael Nuttle: So I have a list of about 12 names that I wrote out, 5 of which have question marks, but Jabrill Peppers is one that I feel certain about including on our list of our “protected” guys. Jabrill has struggled this year. I don’t think we can gloss over that. But what he’s struggled at is that deep, roaming free safety spot which is something he never really did in college, at least as much as I watched him. He’s so dynamic and so athletic, I think they just need to figure out what to do with him. He’s a smart player but I wonder if him playing more strong safety makes sense from a long-term perspective. Right now, they have Derrick Kindred holding down that spot and doing well, but with the versatility that Peppers adds when you consider his ability to return kicks and punts, it makes me think that he has the edge over guys like Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell if you have to pick one guy of the three to play strong safety, assuming that’s where Peppers ends up long-term. What are your thoughts on his long-term prospects, as far as fitting into this defensive scheme (assuming it stays the same for a few years)?

Jeff Feyerer: My thinking was simple: If there’s one guy in that defensive backfield I’m keeping, it’s the one with the most athleticism and development upside, especially considering this is all about building blocks for the future. That’s Peppers. I believe in coaches being able to get the best out of players and I’m hopeful they are smart enough to realize where a player works best (don’t call me a cynic!).

Dan Hatman: Playing fast is a combination of knowing what to look at, what it means in relation to you, how fast you can get your body to react, and then athletic ability. It sounds like there is optimism that if you can continue to work with Peppers on the first couple elements, the others would fall into place. Is that the case here?

Joseph Ferraiola: It should be the case. I think that’s what Cleveland is expecting as well. Peppers came out of the draft not having a position. He was projected to be a slot corner, safety, linebacker and running back because of his athleticism and his future team wanting the ball in his hands. He’s never really focused on one position and I think if he’s coached up, given direction, and learns the nuances of being a safety he’ll be a good one due to his athleticism.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]OG Joel Bitonio

Michael Nuttle: 1) Great thoughts on Peppers. 2) I’m thinking about going to the offensive side of the ball for this one. There’s not a lot over there that you can really point to and say “these are cornerstone guys” but if there are a few, one of them has to be Joel Bitonio. Sure, he’s a guard, but when he’s healthy, he’s one of the better guards in this league. Now, that’s a big if because through his first three seasons, he ended up on the IR twice. But the Browns do feel confident in him long-term that they locked him up to a huge contract this season and now, more than ever, with questions around the future of Joe Thomas, I think you have to look at Joel as a “veteran” presence along that offensive line that you can rely on to be a leader. And I say veteran in the sense that he’s been with the Browns’ offensive line the longest of all their current offensive linemen (excluding Joe Thomas). Any qualms with a guard being on this list?

Jeff Feyerer: None whatsoever. I think with guards like Brandon Scherff and Zack Martin coming into the league as high draft picks and succeeding teams are putting more stock in the position than they did previously. There will always be more weight placed on left tackle, but I think teams are doing a better job scheming to the strengths of their line. Bitonio was an easy one for me.

Dan Hatman: Is Bitonio higher on the list than Zeitler because he is home-grown or because of his play, as they are close in age? I can get behind an OG having increased value since middle pressure is terrible for a QB.

Michael Nuttle: I think it is fair to say that it is a mix of both as well as contract considerations. I am by no means an offensive line expert, but from what I’ve seen from the two of them together this year, they are both playing on about the same level. Given that Bitonio is home-grown, I think that gives him the edge as well as a much more team friendly contract while still being locked up for a year longer than Kevin Zeitler.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]LB Jamie Collins

Jeff Feyerer: The elder statesmen and by far the most accomplished of the group, did either of you think you leaving Collins off because of his age or other factors that may have been at play?

