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 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.
* 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 firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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