By Will Burge | ESPNCleveland.com
In the first five days of training camp, fans have experienced food trucks, two story viewing towers, record setting attendance and even a little football. With just over a week until the Browns' first preseason game, competition is heating up and slowly but surely the roster will take shape.
On the camp’s first mandatory day off, here are some early story lines
The number one question entering camp was not, who will play quarterback, but rather, who will play CORNERback opposite Joe Haden. Let’s start with Haden. He has a renewed focus and maturity that we had yet to see in his professional career.
He refuses to talk about the suspension last season and referred to it as a dark time in his life. Haden was married in the offseason and the people around him tell me he worked out harder than he ever has before. Entering his fourth year in the league, it is time for Haden to finally live up to his All-Pro potential.
So far in camp, he has consistently dominated one-on-one drills against wide receivers, which is almost impossible to do, deflected about a dozen passes, has an interception, and has made five or six “superstar” type plays.
Haden is blossoming right in front of our eyes and it is exciting to see.
Across from Haden, it is a three man battle for the second corner position. So far, Buster Skrine has held down that position, but moves to the slot when they run a nickel defense. Chris Owens, the guy with the most experience, plays on the outside in the nickel.
Skrine has not played bad at all. In fact, he has made many more positive plays than negative. Unfortunately for him, Owens has stolen the show.
Behind Haden, Owens has been the second most dominant corner in camp and it’s not even close. It hasn’t mattered whether or not he is covering a big body like Greg Little or a fast mover like Travis Benjamin, he has smothered them.
The third man in this competition is rookie Leon McFadden. Thus far, he has had quite a tough time.
McFadden admitted that it has been an uphill climb adjusting to three step drop coverage. He has a long way to go before he is ready for any type of starting role.
Brandon Weeden’s best shot at excelling as a starter in the NFL is right now. Norv Turner even laid out the various players who had career years while playing in this system.
“This system is really a quarterback friendly system. I go all the way back to Jim Everett, guys that people forget. We had Gus Frerotte go to the pro bowl in 96’, Trent Green had a break out year in 98’, Brad Johnson took us to a playoff win and threw for 4,000 yards in 99’ and I can go on...”
So far, Weeden has been up and down but skewing more towards the positive. He looks light-years more comfortable than he did in Pat Shurmur’s offense a year ago and is making quicker decisions with the football.
The place where Weeden has struggled is in the red zone. He has rushed some throws under pressure and will need to learn when to make the pass and when to throw out of the back of the end zone. Interceptions in the end zone are a QBs worst nightmare.
After a couple mediocre days to begin camp, however, he has bounced back nicely and looks like he can put up some serious numbers in this offense.
Fans, media, and front office personnel are watching Josh Gordon to see if he has learned from his impending two game suspension or if he will continue to make immature decisions.
On the field has never been the problem. He was dominant through the first few days of camp and is by far the most talented receiver on the roster.
However, on Monday, he was pulled from practice half way through for what coach Rob Chudzinski said was patellar tendonitis.
Injury or not, Gordon was also scolded during that same practice for not finishing plays or running after the catch. He is frequently the last receiver into position drills and has yet to work with Greg Little and Brandon Weeden after practice, despite the fact that Little and Weeden have worked on routes after every single session thus far.
Although these may appear as small things, they would go a long way and would add towards the regaining of trust of everyone in Cleveland, including the folks who sign his paycheck.
As a former Browns fan himself, Rob Chudzinski was welcomed home with open arms. The big question wasn’t if he would understand the city’s passion, but rather, how will he grow as a first year head coach.
During practices, he has leaned heavily on Norv Turner, the screamer and MF’er, and also Ray Horton, the quiet sensei, but he has also added his own flavor.
He pulled out a lineman who jumped off-sides, he has made the offense re-huddle after screwing up pre-snap formations, and frequently gets the crowd going to create noise in game type situations.
The pace and structure of camp has been very good as well. There is no wasted time and players are competing at a high level.
So far so good for Chud.
The big test will be his in-game decision making. That is where the pretenders and contenders are divided. Even the preseason cannot simulate that. It is trial by fire week one against the Dolphins.
When you are selected with the sixth overall pick, people are going to scrutinize everything you do. So far, Barkevious Mingo hasn’t given them much to scrutinize.
He is playing with the second team defense but also on various special teams units which he says he embraces and loves.
His speed is undeniable. He frequently beats RBs and DBs down the field on kick coverage and has blown past lineman who won’t be on the roster in a few weeks.
Where he needs to grow, however, is in his pass rush moves. He lacks a strong secondary move at this point and when the blocker gets a clean look at him he is usually stonewalled.
So as Mingo develops his pass rush repertoire and sharpens his coverage ability, he will receive more playing time. For now, Jabaal Sheard is the starter and Mingo will have to settle for pass rush specific downs.
The surprise at camp so far has been running back Deon Lewis. After not getting a legitimate shot in Philadelphia, he has snagged reps with the second team offense in Cleveland.
He has awed everyone with his speed, moves, and catching ability, but personally I am most enamored with the pace he plays football. Everything is fast and full-go all the time.
Now that Montario Hardesty is out with a hamstring injury, Lewis will see even more reps and could put a stranglehold on the backup running back position.
When a legend leaves town, you can’t help but feel bad for whoever has to fill his shoes. Both rookie Brandon Bogotay and veteran Shane Graham are competing at kicker but unfortunately neither is excelling.
The competition is so close that coach Chudzinski had a kicking competition before practice Monday to see who would kick with the first team. The competition wasn’t pretty and Graham won by the skin of his team.
Accuracy has been the problem with these two. There have been far too many misses.
While Graham seems to be the more accurate kicker, Bogotay has a much stronger leg. Chud has a difficult decision on his hands at this position.
The one place you never want to find yourself during training camp is on the bikes. Montario Hardesty is there with a hamstring injury and now runs the risk of being cut. Tashaun Gipson, who is penciled in as the starting free safety, rolled his ankle and is now missing time as well.
Phil Taylor missed some time with a calf injury but returned to practice this week and took some reps. We have also yet to see one the Browns premier free agent signings, Desmond Bryant, because of injury.
As any veteran will tell you, never let them see your backup.
|Will Burge covers the Browns for ESPNCleveland.com and hosts 3 Deep, Monday - Friday from 6pm-9pm.|
Follow Will on Twitter @WillBurge
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