BEREA — It was especially excruciating for the Browns to waste golden opportunities early this season partly because anyone who knows anything about football realized attrition would take its toll later in the year and winning would become increasingly difficult for a team with depth issues.
Another reminder slapped the Browns in the face Wednesday when they lost two starters for the remainder of the season. Linebacker Christian Kirksey and cornerback E.J. Gaines were placed on injured reserve. Kirksey suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter of Sunday's 37-21 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Gaines suffered a concussion in the first quarter after missing the previous two games with a concussion.
"They really set a precedent for what we wanted to do as a team, as a defense," cornerback TJ Carrie said as the Browns (2-6-1) prepared for Sunday's home game against the Atlanta Falcons (4-4). "And, of course, they’ll still be here sparingly in and out throughout the week, but it’s a lot different when they were on the field fighting with you, [shedding] blood, sweat and tears with you, through the trenches, and we’re going to definitely miss that. Those are two players that we can’t replace."
General Manager John Dorsey must try, though, so the Browns claimed cornerback Phillip Gaines off waivers from the Buffalo Bills and safety Jermaine Whitehead off waivers from the Green Bay Packers in addition to signing cornerback Juston Burris off the practice squad of the New York Jets. They also waived cornerback Denzel Rice.
On brighter notes ...
Starting middle linebacker Joe Schobert returned to practice after missing three games with a hamstring injury.
"I don’t think I’ll set any records with sprinting," Schobert said. "But we’re working our way back up there, and as long as everything goes good, no setbacks, no re-injuries, I should be good."
Starting defensive back Damarious Randall (groin) and undrafted rookie left tackle Desmond Harrison (illness) practiced after sitting out against the Chiefs. Harrison might have lost his starting job to veteran Greg Robinson. Randall is one of the most important players on the defense.
Randall said he left the Browns last week to seek a second medical opinion from his doctor about his groin injury and received "great news." He explained he felt good enough to face the Chiefs but was told well before Sunday morning he would be inactive after missing meetings during the week while he was away.
"I wasn't even available to be in the meetings, so it was more of that," Randall said.
Although starting cornerback and rookie fourth overall draft pick Denzel Ward (hip) and starting linebacker Jamie Collins (ankle) rode stationary bikes Wednesday, interim coach Gregg Williams expects them to practice Thursday.
Center JC Tretter (ankle) missed practice but he has been playing through a high left ankle sprain since Oct. 14 against the Los Angeles Chargers.
With Kirksey and Gaines on injured reserve, the Browns have eight players on the list, including starting cornerback Terrance Mitchell (broken wrist).
Kirksey, 26, who was voted a captain by his teammates, started seven games this year, missing two with an ankle injury, and had 43 tackles, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. He is under contract with the Browns through the 2021 season after signing a four-year, $38 million contract extension last year.
"Kirko is kind of the heart and soul of the defense, [so] there’s things that you’re going to miss," Schobert said.
The Browns are expected to start rookie linebacker Genard Avery with Schobert and Collins, but Williams said Tanner Vallejo should have an expanded role after playing well in relief Sunday.
Gaines, 26, could very well have played his final game with the Browns. He joined them by signing a one-year, $4 million contract in the offseason and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. He appeared in six games with two starts and had 12 tackles, three passes defensed and one interception.
If Ward can rebound from his injury in time, he would start at cornerback opposite Carrie or Randall when the Browns face the Falcons, whose second-ranked passing attack (320.1 yards per game) is led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.
This season, Randall has started seven games at free safety and one at cornerback. The Browns have used Briean Boddy-Calhoun as their free safety whenever they've moved Randall to corner.
The Browns also signed cornerback Arrion Springs to the practice squad and released offensive lineman Jake Eldrenkamp from the practice squad.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.