The Cleveland Browns kick off their preseason slate on Thursday, hosting the Washington Redskins at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns enter the year as one of the NFL’s most intriguing squads, having added Pro Bowl talents like star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon to a roster that was already trending upward.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, comes into the year with his own set of massive expectations, with some even putting the former Heisman winner in the conversation for MVP. In just 13 starts last season, Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards and broke the rookie touchdown record, accounting for 27 passing scores. The Browns finished 7-8-1 and won five of their final seven games.
But the preseason is really not for the big names. It’s for the guys in position battle and fighting to make the 53-man roster. Here are three players to watch as the Browns suit up for their first “real” action of the preseason.
Running Back Dontrell Hilliard is Carving Out a Role
For most of training camp, the Browns’ running back depth chart has been battered, with Duke Johnson Jr., Kareem Hunt and rookie Trayone Gray all missing time with injury.
The lack of healthy bodies has boded well for Dontrell Hilliard, who has been able to make a name for himself at training camp with an increased workload.
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“Dontrell is going to continue to work,” Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens said. “I have been pleased with Dontrell. He is not a finished product. He needs to keep working. We will see what we have at the end of all of this.”
Hilliard was picked up by the Browns as an undrafted free agent last offseason out of Tulane and spent the first month of the season on the practice squad. After being elevated to the active roster, he appeared in 11 game but did not receive a carry. However, he did catch nine balls for 105 yards and could be in the mix to return kicks.
Even with just limited time on the field, the running back feels like the game has slowed down a bit.
“You always are going to play on instinct and ability. At the same time, now I have understanding so I see certain fronts out there to recognize where my hole will be, instead of just going out pressing and pressing and hoping,” Hilliard said. “Now, I know exactly where to be so it is a better chance for me to read and move to second-level defenders.”
Eric Kush is Looking to Fill the Hole at Right Guard
The competition has been heated to fill the hole at right guard between Austin Corbett, Kyle Kalis and Eric Kush. However, it seems that Kush has been the first to gain some separation, “stringing together days” as head coach Freddie Kitchens likes to say.
“The point of all this is, we have to string together days, we have to string together games, but right now we’re just interested in tomorrow,” Kitchens said, “and that’s how you do that, you stay in the moment, you go on the practice field, you string together a good day and good days happen by taking good reps and then, before you know it, you’ve strung together three or four good days.”
On the first depth chart, Corbett — the Browns second round pick in 2018 — was listed in the top spot. However Kush, a seventh-year pro, has been getting the lion’s share of starter reps. Kush has started 12 games in his career, with seven of those coming last season with Chicago.
We’ll see who gets the nod and if anyone can gain some separation against the Redskins.
Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi is a Hard-Working Long Shot
By now, most people have heard the story of Browns wide receiver Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, but if you haven’t here’s a quick summary.
Sheehy-Guiseppi signed with the Browns as an undrafted free agent this offseason. Previously, he was homeless in Miami, calling a patch of grass his bed. He was once a junior college All-American kick returner for Phoenix College, but had met a series of dead ends at tryouts for the CFL and Arena Football League.
However, through a series of savvy moves — including essentially lying his way into an NFL tryout — Sheehy-Guiseppi landed a roster spot with the Browns in April through pure determination.
Despite his 4.38 40-yard dash speed and has top-tier kick returning skills, Sheehy-Guiseppi was not on the depth chart for special teams and was buried among the wide receivers.
While he might not have the same pedigree as some of his teammates, Sheehy-Guiseppi has proven to be one of the hardest working players on the roster. The preseason is the time for the deepest parts of the depth chart to shine, and he’ll be looking to make an impact anyway possible for an opportunity. He’s an easy player to cheer for.
“No matter what opportunity I’m given, I want to become the greatest,” Sheehy-Guiseppi said. “If it’s practice squad, I want to become the greatest practice squad player.”