Joseph Ferraiola: I think Collins should be one of the Browns building blocks due to his playing experience. He’s still a talented player in the prime of his career and Cleveland just signed him to a 4 year $50 million deal with $26.4 million guaranteed according to OverTheCap. He’s 28, which is old for this group of players, but all contending teams need a certain amount of talented veterans on their roster. The concussion he dealt with recently this season is concerning, but if he can stay healthy the Browns have some nice playmakers at the linebacker position. I’m also not too concerned about why the Patriots traded him. That seems more like Cleveland seizing an opportunity to add talent that was unhappy in his environment. Signing the extension should signal that Collins wants to continue to be a Brown and be apart of this franchise’s rebuild.

Michael Nuttle: I did have a slight hesitation with adding Collins because of his age, but like Joe said, his contract suggests he’ll be around for a while. While 28 is older than most of the guys we are including on this list, that’s not necessarily a “near the end of his career”, barring any unfortunate unforeseen event happening. Collins brings a sense of veteran leadership and some polish to the defense and has been pretty reliable, in my opinion, since coming to the Browns.

Dan Hatman: Playing within the structure of the defense is important to many coaches, do you feel you can trust Collins to execute his job and to generate the impact/pressure needed to validate the contract he was signed to?

Joseph Ferraiola: As Michael said, he’s been pretty reliable since joining Cleveland. We aren’t in their team building, but it seems like based off the tape you can trust him to execute. He hasn’t been healthy this season, but when he is I think he can be productive and generate the pressure to earn his contract. He had two sacks in eight games played with the Browns last season, but that’s during an adjustment period. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said he’s one of the best players he’s had the chance to coach and seems to admire his disruption he causes for opposing offense. His flexibility also allows them to add more to their scheme with a single player rather than multiple players who can only succeed in one area.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]TE David Njoku

Jeff Feyerer: Njoku’s raw ability, which we have already seen this season, and athleticism at the tight end position makes him a natural fit for any brand of football. However, in deciding what players you would select, did either of you debate selecting a guy who, in order to justify being kept as one of your ten “holds”, still needs a ton of seasoning?

Michael Nuttle: I think if this were another team, there would be more pause in giving one of ten spots to an “upside” guy such as Njoku, but as you look around the roster and try to find very good “we know who they are” type guys that are also young enough to be considered for this, there really aren’t many on Cleveland’s roster. So with that in mind, I think it makes sense to include someone with an extremely high ceiling such as Njoku, even if he hasn’t shown quite as much on the field yet as you would hope. Part of that could be because of the QB play as well, but that’s a whole other discussion. From what I have seen so far with him, when he has flashed, he shows you exactly what had people excited about him during the pre-draft process. He is an extremely gifted athlete and has a great catch radius with those long arms of his. He’s a weapon that you can run your offense through, when he gets it all figured out.

Joseph Ferraiola: I agree with Michael in that there aren’t that many players on this roster to pick 10 from. Njoku is only 21 and is an unfinished product. Because of that he’ll have to be given time to learn the NFL game. Personally though, I think Njoku had to be included due to Cleveland trading back into the first round for their third selection to draft the Miami tight end. The Browns have a lot of draft capital and used some of it to buy that extra year of control that comes in the form of a fifth year option for a first round pick. I think this proves that Cleveland is okay with waiting for Njoku to develop and he’ll be a good receiving tight end by his 3rd or 4th year in the league. Also, Cleveland taking projection players is nothing new as you and Michael discussed about Peppers earlier. This team seems to be okay taking the players that need some seasoning hoping they develop into what the team believes they’ll become.

Dan Hatman: Do you have hope for him developing as a blocker, giving them options in 11 personnel? Or is he more of a mismatch player who will need creative personnel groups/formations/etc?

Joseph Ferraiola: Could I say both? I think early in his career he’ll be used more as a match up tight end lined up in the slot. I think Hue Jackson can get creative with him in that respect, but I also think he has the size and physicalness to develop into a good inline tight end needed to play in 11 personnel. He first needs to learn the proper technique, but he’s an aggressive player with a willingness to block.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah

Jeff Feyerer: You can never have too many pass rushers! Ogbah seems like a natural fit after moving back to defensive end, but like Njoku, still has some growing to do. I think he becomes that terrific complement to Garrett. Agree?

