The Cleveland Browns reduced their roster to the league-mandated 75 players on Tuesday, with some cuts coming as a surprise and others more of the expected nature. Either way, the reduction of Cleveland’s roster by 15 players opens up opportunities for others to step up in the team’s final preseason game on Thursday and make cases for themselves to be worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster. Here are the players who benefit most from this first wave of roster cuts.
DL Danny Shelton, Jamie Meder
Why: Browns Cut Phil Taylor, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen
It was clear that Danny Shelton was going to eventually replace incumbent nose tackle Phil Taylor at some point, but it did come as a surprise that it happened so quickly, especially with Taylor’s fifth-year option already picked up. But Taylor is out, and the Browns are now on the hook for his fully-guaranteed $5.477 million salary this year.
Why cut Taylor now? The defensive line is one of the Browns’ deepest position groups and Taylor has never really lived up to his first-round draft pedigree, with injuries marring his career. The fact that Taylor, per head coach Mike Pettine, is still not yet 100 percent healed from last year’s ACL tear likely influenced this decision.
But Shelton’s development this summer—Pettine has likened it to guard Joel Bitonio’s from a year ago—had a major influence on this decision. Not only did the Browns feel comfortable enough with Shelton to release Taylor, they also released Taylor’s former backup, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen. And that means more opportunities for other defensive linemen lower on the depth chart.
After Shelton, Jamie Meder looks like the big beneficiary of Taylor’s and Kitchen’s release. Meder, who can play both defensive end and tackle, appeared in one game for the Browns last year after being signed to the practice squad in November 2014. He’s played 49 snaps this summer, according to Pro Football Focus, and has boasted positive grades in both run defense and the pass-rush, totaling one sack and four quarterback hurries, five tackles and six defensive stops. In fact, Meder is Pro Football Focus’ highest-ranked Browns preseason defender.
These moves, on the surface, make the Browns look thin at defensive tackle. But, the Browns run a multiple defensive front that requires constant rotation. Defensive ends can play tackle and vice versa in this system. And the Browns clearly believe enough in Shelton and Meder to make the pair their new point-men in the middle of the line.
WR Josh Lenz, Darrius Jennings, Terrelle Pryor
Why: Browns Waive Shane Wynn, Claim Eight WRs are Possible
Shane Wynn is the first Browns receiver to see the chopping block, leaving Josh Lenz, Darius Jennings and Terrelle Pryor among the bottom-of-the-roster wide receivers battling for a roster spot. Add into the mix the fact that Pettine said on Tuesday that the Browns could carry as many as eight receivers on the final roster, and these one-time marginal players are now very much in the running to make the team.
So far this preseason, Jennings has caught four of seven passes thrown his way, for 68 yards. Lenz has caught three-of-eight, for 59 yards. Pryor will take the field for the Browns for the first time on Thursday night. Pettine's roster revelation could also result in a spot for drafted rookie Vince Mayle, who has caught three passes on eight targets for 35 yards. But his two drops—and his slow return from his thumb injury—could make him a better candidate for the practice squad.
The wild card here is Marlon Moore. Moore hasn’t caught a pass in the preseason, but that’s nothing new for him. Moore primarily serves as a key cog in the Browns’ special-teams unit, working in punt and kick coverage. Lenz, Jennings and Pryor will need to each make strong cases for themselves in order for all three to get nods over Moore. But with Wynn gone and with Pettine’s willingness to stockpile receivers on the active roster, Thursday’s game presents major opportunities for Lenz, Jennings and Pryor.
QB Thaddeus Lewis
Why: Browns Send Connor Shaw to Injured Reserve, Johnny Manziel’s Elbow
Presumed Browns’ No. 3 quarterback Connor Shaw’s 2015 season is over, with the team placing him on injured reserve after he underwent surgery on his injured right thumb. That leaves Johnny Manziel and Thaddeus Lewis as the backups to starter Josh McCown. But it’s Lewis, and not Manziel, who benefits the most from Shaw being shut down for the year.
Because Manziel is dealing with ongoing elbow and forearm tendinitis, something he says he’s “probably had since [his] freshman, sophomore year at [Texas] A&M.” It’s a manageable condition, but one way of managing it requires rest and no throwing. So, unlike last year, the Browns look like they could carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, in order for there to be insurance for Manziel should he not be able to fill-in full-time for McCown should he be called upon.
Pettine said that the Browns would like to have three quarterbacks “on campus” for 2015. It’s possible that the Browns choose to pick up a different quarterback from those released in the coming days to take Lewis’ place. But for now, Lewis can feel confident that he has more than just a little job security.
K Travis Coons
Why: Browns Waive K Carey Spear
The Browns’ biggest one-on-one positional battle this summer was waged between kickers Carey Spear and Travis Coons, and Coons has come out the victor. And because the battle was of the one-on-one variety, it means that Coons might benefit the most among his teammates after this first wave of roster cuts.
With Coons going one-of-one in his preseason field goal attempts and Spear, two-of-two, it’s clear that it wasn’t just the make percentages that influenced the Browns’ decision here. It was more likely how the two performed on kickoffs that saw the needle tip towards Coons. Coons has kicked off six times, for an average distance of 69.2 yards with only 33.3 percent returned. Spear, on the other hand, averaged 69 yards on his seven kickoffs, with 57.1 percent of them returned by the opposing team.
Indeed, Pettine cited Coons’ “slightly bigger leg” as the reason why he chose him over Spear. That big leg is important, especially when the Lake Erie winter winds begin swirling at FirstEnergy Stadium late in the year. It also comes into play in other cold-weather, windy football locales like Pittsburgh, While it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the Browns would decide on their kicker before the fourth preseason game, if they are confident in Coons there is no reason to push the decision off until Saturday—especially with so many other positions still needing evaluation before the final roster can be crafted.