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Training Camp

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Browns Training Camp Preview: Ranking the Browns from 1 to 50

Jul 24, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

The Morning Kickoff …

Welcome back, football:The Browns open the Mike Pettine coaching era with the start of training camp this week. Rookies reported on Wednesday, veterans arrive on Friday. Saturday is the first practice open to the public.

Our week of previews continues.

Monday: The 10 most important Browns heading into training camp.

Tuesday: The top position battles.

Wednesday: Twenty-five questions from every angle of the Browns’ roster.

Thursday: Ranking the top 50 Browns entering training camp.

Friday: Our favorite Browns training camp memories.

The top 50 Browns

It has been a tradition of mine to rank – not grade – the Browns’ roster from top to bottom immediately after a season. This is the first time I’m doing it before the season. Before training camp.

These rankings are pure projections of the impact the players will have on the coming season. They are based on projected roles and the unrealistic assumption of no injuries (and no suspensions).

They are unscientific and will prove to be off the mark in many cases. Some of these players might not even make the final roster, for all we know now. My intent is to review this list after the season and compare how badly I whiffed on some.

1. WR Josh Gordon: Simply the best talent to wear a Browns uniform in my 30 years covering the team.

2. CB Joe Haden: I’m expecting a noticeable bump up to elite level.

3. RB Ben Tate: All the planets are aligned for a career breakthrough year.

4. SS Donte Whitner: He can be the heart and soul of the defense.

5. DE-LB Jabaal Sheard: Figures to score biggest improvement over 2013 season.

6. TE Jordan Cameron: Should be a popular selection in fantasy leagues.

7. OT Joe Thomas: This relatively low ranking does not mean a drop-off in performance.

8. C Alex Mack: New blocking scheme accentuates his mobility.

9. ILB Karlos Dansby: I’m anxious to see his impact inside.

10. QB Brian Hoyer: He will open eyes nationally.

11. DE Desmond Bryant: With health scare behind him, he can be unleashed.

12. CB Justin Gilbert: First call from the rookie class.

13. DE Ahtyba Rubin: If it’s his last season with Browns, it will be his best.

14. FS Tashaun Gipson: Haden calls him the most underrated player on team.

15. NT Phil Taylor: Will he play his way onto more third downs in new system?

16: CB Buster Skrine: Expecting full-time conversion to slot corner will benefit him.

17. WR Andrew Hawkins: Hoyer’s Wes Welker?

18. LB Barkevious Mingo: Reduced responsibilities may mean heightened production.

19. LB Paul Kruger: Didn’t play for Pettine in Baltimore, but thrived in same scheme.

20. OG Joel Bitonio: They have high hopes for him as a zone-blocking force.

21. OG John Greco: Sturdy, reliable, professional, effective.

22. QB Johnny Manziel: His time will come.

23. WR Nate Burleson: How can being away from Calvin Johnson in Detroit boost his production?

24. DE John Hughes: A solid D-line rotation guy.

25. RB Terrance West: Likable, competitive, low-to-ground rusher.

26. OT Mitchell Schwartz: Curious to see how he adapts to mobile blocking scheme.

27. OL Paul McQuistan: A valuable, versatile O-lineman.

28. WR-RS Travis Benjamin: His electrifying returns are back.

29. PK Billy Cundiff: Kickoff specialist who wasn’t tested on game-winners last year.

30. NT Ishmaa’ily Kitchen: He could play for a lot of teams.

31. DL Billy Winn: His days at fullback may be over.

32. ILB Chris Kirksey: Can he run with backs and tight ends?

33. FS Johnson Bademosi: Taking on leadership role on special teams.

34. RB Chris Ogbonnaya: Gives everything he has on every play.

35. TE Gary Barnidge: Serviceable combination blocker-receiver.

36. TE Jim Dray: Same as above.

37. ILB Craig Robertson: Will re-establish himself first on special teams.

38. P Spencer Lanning: Year of experience in Cleveland winter should help.

39. LS Christian Yount: Perfect on nearly every snap.

40. WR Charles Johnson: Looks the part, but impossible to project his impact.

41. CB Pierre Desire: That size has to count for something.

42. DE Armonty Bryant: Has flashes of edge rush ability.

43. SS Jordan Poyer: Must make his mark on special teams and be ready for chances.

44. WR Miles Austin: Opportunity is there for him.

45. OL Garrett Gilkey: Odds-on favorite to lead in training camp skirmishes.

46. TE-FB MarQueis Gray: Has intriguing athletic ability but no firm position.

47. ILB Darius Eubanks: Under-radar longshot to start.

48. CB Isaiah Trufant:Familiar with Pettine defense.

49. RB Edwin Baker: Full year in offseason program should benefit him immensely.

50. QB Connor Shaw: Toughness and mobility clinches roster spot.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns coach Mike Pettine says Johnny Manziel's battle is against the playbook, not Brian Hoyer

Jul 23, 2014 -- 7:23pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Grossi

Updated at 8:27 p.m.

