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The surprise of Browns offseason practices? It may be cornerback Buster Skrine

Jun 06, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

The Morning Kickoff …

Surprise, surprise: As Browns pre-training camp practices wind down today with the last on-field look of the team until late July, the surprise player might be cornerback Buster Skrine.

He is still holding down the starting spot opposite Joe Haden.

The Browns did not spend the money in free agency for a starting cornerback and did not add one in the draft until the third round. So it’s not as if Skrine is turning back all challengers against all odds. But he’s not giving up the spot that was handed to him at the start of the offseason workouts, either.

“Buster’s playing at a really high level,” Haden told me. “I never saw him play this good before. He’s making plays every day. People aren’t catching the ball on him. He’s doing a really good job.”

Skrine and free agent Chris Owens have shared time with the first-team defense. When the Browns go to three cornerbacks, which is more than 50 percent of the time, Skrine moves inside to cover the slot receiver and Owens lines up outside. Third-round rookie Leon McFadden is third in the competition at present.

At worst, Skrine figures to be the starting nickel (slot) cornerback. The question is whether he can ascend in his third season to the starting lineup when opponents line up only two receivers.

“Me, C.O. and McFadden, we’re all rolling in with the ones,” Skrine said. “It feels good to start with the ones at the beginning of the day. But preseason is what really matters. Preseason is when they’ll pick the No. 1.”

Cut down the flags: Skrine, Owens and McFadden all are in the 5-9 range in height. Skrine measured 5-9 ½ at the 2011 NFL combine.

If Skrine were three inches taller, there might be no question about his qualifications as a starting NFL cornerback. The fact he has gotten to where he is today – after playing under four defensive coordinators and three position coaches at Tennessee-Chattanooga – is testament to Skrine’s pugnaciousness, work ethic and speed.

Former defensive coordinator Dick Jauron was Skrine’s staunchest advocate for two years. Week in and week out, Jauron would laud Skrine’s toughness, attitude and coachability.

The new coaching staff seems to have taken a liking to Skrine, too.

“Buster is a scrappy guy,”coach Rob Chudzinski said Tuesday. “He is a hungry guy. He is real impressive in the approach that he takes to every single play. He has done a nice job out there.”

But the fact is Skrine will always be challenged vertically by the taller receivers. Colleges are churning out more every year. Skrine’s team-high 12 penalties last season were a result of his over-aggressiveness in trying to compensate for his height disadvantage.

Those 12 penalties tied for fifth-most in the NFL. Only Buffalo’s Stephon Gilmore (13) had more penalties than Skrine among cornerbacks, and Gilmore outnumbered Skrine in defensive snaps, 1,055 to 722.

“Just being aggressive,” Skrine said of the penalties, which included five for pass interference. “And some calls don’t go my way.”

Chudzinski said, “A lot of it is the technique to start out with. He has real quick feet and speed. He can mirror (receivers) and it’s just a matter of being confident and consistent in his technique as he is working through and covering a guy and trusting himself.”

A budding rivalry: One of the interesting matchups in OTAs is when Skrine is singled up on second-year receiver Travis Benjamin. Benjamin is just a half-inch taller at 5-10 and they are undeniably the two fastest players on the team.

Skrine clocked a 4.37 40 at the 2011 NFL combine. Benjamin timed 4.31 in 2012.

Skrine said their one-on-one matchups go “back and forth.” But when I asked who would win a 40-yard dash – something teammates often speculate on – Skrine said with a smile, “Me, of course.”

Skrine and Benjamin also are competing for the wide open role of kickoff returner to replace franchise great Josh Cribbs. Safety Johnson Bademosi also is in the mix there.

So, opportunities abound for Skrine in his third season with the Browns.

“Yeah, this is definitely a big year,” Skrine said. “It’s my third year, know everything now, had experience last year. So I say this is a big year.”

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. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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