Which young Browns need more reps in final 2 games? Jerome Ford tops list

Which young Browns need more reps in final 2 games? Jerome Ford tops list

The Browns have two games left. Their quest to actually score more than one touchdown in a game also needs to include more reps for young players over the remaining games at Washington and Pittsburgh. 

The Browns are 6-9 and were officially eliminated from playoff contention after last week’s loss. The final six games of the season were always going to be about Deshaun Watson’s ongoing growth and development, but they also need to be about a team that’s not nearly as good as it thought it was getting more evaluation of at least a few young players. This week, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said the Browns won’t sit any veteran players in the final two games, and running back Nick Chubb specifically said he wouldn’t entertain the thought of sitting out despite dealing with a foot injury. 

Still, the Browns need to see rookie runner Jerome Ford in game situations. Ford probably isn’t the only one who needs at least a few more game reps for his own development and for the team’s evaluation, but Ford has played seven offensive snaps all season — all late in the Browns’ easy win at Houston in Week 13. Veteran running backs Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson have been ahead of Ford on the depth chart all year, but both are eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. 

If Ford is going to be Watson’s third-down back next season, that should start this weekend. The Browns drafted Ford despite having a crowded running back room that included the aforementioned veterans and second-year player Demetric Felton, who’s ended up taking on a small role at wide receiver because the Browns lack depth there. There’s been nothing that indicates Hunt, Johnson or Felton will be in the plans for next season, so there should be at least a few plays built into the game plan for Ford. 

RB Jerome Ford

Stefanski is never going to share any details on anything that relates to game strategy. His focus is on the Browns finding a way to win Sunday at FedEx Field, as it should be (for lots of reasons). But he was at least willing to engage in the discussion about the Browns getting a further read on how some of their young players have developed and might respond in big moments. 

“I think every rep is valuable,” Stefanski said. “I think practice reps are valuable, but any time you can get young guys in game settings and see them respond, yeah, I think it is good. We have had a lot of young guys play for us. Going back to Week 1, guys have stepped up and played a lot of football. I really try to evaluate all of it from the meeting rooms to the practice field to the game field. Yes, of course, two more games to see how guys respond in certain settings I think is important.

“We will make decisions on players, like (previously) mentioned. Guys may get a couple more opportunities. Bottom line is we are going to do everything we can to try to win this game. That is really where our focus is. If a young guy warrants getting some extra plays, he might.”

The Browns like Ford, so they essentially made him their kickoff return man on the fly earlier in the season. That’s an ongoing project that’s going at least pretty well, and going back to November Ford has shown improvement and some explosion in the open field. The Browns have also used Ford on their punt return and kick coverage units on a part-time basis, and those are brand-new ventures for a player who was the featured running back his last two years at the University of Cincinnati and wasn’t used on special teams. 

“Jerome has done a really nice job again embracing special teams,” Stefanski said. “He made plays on kickoff coverage early in the season where I don’t know the last time he covered a kick in his life – you may be going back to freshman year of high school, (that) type of thing. He embraced it. He has embraced that role as the kick returner because he knows he can impact the game. He gives (us) a great look in practice.

“It is just one of those things with your roster. Sometimes you have guys who are in front of you, and you just have to keep your head down and control what you can control. I think he has done a nice job of that.”

OL James Hudson

Starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. may not play this week due to a back injury. Starting right tackle Jack Conklin just signed a four-year extension that ends any speculation about where Conklin might be playing next year, so there’s no immediate path to a full-time role for second-year tackle James Hudson. 

But Hudson could be slated to play this week at left tackle as Wills missed practice Wednesday and Thursday. Hudson has played some as the extra tackle/tight end in the Browns’ jumbo formations over the last two months, but he’s logged 15 snaps in that role just twice. He started the first two games of the season at right tackle before Conklin was cleared to play, and injuries forced Hudson to start four games last season before he was really ready to play. 

Hudson started his college career as a defensive tackle at Michigan, and his college offensive line experience didn’t amount to much more than one full season at Cincinnati. The Browns always knew he’d need time — practice time, first and foremost — to develop and refine his skills, so a start at left tackle late in the season might not be ideal for the Browns right now given Washington’s talent level on defense, but it could help Hudson going forward. The Browns face a decision on Wills’ fifth-year option for 2024 next spring, and though it seems likely the team will pick it up given the importance of the position, the Browns’ prior investments in the offensive line and the resources usually involved in finding top tackles, the team will remain invested in Hudson’s development. 