All eyes are riveted on the quarterback competition as Mike Pettine kicks off his first training camp as coach of the Browns on Saturday.

In an interview on Wednesday with ESPNCleveland.com, Pettine said that Johnny Manziel has to catch up to the playbook before he receives reps with the first team, admitted that his accelerated timetable for naming a starter favors veteran Brian Hoyer and would not rule out using a special package for Manziel in conjunction with Hoyer as the starter.

Edited portions of the interview are below.

Q: So how will you manage the quarterback competition?

Pettine: We met this morning on it, actually. Hoyer’s the one. He’ll be with the ones in the beginning. We’re still going to evaluate Johnny just as we’ll evaluate any other player, with his repetitions, so it shouldn’t be misconstrued if he’s not taking early reps with the ones. I think at this point, right now, it’s more Johnny v. the playbook than it is v. Brian. I think he’s got to make sure that continues. He’s well along the path, but that needs to continue. That’s a big part for him, to be able to know the play, execute the play, start the right guy in motion at the right time. So I think there’s a lot of that first. So he needs to make sure that he doesn’t jump ahead and tries to match (Hoyer). It’s certainly more him against the playbook.

Q: Will he get reps with the ones?

A: He will get reps with the ones at some point. But early on … we only talked about how we would handle things very early in camp and then make that assessment after the first off day and then have a plan for the scrimmage (on Aug. 2). We’ll see where he is coming out of the summer.

Q: Do you think he’s put the last month to good use?

A: I hope so.

Q: Do you know, or will you find out?

A: I’ll find out.

Q: You put a lot of trust in Manziel and how he’d handle his weekends during OTAs and minicamp. Do you feel he violated or challenged your trust as the time went on?

A: I don’t.

Q: Were you taken aback by Manziel’s comments during the NFL Symposium when he said he wasn’t going to change for anybody?

A: Yeah, but, I think it still needs to get to a point where if it’s affecting his job, that he’s in a situation where he goes out and has a good time, are there other players in the NFL that do that? Absolutely. But his persona, and it’s a phenomenon, has created something where people seek those photographs and are very eager to put them out. Does he go out more than some guys? Maybe. But he’s young and that’s his lifestyle and it is the offseason. If this is a pattern during the season and it is affecting his work, then that’s much more cause for concern.

Q: And you have spoken to him about the last photo?

A: We did. I had a conversation with him.

Q: And how do you feel now?

A: I felt very positive coming out of the conversation and I’m very confident moving forward, now that it’s 100 percent about football, that it will be much less of an issue.

Q: Do you or anyone in the organization feel he has a drinking problem?

A: I can’t … I mean … I can’t … the league is very sensitive (about talking about that).

To me, his life as an NFL player truly starts now and he’ll be judged on that. And if we get the hint that there’s behaviors affecting his work or there’s criminal activity then absolutely there’s cause for concern.

Q: Nationally there is the perception that the owner and others in business operations would prefer that Manziel wins the starting job and plays immediately. Do you feel that and is that an accurate perception?

A: I don’t think it’s accurate. I think if I’m on the business side, I think it’s human nature for them to want him to be the guy, so that maybe is true. Probably is. It’s easy for me because all my decisions are based purely on football. We’re going to look at Brian Hoyer v. Johnny Manziel and ask the question who gives us the better chance to win a game and that’s what we’re going to base our decision on. The jersey sales stuff and all that, that’s great, but as I said in spring we’re not going to base the depth chart on that.

Q: Even Hoyer’s agent said he expects Hoyer to be on a short leash if he wins the job. You’ve got a tough three games to start the season. What about the leash? Does it depend on record or individual performance?

