With injuries to both Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard that will keep them from suiting up against the Indianapolis Colts, the player with an enormous opportunity is Justin Cole. Cole was signed as a free agent from the St. Louis Rams and had minimal time to prepare before facing his former team in the first week of the preseason. With the Browns really down to three active outside linebackers, Cole will have a tremendous opportunity to show why he should make the roster or why another team should trade to land his services.
Perhaps due to the emotions of playing against his former team combined with familiarity, Cole came out and was extremely impressive against the Rams. There were a lot of people who watched that game and asked the question, “Who is #41 that is flying around making plays?” In a game with players like Sheard, Paul Kruger, Quentin Groves, and Mingo getting all over the field, Cole still managed to stand out and look impressive. For a position that seemed to be all but set at four, Cole appears to have managed to force a conversation about whether or not they should keep a fifth.
While he was still active against the Lions, he was not quite as effective and had more up and down play. His athleticism was still apparent, but the issue that popped up a few times was how he holds up against blocks. Lions’ blockers did not have much trouble moving him off of his spot and he struggled to hold up at the point of attack. For the Browns defender under Ray Horton, that may not be a huge problem for him as much of that falls to the defensive line. The linebackers are asked to fly around and make plays which Cole can do. Nevertheless, the hope is he can do a better job going forward.
The Browns have two preseason games left and with the injuries to Sheard and Mingo this week, Cole will have a ton of opportunities against the Colts. Regardless of their health situation, they are unlikely to play much if at all against the Bears the final game in what will be a final tune up for the starters who can play. Cole could end up getting between four and five quarters over the next two weeks, so if he is ultimately unable to make the final 53, it will not be for lack of snaps.
The situation with Mingo that is still up in the air might impact the decision more than his play. If Mingo is out for any period of time into the regular season, the Browns will need another outside linebacker. Sheard’s knee injury is minor and he would likely play if it were a regular season game, so he should be perfectly fine for the regular season opener. The Browns’ defense really demands a lot of the outside linebacker position and they are really going to want to have four linebackers to run it comfortably. If Mingo is out, that might pare down some of the packages they want to run on defense, but they are still going to need fresh legs beyond just what Groves brings.
Mingo was on the exercise bike today (Thursday) but there have been no details on a timeline or the extent of what the injury is or how severe it is. As a result, armchair doctors are diagnosing Mingo’s injury based on nothing and are suggesting all kinds of awful things. Whether that is even in the realm of where Mingo’s condition is or a way to get attention for themselves is unclear, but the fact the Browns PR staff has not been out in front of this situation is a little unsettling. The fact he is doing light lifting, on the exercise bike, and availability to the media does make it seem like it is relatively minor but all parties are tight lipped on the situation.
The best situation the Browns is that Mingo will be ready to contribute week one and Cole plays well enough to make an argument to keep a roster spot gives the Browns options. They could simply keep him as a fifth outside linebacker and dump an inside linebacker to make it work. The front office could also use Cole to make a trade, whether it is for a conditional draft pick like they did with David Sims a year ago or for a position player; perhaps a guard, so the Browns do not have to trot out Oneil Cousins for any regular season snaps. In either case, Cole has been fun to watch this preseason and the hope is that he can come out and really play well as he auditions for the Browns as well as the NFL at large. Cole could be the most intriguing and is the most talented player that is on the roster bubble for the Browns as they play these last two preseason games. Whatever happens, the hope is that picking up Cole off the free agent market will pay dividends this year whether it be for the Browns or in a deal from the Browns.