Cleveland Browns must select 4 flex positions on offense

Jul 29, 2021; Berea, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Kyle Lauletta (17) practices play action during training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 29, 2021; Berea, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Kyle Lauletta (17) practices play action during training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cleveland Browns
Jun 9, 2021; Berea, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge (12) catches a pass during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

The flex options are QB, WR, TE, RB, FB, and OL.

If you were in charge of the Browns front office on roster cutdown day, which positions would you prefer to fill if you could only select four extra players to fill out the bottom of the roster?

The options are to carry a (1) third quarterback, (2) sixth wide receiver, (3) fourth tight end, (4) fourth running back and (5) ninth offensive lineman. The Browns are expected to be one of the teams that will carry a (6) fullback.

That’s six positions and four roster spots that need to be filled. It’s not quite cut in stone. You might be able to go unbalanced and have 26 positions for the offense and 24 for the defense and thus wind up with a fifth flex spot for the offense, or maybe the defense will come after an extra spot and leave the offense with only three. But let’s say that the most likely number is four flex positions on the roster. The main options are listed below.

Your third quarterback would likely be Kyle Lauletta. For those critics who have fretted about Baker Mayfield’s physical qualifications, Lauletta is 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds and ran a 4.81 at the Combine. Does that make you guys happy?

He played four years at the University of Richmond, a Division I FCS University, where he threw for10,465 yards. He has been in the NFL since 2018. Like Mayfield, he got in trouble for running away from the cops once. Nevertheless, he has looked very good in pre-season for the New York Giants, who drafted him in the fourth round, but flopped when given a chance for mop-up duty back in 2018 (0 for 5 with an INT and a sack, a world’s record bad start!).

Nevertheless, he will be able to run the Browns offense if he lets Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt take care of him. Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and it is hard to justify keeping a ninth lineman or sixth wide receiver or fourth string tight end if the team might need this guy to keep the team functional in the playoffs.

The one bad move the team made last season was to lose Garrett Gilbert to the Cowboys because the Browns evidently thought they could keep him stashed on the practice squad indefinitely last season. No matter who is cut at the end of training camp around the league, they are unlikely to sign with Cleveland to be the third-string quarterback because everyone except for sportswriters and a few deluded fans understands that Baker Mayfield will be first-string for years to come. So if Kyle Lauletta can develop in the Stefanski/Van Pelt system, maybe they should hang onto him.

A second option is an extra wide receiver. There are plenty of interesting choices here. If Andrew Berry decides to ante for multitalented KhaDarel Hodge, he catapults into the discussion for WR3. His contract calls for dollars comparable to what the Browns pay Rashard Higgins.

Can he justify that level of expense? Irrespective of Hodge’s situation, the Browns have established threats for WR6 and even WR7 including Ryan Switzer, the ex-Steeler, who has very good hands and knows how to get open for a seven-yard pass. Ja’Marcus Bradley got his shot due to Covid-19 taking out the regular wide receivers and he looked like he could catch the football. JoJo Natson made the team last year and is a proven NFL kick returner.

Ex-Vikings Alexander Hollins and Davion Davis are longshots, but they have true potential as NFL receivers, and they have worked with Keven Stefanski for a few years now. It stands to reason that if the Browns take the top performers from the talent pool they have summer camp, they will probably find someone who is outstanding.

Now let’s talk about tight ends. The Stefanski/Van Pelt offense ostensibly is a two-tight-end base formation, so logically there should be four tight ends on the roster instead of three.

Here’s a capsule summary of the two-tight-end offense: there is nothing wrong with two tight ends schematically, and it can often create mismatches for teams that are unprepared to deal with heft up front. However, for the offense to really work, you actually have to have two excellent tight ends. Nothing great happens if you show up on Sunday with two below average tight ends.

That’s what the Browns had last season. Austin Hooper’s receiving yardage dropped by 40% between 2019 in Atlanta and last year in Cleveland. After making two Pro Bowls in a row, no one thought he was remotely deserving of any such honors last season. There could be any number of reasons for his underperforming season last year, and maybe 2021 will be better, but we have to face the fact that 2020 was a significant disappointment.

David Njoku was judged to be the best blocking tight end on the team, but neither Hooper nor Njoku were star quality players. If you believe Pro Football Focus, Njoku and Hooper graded about the same, slightly below average for an NFL starter last season. Rookie Harrison Bryant was way down on the list, appropriate for a second-string tight end, definitely.