A: Individual performance. It’s difficult, you get to the point and I’ve seen it happen, where change is made for change’s sake. We’re going to evaluate every player and if we feel they’re not performing and the replacement can be better, then we’ll make a move. I think that’s a tough way to function, knowing that I can’t make a single mistake. We don’t want to put our starting quarterback or any player in that environment where they know there’s going to be some latitude to make mistakes but they still have to be performing at their job effectively. I think that’s tough in any walk of life to function that way.

Q: Why have you set the timetable for naming a starter by the third preseason game?

A: In my mind, I’ve always felt the third preseason game is late. Given our circumstances -- some new pieces on the offensive line, new backfield, receiving corps will be potentially one of a committee approach -- you want some cohesion. You want those guys to play as much together as possible. There’s no substitute for repetitions together. You start going beyond a certain period of time, and given the amount of time we have to practice, you don’t get that many opportunities. So the sooner you make that decision the better off you are.

Q: It would appear a shorter timetable favors Hoyer.

A: Uh, yeah, given those circumstances, I’d agree with that statement.

Q: Each will get a start in preseason the first two games?

A: I haven’t made that decision. That will have to be earned. Brian will start the first preseason game if nothing else changes. There’s plenty of time in there, daily updates staff-wise, to decide then how we want to (proceed). There’s a lot of different ways it can play out.

Q: Do you feel the need to play your first teams longer than the norm in preseason?

A: Our guys will play longer than (the norm). There are certain guys, like Ray Lewis for us in Baltimore, if they have a track record … But for the most part, there is no substitute for game reps against somebody else. We will probably take more reps than the average team in the preseason.

Q: Can you say first teamers would play at least a half the first game?

A: That’s TBD, but I would say closer to a half than a quarter. We need to play. I know what the norms are, what the traditions have been. We need to play.

Q: At which point do you talk about a specific package to get both quarterbacks in a game?

A: We’ve already talked about it. We’ve already installed elements of it in the spring. We ran some of the zone-read stuff in practice and Kyle (Shanahan) incorporated some of the mobile quarterback elements of what he did in Washington. We’re still going to go back to the beginning in pads, but as we get going, some of the stuff that’s more game plan-specific that we don’t want to show, we might work on in our walk-throughs as opposed to a public practice.

Q: Is it a way of easing Johnny into a game that way?

A: I think all options are open. I’ve seen that work, so I’m not close-minded to that. That’s how Colin Kaepernick got his start in the NFL, as a package quarterback. On the other side of the ball, I’ve seen that give defenses some trouble. I think there’s positives and negatives to it. You’re taking your starter off the field. You have his rhythm and continuity to take into account, but at the same time defensively you’re now forcing a team to basically come up with two game plans. I mean, there are pluses and minuses to it and it’s something I’m sure will be discussed at some point. I’m willing to say that the starter will be against it and the backup will be for it.

Q: You expect Josh Gordon to report on Friday. Any chance of him playing some this year, after all?

A: I’ve heard everything. I’m not even frustrated even more. That’s past. We’ve known what the possible outcomes have been and the responses to them. Just patiently waiting.

Q: Anything happen to change the timetable?

A: I’m not sure what it is.

Q: Going forward, will the team be more proactive with Gordon in giving him whatever care he needs?

A: Yeah, that’s a sensitive subject to talk about because the league’s very strict about anytime the subject of substance abuse comes up. But I think the structure is here to provide help. There’s what the league has and what the teams can do as well. Hypothetically, if and when something does occur, we’ll work in conjunction with the league to help Josh out or any other Cleveland Brown, for that matter.

Q: How do you overcome the receiver situation without him?

A: You don’t try to replace him with one guy. He’s one of the best receivers in the NFL. You don’t pop one guy in there and say he’s going to replace him. But we’re confident in what we’re doing schematically and the guys we have here. The nice thing about it, the number of quality guys we have here, we’re going to compete. Those guys know those jobs are open. We’re going to get their best.

Q: The day you were introduced, you told some of us in the media you weren’t going to be the typical defensive head coach who just tries to possess the ball on offense by handing off. And yet it looks like that’s where you’re heading.

A: I think it’s important that you build your team around the lines. I’ve always thought that. Offensive line, to me, is probably the most critical unit. Because if you have a good offensive line, that means you can run the ball and protect your quarterback. When you’re running effectively, that makes your passing game that much more effective. You can now have more downs where you’re less predictable.