Michael Nuttle: I am happy to say that I have been pleasantly surprised with Ogbah. Admittedly, I was not very fond of the pick at the time as I had some strong concerns about his motor and effort coming out of Oklahoma State, but in his first year and half, even with playing some 3-4 outside linebacker last season under Horton, he has shown that he can handle pass rushing duties in the NFL. I agree in the notion that he is a much better fit at defensive end in a four man front. His numbers aren’t jumping out at anyone this year, but I think that is in large part to playing 5 of 8 games without Myles Garrett and having to be the main rushing threat. He certainly does have plenty of growing and developing to do, but when you factor in his ability with that of Myles Garrett, you have a very solid #2 pass rusher.

Joseph Ferraiola: I also think Ogbah’s natural position is as a 4-3 defensive end due to his size. He’s another player that needs to develop, but I agree with with Jeff and Michael that he’s a great player to have opposite of Garrett. I agree that his production should increase when Garrett is the #1 pass rusher and he’s the #2.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]DT Danny Shelton

Jeff Feyerer: Shelton has continually dealt with injuries, weight issues and inconsistency, but is only 24 and has flashed enough for me to believe he can be a key contributor to future Browns success. But full disclosure, he was my last selection…

Michael Nuttle: Shelton was not my last, but he was in the second half of my selections and there were many factors that went into why he was on my list. The injuries thing is interesting because he has been nagged by them in the past as well as this year but with all of the concerns, he still has only missed one game in his career to date. But the fact that there are a lot of these little injuries that pop up coupled with him being a very large human being, I think it is fair to be worried about his ability to stay healthy long term. He has struggled with inconsistencies throughout his career as he was on the verge of being labeled a bust by some after his rookie season but then really stepped up his play in his sophomore season only to have taken a slight step back. I still think he is playing well this year despite playing at perhaps a lower level compared to last year but he isn’t so far reverted back to his rookie season where he was getting washed out of plays easily by a double team or even by a single lineman. He still is doing a great job of plugging up the middle of that defensive line and though his statistics may not show it, he’s opening up opportunities for his teammates to make plays in run defense and as such is still a very key component for the Browns defensive line in my mind.

Dan Hatman: Before, when discussing OGs, we talked about interior penetration and what it can do to disrupt QBs, and I’ll add disrupting the Zone run game. Do you feel Shelton has the tools to truly disrupt both phases on a consistent basis?

Jeff Feyerer: I think that’s a great point and a major question area. Shelton’s fit was always in a two-gap scheme where he could use his strength to occupy blockers. In a more wide-open NFL, especially one that uses a lot of zone blocking schemes, first-step quickness and play recognition becomes paramount. Shelton hasn’t always been good in that area, but it’s developing. One of his best performances this season was against Houston, a team that employs a lot of inside zone concepts. It’s been hard to see his development because of his inability to stay healthy, but I believe Shelton is flashing enough to alleviate any long-term concerns.  

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]WR Corey Coleman

Jeff Feyerer: Coleman has looked explosive when healthy and could provide the downfield threat the Browns haven’t had since Josh Gordon. I think at the very worst you have a playmaking #2 WR. Do either of you think he makes the jump to #1 or is it too early to call?

Michael Nuttle: Whether Coleman is a true future #1 or a very good #2 is a debate that has seemed to be popular among many Browns followers. Where I fall in that, I am not entirely sure. Obviously through two seasons he is still a very large projection going forward. His athleticism is quite evident when he is on the field, but in two seasons he has already broken a hand twice, costing him a big chunk of playing time. That may be the most crucial to his development as he was pretty raw as a route runner coming out of college. His athleticism and toughness certainly gives me very high hopes that he can continue to grow and develop, but I don’t think I would pen him in as the future #1 WR of the Cleveland Browns right now, personally. But I also think about the possibility of him and Njoku on the field together and though neither is maybe your traditional #1 guy, they are both players that are capable of making big plays due to their high level of athleticism and would be why I would want to include him in my ten to keep.

