(Odell Beckham Jr. photo courtesy Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)
This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.
Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.
When and Where: Thursday, Aug. 8, First Energy Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio, 7:30 p.m. EDT.
Two terms not heard in the same sentence when talking football in Cleveland for decades — “high expectations” and “the Browns” — are suddenly all the rage as Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and the Browns host the Washington Redskins in their exhibition opener Thursday night.
Gruden to get first look at QB Haskins against opposition
The Redskins are coming off a 7-9 season in which they missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and finished third in the NFC East. Washington’s season went into a tailspin in Week 11 when quarterback Alex Smith suffered a gruesome broken fibula injury that is expected to also sideline him all of 2019.
The Redskins used three quarterbacks over the final six games — Josh Johnson, Colt McCoy, and Mark Sanchez, but they lost five of those contests. Knowing Smith would not take a snap in 2019, they acquired Case Keenum for a sixth-round pick in 2020 from the Denver Broncos and selected Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins with the 15th overall pick in the draft.
Haskins immediately raised eyebrows when he sought and received permission from Joe Theismann to wear No. 7 — which had not been worn in the nation’s capital since 1985 when the former Super Bowl winner and 1983 MVP had his career-ending leg injury at the hands of Lawrence Taylor. Despite a quantum leap in offensive styles and terminology from his lone season as starter with the Buckeyes, Haskins is confident he can emerge as the starter at some point as a rookie.
“I’m going to start one way or another, whether that’s sooner than later,” Haskins confidently told USA Today. “I know when I play, I don’t want to start, sit down and then watch again. When I play, I want to be ready to play, and I want to be dominant and want to play for a long time.”
The Redskins lost a key piece of their offense when slot receiver Jamison Crowder left for the New York Jets in free agency, but Trey Quinn has already emerged as his likely replacement. Last year’s “Mr. Irrelevant” as the 256th and last pick in the 2018 draft, everyone expects Quinn to surpass his rookie totals of nine catches and 75 yards quickly.
“When it’s time to catch the ball, he’s going to make the play and get separation,” Gruden told the Redskins’ official website about Quinn. “I think he has shown that ability the time that we’ve had him here.”
Haskins likely will not see time with the first and second units in this contest because starting left tackle Trent Williams is engaged in a holdout that shows few signs of ending before kickoff. A seven-time Pro Bowler who has two years remaining on a 5-year, $66 million deal, Williams was reportedly upset at how the team’s medical staff treated a procedure to remove a benign tumor from his scalp.
There are other reports that stated Williams — who made the Pro Bowl last year despite missing three games with a thumb injury — was also miffed over the team’s lack of two-way loyalty in recent seasons. He held off undergoing knee surgery in 2017 until the team was eliminated from playoff contention and felt slighted by the drafting of lineman Geron Christian in the third round last year.
Williams, who also reportedly has had a trade request turned down by the Redskins, has already lost more than $500,000 between fines and pullback clauses in his contract.
If Williams shows up, will he be healthy enough to practice and play.
“I don’t know yet,” Gruden said. “I don’t know where he is. I haven’t seen him, and the trainers haven’t seen him in a little bit of time. I don’t know the answer to that one.”
The game will also mark the Redskins debut of safety Landon Collins, the three-time Pro Bowler who surprisingly left the New York Giants but stayed in the NFC East. Collins is one of five former Alabama players on the defensive side of the ball along with standout lineman Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, Ryan Anderson, and Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Fellow first-round pick Montez Sweat is expected to see action, though he did miss one practice last week as a precaution after being kicked in the calf.
Hype train following Browns as Mayfield and OBJ work on chemistry
The Browns — a team that went 7-8-1 last season after going 0-16 in 2017, has not finished above-.500 since 2007, has not made the playoffs since 2002, and has one playoff appearance since being reincarnated in 1999 — have been the “it” team of the NFL all summer as seemingly everyone is eager to find out if they have staying power or are a flash in the pan.
It all starts with Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft whose skills, swagger, and confidence quickly changed the culture of the franchise. He made his debut in Week 3 after Tyrod Taylor got hurt, rallied the Browns to a 21-17 victory over the New York Jets to snap their 19-game winless streak (0-18-1), and never looked back as Cleveland was in playoff contention until Week 16.
Mayfield finished with 3,725 passing yards and 27 touchdowns with 14 interceptions and was named the Pro Football Writers Association Rookie of the Year. He had three 300-yard games and four games with three or more TD passes but also had a pair of games with three interceptions.
“It is not just the arrival of Odell,” Mayfield said at a press conference last week when discussing the heightened expectations. “Obviously, he brings his own media fame and everything like that, but it is also the talent level we added with him and all of the defensive players, as well. It is every guy we brought in here to win.
“You have to raise your expectations within the building. Nothing outside matters. You realize the standard we need to set every day. That is why we brought in guys like Odell and some of the others. They know the need to win, they know what it takes and we need to stress that.”
