The Cleveland Browns need to have their roster trimmed to 55 (well 53, technically, it’s somewhat complicated) players by 4 pm on Saturday. With the regular season nearly upon us, that means it’s time to project the team’s final roster and depth chart. Today we’ll be looking at the depth chart for the Browns defense in 2020, a unit that needs to improve from last year, but also one that has already been hit hard with injury and opt-outs.
Explaining the NFL roster changes for the 2020 season
In 2019, teams kept 53 players on the active roster with 12 men on the practice squad. This year, active rosters are at 55 players (with an asterisk), and practice squads now have 16 total spots. The two additional players on the active roster are practice squad players who are promoted before gameday, then sent back down afterward.
Of the 16 practice squad players, two can be veterans with any amount of service time accrued, and four can be veterans with two or fewer years of experience. Four of those practice squad players can be protected each week, with the other 12 vulnerable to be poached from other teams.
With that out of the way, let’s determine what the final roster will look like, starting with the three specialists.
Few surprises among the specialists
Kicker – Austin Seibert
A fifth-round pick last year, Seibert struggled at times but had an overall decent rookie season. That doesn’t justify drafting a kicker in the fifth round (especially when the reason given was that the ball sounded nice when Seibert kicked it), but he is not in danger of losing the job. The Browns did bring in a couple of veterans for tryouts, but that was to essentially put those guys on speed dial in case of emergency.
Punter – Jamie Gillan
A 2019 undrafted free agent out of football powerhouse Arkansas Pine Bluff, Gillan displaced veteran Britton Colquitt in training camp and was one of the better punters in the league as a rookie. In addition to punting the ball pretty well, he’s built like a linebacker and provided some big hits in coverage.
Long snapper – Charley Hughlett
Hughlett has been with the Browns since 2014, and if you can’t recall a bad long snap since then, that’s because he doesn’t make them.
With three specialists and a projected 25 offensive players, that leaves us with 26 spots on defense, plus the two pseudo-practice squad slots to fill.
Who will make up the options in the box on the Browns depth chart in 2020?
Arguably the best edge rusher in the NFL, Garrett, is primed for a massive season. He totaled 10 sacks and 49 pressures in 10 games last year, and now has a better defensive line and secondary backing him up. He’ll turn 25 in December and is now locked up long-term in Cleveland. He’s on a legendary trajectory and still hasn’t reached his potential yet.
Vernon missed six games due to injury and was hampered for the final two matches he played in but was on a tear prior to getting hurt. He may not put up crazy sack numbers of other pass rushers, but Vernon creates consistent pressure and sets the edge very well.
The Browns flirted with replacing him with players like Jadeveon Clowney and Everson Griffen but eventually decided to guarantee Vernon’s 2020 salary in exchange for a $4 million reduction in cap hit. If he can stay healthy, Vernon is a high-quality starter and a great fit opposite of Garrett.
One of the most underrated edge rushers in the league, Clayborn signed a two-year deal worth $6 million with the Browns, which is a steal for a player of his caliber. He was one of the league’s 10 most disruptive pass-rushers in 2019, and while a nerve condition renders him exclusively a right-side player, he will provide Cleveland with excellent defensive line depth. Something they have not had in a very long time.
A late-season free-agent signing, Gustin got some playing time by virtue of a rash of injuries to the Browns defense as a whole. He didn’t knock anyone’s socks off but flashed his talent in spurts. He’s very athletic and produced at a high level at USC, but injuries prevented him from putting it all together. He reportedly had a good training camp and will likely enter the season as Cleveland’s fourth defensive end.
A high third-round pick in 2018, Thomas has done next to nothing thus far, and if newly-claimed Curtis Weaver were eligible to come off injured reserve this season, Thomas would almost certainly be gone. This is a make-or-break season for him, but playing time might be hard to come by.
Richardson is on a large contract and will likely be released next offseason to save cap space. In the meantime, he’s an excellent interior rusher who can push the pocket. Additionally, he has taken on a leadership role for this young team.
A third-rounder back in 2017, Ogunjobi’s arrow has been pointing down since his solid rookie year. He needs to have a bounce-back season if he wants to earn an extension, as this is the final year of his rookie contract.
Elliott was seen by some outlets as a first-round talent, yet slid to the middle of the third round. He’s a pass rusher who should get plenty of snaps rotating in and out with the two tackles mentioned above and could prove to be quite the steal.
Ankou will likely be one of the final players on the roster, so even if he makes the initial 53, his spot won’t be guaranteed. Had free agent signing Andrew Billings not opted out of the 2020 season, Ankou and teammate Daniel Ekuale wouldn’t have much of a shot.