Joseph Ferraiola: I don’t think Coleman is a true #1 receiver, but he can definitely fill the role of a good #2. He’s extremely explosive and possesses very good athletic ability. He’s definitely someone who can test a defense vertically. My concerns with Coleman are mainly his ability to stay healthy. He’s had injury issues going back to college when he missed Baylor’s bowl game with a hernia. Michael is right when he says that injuries are affecting his development. He didn’t run many different routes in college and his injuries are keeping him from developing that ability. Coleman definitely has the talent to become a good #2, but injuries are holding him back. I think Kizer needs all the playmakers he can get at this point though and that’s why he’s a player to build around.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]QB DeShone Kizer

Jeff Feyerer: Ah, yes. We knew this debate was coming. I just thought I was going to be the only one on “Kizer Island”. Thank you gentlemen for joining me!

Michael Nuttle: So since we are in the business of full disclosure, Kizer is my last one, and I debated with myself a long time on this one. I won’t deny that watching Kizer this season has been a roller coaster, some of his own doing and some by the doing of the head coach, but at the same time, when he was given the reigns at the beginning of the season, I knew that we were signing up for that as well. I think what ultimately puts him in this list is two-fold: 1) it is the most valuable position in the game, and he’s the best option the Browns have. 2) We still have only seen 7 games from a very young, raw quarterback and though it hasn’t been pretty, I have seen things that make you think “yeah, this kid at least has a chance”. At the very least, I’m not willing to flat out say he doesn’t have any hope at all. When you take away considering any future changes like coaching staff or possible draft picks, I think you have to stick with Kizer in the hopes that he does continue to develop and show he is figuring out everything. So if anything, it’s more of a principle thing for me on why Kizer needs to be on this list.

Joseph Ferraiola: I’m conflicted on Kizer. I think he makes the Browns 10 because he’s the only quarterback on the roster with a real chance of being their long-term starter. We could speculate whether or not they draft a quarterback this spring, but as of now it’s Kizer. Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler are okay backups, but none have the ability Kizer has displayed. Like Michael said, it hasn’t been pretty, but he does make plays that catch your attention. I hope he’s allowed to play in a stable environment with the same coaching staff because that will give him the best chance at succeeding. I think Cleveland’s offensive line is also more than adequate to help Kizer be successful. He just has to do a better job at making decisions and getting rid of the ball quicker. These are problems that rookie quarterbacks have. The talent is there – now it’s a matter of if Cleveland can develop him and put the right pieces around him to make his job easier.

Jeff Feyerer: The biggest factor for Kizer for me, other than that I was higher on him coming into the season than most, is that, like Joe said, he’s the only quarterback on the roster with the chance of being the long-term starter. I think if it’s the most important position on the field, which it is, you don’t throw potential like that away.

Dan Hatman: So my read is this is more of a QB is important, we need to tag one, and less about Kizer grabbing a foothold for the future. But based on exposure thus far, would someone like Briean Boddy-Calhoun not have a better body of work at another critical position?

Joseph Ferraiola: Well, I think it’s more than just picking any quarterback. I think Kizer is raw and has some good traits that, if developed, can equate to a solid to good starter in the NFL. It’s too early to tell exactly if he’s the right quarterback, but he has talent above the line needed to be considered one of the Browns 10 building blocks. As for Boddy-Calhoun, I think he’s a good player for the Browns and has shown playmaking ability and ball skills, but I’d rather have the upside of Kizer for building a team. As Jeff said, you don’t throw potential like that away. While corners are critical I think the Browns would tell you from experience that it’s been easier to draft quality corners than quarterbacks.

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]FINAL CLEVELAND BROWNS – BUILDING BLOCKS/PROTECTED PLAYERS

Offense – QB DeShone Kizer, WR Corey Coleman, TE David Njoku, OG Joel Bitonio

Defense – EDGE Myles Garrett, EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah, DT Danny Shelton, LB Christian Kirksey, LB Jamie Collins, S Jabrill Peppers

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