By Tony Grossi
Everyone knew the Browns would have to begin the season with either Kaluka Maiava or fourth-round rookie James-Michael Johnson at outside linebacker on the starting defense.
But what about both of them having to start?
Coach Pat Shurmur confirmed Saturday afternoon that Chris Gocong will have surgery to repair a torn right Achilles tendon and will be out for the season. The surgery can be as early as Monday.
The injury occurred while Gocong defended tight end Jordan Cameron in a red zone drill. Slow-motion replays showed Gocong being affected on his final plant before jumping for the pass to Cameron. Cameron came down on Gocong after the catch, but that was not the source of the injury.
It was the first major injury of an otherwise positive Browns training camp. Punter Reggie Hodges suffered the same injury almost a year to the day. He had surgery and spent the season on injured reserve.
“When a guy doesn’t get up, all you can hope for and pray for is the best,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, before knowing the extent of the injury. “It affects whoever’s watching. It kind of put a damper on the mood at practice for a bit.”
Gocong, 28, had his finest NFL season in 2011, his second with the Browns after arriving in a trade with Philadelphia. In September, he signed a three-year contract extension for a reported $16.8 million. When Scott Fujita missed the last six games with a knee injury, Gocong moved from weakside to the strong side and picked up his game even more.
Gocong finished third on defense with 67 tackles, tied for fourth with 3.5 sacks and second with two forced fumbles.
“He was outstanding,” Fujita said. “He’s come so far as a player. He was rewarded by the club. He came back and worked really, really hard, came to training camp in great shape. It’s tough.”
Maiava and Johnson were competing to be the replacement starter for Fujita, who was suspended the first three games by the NFL for his alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” scandal in the 2009 season. It remains to be seen how coordinator Dick Jauron positions them for the opener on Sept. 9.
“They’re very flexible position-wise and they really can play inside as well,” Shurmur said.
The coach said of Gocong’s injury, “It’s unfortunate. It’s the unintended consequence of playing this game. As safe as you try to be, sometimes it happens. It drives the coach nuts, for sure. I worry about that when we come out here.
“The important thing is when that happens, you quickly get your eye right back on the ball and you get guys in there that can compete. It’s also a lesson to guys that play behind a guy, you’re a play away.”
Shurmur indicated the team would seek to fill the position from within.
"I want to make sure the guys that are going to fill in for him will get plenty of reps," Shurmur said. "I think we’ve got plenty of time to do that. We’ve got four preseason games and a lot of practices here. Whoever fills his role will have plenty of opportunities to improve."
Maiava, a fourth-round draft pick of Eric Mangini in 2009, made the team as a rookie on special teams. He blew out an ACL in the second game of 2010 and missed the rest of that season. His six starts after Fujita’s injury last year gave him the upper hand in opening this season as a starter.
Johnson, a fourth-round pick from Nevada, has been impressive early. He had two interceptions and a big stop in a goal-line drill on Monday. He has been more active in the early going than sixth-round pick Emmanuel Acho of Texas.
If not, the Browns probably would seek to add a veteran linebacker at some point, but it’s not likely they would find a player capable of starting until final cuts. One possibility immediately is David Vobora, the NFL’s last draft pick in 2008 by the St. Louis Rams. Vobora made 15 starts for the Rams in two years Shurmur was offensive coordinator with the team. He spent part of 2011 with Seattle and currently is unsigned.
Prospects in camp who should get more reps in the trickle-down of Gocong’s injury are Craig Robertson, who finished last year on the Browns’ practice squad, and L.J. Fort, an undrafted rookie from Northern Iowa.
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There are no games scheduled for today.