Right now, the Cleveland Browns are facing early season injury difficultly.
It started in last Sunday’s season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, when Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t play after going through warm-ups. Then, starting left tackle Jedrick Wills left the game with an ankle injury. It continued into this week, with Wills’ status for Sunday up in the air, Beckham already ruled out as he recovers from ACL surgery, startling linebacker Anthony Walker getting put on IR with a hamstring injury and Chris Hubbard (who replaced Wills last Sunday) ruled out with a triceps injury.
There is some good injury news for Cleveland with Grant Delpit on track to make his debut Sunday after missing all of last year with a torn Achilles. But overall, the Browns are navigating a tricky situation early in the year. The injuries also have come at key positions.
Wills, last year’s first round pick, is arguably one of the five Browns the team needs to stay healthy the most. His injury isn’t considered serious, but him missing time puts a dent in the team’s offense line — arguably the best overall unit on the team. Hubbard is solid enough replacement, but he’s no Wills. The drop off is even bigger if rookie James Hudson or Blake Hance (who filled in for Wills last year when Wills was hurt against the Chiefs in the playoffs) have to play Sunday. It’s a big enough concern that Kevin Stefanski changes up the game plan to compensate.
On defense, the Walker injury hurts. He’s the defensive signal caller and played most of the snaps on defense in last week’s season opener. There’s also a downgrade from Walker to any other option — Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, etc. — and maybe means the team plays less base 4-3 defense than than they did in week one.
Maybe Walker’s injury pushes the team to play more nickel and dime packages, perhaps putting Owusu-Koramoah in the middle of the defense and letting him play sideline to sideline. For a unit that has nine new starters and needs time to gel, this is a challenge for defensive coordinator Joe Woods and his staff.
Beckham Jr.’s return is another matter entirely. If the 28-year-old Beckham can stay healthy and develop real chemistry with Baker Mayfield, it unlocks another dimension for the Browns’ offense. For that to happen, he needs game time. There are still 15 games to play after Sunday, so there is time for everything to come together. But Cleveland isn’t in a position to hit the ground running as Beckham can get fully back.
All of this said: It’s better for the Browns to grow through this now vs. later on in the season. Sunday’s opponent — the Deshaun Watson-less Houston Texans — aren’t exactly a contender. Their pass rush isn’t what it used to be with prime J.J. Watt barrelling down at the quarterback. It’s largely a roster in transition and a team that isn’t really competing for anything this year. Cleveland should win this game (they are favored by 12.5 points at home) and can probably be cautious with Wills in particular to get him to 100% before he returns. It’s not until Oct. 10, when the Browns play the Charges in Los Angeles, that there’s really a game they won’t be favorite for.
So is this optimal? No and no one should say otherwise. Obviously, the Browns would like to be fully healthy and build momentum with a fully intact roster. But if Cleveland was going to have to navigate injuries and patch holes on the roster, better to go through it now than later.