I think when you get so one-dimensional and all you can do is throw, that puts a lot on your quarterback, puts a lot on some factors that you might not have control over – is it windy, is it rainy. We’re in Northeast Ohio. We want to be an all-weather offense and I think that starts with running the football.

But I’m not looking to turn the clock back and go two tight ends, and go foot to foot inside, and just wedge the ball and play that way. But we’re going to run the ball. Kyle’s offense has put up big numbers in the pass game because they’ve run the ball well and they had a good offensive line. My formula is something that’s tried and true. We bring up the Seattle model a lot – they ran the ball and played great defense. I believe in it. It got us with a rookie quarterback in New York to within a game of the Super Bowl. It got us with a rookie quarterback in Baltimore to within a game of the Super Bowl. It’s won Super Bowls. Baltimore’s won two Super Bowls in that fashion. I think for long-term, sustained success, unless you have that guy that’s a top five quarterback, I think you want to minimize his importance and put him in situations where he’s not going to have to be down two scores. Your circumstances will make your quarterback better statistically.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

All in: Browns get top pick Justin Gilbert under contract as rookies report to training camp

Jul 23, 2014 -- 6:40pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

Updated at 7:17 p.m.

The Browns completed their offseason by signing top draft pick Justin Gilbert Wednesday in time for the cornerback to report to training camp with other rookies and avoid any missed time in meetings or on the field.

Gilbert agreed to a four-year for $12.833 million with $7.65 million coming in a signing bonus, Spotrac.com reported. The club has an option for a fifth year. The Browns have confirmed the signing, but not any of the terms, including length.

Gilbert has enjoyed entering the club in the shadow of fellow first-rounder Johnny Manziel. But he is counted on by the club to make a more instant impact than the celebrity quarterback who will open camp as the backup to Brian Hoyer.

The Browns selected Gilbert eighth overall in the first round after trading down from No. 4. By doing so, the Browns passed up the best receiver in the draft, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.

They did it for two reasons: coach Mike Pettine identified an instant starter at cornerback as an urgent priority and evaluated Gilbert as the best at his defense’s press-and-run cover scheme, and the Buffalo Bills’ offer of their first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 was too much to resist.

The trade dropped the Browns to No. 9. They surrendered a fifth-round choice in 2014 to Minnesota to move up one spot and take Gilbert at No. 8.

Pettine confirmed to ESPNCleveland.com that Watkins would have been the Browns’ pick at No. 4 if Buffalo had not floored the team with its offer.

As the careers of Gilbert and Watkins begin to unfold, Pettine laughed at the suggestion that his neck was on the line with the moves.

“I feel my neck’s on the line because I’m the head coach and we better win football games,” he said.

“No, we feel very comfortable making that move. That was a position we wanted to upgrade. Each scheme kind of has its important positions, and corner with man cover skills is one of the big needs in our system. We felt if we have those guys that the system can be very effective.”

Gilbert is projected to start opposite Joe Haden, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl season in four years with the Browns.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns Training Camp Preview: 25 questions about the roster

Jul 23, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

The Morning Kickoff …

Welcome back, football: The Browns open the Mike Pettine coaching era with the start of training camp this week. Rookies report on Wednesday, veterans on Friday. Saturday is the first practice open to the public.

Our week of previews continues.

Monday: The 10 most important Browns heading into training camp.

Tuesday: The top position battles.

Wednesday: Twenty-five questions from every angle of the Browns’ roster.

Thursday: Ranking the top 50 Browns entering training camp.

Friday: Our favorite Browns training camp memories.

25 questions from every angle of the Browns’ roster

In the preseason “power rankings” professed by various football Websites, the Browns have registered as high as No. 22 and as low as No. 31. Neither placing is much to brag about.

The optimists point to expected improvements in the running game and defense, and a revamped football operations department now united in one goal instead of infected by personal agendas.

The pessimists see a team disjointed by another coaching change, and lacking offensive playmakers and stability at the quarterback position.

By virtue of their last-place finish (again), the Browns are one of eight teams that can go from worst to first in their division. It has happened 11 consecutive years in the NFL.

For the Browns to be that team, the majority of the following questions at each of their position groups have to be answered affirmatively.

Quarterback

1. Can Brian Hoyer’s body hold up over training camp and a full regular season?

2. Has Johnny Manziel put in the study time to make up ground on Hoyer from the beginning of their competition?

3. Does Tyler Thigpen or Connor Shaw have enough game to merit a roster spot or does a new No. 3 candidate need to be found?

