By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Time to assess: The Browns break for summer vacation knowing a few things about themselves.
They can run the upbeat tempo installed by the coaches on offense and defense. That was the most noticeable change in the Browns under new coach Rob Chudzinski through 16 offseason practices. There is no lollygagging.
Everything was done at quick pace. It starts with Brandon Weeden’s dropback from center. That sets the tone on offense. The defense is 11 Ahtyba Rubins hustling from snap to whistle. Even the breaks between practice periods were quick.
Chudzinski said he also learned his team is a hungry team. Why not? Of the 38 players on the 90-man roster who have worn the Browns uniform before, only one – Joe Thomas – has experienced a winning season. Of the veteran newcomers, only five have been to the playoffs.
So they’re fast and they’re hungry. But can they hit and tackle and play through adversity?
“The thing we want to do with training camp that we really haven’t been able to do out here is see the physical part of football,” Chudzinski said in his minicamp wrap-up assessment. “Seeing the toughness and pushing through some of those things. Guys getting a chance to really compete physically will be the theme (of training camp).”
Nothing is set in stone during the spring phase of preseason. This is how we see the Browns by position group when training camp convenes on July 26:
Quarterbacks: Weeden has taken to the vertical passing offense and to the demanding exhortations of coordinator Norv Turner. His footwork has improved. His arm is stronger than any I’ve seen in Cleveland. There is no “open competition” for the starting job. Chudzinski said, “I don’t really know what that term means, exactly.” What remains to be seen is how much improved Weeden’s game will be in the face of a live pass rush. Jason Campbell has been a good teammate. He seems to have accepted his fate as a backup at this stage of his career. Brian Hoyer looks hungrier. Campbell’s physical skills are better, but Hoyer appears to have the intangibles of a field leader. At this stage, it’s much more likely that Hoyer unseats Campbell for No. 2 than Campbell unseats Weeden for No. 1.
Running backs: Trent Richardson’s lower leg muscle pull was the No. 1 disappointment of minicamp. The time to worry about it is when he misses a preseason game, not in June. Of the remaining backs, newcomer Dion Lewis was most impressive. I have him pegged as a lock for the No. 3 back. I see Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya competing for No. 2. But an interesting dynamic may result in four making the final roster. Brandon Jackson can get into the mix, I suppose.
Fullbacks: Owen Marecic, the only natural fullback on the roster, will be under the gun in training camp to prove that his lead-blocking is indispensable. If not, his deficiencies in pass catching and running will cost him. The coaches already seem to be planning to compensate by using Ogbonnaya and/or Brad Smelley in pseudo-fullback roles.
Receivers: Josh Gordon has the most physical ability of any player on the roster. The only thing that can stop him from being an elite player this year is himself. Greg Little seemed to “get it” in the second half of last season. I haven’t seen him drop a ball all spring. Davone Bess … I wish the Browns would have acquired him two years ago. He will make an impact on and off the field. Travis Benjamin looks much smoother and is the fastest player on the team. Weeden said he caught more balls than any player over the 16 practices. Can he hold the ball and stay on the field when hit? We’ll see. Tall, angular David Nelson should be an asset when healthy in training camp.
Tight ends: Jordan Cameron had two muscle pulls in 16 practices without being hit. Not a good sign. Gary Barnidge and Kellen Davis look OK. I don’t see a playmaker at this position.
Offensive line: It looks as if John Greco and Shawn Lauvao have the bead on the starting guard positions, but where they line up is uncertain. Coaches have alternated them at left and right. Jason Pinkston, who made a good initial comeback from a blood clot last year, has time to unseat one in training camp. The rest of the line is in good shape. No more analysis needed than that.
Defensive line: Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant have alternated at right and left end and Phil Taylor has been the nose. It’s possible Taylor will come off the field in the four-man rush for Kruger and Jabaal Sheard. I see reduced snaps for Billy Winn and John Hughes this season unless there are injuries. Still, we may see rampant substitutions to keep the starters fresh in the fourth quarter.
Linebackers: Kruger and Sheard enter training camp as the starting outside linebackers. Sheard’s early conversion to the position has been encouraging but not complete. Barkevious Mingo will get a lot of play time if he doesn’t start immediately. Mingo’s quickness is undeniable. We don’t know how strong he is or whether he can tackle. Quentin Groves rounds out a decent foursome of rush linebackers. Craig Robertson has held down the starting inside spot next to D’Qwell Jackson. I’m not sure where James-Michael Johnson fits in this defense.
Defensive backs: Joe Haden looks poised for a big year. Buster Skrine and Chris Owens will be the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks – in whichever order. Rookie Leon McFadden will have to have a huge training camp to unseat Skrine or Owens. I have a feeling T.J. Ward will prosper in Ray Horton’s defense. The free safety will be either Tashaun Gipson or Johnson Bademosi. I didn’t see either get his hands on a lot of balls. That could change when hitting is allowed in training camp.
Specialists: I think there’s a good chance the Browns will keep three kickers. Spencer Lanning is the overwhelming favorite at punter and holder. The place-kicking could break down to a combination of veteran Shayne Graham (accurate 35 yards and in) and Brandon Bogotay (a deep kickoff and long field goal specialist). There could be multiple returners – Benjamin, Skrine, Bademosi, Lewis, even Bess.
|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 firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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