Does it make sense that the Brown will win the Super Bowl by playing a two-tight-end offense using below average tight ends? Both Hooper and Njoku should be able to step up their game in year two of the Stefanski regime, but if not, will it help to add backups who are outside the top 50?

The Browns need to convince themselves that they have two top-ten tight ends on the team if that is going to continue to be their base formation. Otherwise, it’s very possible that the Browns will decrease the use of two-tight end formations, given that there is a great deal of belief in the available talent at wide receiver, running back, and fullback.

Another possibility is they may take a calculated risk if they like all three of their backups, Stephen Carlson, Jordan Franks, and Connor Davis. If they believe that at least one will clear waivers and agree to terms with the Browns’ practice squad, they may feel safe in going with three tight ends until a roster spot opens up.

At running back, the Browns drafted Demetric Felton, so it is highly unlikely he will be cut. D’Ernest Johnson, in very limited opportunities, has a career 5.1 yards per carry average and 81.9% catch percentage. Do the Browns want to keep both of them?

Johnson is slower than NFL standards, but plays way better than you might expect. He can find the holes and run to daylight, and he also returns kicks. Johnson has missed a few blocks, but we’ve seen worse. With the Browns’ offensive line, it is possible that they could run for close to 3000 yards, but they will need a third running back to manage the workload of a 17-game regular season. John Kelly, a former Ram, running back, is another backup option.

Years ago, the Baltimore Colts used to call halfback Tom Matte the “Trash Collector” because the Colts would use him to close out games by piling up yards at the end of the game against spent defenses. Well, maybe the Browns could use some backs who can do that, if they are fortunate enough to have the lead late in the fourth quarter, and save Chubb and Hunt for when they are really needed (sorry for you fans who have them on your fantasy football teams). If the Browns have Felton on the roster, he might also see time as a wide receiver.

The fullback position is perhaps the most obvious accessory for the running game. Who helps Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt more? The first-string fullback, or a fourth tight end? This is an easy call for this reporter. Andy Janovich, step forward. The only question is whether challenger Johnny Stanton is so good that he can make a run at the starting job.

Janovich is a very good player, but Stanton has shown himself to be a formidable contender as well during his brief promotion from the practice squad last season. He can play. The Browns are very likely to keep a fullback on the roster. If the team keeps a fullback, it might lessen the need for a fourth tight end because the role of the fullback is similar in some respects to an H-back or blocking tight end.

What about the offensive line? How boring…but this is the unquestioned strength of the team. Last season the Browns ultimately ran out of gas because Jack Conklin, Jedrick Wills, Chris Hubbard, Kendall Lamm, Nick Harris and Michael Dunn. all went down by the playoff game for Kansas City and some guy named Blake (Hance) wound up playing left tackle for the first time in his career. It was stunning that the Browns scouts were able to keep producing credible linemen, but even so, it underscored the need for depth.

Browns fans are spoiled by Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz into thinking that is possible to play the entire season without missing a snap. In fact, one year (2018), the Browns went an entire season while making only one substitution the entire year! That’s right, Greg Robinson went in for Desmond Harrison to start game nine, and that was the only missed snap the entire season. This was an absolutely stunning, impossible-to-believe performance.

So of course the team fired the offensive line coach, Bob Wylie, after the season. Based on losing so many capable players last season, it becomes a powerful argument to not cut Chris Hubbard, who is a starting caliber player, though he has non-guaranteed money that could be recovered if he is cut.

Hubbard can also play both tackle and center, the two most difficult positions to cover for second string. The only reason to even consider cutting Hubbard is salary cap. He is starting caliber for sure. Nick Harris is heir apparent at center and James Hudson was drafted to play tackle. Michael Dunn and Blake Hance looked good in late season auditions when called upon. If you have both Hubbard and Harris, you have two backups at center and guard, plus Hubbard has started at both tackle positions also.

That would make you think you could possibly get by with eight linemen instead of nine. The Browns also are bringing Javon Patterson, Drew Forbes, Greg Senat, Colby Gossett and Cordel Iwuagwu to camp. Senat and Gossett have NFL experience. Gossett started four games with the Arizona Cardinals.