By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Checkpoint No. 1: There are different checkpoints in a training camp and we reached the first one with the Browns’ first off day on Wednesday. When players return on Thursday, they’ll get their first taste of live tackling as intensity inches closer to game-ready.
Here is what we have observed so far:
1. Johnny update: Coach Mike Pettine told me before training camp started that coaches would evaluate Johnny Manziel through the first four days and decide whether he earned first-team reps. The numbers tabulated each day by ESPNCleveland’s Jason Gibbs have not been pretty. Gibbs has charted all plays in 7 on 7 and team drills. Unofficially, Manziel has completed 42 of 85 passes (49.4 percent). He has been “sacked” two times officially. Two other obvious sacks were waved off and resulted in Manziel interceptions. There has been one other interception, four keeper runs by Manziel and three plays aborted by general confusion. Manziel’s only touchdown pass came on a little flip to fullback Ray Agnew off a bootleg. It’s too early to draw conclusions. But it’s nearly impossible to make the case that Manziel has earned first-team reps.
2. Fiercest competition: I love the dynamic at running back. Ben Tate talking tough, rookie Terrance West not backing down. The other backs – Chris Ogbonnaya, Isaiah Crowell, Dion Lewis, Edwin Baker – all fighting for perhaps one roster spot. This is the fiercest competition of any position group. Tate’s edginess is more than just talk. He is starting to remind me of the back who wore his No. 44 in a different era and became the heart and soul of the Browns’ turnaround in the 1980s – Earnest Byner. Tate is much more talented as a runner and seems to have Byner’s, well, earnestness to change the culture of the team from losing to winning. This will be the most improved position group from a year ago.
3. Out of the shadow: Top pick Justin Gilbert affably played second fiddle to Manziel off the field in the weeks after the draft. On the field, Gilbert has showed why he was the team’s top pick. Gilbert looks bigger on the field than his listed measurements of 6-0 and 202 pounds. His athleticism has not been exaggerated. When running with the ball on kickoff returns, he looks like an offensive playmaker gliding through running lanes. Gilbert should be promoted to the first-team defense soon, which would be no knock on Buster Skrine, who continues to improve each year. I’d like to see Skrine moved inside now to have ample time to perfect what is one of the most important positions on the defense. Gilbert has physical skills that not even Joe Haden possesses. There is no doubt in my mind he will start from Day 1.
4. Receiver alert: Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins has been a consistent performer, showing good hands, pinpoint route-running, darting quickness and a work ethic and energy that is infectious. He will be a dependable target for Brian Hoyer. That said, there is nobody out there – besides Josh Gordon – who is going to scare any defense. Nate Burleson, Miles Austin, Anthony Armstrong … none has proved in recent years he can even stay on a field, much less shine on it. Of the rest, Charles Johnson is an engaging and intriguing prospect and has the best athletic skills, but I question whether he can make an impact early. If Gordon somehow beats the rap and does play at all this season, it will make all the other receivers better. Otherwise, this position is still a major concern.
5. Rube awakening: With Phil Taylor still not practicing, Pettine and the coaches have gotten some good looks at Ahtyba Rubin at nose tackle – the position at which he broke into the NFL with the Browns in 2008. Pettine commented on Tuesday, “He’s as good as I’ve had in this system as far as his technique in defending the run.” Rubin has impressed the coaches with his work in the inside run drills. Rubin made an interesting comment on Tuesday, saying “(I’m trying to) let everyone know I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.” That was an apparent reference to frequent speculation that Rubin might be used as trade bait because of the surplus at defensive line. Rubin is in the last year of his contract and carries the fifth-highest salary cap figure ($8.175 million) on the team, but he embodies Pettine’s “play like a Brown” mantra as well as anyone.
6. Quick hits: I’m a little surprised there is no extra punter or kicker, not for competition but to avoid overtaxing the legs of Spencer Lanning and Billy Cundiff … Rookie Joel Bitonio is rock solid at left guard … rookie Chris Kirksey has been very active in the run and pass defense … tight end Jordan Cameron is going to have a bigger year than last season … linebacker Barkevious Mingo looks bigger and much more confident … I interpret the addition of safety Jim Leonhard as Pettine having the roster spot to give a player he truly likes some opportunities on tape to audition for other teams.
|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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