Running back

4. Can Ben Tate have an injury-free camp?

5. All things being equal, can rookie Terrance West really challenge Tate for the starting spot?

6. Can Dion Lewis impress the new coaching staff like he did the last one?

7. Will the coaches utilize a hybrid fullback or finally relocate a traditional one?

Offensive line

8. Can Alex Mack become a mobile force in the running game, like the coaches expect, in the zone-blocking scheme?

9. Will right tackle Mitchell Schwartz be challenged by Chris Faulk or someone else?

10. Will Joel Bitonio’s nastiness rub off on the rest of the starting unit?

Wide receiver and tight end

11. Will Josh Gordon’s agent be able to negotiate an agreement with the NFL that allows him to play at least a portion of the season?

12. Can anyone emerge as a dependable outside threat in Gordon’s expected absence?

13. Can the Browns sign Jordan Cameron to a new deal or does he parlay a big year on the field into a free agency payday in 2015?

Defensive line

14. Do the Browns re-sign Ahtyba Rubin to lower his cap number, or will this be his last season in Cleveland?

15. Is this the year Desmond Bryant pays dividends on his big 2013 contract?

16. Does Jabaal Sheard line up more as a defensive end or as an outside linebacker in Mike Pettine’s defense?

Linebacker

17. Can the new coaches get more production out of Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo?

18. Will Karlos Dansby be a force in the middle like he was with Arizona?

Defensive back

19. Will Justin Gilbert be signed to avoid missing any practice time?

20. How long will it take for the Joe Haden-Gilbert tandem to resemble the Hanford Dixon-Frank Minnifield dynamic duo of the 1980s?

21. Is Donte Whitner’s bite bigger than his bark?

22. Can Tashaun Gipson elevate his game and become a turnover-maker in the Pettine defense?

Other

23. Can Travis Benjamin, a.k.a. the Rabbit, return from ACL surgery and electrify the team with many happy returns?

24. How many game-winning opportunities will Billy Cundiff get this year?

25. Will Pettine and his staff beat the odds and make it to a second season?

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns Training Camp Preview: The top position battles

Jul 22, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP

The Morning Kickoff …

Welcome back, football: The Browns open the Mike Pettine coaching era with the start of training camp this week. Rookies report on Wednesday, veterans on Friday. Saturday is the first practice open to the public.

Our week of previews continues.

Monday: The 10 most important Browns heading into training camp.

Tuesday: The top position battles.

Wednesday: Twenty-five questions from every angle of the Browns’ roster.

Thursday: Ranking the top 50 Browns entering training camp.

Friday: Our favorite Browns training camp memories.

The top position battles

For a team that has lost 11 or more games for six consecutive seasons – and is embarking on its fifth coach in the last seven years – the low number of legitimate position battles at Browns training camp is amazing.

I count three – quarterback, inside linebacker and wide receiver.

Some might include No. 2 cornerback, running back and guard. While I will review those “battles” in this story, I don’t consider them legitimate. I feel the starters at these positions are pre-determined but could change if the favorites falter in training camp.

As usual, the marquee position battle is at quarterback. I think it’s the fifth “quarterback competition” in 16 seasons since the Browns were reborn in expansion in 1999. (It’s hard to keep track.) This one will trump all the previous ones because of the presence of TMZ icon, leading NFL jersey-seller and emerging local pitchman Johnny Manziel.

Manziel’s enormous national celebrity has dwarfed the local storyline of Brian Hoyer finally getting his first career opportunity to take over a team – and it being his hometown team, to boot. This strange dynamic has cast Hoyer in the role of underdog, if not nonentity, nationally.

Most national analysts casually dismiss Hoyer’s chances of winning the starting job because of the palpable perception that owner Jimmy Haslam and President Alec Scheiner want Manziel on the field for marketing purposes. After all, the Browns were promoting Manziel jersey sales on their official Website less than an hour after he was drafted 22nd overall on May 8. Within days of drafting Manziel, the club reported a 4,000 increase in season ticket sales. Convesely, prior to the draft and the arrival of Manziel, positive reports of Hoyer’s recovery from ACL surgery barely nudged the ticket meter.

Objective analysts see Hoyer clearly ahead of Manziel as the two meet on level ground at the start of training camp. But even the staunchest proponents of Hoyer acknowledge the challenge ahead for the Cleveland native entering his fifth NFL season.

