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With Browns' QB competition closed, attention diverts to finalizing roster spots elsewhere

Aug 21, 2014 -- 7:31am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

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The Morning Kickoff …

Turning the page: Now that the quarterback debate is over, the page turns on this Browns preseason. I asked coach Mike Pettine what’s the next priority.

“Chemistry is a big part of it – getting guys out, playing together, starting to narrow the package down to fit what we do well and then start to get a little more opponent specific,” he said.

“We’ll do that this weekend with the St. Louis game. Then you’re always kind of looking at the season in chunks. We did some good work as a staff in the offseason on Pittsburgh and New Orleans and Baltimore. I think it’s getting to the point now with camp broken, where we need to go ahead and start to look ahead to that first part of the season.”

And to finalizing the roster. So here is an update on that.

Quarterback

1. Brian Hoyer, 2. Johnny Manziel. Rookie Connor Shaw did a great job at the end of the Washington game, but it’s doubtful he will unseat Kyle Shanahan-confidante Rex Grossman. However, Shaw is worth preserving on the practice squad.

Running back

1. Ben Tate, 2. Terrance West. Pettine said, “I think that competition is still wide open for that third running back spot.” Chris Ogbonnaya’s versatility gives him a big edge. Rookie Isaiah Crowell’s potential puts him next in line. That leaves Dion Lewis and Edwin Baker. Lewis lost a fumble in Detroit, but scored the team’s first touchdown against Washington. The Browns fear if they expose Crowell to the practice squad, they will lose him. That will be an interesting choice. Fullback Ray Agnew appears to be in competition with hybrid tight end MarQueis Gray for a spot.

Wide receiver

Uh, boy. First, the givens: 1. Josh Gordon likely will miss some portion of the season, if not all, because of a league suspension. 2. Andrew Hawkins is the slot receiver. 3. Miles Austin, as long as he’s able to stay on the field, will be one of the starters. Everything else is up in the air. Currently, Taylor Gabriel, the 5-8, 167-pound pride of Abilene Christian, is the leading receiver in preseason with six catches for 67 yards. Charles Johnson and Willie Snead have had their moments. Anthony Armstrong had his in June. Travis Benjamin is a No. 4 or No. 5. And the big question is whether Nate Burleson will make the team. I can’t remember the last time Burleson (hamstring) was in full uniform and running routes.

Tight end

1. Jordan Cameron, 2. Gary Barnidge, 3. Jim Dray. Shout-out to Emmanuel Ogbuehi, No. 5 on the depth chart, for corralling the rebound off Snead’s arms on the Shaw Hail Mary at the end of the game against the Redskins.

Offensive line

The starting lineup is set: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, John Greco, Mitchell Schwartz. There is no indication Schwartz is under scrutiny after two hands-to-face penalites v. Detroit and apparently allowing two sacks v. Washington. Top backups appear to be Paul McQuistan (guard and tackle) and Garrett Gilkey (guard and center).

Defensive line

Desmond Bryant, who didn’t do much after heart problems surfaced in Game 5 last year, now will be sidelined the rest of preseason after wrist surgery. He won’t be ready for the season opener, but Pettine said he is not a candidate for injured reserve. Phil Taylor will take over one end spot. The other one may go to Armonty Bryant, who started ahead of Billy Winn v. Washington and made a few more plays. The nose tackle position is capably handled by starter Ahtyba Rubin and backup Ishmaa’ily Kitchen. John Hughes is a solid backup at any position. Calvin Barnett, an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, is an intriguing prospect.

Linebacker

The only battle among starters still ongoing involves Craig Robertson v. Chris Kirksey at the inside spot next to Karlos Dansby. Both have played well and Pettine has said both could be considered starters depending on the opponent’s offensive formation. The questions at this position group involve the rotation of outside ‘backers Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo. Sheard has been used sparingly in preseason and continues to be listed behind Kruger on the depth chart. We’re pretty sure that Sheard’s prominent role won’t be revealed until the regular season. If that comes true, what becomes of Kruger and Mingo? Each has one sack in preseason games, but neither looks like a dominant player. We’ll see when the real games begin.

Defensive secondary

Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert will be teamed from the start. That should be a formidable pair of outside corners. With Buster Skrine (thumb) sidelined until the opener, Isaiah Trufant will be the slot cornerback. Skrine was having a very good camp on the outside, but he needs the reps inside to acclimate to the full-time role. The top backup cornerbacks appear to be Pierre Desir and Aaron Berry, both of which missed the Washington game with injuries. Leon McFadden’s roster spot is going to come down to the wire. The safety position looks strong with starters Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson, and backups Jim Leonhard and Jordan Poyer. Johnson Bademosi – now the team’s best special teamer – is in the mix as a backup.

Specialists

I don’t recall ever going through a preseason with only one kicker and one punter, but Billy Cundiff and Spencer Lanning are halfway through without any relief pitchers on hand. Benjamin hasn’t returned any kicks or punts in two preseason games, but he will handle both duties when the games start counting.

 

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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