The challenge for Mayfield is to handle those higher expectations knowing opposing defenses have video to game plan against him. To that end, Browns general manager John Dorsey aggressively made two of the league’s biggest offseason moves to bolster the offense.
The first came in February when he made the controversial decision to sign running back Kareem Hunt, who had been cut by the Kansas City Chiefs — arguably derailing a run to the Super Bowl — in November after a video emerged of him shoving a woman.
Hunt will sit the first eight games of the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, but with 2,984 yards from scrimmage in the first 27 games of his career, he has the chance to form a dynamic 1-2 backfield punch with Nick Chubb, who finished four rushing yards shy of 1,000 as a rookie in 2018.
The second came a month later when Dorsey landed Beckham in a blockbuster deal in with the New York Giants in exchange for first and third-round picks and safety Jabrill Peppers. Despite developing a reputation as a malcontent with the Giants, there is no questioning Beckham’s talents after totaling 77 catches for 1,052 yards last year despite missing four games due to injury.
The move reunited Beckham with former LSU teammate and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who was Mayfield’s favorite target last year with 81 catches for 976 yards. Both players are entering their sixth year, with Landry totaling 481 catches in 80 games and Beckham with 390 in 59 as he missed the equivalent of a full season with injuries in 2017 and 2018.
“Everything takes time. Everything that is great comes with patience and takes time,” Beckham said about finding chemistry with Mayfield. “We are still developing. The best part about it is it is training camp. It is not the real season right now so we are all trying to get on the same page and get everything down. It has been a lot of fun working with (Head) Coach Freddie (Kitchens), Bake and everyone else. I am trying to just get better each and every day.”
While the offense gets all the ink with all the star power surrounding it, Cleveland’s defense is also a work in progress after yielding 24.5 points per game last season. New defensive coordinator and former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks replaced Gregg Williams and is implementing a 4-2-5 defense that puts a premium on speed behind stud defensive lineman Myles Garrett with a safety-linebacker hybrid.
“No. 1, what we have to understand first of all is where the game is now a days. They are putting more speed on the field. You want to make sure that you are able to match that speed,” Wilks explained. “Looking at that, that is the reason why we go with that look. A safety, as we consider to be a slash-linebacker that can blend in the box and stop the run but also athletic enough right there to be able to play in space.
“That is how teams try to get you is by trying to get a linebacker out in space. In regards to that, I think we are fine because I think when you look at (S Sheldrick) Redwine, you look at (CB) Juston Burris and you look at those big guys, I think that they have shown that they can play in the core.”
Wilks appears to be giving second-round pick Greedy Williams — whom the Browns traded up to select 46th overall — every chance to win the starting cornerback spot opposite Denzel Ward as he battles with Terrance Mitchell.
The exhibition opener will also serve as the first round of competition at kicker, where incumbent Greg Joseph and rookie Austin Seibert are vying for the job. Joseph missed four extra points in 29 attempts last year and while he made 17 of 20 field goals, all three misses came from 40 yards and beyond.
Seibert, a fifth-round pick from Oklahoma, holds the FBS record for most points (499) and was an all-Big-12 selection in 2018. He made all but one of his 169 extra points his final two seasons and connected on 34 of 40 field goals.
First-year coach Freddie Kitchens is not playing when it comes to internal information getting leaked out.
“The days of inside information and the days of unnamed sources and stuff like that have ended. So you’re not going to get any information like that, ever. Anybody. And I ever see it, they’re fired, immediately. And that’s how we’re running this organization. I can take it. [Cleveland GM] John Dorsey can take it. We won’t crack, I promise you.”
The Browns are:
- 7-0 ATS in their last seven games vs. NFC opponents.
- 5-2 ATS in their last seven games.
- 7-1 ATS in their last eight games in August.
The Redskins are:
- 2-5 ATS in their last seven Thursday games.
Browns +1.5 (-115)
The key reason in taking the Browns are the discrepancies in talent levels at the skill positions offensively, more so with the line flipping to the Redskins as favorites during the week. While Cleveland may fall off after the first-string plays its one or two series, there is little confidence in the Redskins getting on track, as only McCoy has previous experience directing Washington’s offense against opposition.
If Wilks’ defense is as advertised, the team speed should also be enough to disrupt Washington offensively. Playing at home also helps, and with palpable excitement in Cleveland, look for the Browns to get off to a fast start and cruise to a victory.
UNDER 35.5 points (-110)
The under has hit in Cleveland’s last five preseason openers, and that trend is expected to continue. There will be some second-half intrigue, when Haskins likely will get his reps against the Browns revamped defense, which means there is the potential for big plays, but Washington’s offense appears to be such a work in progress that it is hard to see where it gets points in bunches.
The hook that has been added since the line opened is also a reason to play the under.