Joe Linta, Hoyer’s agent, asserted in an interview with ESPNCleveland.com in June, “I think the way it’s going to go, Brian’s going to have the first at bat and the leash will be short.”

1. Quarterback: Brian Hoyer v. Johnny Manziel

They are polar opposites in experience, background, public persona and playing style. They share one common trait on the field, however – an ultra-competitive gene that compels teammates to follow them. Coach Mike Pettine has stated that Hoyer was clearly ahead in the minicamps, but his lead was not insurmountable. The new coaches were won over prior to the draft by Hoyer’s commitment to his profession and his fierce determination to seize the opportunity of his first NFL starting assignment. But there is no denying the coaches were smitten by Manziel and, in fact, were influenced by his draft-day texts to trade up and select him in the first round. This quote from QB coach Dowell Loggains should not be forgotten: “I knew, as soon as I decided to come take this job in Cleveland, I knew that our owner liked Johnny a lot.”

2. Inside linebacker: Craig Robertson v. Chris Kirksey

Entrusted with myriad responsibilities by former coordinator Ray Horton, Robertson suffered in pass coverage. So much so that Pettine and his defensive staff identified a coverage linebacker as a dire priority. Kirksey played outside linebacker at Iowa but timed well enough to be projected as an instant contributor on third-down coverage packages. When GM Ray Farmer selected Kirksey 71st overall in the third round, he consciously assessed the linebacker a surer contributor than any of the wide receivers left on the board from a deep crop.

3. Wide receiver: Nate Burleson v. Miles Austin v. Travis Benjamin v. Charles Johnson v. Anthony Armstrong v. five undrafted free agents

If you subtract Josh Gordon, who probably will be lost to an NFL suspension, and Andrew Hawkins, who is fairly restricted to the No. 3 (slot receiver) position, this is what’s left. Burleson will be 33 by season’s start and Austin is 30. Benjamin and Johnson are returning from ACL surgeries and may be limited at the start of camp. Armstrong is 31 and has 10 receptions in NFL games in the past three years. Without Gordon, this position group is the weakest on the roster. The possibility of a trade for a surer thing exists, but Pettine and Farmer have repeatedly expressed nonchalance about reaching for one.

4. Cornerback: Justin Gilbert v. Buster Skrine

Pettine drove the move to trade down in the first round and pass up stud receiver Sammy Watkins to select Gilbert as the press-corner opposite Joe Haden. Theoretically, Gilbert’s arrival enables Skrine to concentrate exclusively on the slot cornerback role. If Gilbert doesn’t nail down the starting spot from Game One, it will be a huge disappointment.

5. Running back: Ben Tate v. Terrance West v. Dion Lewis v. Isaiah Crowell v. Edwin Baker

Tate was considered the automatic starter and rescuer of the running game until West was drafted in the third round and impressed in the minicamps. Farmer also endorsed the undrafted but talented Crowell as a contender. Lewis was impressive last preseason, conjuring images of scatback Darren Sproles, until he broke a leg. No returning player suffered more from the coaching change. Hard to believe, but Baker finished the 2013 season as the starting back and co-led the team in rushing TDs with two.

6. Guard: Joel Bitonio v. John Greco v. Paul McQuistan v. Jason Pinkston v. Garrett Gilkey

Bitonio, the second-round draft pick, and Greco, are the clear favorites to start at the guard spots. Bitonio suffered a high ankle sprain in OTAs and was shut down in June, but is expected to be ready to compete at the start of camp. If not, any delay from the practice field will cost Bitonio dearly and give McQuistan, a 40-game starter at three positions the past three seasons for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the upper hand to start with Greco. Gilkey took reps at center in OTAs, a signal he is being groomed as a backup at three interior positions.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

Browns Training Camp Preview: The 10 most important Browns

Jul 21, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP

The Morning Kickoff …

Welcome back, football: The Browns open the Mike Pettine coaching era with the start of training camp this week. Rookies report on Wednesday, veterans on Friday. Saturday is the first practice open to the public.

A week of previews begins today.

Monday: The 10 most important Browns heading into training camp.

Tuesday: The top Browns position battles of training camp.

Wednesday: Twenty-five questions from every angle of the Browns’ roster.

Thursday: Ranking the top 50 Browns entering training camp.

