The Miami Dolphins are preparing for their third regular season game and their first one in their home stadium. The Dolphins will welcome the Cleveland Browns into Hard Rock Stadium, with both teams looking to put up their first “W” of the season. To get a better look at the Browns, I spoke with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature.
Kevin Nogle (KN): The Browns will now have their third different starting quarterback of the 2016 season, and I believe this will be the fifth straight week, going back to last year, that a different player is starting a game at quarterback for the Browns. Obviously, the team chose the chance to find something special in Robert Griffin III, only to have that experiment end after Week 1, then turned back to the solid starter they knew they had in Josh McCown, only to have him hurt in Week 2. So, now the team will turn to Cody Kessler, who, a week ago, the Browns said "isn't close to being ready to play." Is he going to be ready to play this week, and what is the scouring report on him?
Chris Pokorny (CP): It sounds like you have a good pulse on the Browns' quarterback situation – I think a lot of outsiders don't know that the reason Robert Griffin III was initially selected as the starter is now because he was proven to be a better quarterback now for this team than Josh McCown was.
Clarifying one comment, the Browns didn't come out and say that Cody Kessler isn't close to being ready to play; that was a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. With that said, I think it is an accurate representation of what the team felt. Let's take away the fact that Kessler has had zero work with the first-team offense up until this week, which is difficult to overcome in itself.
This preseason, he looked like a limited quarterback, sticking with short-range throws. Any time he tried to throw the ball downfield, it was horribly off-target, and he's not known for his zip on the ball. He'll have some mobility, but being thrown into the fire against a defense that has helped (unintentionally) injure quarterbacks the first two weeks has us wondering how soon we'll see Charlie Whitehurst thrust into action. I think he'll be ready to play within the limited type of offense that Hue Jackson puts in place for him, but unless everyone else on the team plays an exceptional game, which seems to be unlikely given the Browns' youth, nobody is expecting great things from the rookie quarterback.
KN: The Browns hired Hue Jackson this offseason to rebuild Cleveland. What has he brought to the Browns and how are fans feeling about him after the 0-2 start? Will this be the end of the coaching carousel in Cleveland?
CP: Some fans have been irked already about the decision to pass on Carson Wentz and then reach to draft Cody Kessler in the third round, because Hue Jackson presumably had a big influence on that. Aside from that, nobody is pressing the panic button on him, and it is because of the baseline understanding that has been laid out by this franchise. With the past few coaches – i.e. Rob Chudzinski, Pat Shurmur, and Mike Pettine – they were expected to win, even if they didn't have the best roster in the NFL. When the losses kept piling up, their coaching strategies, usage of players, and other things were used as ammunition to ride them out of town (and rightfully so, at least for Shurmur and Pettine).
With Jackson, a lot of fans had a much higher respect for him before he even coached his first game. His work in one year as head coach with the Raiders was admired, as was his job helping polish Andy Dalton into a much better quarterback in Cincinnati. The Browns literally gutted the roster this offseason – I think I read that only 20 players are back from last season – and everyone knows that coaches can't just perform a miracle and win right off the bat for that. Therefore, this season will be viewed as a success if we, at the end of the season, can look at 5-10 of our young players and say, "hey, these guys really improved from Week 1 to Week 17." Once the Browns pull off another draft in 2017, where they are again loaded with picks, the evaluation on Jackson will start to begin, based on 2017 progress (expectations = middle-of-the-road team with potential to play spoiler) and then 2018 (time to contend). That type of long-term vision hasn't been accepted by fans until this year, and I think fans are willing to be more patient because of how well other Cleveland sports teams are doing (the Cavaliers won an NBA Championship, and the Indians are going to the postseason).
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KN: Miami's defensive strength should be their pass rush and the defensive line as a whole. It does not always show up right away, so it is possible for the Browns' offensive line to establish some itself early, pick up some momentum, and frustrate the Dolphins. How do you rate the Cleveland offensive line, and where can Miami find success in attacking it?
CP: It'll be a little tough to judge the Browns' offensive line because we're going to see a unit this week that we've never seen before. At the end of last week's game, center Cameron Erving suffered a bruised lung (side note: dear god, that is cringeworthy to think about). Normally, people would think that losing a starter weakens a team, but it might stabilize the offensive line a bit. I liken it to your thinking with RGIII and Josh McCown earlier. With the Browns in a rebuilding mode, everyone knew that Erving was not very good at center yet – he'd made some progress throughout camp, but still had major issues with high snaps and blocking in open space. We could have stuck a veteran there instead, but what was the point if we're trying to see what we have in the youngsters?
Now, starting right guard John Greco will slide over to center. Coming off the bench to start at right guard is Alvin Bailey, who has some experience with the Seahawks. Left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Joel Bitonio are All-Pro and above average players, respectively. Greco is expected to be a stable presence at center, and I would've rated him as an above average right guard. Where Miami should find success in attacking is the right side of the offensive line. Bailey is a backup for a reason, and right tackle Austin Pasztor has a history of struggling in pass protection. To Pasztor's credit, he is a fine run blocker.
A lot of fans look at the Browns' offensive line and say it's awful because we lost Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz this offseason. Those were undoubtedly big-time losses, and we haven't found their long-term replacements yet. However, Thomas, Bitonio, and Greco are a pretty darn good trio that a lot of teams would like to have. That's why I think you'll see a lot of moments of stability throughout the game, but because of the weakness of the right side, every so often Miami (and any other team facing the Browns) will eventually break them down.
KN: Former Dolphins second-round draft pick, cornerback Jamar Taylor, underwhelmed in his time with the Dolphins from 2013 to 2015. The Browns and Dolphins agreed to a draft-day trade this year that included a swap of picks and Taylor heading to Cleveland, where he has become a starting cornerback. How has he looked for the Browns?
CP: Through two weeks, I label him as "just another guy." I can't cite any strengths about him because he hasn't made any exceptional plays that stand out. He's not being toasted left and right, although he did play some rather odd defense against Mike Wallace last week, which resulted in a touchdown.
I wish I could give you a more informed answer, but my take on him has been that I wouldn't be surprised if at some point this season, we see a few other guys used as a starting cornerback instead, just to see what their upside is.
KN: Who will surprise Dolphins fans on Sunday?
CP: I have been using the "Terrelle Pryor" card for a few weeks in these answers to help express my confidence in how much of a legit wide receiver he's turned in to. However, I assume that NFL fans across the country have started to see some of his highlights to become a little bit of a believer in him, and he'll also be the team's No. 1 receiver this week since rookie Corey Coleman broke his hand. Therefore, I'll pick more of a wildcard player in defensive end Tyrone Holmes.
Holmes was a sixth-round pick by the Jaguars this year, but Cleveland claimed him off waivers after final roster cuts were due. He was known as a pass-rusher and made his debut last week. He played just 10 snaps, but registered 3 quarterback hurries. His performance must have been good enough for the team to terminate the contract of veteran defensive lineman John Hughes, who had a contract through 2019 with the club and was a starter up until a few weeks ago. Rookie defensive end Carl Nassib, who was the team's most exciting rookie this preseason and in Week 1, suffered a broken hand in Week 2 and will miss this week's game. Holmes is expected to see an uptick in playing time with Nassib out, so we'll see if Holmes surprises Dolphins fans while surprising some Browns fans at the same time.
Thanks very much to Chris for giving us a look at the Browns. Kickoff for the game is at 1pm ET on Sunday.