Browns' offensive system, the QB room and things to watch in training camp

The Cleveland Browns have been on summer break since mid-June. Some Nick Chubb workout videos have popped up on social media. There’s been nothing to report on the Amari Cooper contract front. All of the Browns’ key decision-makers have been on vacation with regular work set to resume soon.

If you’re itching for football, it’s coming. Cleveland’s veterans are due to report for training camp on July 23, with the first practice at The Greenbrier Resort set for July 25, which is 16 days before the preseason opener and 33 days before the roster cutdown from 90 to the regular-season size of 53.

As the camp countdown continues later this month, we’ll dive deeper into pending position battles and potential roster crashers. For now, we’ll stick to this list of what I’m most anxious to see once camp gets rolling — and how those things will shape the storylines not just for August, but for the early part of a crucial season.

Given Deshaun Watson’s ongoing rehab from shoulder surgery, the lack of an answer on when Chubb might be ready and no indication that Cooper will report to camp without more guaranteed money, a lot can still happen.

Outside of those potential late-July headlines involving Watson, Chubb and Cooper, here are some things I’ll be watching closely when camp begins.

The (continued) building of the offense

Even established teams have baseline offensive installations early in camp to mix with some new ideas. So I’m excited to see the Browns’ new ideas grow into at least a partial vision of what the offense will look like when the season begins.

In the spring, Watson was a restricted participant. The team’s top three pass catchers on digital paper — Cooper, David Njoku and Jerry Jeudy — were absent for different reasons from most (and Cooper for all) of the practices. At times we saw the same kind of “open” ideas for the offense that we saw last spring and summer with a bunch of run-pass option plays, Njoku occasionally flexing out to catch quick throws and Jerome Ford sometimes lining up at wide receiver. And really, spring is about the basics even when the quarterback isn’t rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Though the Browns won’t answer the play-calling question, I’ve long believed new coordinator Ken Dorsey will assume that role. There will still be elements of a Kevin Stefanski offense with Watson-centric ideas and probably a lot of Dorsey’s ideas and concepts, too. So, even without knowing when Cooper, Chubb or Nyheim Hines will be in camp, or if Jeudy will be the primary slot receiver, there’s a lot we still need to see — and a lot of installing and tinkering the offense needs to do. Some of it is standard late-July business, and some of it is part three of this long plan to get Watson to top form.

The first week of camp is mostly conditioning and non-contact basics. We saw some competitive periods — and a couple of positive days for the pass offense — at Greenbrier last year, so by early August we’ll start to develop a clearer picture of how the Browns plan to attack defenses and free up their top weapons.



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The long road

Stefanski taking the first week-plus of training camp to The Greenbrier last year proved to be a success on multiple fronts, so it’s no surprise that the Browns are going back later this month.

While last year’s trips for camp and to Philadelphia for mid-August joint practices were new, Cleveland had an extended schedule. The Hall of Fame Game was a bonus for younger players and others at the bottom of the depth chart. Watson was fully available, so Stefanski could pick his preseason appearances. The Browns played most of their starters for around a quarter in their second preseason game, and a little longer in the fourth.

This year, there’s less certainty — and one less preseason game. Chubb wouldn’t play in the preseason even if he’s fully cleared, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be participating in camp. Jack Conklin is working back from a torn ACL, as is Hines. Most of the defense returns, and there’s probably less urgency to play the starters in the preseason in Jim Schwartz’s second year. The Browns will host the Minnesota Vikings for two days of joint practices, and Stefanski always views those as the most important days of camp for competitive evaluation.

Will a shorter camp be a lighter one? Or will Cleveland deem it important to get its No. 1 offense as many reps as possible?

Results don’t matter in preseason games, and in many cases, we learn very little from watching mostly backups. But every team has preseason objectives, and every game provides players a chance to put good play on tape. I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer to how much Stefanski decides to play (or not play) Watson in the preseason, but I find the track to a decision to be one of the interesting things about this summer.

