Cleveland Browns roster spots are in short supply for 2019

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

For once the Cleveland Browns have actual talent up and down the roster, and it will be difficult to find roster space.

Last year, the Cleveland Browns had about 30 new faces, give or take, on the opening day 53-player roster, meaning that there were only about 23 holdovers, which is shocking. The huge turnover is a stunning indictment of the low quality of the roster in the pre-John Dorsey era. There were a lot of players on the 2017 0-16 Browns that simply did not belong in the NFL.

Despite the huge turnover, the Browns managed to win seven games, which is an astonishing achievement under the circumstances. Few, if any, NFL teams have added seven wins at the same time as they added 30 new players. If you can think of another example, please post it in the comments! Otherwise, we are entitled to congratulate Browns general manager John Dorsey for creating a massive infusion of new talent.

Even more amazing is that they could have won even more games had it not been for a disastrous coaching situation in the first half of the year. The turnaround was due in no small measure to newcomers, starting with quarterback Baker Mayfield, aided and abetted by Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Antonio Callaway, and Greg Robinson on offense. On defense, shutdown corner Denzel Ward led a resurgent defense, with other major contributions from Damarious Randall, E.J. Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, Genard Avery, T. J. Carrie and others. The Browns added talent, not just numbers.

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Very few of the players on the current roster have peaked. There are very few players who are currently on the roster who can’t play, and that is bad news for someone trying to make the team in 2019.

As a preliminary guess, it is assumed that seven draft picks will make the team, plus five free agents, three undrafted free agents and three players who are recycled after having been cut by someone else. In that case the 53 person roster would have 35 holdovers. The rest of the roster has to be cut or traded.

No matter how you organize the roster there has to be some decent talent that will be let go. Table I lists the top 35 players who have the “inside track” to make the 2019 squad.  They are for the most part listed in the order of their 2019 salary cap charge as estimated by, but with certain exceptions. For example, Jamie Collins was moved to below the estimated cutoff, based on the expectation that he will be cut due to his salary. Similarly, Ricardo Louis and Howard Wilson were demoted from the ‘Inside Track’ to the ‘Bubble List’ (Table 2), based on the expectation that there may not be enough roster spaced for either player.

Chad Thomas was moved to the 35th position because he is perceived to be very close to getting cut after a year in which he achieved absolutely nothing from a football point of view, despite having been a third round pick in 2018. He has been great on Youtube as a pianist, vocalist, songwriter and producer, but not as a football player.

Table 1: Cleveland Browns with the projected “Inside Track” to make the 2019 team.
Table 1: Cleveland Browns with the projected “Inside Track” to make the 2019 team. /

Also shown on the chart next to the cap charge is the amount of money that the Browns could recover from the salary cap by cutting the player.  Numbers in red mean that the Browns would actually have to pay guaranteed money to cut the player.

Not listed among the top 35 are free agents, such as Robinson, Breshad Perriman, E.J. Gaines, and others. The Browns might attempt to re-sign one or two, and if so they would be accounted for among the free agent signings. Also, Kareem Hunt is listed among the top 35, although it is presumed that he will be suspended, and if so he may not be counted as a roster spot.

Table 2:  “Bubble List” of Browns players in danger of being cut or traded.
Table 2:  “Bubble List” of Browns players in danger of being cut or traded. /

Some of the players listed below the cutoff have genuine ability and losing them might be painful.  They might be considered role players rather than superstars, but every team needs quality role players. Jamie Collins is still a good player, though not at the All-Pro level the Browns expected when they signed him. Brian Price (193 defensive snaps) was in the rotation at defensive tackle last year.

Ricardo Louis was on injured reserve in 2018, but in 2017 he was the Browns wide receiver with the most receiving yards. He is faster and more athletic than Rashard Higgins, though the knock on Louis is that he doesn’t have fantastic hands. If he’s healthy, it would be very believable that he could get a lot of catches from Mayfield.

Anthony Zettel was a starter in Detroit before coming over to Cleveland and splitting time (158 snaps) with Emmanuel Ogbah. Running back Dontrell Hilliard played special teams and started to take away game reps from Duke Johnson last year. Hilliard was targeted ten times last year, and came away with nine receptions out of the backfield.

Other than Collins these players are young and improving, not getting worse. Would the Browns really cut players like this? Perhaps none of them are going to be All-Pro’s, but it’s crazy to think that they may not at least make the roster.

The tight roster has implications for this off-season. First, in free agency, the Browns are likely to sign a few star players rather than several mediocre talents. The Browns will have money to spend in free agency, especially if they cut Collins, but they will probably not cut into the carryover money that they are saving to lock up Myles Garrett and Mayfield to long-term deals. Even so, there will be enough cap space to sign more than one star player.

If we assume that the Browns retain only seven players in 2019, that implies that they would have to trade a few picks, either to move up in this year’s draft or to accumulate draft capital in 2020. It makes little sense to use late round draft picks that force the team to cut players who will likely perform at a higher level than the draft pick.

For example, would you rather have a late round pick at tight end, or go with Seth DeValve, who has shown himself to be a good pass catching tight end if he can stay healthy? Maybe it would make sense to give him one more year to see if he can put together a complete season.

Or, would you acquire a wide receiver and have to cut either Derrick Willies or Damion Ratley after just one year of development? Both of these players showed flashes of brilliance in limited playing time, especially Willies, although his season was cut short due to a broken collarbone. Are we really going to give up on one or both?

Or if an extra offensive linemen is acquired, would you be willing let Desmond Harrison go after eight games as a starter?

These players and others are probably role players rather than Pro Bowl guys. Still, it is a tough call to let them go, especially players who showed talent but have been in the system for only one or two seasons. That may not be enough to evaluate their full potential. The point is that late round draft picks or bargain basement free agents may not actually upgrade the Browns this year. They make the team worse if they occupy a roster spot while causing the team to let go a superior player to make room. Players normally take two or three years to develop, and it could be a mistake to pull the plug on them too soon.

Dawg Pound Daily readers are certain to have different opinions and suggestions about who could be moved to the 53 player roster and who should be cut. However, no matter how you do it, there are going to be some good players let go this year. Needless to say, if the Browns decide to sign more free agents or draft more players, they will have to clear additional roster spots. The danger is that we let go of these players, only to see them wearing black and gold, purple, or perhaps black and orange stripes.

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This year, it will probably be better to try to add a few special players in free agency instead of  acquiring the usual dozen or so extra role players, simply because there are fewer roster spots to fill. The Browns already have an excess of role players, so their free agent priority should be to bring some star talent to the team, i.e., at roughly the level of a Landry or Randall. Similarly in the draft, they will probably find a way to reduce the total number of draft picks this year rather than expanding the talent pool as they have done the past few years.