Tonight, the Cleveland Browns take on Washington in their first preseason game of the summer. There will be many must-watch moments even though this won’t be a major showcase of the Browns’ starting lineup. With 90 men on the roster and only 53 spots available in just a few weeks, a number of players will be showcased to see whether or not they will fit.
However, there are limits to what a preseason game—especially the first of four—can teach us. Here are three things we can learn from tonight’s game and three others that will have to wait until the preseason continues on through the rest of the month.
What We Can Learn: Danny Shelton vs. NFL-Level Talent
The first of the Browns two 2015 Round 1 draft picks, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, has been making waves throughout training camp and his pancaking tackle of receiver Marlon Moore in last week’s Orange & Brown Scrimmage has expectations even that much higher. Add into the mix the fact that Shelton came aboard specifically to help turn around both the Browns’ run defense as well as boost their pass rush and it’s obvious much rests on the rookie’s shoulders.
Tonight will be our first opportunity to see how Shelton can fare against NFL-level talent who aren’t wearing his team’s jerseys. Shelton should see time both with the first- and second-team defense as the Browns’ coaching staff tries to get his feet as wet as possible with the speed and physicality of a professional game. Think of it as a litmus test—how far along is Shelton, and how much farther does he need to go? We’ll get our first look at that tonight.
What We Can Learn: Kick and Punt Return Plans
On the Browns’ current unofficial preseason depth chart, their punt returners (in order) are listed as Travis Benjamin, Tramon Williams, Jordan Poyer, Taylor Gabriel and Shane Wynn, while the kick returners are Marlon Moore, Shaun Draughn, Justin Gilbert and Darius Jennings. But that doesn’t mean the Browns need to adhere to this pecking order in tonight’s game, especially when some of these returners are also starters on either offense or defense.
That means some will see more time than others at the returner position, and how they perform will influence the next depth chart released. It could also mean the difference between having a roster spot come September and looking for a job elsewhere. The punt and kick returner situations for the Browns is currently fluid, so anyone who stands out tonight could be in line for more work as the preseason rolls on.
Carey “MurderLeg” Spear didn’t attempt a field goal during the Browns’ Orange & Brown Scrimmage last week, with those duties falling solely on the head of Travis Coons. But, now that the preseason is here, the real battle between Spear and Coons for the Browns’ kicker job will truly commence. Expect both to get opportunities tonight and throughout the next three games in order to decide who gives the Browns the greater advantage.
The majority of special-teams position battles are best played out during live game situations rather than on the practice field. There are more things to consider with kickers than just static accuracy in the vacuum of a training camp. There is the live rush of an opposing team trying to interfere or block a field goal attempt, for example, that cannot be perfectly replicated in a practice or scrimmage situation. How Spear and Coons handle this first test tonight will help the Browns’ coaches make their ultimate decisions.
What We Can’t Learn: Offensive Game Plan
It is typical in all four preseason games for team to play things close to the vest when it comes to their offensive and defensive strategies. It’s doubly so for teams like the Browns who have a new offensive coordinator, and thus a brand new scheme to unveil at the start of the season. So don’t expect to see much in terms of the exact style and look of offense the Browns will be playing in the regular season tonight, or in any of their four preseason games.
Further, with running back Duke Johnson still on the shelf with a hamstring injury, the offense will be limited to the plays they can run without him. Coordinator John DeFilippo has regularly emphasized just how important Johnson’s versatility as a runner and receiver will dictate much of the pacing and scheming of the offense. Without him on the field tonight, the Browns cannot adequately install and practice those plays. They can do so with other backs, to be sure, but the effect will not be the same.
But even if Johnson was able to play tonight, the starters won’t get many series. This is more about evaluating the bottom half of the roster than trying to replicate the regular-season offense. There will be hints thrown out there, but don’t expect a full blueprint to Cleveland’s offense to reveal itself tonight.
What We Can’t Learn: Cameron Erving’s Eventual Spot
Whether or not left tackle Joe Thomas plays at all tonight after being rolled up on earlier this week by Danny Shelton or whether or not center Alex Mack gets as many reps as the rest of the first-team offensive line will determine where and how much rookie Cam Erving plays. But it won’t determine where exactly his home will be on the offensive line come the regular season.
Erving has been mostly with the second-team offense through much of training camp. Though he is expected at some point to really push the incumbent starters, particularly right guard John Greco, it’s also possible that those incumbents do enough to retain their jobs, relegating Erving to a reserve role as a rookie.
However Erving’s first year plays out, tonight’s game will provide little insight into what may eventually happen. He’ll be on the field, and he’ll be tested. But just because we see him at tackle, or left guard or even center this evening doesn’t mean that’s where he will be in September or December.
What We Can’t Learn: If There Will Ever Be a Quarterback Battle
Given that it’s the first preseason game of the summer, don’t expect the Browns’ offensive starters—particularly at skill positions—to get more than a series or two of playing time. That means that presumed No. 1 quarterback Josh McCown’s field time will be limited, giving ample opportunity for backup Johnny Manziel to work with the second- and third-string offenses, perhaps well into the second half of the game.
This will allow Manziel to show off the progress he’s made during toward becoming an NFL-style quarterback during the offseason. But with a limited McCown sample size, it’s not likely that anything that Manziel does tonight will cause seismic shifts in the Browns’ quarterback depth chart. That’s not to say he cannot make that happen as the preseason continues and we begin to see more and more of McCown in action. But tonight is not the night that will ignite a true quarterback battle between Manziel and McCown. If that should happen, it will take at least one, if not two, preseason games to get to that point.