On an fascinating night for high 2018 picks, Austin Corbett works surprise long shift at center, Chad Thomas plays well on other side of the ball.

CLEVELAND  Browns fans will have to wait for the stars to come out.

Thursday was for upstarts, players for whom the preseason opener was prime time to make a case they will be more than they are.

A 30-10 win over Washington belonged to them.

It was an up and down night for one of them, Dontrell Hilliard, but Freddie Kitchens was sticking with his bottom line as to whether he thinks Hilliard can fill the role that had been planned for Duke Johnson.

"I do like him to fill that role," Kitchens said just before midnight. "Sure do."

It is the upstarts who must merge with the promising top of the roster to make a formidable machine.

One of them could be Chad Thomas, the former Miami Hurricane known in the music industry is Major Nine, but did not have even a minor role as a rookie Round 3 draft pick in 2013.

John Dorsey made a run at Gerald McCoy and then Mike Daniels in a bid to finish off a super D-line rotation. Perhaps that finish will come from the likes of Thomas instead.

The 23-year-old got his first series the second time Washington had the ball, at left defensive end. On Thomas' first snap, he clogged a lane and helped take down running back Byron Marshall at the line of scrimmage. On Thomas' second and third snaps, he rushed from the left side, beat right tackle Timon Parris, and hit quarterback Case Keenum as he threw on both plays.

It was a promising hello for the ex-Hurricane, on a day another ex-'cane said good bye.

As the dust from Thursday's Duke Johnson trade was settling, Hilliard opened his bid to be a valuable No. 2 running back. After logging a meager 58 snaps as an undrafted 2018 rookie, he got his chance right away, during Baker Mayfield's only series. On back-to-back plays, Hilliard looked smooth coming out of the backfield for catch-and-runs covering 14 yards apiece.

On the flip side, Hilliard later got the call on a fourth-and-goal from the 1, hesitated as hit the right side, and fumbled. Hilliard was ineffective as a runner, gaining 19 yards on nine carries.

Mayfield weighed in afterward on Johnson relative to Hilliard.

"Unfortunately, Duke got hurt and then the decision was made to trade him away," Mayfield said. "We have to have the next man up mentality so tonight you saw a lot of Dontrell. We are going to be counting on guys that continue to step up and see who can fill the void, because Duke was obviously a huge part of our offense last year.”

When asked about Hilliard delivering the two 14-yard catch-and-runs on the opening TD drive, Mayfield said, "You're looking for that third-down back style that everyone wants .. just being a receiver out of the backfield that can be lethal for an offense to have when the defense wants to double team receivers like we have.

"We have to have somebody out of the backfield at all times that can catch the ball.”

He stopped short of saying Hilliard is that man.

If Hilliard can be effective until Kareem Hunt returns from a suspension, it'll be gravy.

Expectations for Thomas are higher. He was the third pick of the third round in last year's draft. The need for production is even more pressing for Austin Corbett, who was the first pick of last year's second round.

Between them, Thomas and Corbett logged 36 snaps as rookies. Both played long shifts Thursday.

Incumbent center JC Tretter handled the opening series before Corbett replaced him and worked a marathon shift at center, through the end of the game, snapping to QBs Drew Stanton, Garrett Gilbert and David Blough.

Corbet“We were calling it before it even happened. When Damon Sheehy’s name was called to go back to punt return, we were all standing up. He was telling us that he could run a 4.3, and we told him that we haven’t seen that all camp, but it looked like he ran a 4.3 to me.”t helped Stanton lead a long drive drive. On consecutive plays, he manhandled linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton. He then held his ground in protection while Stanton hit Rashard Higgins for a 38-yard catch and run to the 1.

On the first play of Corbett's fourth series, he manhandled rookie defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner.

Corbett played alertly and was quick to deliver a blow to nearby targets when he had no initial man to block, a trait vital to center play.

Something is up with Corbett. Benching an O-lineman drafted that high for a second straight year would seem a waste. Corbett is listed as the No. 1 right guard, but Eric Kush started at that spot Thursday. Kush, who will turn 30 next month, was a sixth-round pick by Kansas City in 2013, when Dorsey was the Chiefs' general manager.

Where this leaves Corbett (and for that matter Tretter) is a point of intrigue heading into preseason Game 2 at Indianapolis.

When Kitchens was asked why Corbett played such a long shift at center, Kitchens gave a vague answer that began with, "are trying to rotate guys in and see where they fit."

Kyle Kalis, who also is supposed to be in the right guard derby, played left guard next to Corbett when Corbett first entered the game. A press box annoucnement during the game said "center Kyle Kalis" was out of the game with a concussion. Center? Guard? Stay tuned.

At draft time, the league was underwhelmed by Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson. His pass defense during camp has made him seem like a potential Round 5 steal. His 40-yard pick-6 Thursday night against rookie QB Dwayne Haskins broadened the smile on John Dorsey's face. Wilson added a leaping interception on a pass over the middle in the third quarter.

Rookie linebacker Sione Takitaki, who is supposed to bring some fire to the defense, was on the field with the "ones" early and was still out there with the Browns leading 17-7 late in the second quarter. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks entrusted Takitaki to relay calls to the rest of the defense from one play to the next.

Dorsey promised fans would notice Tatitaki playing with his "hair on fire. " He spent Thursday playing in space and was not overly demonstrative.

Meanwhile, wideouts Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry dressed but did not play. That expanded the opportunity for Higgins and Antonio Callaway to prove they can be more than they were in 2018. The presence of Beckham and Landry as a big two is sure to create favorable matchups for whomever emerges as the No. 3 wideout.

Both Higgins and Callaway played throughout the first half, when Higgins was targeted six times and caught five balls for 98 yards, while Callaway was targeted seven times and made three catches for 42 yards.

Then there was a late, long punt return for a touchdown by Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, one of the longest of the longshots on the field Thursday night.

“We were calling it before it even happened," Higgins said. "When Damon’s name was called to go back to punt return, we were all standing up. He was telling us that he could run a 4.3, and we told him that we haven’t seen that all camp, but it looked like he ran a 4.3 to me.”

Key roles are up for grabs, and the heat is on.

 

Reach Steve at 330-580-8347 or steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP