Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
The Browns’ roster is loaded on paper, which is all we have to go on in May.
The case of free agent defensive tackle Gerald McCoy tells you all you need to know.
In nine seasons with Tampa Bay, McCoy, 31, was named to the All-Pro team four times and to the NFC Pro Bowl squad six times. Yet the Browns are pursuing McCoy as a “rotational” tackle, which means he most likely would not start ahead of Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi but would be first in off the bench.
Yes, times have changed in the two transaction seasons under GM John Dorsey, that a player of McCoy’s stature would consider the Browns not for the easy paycheck but to compete for a ring.
The Browns boast a bevy of potential stars – Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Denzel Ward, Damarious Randall, Morgan Burnett, Greedy Williams.
But as the last four practices of “voluntary” OTAs wind down, leading into June 4-6 mandatory minicamp, there are still players beyond the stars who are worth monitoring.
Here is a list of “under radar” players from each position group to watch as the camp season continues.
Quarterback: Garrett Gilbert.
Breezing through five NFL teams – Rams, Patriots, Lions, Raiders, Panthers – he appeared in only one game in five years, completing two passes in three attempts. He jumped at the chance to compete in the Alliance of American Football and produced a decent eight games in Steve Spurrier’s Fun-N-Gun offense – a 99.1 passer rating and 13 touchdowns v. three interceptions. He preceded Baker Mayfield by four years at Lake Travis HS in Austin, TX, and has known the family a long time.
Running back: Dontrell Hilliard.
Freddie Kitchens’ fondness for this 2018 undrafted free agent from Tulane surfaced in Game 10 – Kitchens’ second as offensive coordinator after being promoted from running backs coach. Hilliard was the third back in the wishbone formation Kitchens used for one series in a romp over Atlanta. The farce ended in an interception on an ill-fated Hilliard halfback-option pass for Mayfield. Hilliard settled in as a core special teams player and is the likeliest No. 3 back if Duke Johnson is traded.
Wide receiver: Damion Ratley.
The second receiver drafted for the Browns by the Dorsey football regime (after Antonio Callaway) is big (6-2 and 200 pounds) and fast (4.45 40 at his pro day). Keep in mind that Dorsey’s top scouts – Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith – were noted for finding receivers deep in the draft in their time with the Green Bay Packers.
Offensive line: Drew Forbes.
Unlike Austin Corbett, the 33rd overall pick in 2018 who will compete at right guard, the 2019 sixth-round pick from Southeast Missouri State may be a good enough tackle to develop in his natural position. He’s the next project for new offensive line coach James Campen, who specialized in developing late-round picks into starters with the Packers. For that reason, Forbes may be “under radar” for a year or two rather than being pressed to learn a new position.
Defensive line: Anthony Zettel.
A waiver claim by Dorsey in September, he was projected as an interior lineman coming out of Penn State – and then surprised with 6.5 sacks in spot duty at end for the Lions in 2017. He currently is slotted third at right end behind Garrett and Chris Smith. His stubby arms are not ideal, but he makes up for it in want-to.
Linebacker: Ray-Ray Armstrong.
He had been with four NFL teams before Dorsey’s regime signed him after a release by the Giants. In nine games with the Browns, he became a core special teamer. New special teams coordinator Mike Priefer cited him for doing “a phenomenal job … he’s had a great spring” and was projected as “a leader” on special teams.” Plus, he's a Miami Hurricane alum, which rates high with this current football group.
Defensive secondary: Jermaine Whitehead.
The Packers were his third team in 2016. Wolf and Highsmith had something to do with signing him. The Packers waived him November after an ejection for slapping a Patriots player. Whitehead played anonymously in seven games last year. But last week new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks shouted out Whitehead as “a leader” and was praised for his football smarts and versatility. He could be the third safety in some packages designed by Wilks to get more speed on the field.