• Football is back: Although the Hall of Fame Game has averaged just a hair over 28 points per game since 2014, we'll take what we can get.
• The Browns' backup WRs need to seize the opportunity: David Bell, Anthony Schwartz, Jakeem Grant and rookie Cedric Tillman all have something to prove.
• Give Israel Abanikanda all the touches: If the Jets end up signing Dalvin Cook, Abanikanda may tumble down the pecking order enough that he doesn't get to show what he's capable of this season.
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
We made it. Live football is back tonight. The Cleveland Browns and New York Jets take the field for the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, with Joe Thomas for the Browns and Darrelle Revis for the Jets being enshrined into the Hall of Fame later this week.
This has typically been a low-scoring affair, averaging 28.4 points per game going back to the 2014 edition, but there are still plenty of reasons to be intrigued.
Will we see either starting quarterback?
It’s unlikely. The last time a starting quarterback attempted a pass in the Hall of Fame Game was Teddy Bridgewater in 2015 for the Minnesota Vikings, so Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson are in line to ride the pine. Instead, expect Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Kellen Mond to see a lot of the action for the Cleveland Browns. Mond flashed in the preseason last year, earning an 87.1 PFF passing grade on 16 dropbacks against the Las Vegas Raiders, while Robinson racked up 28 rushing touchdowns over the past four seasons at UCLA.
For the Jets, we could see Tim Boyle and Chris Streveler. But most interesting would be an extended look at Zach Wilson. Wilson is 24 years old, so still young enough to develop. It would be intriguing to see if the removal of the pressure to be the starting quarterback can help a player who has been mistake prone and has produced PFF grades of 59.3 and 46.6 in his first two seasons in the league.
Browns backup WR battle
Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Elijah Moore seem locked into the top three wide receiver spots on the Browns' depth chart at this point, so this game will give us a look at the battle for the roles behind them. 2022 third-round draft pick David Bell disappointed last season, averaging just 8.9 yards per reception, and will face competition for meaningful snaps in 2023 from 2023 third-round draft pick Cedric Tillman. The 75th overall selection out of Tennessee, Tillman averaged 16.9 yards per reception in 2021.
Anthony Schwartz was the 92nd overall pick out of Auburn in 2021 but, like Bell, has failed to make an impact in the NFL yet. Meanwhile, Jakeem Grant forced 12 missed tackles from 36 receptions in 2020 and may need to show something at receiver given the change in rules on kickoffs and how that will likely impact his kick return opportunities.
Browns Backup TE Spot
David Njoku is the team’s top tight end, but the Browns brought in some competition for Harrison Bryant at the backup spot in former Houston Texan Jordan Akins. A fourth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic back in 2020, Bryant hasn’t been able to force his way into a meaningful role for Cleveland and dropped four of his 35 catchable targets last season.
Akins is coming off a 2022 season in which he was better than Bryant, earning a 74.3 PFF receiving grade with 37 receptions from 49 targets — including five contested catches. He has forced 23 missed tackles on 153 career catches. Neither grade out well as run-blockers, but this is a role from which Bryant ran a route on more than half of his snaps last season. It's an opportunity to be the fourth or fifth target in this Browns offense.
However, both players missed practice yesterday so we might not see them tonight after all.
Let’s be realistic: For all the excitement of football being back, this is a game that can often lack excitement and intrigue, with very limited snaps for starters. That being the case, the Jets should use this as an opportunity to give 10-plus touches to fifth-round draft pick Israel Abanikanda. The 145th selection of the 2023 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, Abanikanda can absolutely fly. He was timed between 4.26 seconds and 4.32 seconds at the Pittsburgh pro day in the spring.
With 631 of his 1,426 rushing yards coming on 15-plus-yard runs a year ago, Abanikanda is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Given that he could find himself fourth on the depth chart if the Jets do indeed add Dalvin Cook, this preseason might be the only time he gets significant touches in 2023.
Browns Defensive Line Rookies
The Browns prioritized improving their defensive line this offseason, and while we are unlikely to see much of Dalvin Tomlinson and Za’Darius Smith in this game, it’s a good opportunity to get a look at a pair of rookies who will likely rotate in behind them in 2023. On the defensive interior, Baylor’s Siaki Ika offered more pass-rushing prowess in college than you would expect from a man his size. He totaled 33 total pressures, including six sacks, from 275 pass-rushing snaps in 2021. He didn’t have a single season at either Baylor or LSU with a PFF run-defense grade of 70.0 or better, so we'll see if an NFL strength and conditioning program has helped him in that regard.
Missouri’s Isaiah McGuire set a career high with an 83.0 PFF pass-rushing grade in his final season as a Tiger in 2022. He racked up 35 total pressures, including seven sacks and seven hits, from 267 pass-rushing snaps last season, and he made 67 tackles resulting in a defensive stop over the past two years.