Even for a team like the Cleveland Browns, few starting positions are up for grabs.
Really, look at Cleveland’s roster. What entrenched or projected starters are in great jeopardy? At the skill positions on offense, Isaiah Crowell, Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman and David Njoku all look safe. And 80 percent of the offensive line is all but settled.
On defense, things are much the same. Myles Garrett would have to rob a nunnery to not start in 2017. Guys like Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, Christian Kirksey and Joe Haden are similarly set. Jabrill Peppers should be, too. As soon as he and Cleveland agree on a contract, that is.
The spots of interest for the Browns are ones where they’re either used to uncertainty (see: quarterback) or others with a surprising surplus of talent. That’s not to say that everyone mentioned is rock-steady yet. After all, in most instances, they wouldn’t have to compete for a starting job if they’d have proven as much.
As usual, the Browns are saddled with uncertainty at the position. And not one of their options is particularly enticing. Rather than try to figure out who will emerge as Cleveland’s starter, let’s look at each player’s credentials (or lack thereof).
Cody Kessler: As far as undersized, third-string quarterbacks go, Kessler had a solid rookie season. In fact, he finished the year as Cleveland’s highest-rated passer. Kessler’s 92.3 passer rating ranked 16th among players with at least 100 passing attempts. Kessler didn’t put up gaudy touchdown or yardage totals, but the lack of talent around him played a significant part in that. With a better cast this season, Kessler could make strides. That is, of course, if he gets the opportunity. Kessler reportedly is falling out of favor in Cleveland.
DeShone Kizer: In terms of upside, Kizer is by far the top quarterback on Cleveland’s roster. The Notre Dame product has size and arm talent that can’t be taught. But he suffered through bouts of inconsistency with the Fighting Irish. Kizer was even benched briefly during his final college season. Most would presume that Cleveland would want to bring him along slowly. But recent reports suggest that Kizer could crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
Brock Osweiler: Cleveland’s decision to trade for Osweiler had little to do with the former Houston Texans signal-caller. After all, Osweiler had a putrid 2016 — completing less than 60 percent of his passes and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. No, the Browns traded for Osweiler, and his albatross of a contract, for the second-round pick that accompanied him in the deal. But suddenly, he’s emerging as a candidate to start for the Browns in 2017. Cleveland is on the hook to pay Osweiler $16 million in ’17 either way. Why not give him a shot?
The Browns gave former first-rounder Cameron Erving two seasons on the interior of their offensive line — one at guard and one at center. After disappointing performances at both spots, some have been eager to declare Erving a bust. But one experimental start at right tackle in a meaningless Week 17 game may have salvaged his career. Erving played tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers and, though not perfect, showed far more potential than he ever did on the interior of the O-Line. Finally, the former Florida State tackle may have found a fit at the next level.
But he’ll have to earn his way into the starting lineup. Standing in his way is second-year lineman Shon Coleman, who has an inspiring story. But don’t let that distract from his abilities as a football player. The Auburn product is a road-grader, and could form a nasty, run-blocking duo on the right side with free agent acquisition Kevin Zeitler. He’s got something of a leg up on Erving because he’s played the tackle position consistently for the past several years.
Erving is a better pure athlete and has better movement skills, but his confidence may be beyond repair. If so, the Browns could do much worse than start a raw talent who should add a little pop to their rushing attack as he develops.
Left Defensive End
When the Browns selected Emmanuel Ogbah with the 32nd pick in the 2016 NFL draft, they obviously saw big things in his future. But they pictured them coming from the outside linebacker position. It was a torn pectoral to incumbent Desmond Bryant that prompted Cleveland to switch Ogbah to defensive end. And he handled the move well. Ogbah had 53 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three pass deflections in his first pro season. As evidenced by his sack numbers, Ogbah is already a skilled pass-rusher. But he could use some work stuffing the run.
Bryant, meanwhile, is a presence against the run. He doesn’t have the pass-rushing ceiling that Ogbah does, but his 23.5 sacks over his past five seasons is indicative of his presence as a solid secondary rusher. At 31, and with just one year left on his current deal, Bryant isn’t a long-term answer for Cleveland. But he can be a steadying presence for a young team and an especially young defensive line. And there has to be a reason Cleveland is retaining him in spite of a $4 million cap hit in 2017, right?
Make no mistake, both players will see time next season. But who starts, and at which position, is still very much undecided.
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