Their biggest test, though, will come Sunday when Cleveland hosts the Cincinnati Bengals.
Winn and Hughes are expected to start side by side at defensive tackle for the first time, while fellow rookie Ishmaa’ily Kitchen serves as their lone backup.
“I feel like we’re exactly where we need to be for the team right now,” a confident Winn said Thursday after practice. “Me and John have been trying our best all along, coming in and working every day to be our best.
“It is very surprising we’ll both be starting already, but I think we’re ready for the challenge and the opportunity.”
Sixth-round selection Winn is filling in for Phil Taylor, who is on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing left pectoral surgery in May. The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder from Boise State has started the Browns’ first five games and made nine tackles.
Third-round selection Hughes has played in each game in a reserve role, collecting 11 tackles and one sack as Ahtyba Rubin’s backup. With Rubin not practicing because of a calf injury, the 6-2, 320-pounder from Cincinnati figures to make his first NFL start.
“It’s safe to say we’re depending heavily on Hughes and Winn to step in and give us a bunch of good snaps,” Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said. “One way to look at it is that they’re holding down the fort until Phil gets back, but I don’t look at it that way. I think it will be great when we add Phil back to the mix because they are developing into good NFL players.”
While no timetable has been set for Rubin’s return, Taylor will be eligible to come off the PUP list Wednesday and could be in uniform on Oct. 21 when the Browns play at Indianapolis in Week 7.
The sooner Taylor can come back, the better for Cleveland, which is allowing a whopping 142.4 rushing yards, 280.6 passing yards and 27.8 points per game.
“I think I’m ready, but I still want to play it safe,” said Taylor, whose 59 tackles led all NFL rookie linemen in 2011. “You really can’t get into game shape until you put the pads on, so it might take a week or so.
“I’m getting the strength back up and running a lot, but we’ve got to see what’s best for me and for the team. Just because I’m on schedule doesn’t mean I’m coming back right away.”
Taylor added that he doesn’t feel an urgency to rush back because of how well the Browns’ draft picks have performed, even with Rubin also out.
“I know it was tough for me last year as a rookie, but Hughes and Winn have played great,” he said. “No one wants to sit out, but it’s a little easier when the guys that come in are making plays.”
According to Hughes, their rapid development has been aided by friendship. He and Winn roomed together over the summer after meeting for the first time at the NFL scouting combine.
Though Hughes hasn’t started alongside Winn in a regular-season game, he is confident they will get the job done against Cincinnati’s offensive line.
“I don’t think starting really makes a big difference,” Hughes said. “As long as you’re in the game, you’re playing and I feel we’ll play the same way we’ve been playing. We’re getting better every game.
“I’m impressed with Billy, most definitely, and I’m pleased but not satisfied with myself. I can always get better, and that’s what I aim to do every day at practice.”
Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said losing Rubin is significant, not only for his skills but for his strong, silent leadership. But after spending three months coaching Winn and Hughes, he pointed out that the Browns could be in a much worse situation than they are, both now and down the road.
“We don’t really have any problems — nor choices at this point — with John and Billy,” Jauron said.
“They’ve both really played at a high level and they’re getting better every week. I think long-term, those two draft choices will really serve the organization well. Short-term also, because they are playing well.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.