Arms in the room

Driven both by last year’s wild rash of quarterback injuries and by Watson’s ongoing rehab, the Browns added two veteran backups in Jameis Winston and Tyler Huntley to a quarterback room that already included Watson and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who was impressive last August as a rookie.

Quarterback depth is both nice and necessary, but we all know if Watson doesn’t play in almost all of the games — and play them close to a high level — the 2024 Browns probably aren’t going anywhere. Still, I’m intrigued by the addition of Huntley because I was surprised by it. The Browns got Huntley for nothing in late March, which means he didn’t have a lot of other options despite his long run (and semi-long list of big-game appearances) as Lamar Jackson’s backup in Baltimore.

Experience should matter if the Browns have to go to the bullpen. Winston has 80 career starts but only started 10 games over his four years in New Orleans. Huntley made nine regular-season starts and also one playoff start over the last three years for the Ravens. Winston appears to have a firm grip on the No. 2 job, but No. 3 seems to be wide open.

There are multiple ways the quarterback room could shake out, and the Browns might have to make some tough decisions. Huntley will try to revive his career by winning a role in Cleveland, and it’s a big camp for Thompson-Robinson. Watson is the player who will make the most camp headlines, but every rep will be important and intriguing in some way.



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Kickin’ it

The new kickoff rules will continue to be a point of both experiment and discussion, and perhaps a fascinating watch in the preseason games. It remains possible (and even likely) that different personnel for the new kickoffs will drive some roster movement in late August. We’ll see the Browns’ plans for the new play come together in camp.

But I want to see how kicker Cade York performs in camp after making a surprise return to the roster via a futures contract. York was a fourth-round pick in 2022 but was cut last summer as his struggles forced Cleveland to go with veteran Dustin Hopkins, who returns as the clear favorite to keep the job. York will likely be auditioning for other teams and trying to get his career back on track after spending last season on multiple practice squads.

After the way last summer went, the best explanation for the Browns bringing York back is that the team still believes in his talent. Hopkins didn’t finish last season due to injury and is entering the final year of his current contract, so Cleveland has to be thinking about the future at a position it thought would be long solidified with the drafting of York.



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Numbers game

With the expansion of practice squads to 16, game-day practice squad call-ups and the way teams can alter contracts of veteran players in late August when necessary, I think the construction of the initial 53-man roster for the Browns can sometimes become a bigger deal externally than it is for the folks calling the shots.

Still, we’re going to be counting and prognosticating with the 53-man roster in mind. The Browns head to camp seeming especially deep at defensive tackle and cornerback, deep at running back (if all are healthy) and four quarterbacks who have started games. To me, they’re really thin at tight end and linebacker and unsettled at wide receiver, regardless of whether or not Cooper reports to camp on time.

Maybe Jeudy, Elijah Moore and Cedric Tillman will be better than they’ve previously been, or maybe the receiving corps is going to be a problem area. The Browns essentially return six starting offensive linemen, but their top three tackles finished last year injured and the competition for the backup interior jobs features mostly new faces. Third-round rookie Zak Zinter is going to make the team, but there are no other locks among the perceived top backups at center and guard.

This is going to be a tough roster for an outsider to crash. It’s going to be a tough roster for the team’s four 2024 Day 3 draft picks to make. Once we see some competitive practices, we can dive further into where jobs might be truly up for grabs or where a special teams-first player can essentially lock up a spot. But continuity is usually good, and the Browns finally have some. So they’ll use late July and August to test their initial evaluations, to see how much development there’s been and to see what needs may arise.

There are always at least a couple of August shockers, but anything unforeseen that happens in the middle to the top of the roster would qualify as a real surprise. There should be good competition for the final fluid spots, and we’re about three weeks away from seeing it.

(Photo of Deshaun Watson and David Njoku: Jeff Lange / USA Today)

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