With the Browns headed for Oakland Sunday, we spoke with Chris Pokorny from SB Nation Browns blog, Dawgs By Nature to get some details only someone who covers the teams on a day-to-day basis could provide.
1. The Browns have had a lot of disappointing first round QB’s in recent years. Does Baker Mayfield feel different? Is it full on Baker mania in Cleveland? Or is there still a lot of cautious optimism?
The Browns have indeed had a lot of first-round quarterbacks, but the likes of Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and Johnny Manziel weren’t the first overall pick of the draft. Baker Mayfield already felt different because of when he was taken, and his stock improved all of training camp and the preseason with his sound play and his professionalism in handling the fact that he would be the backup to Tyrod Taylor. The team’s original intent was to commit to Taylor for a long duration of time; heck, I thought he would finish out the season at quarterback. That wasn’t because I thought Mayfield wasn’t ready, but rather because I thought Taylor would be good enough to lead the team to a respectable record. I was wrong.
Once Taylor became a detriment, especially with the type of defense Cleveland has been playing, the consensus among the fanbase immediately became, “OK -- I know it is only three games, but Taylor is holding this team back, and Mayfield would do no worse than him.” It is definitely full on Baker mania in Cleveland after his comeback performance against the Jets. For that being his first NFL game, he looked so natural at making the strong throws while also using his mobility (not to run downfield, but to extend plays and open up more throwing lanes). He also just has a charisma to him -- not an arrogant or entitled kind, but a fun, hard-working guy who motivates his teammates to rally behind him. I know there should be a lot of cautious optimism because “it’s only one game,” but Browns fans have been waiting too long for an answer at quarterback -- so we are already head over heels for Baker.
2. The Browns lead the league with 37 missed tackles. And yet they seem to be playing pretty great defense. Can you explain that?
Is that just the AFC? I read another stat from Pro Football Focus that the 49ers led the NFL with 43 missed tackles. Either way, yes -- it is a lot of missed tackles. I would be curious as to which players have been the biggest culprits to that. My recollection is that the Browns missed a lot of tackles on Alvin Kamara in Week 2 against the Saints, just because of how damn shift he is. But those missed tackles may have come at the line of scrimmage. Then he might have put on another move, where overall, he gains 6 yards. So the thing that I have liked is that while some of those initial tackles are being missed, it’s a good thing that the pursuit was 1) there from the get-go, and 2) the defenders at the second- or third-levels aren’t missing tackles, which prevents fast-striking scores. PFF just posted a note that the Browns’ starting free safety, Damarious Randall, hasn’t missed a tackle this year: https://twitter.com/PFF_Browns/status/1044948122269614080
The Browns’ turnaround on defense can be attributed to about half the defense: two players on the defensive line, and three players in the secondary. Myles Garrett has been solid as a pass-rusher, but Larry Ogunjobi (more on him later) has been a monster at defensive tackle. Both of them were rookies last year who have looked like Pro Bowlers in year two. In the secondary, Denzel Ward was the No. 4 overall pick of the draft. He has played above average in two of his first three games, forcing a total of three turnovers. Terrance Mitchell, the team’s other starting cornerback, was supposed to be a special teams free agent who was acquired from the Chiefs this offseason. He worked his way into a starting role in camp, and he is showing off why with physical play and good coverage each week. Then, the aforementioned Randall, acquired from the Packers, has transitioned to free safety very well.
3. How has Desmond Harrison looked replacing Hall of Famer Joe Thomas at left tackle?
In Week 1 against the Steelers, I believe Harrison had three penalties called against him. It was also a rain-fest, so the entire offensive line (including him) had some issues. Over the past two weeks, Harrison has been surprisingly stable. He has been improving rather quickly, given his inexperience, and people who study offensive linemen have been very high on his potential, believing he has the tools to not just be a decent left tackle, but to be one of the best left tackles in the NFL. I will curb my optimism a bit on that one until it happens, but it has been a pleasant surprise that we went from panicking about “how do we replace Joe Thomas?” to “oh...alright then, somehow we found this Harrison guy as an undrafted free agent.”
4. After years of bad drafts, the Browns suddenly seem to look formidable with mostly homegrown talent. How does that happen?
The Browns’ lack of success with draft picks for so many years went against the grain. It should have been impossible to constantly screw up that badly, yet Cleveland kept doing it. Eventually, we knew things were going to turn around. I would say that losing even worse over the past couple of years helped the Browns’ cause, helping them have the No. 1 overall pick for two years in a row, the No. 4 overall pick this year as well, and then two other first-round picks last year. The Browns have hit on three of those players (Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, and Denzel Ward), been OK with another (Jabrill Peppers), and been pretty “meh” with the last (David Njoku). So, to all of those teams who think about tanking to help set up long-term success: it may have actually worked for Cleveland.
5. Give me a lesser known player on each side of the ball we should keep an eye on for this game.
On offense, watch out for rookie receiver Antonio Callaway. His speed is absolutely off-the-charts. I’m sure you saw the highlight in Week 2 against the Saints, where he kicked things into a third gear to get under the touchdown heave from Tyrod Taylor at the end of the game. Last week against the Jets, Callaway smoked the defense at least twice in the first half, and at least one of those plays should have been touchdowns had Taylor not horribly underthrown the ball. His issue has been dropped passes, but the speed and route-running ability for Callaway look to be scary good, and he’s getting the opportunity to flourish after the Josh Gordon trade.
On defense, the player to watch out for is defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. He was a rotational player last year, but any time he was in the game, fans would be in awe at how he would just push his offensive lineman three yards into the backfield every time. The amount of strength he has is off-the-charts, and this offseason, Cleveland traded Danny Shelton away because they were so high on Ogunjobi’s potential. They are using him like a workhorse over these first three games, and he’s delivering. After being a dominant run stopper last year, his strength this year has actually been beating his man in pass-rushing situations up the middle. The reason that has been such an asset is because quarterbacks know they cannot roll to Myles Garrett’s side, so they often stay in the pocket. When Ogunjobi beat his man up the middle, the quarterback is caught by surprise. Here are some PFF stats to back up Ogunjobi’s production thus far:
I will post my answers to his questions when they are available.