Linebackers and defensive linemen

Lack of depth, specifically on defense, has been one of the Browns’ issues in this lost season. Injuries hit the linebacking corps hard, and the defensive tackle group has too often been overwhelmed by opposing offenses. 

The Browns already have had to play a lot of young players on defense. Second-year linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is finishing the season on injured reserve, becoming the fourth Browns’ linebacker who played regularly to land on IR. Second-year linebacker Tony Fields II had played one defensive snap in two seasons before the Browns moved him into the starting lineup at outside linebacker last month. 

Sione Takitaki, who tore his ACL in early December, is eligible for free agency in March. So are Deion Jones, who’s been a part-time player since being acquired from the Falcons in an October trade, and Anthony Walker, who was the Browns’ starting middle linebacker last year and early this season. Walker has been out since suffering a torn quad tendon in Week 3. The Browns signed linebacker Jermaine Carter from the practice squad last week; Carter, like practice squad linebacker Tae Davis, is a five-year veteran who’s played mostly on special teams. Veteran Reggie Ragland was signed after Takitaki’s injury to add some size because the Browns previously had very little. The Browns have a major linebacker problem now — and major questions there going forward. 

On the defensive line, rookie defensive end Alex Wright has been a full-time contributor for much of the year. Though Jadeveon Clowney has cleared concussion protocol, Clowney missed practice Thursday due to illness, leaving his status for this week somewhat in doubt. Wright has played in all 15 games and made five starts, but he does not have a sack. Fellow rookie Isaiah Thomas has one sack in 10 appearances in a pass-down role; Thomas has generally played about 30 percent of the snaps in the games he’s played. 

Defensive tackle has been a disaster for the Browns all season, but perhaps rookie fourth-round pick Perrion Winfrey can show further improvement in the last two games. After falling out of the rotation and then missing time while in concussion protocol after what Winfrey said was a scooter accident, Winfrey played around 50 percent of the snaps in each of the Browns’ four December games. Winfrey is big (6-foot-4, 292) and athletic enough to eventually become a starter, so these last two games could be big for his continued development. 

“I feel like (Winfrey) had to learn how to be a professional and do things the right way in terms of studying and in terms of how he practiced,” Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods said Thursday. “I definitely saw him get better throughout the season.”

Second-year defensive tackle Tommy Togiai has fallen out of the rotation; Togiai played one defensive snap last week, and that was the first time he was active on game day since Week 11. In November the Browns signed undrafted rookie defensive tackle Ben Stille off the Dolphins’ practice squad, and Stille immediately cracked the rotation but has played about 15-20 percent of the snaps in December. 

The Browns have mostly thrown to wide receivers Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones this season. Rookie David Bell has generally been the third wide receiver; Bell has just 24 catches on the season, but 15 of them have come after the team’s early-November bye. Fellow rookie Michael Woods II has played in eight games but only has eight targets. Felton gets an occasional snap, and second-year man Anthony Schwartz has been on injured reserve since suffering a concussion in Week 13. The Browns got practice squad rookie receiver Daylen Baldwin involved in Week 15 when Bell had to sit out due to injury. 

Woods has shown speed and at least some promise; he spent much of the offseason battling injury, and that probably cost him a chance to get more opportunities than he’s gotten this season. Bell is always going to be a slot-first player, but both Bell and Woods should continue to get chances to develop chemistry with Watson. With good weather expected Sunday, the Browns should have better chances to throw down the field than they’ve had the last two weeks. We’ll see what happens there, and though it seems certain that the Browns will look for a speed receiver in the offseason, these young receivers will likely all get their chances — and something close to a full offseason with Watson. 

“Just continued improvement really across the board for everybody (is what we want),” Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “Maybe give them a little bit more opportunity to make some plays on the ball. Oftentimes, you get the young guys in there and you kind of put them in the spot where the ball will find them last. Maybe formatting some of the plays to get them involved earlier on in the progressions. Woodsy has done a really nice job for us.  Daylen when he came in played really well for us and made a couple of catches. As rookies, you just keep growing and getting better each week. Hopefully, we will see that this week.”

(Top photo: Tim Fuller / USA Today)

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