CLEVELAND (AP) — The pandemic altered the offseason for Browns rookie coach Kevin Stefanski and wiped out the preseason, making it tougher to evaluate players.
He's been handed his first NFL roster. It won't be long before it changes.
“It’s very fluid,” first-year general manager Andrew Berry said. “It’s the first 53, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the final 53. Roster management is 24-7, 365 days a year."
And 2020 has been a year like no other.
Cleveland made 24 cuts on Saturday to get to the league's mandated 53-man limit, releasing a few notable names, including defensive end Chad Thomas and Damion Ratley, draft picks in 2018, and running back Dontrell Hilliard, who handled return duties last season.
Interestingly, Stefanski is going with just two quarterbacks — starter Baker Mayfield and backup Case Keenum — out of the gate. Third-stringer Garrett Gilbert, who has been close friends with Mayfield for years, was cut but could be added to the practice squad if he clears waivers.
Also, Stefanski, who preferred using sets with multiple tight ends as Minnesota's offensive coordinator last season, kept five at that position.
Stefanski is bringing back 33 players from last year's Browns team, which didn't play up to enormous preseason hype and finished 6-10. The other 20 players came aboard in free agency (11), the 2020 draft (6), two by trades and one via waivers.
"We share a vision of how this team is going to play, but also, we went into this process very open-minded and wanting to keep the best 53 players,” Stefanski said. “We didn’t have any hard, fast rules of how many we were keeping at any given position. The way the roster shook out is based on the performance of those players.”
The Browns thought they were getting a steal when then-GM John Dorsey selected Thomas with the No. 67 overall pick two years ago. But the former Miami standout didn't play much as a rookie and then missed a huge opportunity to make an impact when star Myles Garrett was suspended for the final six games last season.
Porter Gustin moved past Thomas on the depth chart during training camp and made the squad.
Ratley, who was taken in the sixth round in ‘18, got caught in a numbers game at perhaps the Browns’ deepest position. The Browns kept six receivers: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge, JoJo Natson and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Hilliard played in 25 games the past two seasons, primarily as a third-down back and return specialist. He scored two rushing touchdowns and made 12 catches for 92 yards last year.
Cleveland's defense took a couple of hits in training camp, the biggest to rookie safety Grant Delpit, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon.
The Browns will open the season with two rookies holding down huge roles.
First-round pick Jedrick Willis is starting at left tackle after sliding over from the right side, where he dominated at Alabama. He'll be joined up front by fellow rookie Nick Harris, who is expected to start at least the opener while JC Tretter recovers from knee surgery.
Rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips and Peoples-Jones, a sixth-round pick from Michigan, could also see playing time immediately.
“Going all the way back to April when we first started talking about this rookie class, I think we have smart, tough football players,” Stefanski said. “I know every club across the league wishes there was a longer runway but I’m excited about this group of rookies based on how they work. It’s a class that really understands how we want to play football. I’m excited about them.”
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