Friday: Our favorite Browns training camp memories.

The 10 most important Browns players heading into training camp

These aren’t necessarily the 10 best players in camp, but due to circumstances in and out of their control, they could have the biggest impact on the 2014 Browns season.

1. QB Brian Hoyer: Every NFL locker room prefers a proven leader over a rookie at the sport’s most important position. If Hoyer picks up where he left off prior to his torn ACL in October, the team will be in its best position to avoid a typically slow getaway. The first three games before their early bye are against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore – playoff contenders who would feast on a rookie quarterback. Every returning player believes in Hoyer. But he has to prove he can compete at a high level for 14 or so games – something he has not done in his four-year NFL career.

2. RB Ben Tate: He displayed an attitude and an edge in the minicamps, perhaps provoked by a city-wide love affair with rookie third-round pick Terrance West. The fact is Tate fits the Kyle Shanahan running scheme like a glove and has been very productive in it in Houston – a 4.7-yard rushing average in 10.5 carries a game over three years. Like Hoyer, however, Tate’s durability issues are real. There will be enough attempts for more than one back, but if Tate can seize this career opportunity, he can be the most valuable of all the newcomers on the roster.

3. OLB-DE Jabaal Sheard: Pettine predicted Sheard would have the greatest impact on his defense. Sheard wasn’t awful in his transition to a 3-4 linebacker under former coordinator Ray Horton, but his sacks hit a three-year low and the new coaches surmised Sheard is much better moving forward (rushing the passer) than backward (covering backs or tight ends). Sheard is the hands-down favorite to lead the team in sacks in the new defense. For that reason alone, he is a very important player. Plus, there’s that new contract opportunity dangling out there.

4. CB Justin Gilbert: Make no mistake, Gilbert was drafted to start from Day One. Pettine was the driving force to forsake Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins and trade down with Buffalo to draft Gilbert. The coach saw Gilbert as the missing piece in the defensive puzzle. The starting cornerback opposite Joe Haden is going to get thrown at a lot. With his athleticism and the opportunities awaiting him, Gilbert easily can lead the defense in interceptions.

5. TE Jordan Cameron: There are three reasons for Cameron to be the most popular Browns player in fantasy leagues. One, his breakout 2013 season signaled his maturity as an NFL playmaker. Two, the team’s sorry situation at wideout makes Cameron a No. 1 read in the passing game. Three, he’s playing to secure his future financially in his contract year. The key to Cameron’s 2013 season was keeping himself on the field and out of the trainer’s room. If he can do it again, he will lead the team in receptions, yards and touchdown catches.

6. C Alex Mack: While the old regime held Mack in high regard as an upstanding character and dependable anchor on the offensive line, the new one saw him as a certifiable force in the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme. There may not be a returning player who benefits more from the change in coaches and systems.

7. ILB Karlos Dansby: With Arizona, Dansby was the rare inside linebacker who actually made plays, not just tackles. That production from the inside can turn a decent defense into an elite one.

8. OG Joel Bitonio: GM Ray Farmer evaluated this offensive tackle from Nevada ahead of all the second-rung receivers after the top five. The coaches believe Bitonio’s athleticism makes him an ideal pulling guard in the zone-blocking run scheme. Frankly, they want his nasty edge to rub off on the too-docile unit.

9. SS Donte Whitner: Coordinator Jim O’Neil already has labeled him the defense’s “enforcer.” Whitner’s local roots (Glenville HS and Ohio State) and age (29 on July 24) give him an emotional stake in winning now.

10. QB Johnny Manziel: It would not be a failure if Manziel did not win the starting job because it would mean Hoyer is at the top of his game. Manziel is infinitely important, however, because he does represent the future. How he handles the backup role, soaking up Hoyer’s approach to the professional job, will say a lot about Manziel’s ability to lead an NFL team. Given the Browns’ recent history at the QB position – and Hoyer’s lack of proven record – it’s reasonable to assume that Manziel’s time will come sooner than later.

Honorable mention

* WR Nate Burleson: Somebody has to pick up the slack on the outside if Josh Gordon is suspended.

* CB Joe Haden: Taking his game to the next level – added to Gilbert’s emergence – results in a stellar secondary.

* WR Charles Johnson: The unknown quantity of the receiver roster. He looks the part. If he came through, it would lessen the expected loss of Gordon.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@goodkarmabrands.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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