Wilson suffered a scary-looking knee injury in practice, but fortunately avoided any severe damage and will not need surgery. He’ll start at WILL upon returning, and needs to continue the development he showed toward the end of last season. If Wilson can have the same impact in coverage as he did at Alabama, the Browns defense will be much better than expected.
Signed as a free agent, Goodson is on his third team and needs to show he’s more than just a solid run stopper to stick around. If he can’t do that, he’ll be displaced by the rookie Jacob Phillips. Coverage is something he’s reportedly done well in camp, but we’ll have to see how that translates to the regular season.
Cleveland selected Phillips over players like Malik Harrison and Troy Dye, and there has to be a reason for that. Phillips didn’t show much coverage ability at LSU, but he is tall, incredibly explosive, and extremely reliable. Even if Phillips doesn’t start, his run-stopping prowess should earn him some early-down playing time, and he could very well be starting at MIKE by the season’s end.
A 2019 third-rounder, Takitaki earned just 105 defensive snaps as a rookie. With the Browns likely to use only two LBs most of the time, Takitaki will have to fight to see the field. He does provide a physical profile unique among the group and has reportedly improved by leaps and bounds through camp.
The newest addition to the room, Smith was signed after Wilson was hurt. Based on his career performance (outside of his Super Bowl MVP performance in 2014), he should only be around until Wilson returns from injury. At the minimum, he provides a veteran presence with playoff experience, which is essential.
Who will make up the secondary options on the Browns depth chart in 2020?
Ward dealt with a hamstring injury early on, but once he recovered from that, he was one of the NFL’s premier cover guys. Health is the only question with him.
Before the 2018 college football season, Williams was seen as a potential top-five pick because of his height, speed, and man cover skills. He ended up being a second-rounder and had a middling rookie year. He suffered a shoulder injury in camp, but fortunately, it doesn’t appear to be too serious. Williams has the physical tools to be elite; it’s the mental side of things which has held him back.
The 16th overall pick back in 2015, Johnson had one of the best seasons of his career with the Bills last year and will be the Browns starting nickel in 2020. He suffered a lacerated kidney and was rushed to the hospital after a teammate fell on him, but thankfully avoided serious damage. Johnson has also been injury-prone throughout his career but should provide a substantial presence in the slot.
Mitchell has been reliable for the Browns over the past two seasons, but his roster spot this year is far from secure. He plays exclusively on the outside and almost always on the left side. He could easily be moved for a late-round pick or a player, as the team would save $3 million by moving on.
Robert Jackson and Tavierre Thomas
Both of these players are special team aces who ideally won’t see the field on defense. The Browns improved dramatically on special teams from 2018 to 2019, and the play of Jackson and Thomas was a big reason why.
A 2018-second rounder, Stewart was claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will provide depth in the slot and could end up taking over for Johnson in the future.
A.J. Green and Donovan Olumba
The Mitchell situation will be critical to monitor, as the Browns have two more young corners they want to roster. Olumba provides excellent size and has looked fantastic in camp. Green went undrafted before Cleveland gave him the most guarantees ever for an undrafted player. Denzel Ward has praised Green’s performance, which is a good sign, but keeping nine corners is a lot. Eight should be manageable, however.
Sendejo has been one of the better deep cover safeties in the league over the past few seasons, and that should continue in Cleveland. He will hopefully provide more consistency than Damarious Randall did in 2019.
Joseph was the 14th overall pick in 2016 and has been an excellent player when healthy and utilized properly. However, he’s missed 15 career games and was used primarily as a free safety in 2019. Cleveland defensive coordinator Joe Woods should deploy Joseph as a box safety, where he is at his best. However, much like others in the secondary, staying healthy will be critical.
A 2019 fourth-round pick, Redwine earned more playing time as the season went on and impressed at times. He’s still raw but has a nice combination of tackling ability and coverage instincts. With the devastating injury to rookie Grant Delpit, Redwine will be heavily counted upon.
There are two more safety spots on the roster, but those will likely be filled with waiver claims off of other teams. The bottom of the roster will likely be churned quite a bit by general manager Andrew Berry this season.
Update: The Browns have traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for safety Ronnie Harrison. This leaves one more safety spot up for grabs. Harrison is a versatile player who will provide the Browns with physicality and size on the back end. Harrison is entering his third season and just turned 23 years old. He’s exactly the type of ascending player that this regime looks for.
Practice squad names
Willie Harvey Jr.
Donnie Lewis Jr.
The two callup spots will likely be used on emergency offensive players, like a quarterback and a center. It will be interesting to see how Berry decides to use the increased practice squad, especially defensively.
While this is our current projection for the Browns defensive depth chart for 2020, trades, as well as players potentially cut this weekend, will change things up. However, at the top end of the depth chart, this should be how we see things shake out.