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Browns' stockpiling of cornerbacks reflects Mike Pettine's belief that pass rush starts at the back of the defense

Sep 02, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

The Morning Kickoff …

Strength in numbers: Most NFL coaches believe the best pass defense is a strong pass rush, so they try to collect as many quarterback sackers as they can find.

Mike Pettine has taken a different approach with the Browns. He has loaded up on defensive backs -- hopefully ones able to cover without safety help -- to manufacture quarterback pressure from a variety of sources.

Pettine’s first 53-player roster as Browns coach includes seven cornerbacks – an unusually high number – and five safeties.

“I knew our room was deep, and I knew we had a lot of talent and it was going to be hard (to cut cornerbacks),” said Pro Bowler Joe Haden. “When I was looking at the room – sometimes in different situations, you could see the players that were going to get released or whatever – but with that room that we had, we had really tough competition. I think the coaches couldn’t make decisions either.”

Pettine’s stamp on his first Browns’ team starts with the decision to bypass Sammy Watkins with the fourth pick in the draft and use the No. 8 selection on cornerback Justin Gilbert. The bloated defensive back roster also is all on him.

It’s weird because Ray Horton, who preceded the Pettine regime as defensive coordinator, was an NFL cornerback in his playing days, but he swore by pass rushers (green-lighting Barkevious Mingo at No. 6 in the 2013 draft rather than Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner.)

“There’s a couple different ways to get the pass rush,” Pettine said. “If you don’t have guys that can win one-on-one, then you have to scheme it up. I just think the trend in the league -- (with) the spread offenses, the ability to match up and single guys up -- that’s a big part of what we do.

“We don’t play a lot of split safety cover 2 where corners are essentially playing an outside linebacker-type position. We need guys that can match up, that can run. That’s why we feel fortunate we were able to find as many as we did.”

Diamond in rough: This is how Robert Nelson made the team. Robert Nelson?

The 5-9, 175-pound cornerback from Arizona State was not invited to the NFL Combine despite co-leading the PAC-12 Conference with six interceptions last year. He wasn’t drafted. The Browns invited him to rookie camp on a tryout basis. He earned a spot on the training camp roster and then made the team.

I have attended every Pettine press conference since training camp started except one, and Sunday was the first time I heard Robert Nelson’s name brought up (by me).

Haden said: “Nelly was a nice-kept secret that we had. He’s a smart kid and has a lot of skills. He knows how to cover.”

The Browns discovered Nelson when they scouted Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, whom GM Ray Farmer liked a lot. Cooks, one of the fastest players in the draft, had nine catches for 99 yards in a 30-17 loss to Arizona State in November. Nelson covered Cooks the whole game and had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and a fumble recovery.

“That might have had something to do with (signing Nelson),” Pettine affirmed.

“‘Nelly, I think he has a bright future in this league. He was a guy nobody really looked at after the draft. We were very fortunate that (secondary coach) Jeff Hafley had a connection and that we were able to bring him here.

“I know he was very productive at Arizona State – made a lot of plays there. That continued when he got here. He was a guy who impressed us and we feel has the potential to be a starting NFL DB at some point.”

All sizes and shapes: Pettine prefers cornerbacks with “length,” and he made an assertive effort to add two in the draft in Gilbert (6-0 and 202 pounds) and Pierre Desir (6-2, 206).

But of the five others on the roster, Haden is the tallest, and he’s barely 5-11. Buster Skrine, Aaron Berry, K’Waun Williams and Nelson are all listed as 5-9.

“Make-up speed is important and just a timing thing,” Pettine said. “You’ll see a lot of shorter corners who can cover taller wide outs because they have a good sense of timing – when to jump, when to play a ball, when to play into the receiver’s hands. The guys who have a real good knack for it are obviously the premier guys.”

Nelson has that sense of timing and the fact he was undrafted, and brings that chip on his shoulder, also appeals to Pettine.

“I’m going to go out there every day and play like I run a 4.2 and play like I’m 225 pounds,” Nelson told me. “No matter who comes at me, I’m going to make a play and I’m going to help my team. I’m going to show my team I’m not scared to make a tackle or scared to go against the biggest and best receivers.”

To Pettine, this kind of player is as valuable as a 250-pound speed pass rusher.

“He’s coached the best, (Darrelle) Revis. If he could play any position on the field, I think he’d play cornerback,” Nelson said.

 

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

 

 

 

Almost 40 percent of Browns roster -- 21 of 53 players -- entered the NFL as undrafted free agents

Sep 01, 2014 -- 4:58pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/USATSI

Updated at 9:27 p.m.

Extra Points …

A chippy squad: Coach Mike Pettine loves players that carry chips on their shoulders. The Browns could be the chippiest squad in the league. Their current 53-player roster includes a whopping 21 who weren’t drafted.

The roll includes:

* Six rookies – receiver Taylor Gabriel; running backs Isaiah Crowell, Glenn Winston and Ray Agnew; and cornerbacks Robert Nelson and K’Waun Williams.

* All three kicking specialists – kicker Billy Cundiff, punter Spencer Lanning and long snapper Christian Yount.

* Veterans – quarterback Brian Hoyer; receivers Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and LaRon Byrd; defensive backs Tashaun Gipson, Johnson Bademosi and Jim Leonhard; linebackers Eric Martin and Craig Robertson;defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen; and offensive lineman Caylin Hauptmann.

(Ed. note: The number keeps growing. After re-checking and counting a third time, cornerback Aaron Berry was omitted. So that makes 22 players of 53 who entered the NFL undrafted.)

Pettine said it’s not daunting to head into his first season as coach with that many undrafted players.

“You just believe in the system, how you’re coaching guys,” he said. “I’m also not a fan in general … if you feel you’ve made a mistake drafting a guy, don’t hold on to him. You evaluate when you’re putting that roster together a very narrow focus. Who are our best players and who can help us win and how they were acquired I don’t think really comes into play.”

Taking their time: Receiver LaRon Byrd was the only one of the four player awarded via waivers on Sunday to make it to Monday’s practice. The others were coming from San Francisco or Seattle and travel logistics delayed their arrival, Pettine said.

Byrd, 6-4 and 220 pounds, was undrafted out of the University of Miami in 2012. He caught one pass for eight yards with Arizona as a rookie, then missed all of 2013 after suffering a concussion in preseason. This summer, Byrd had seven catches for 103 yards and a touchdown with Dallas before being waived.

He said, “I don’t just want to be a guy on the roster. I want to contribute to this team. Hopefully I can be ready (for the opener).

“I think I bring energy to a team. I have size. I have talent. I have deceptive speed.”

Brownie bits: Pettine said the team did not vote on permanent captains but instead elected one player from each position group to a leadership council. Game captains will be appointed each week … Defensive end Desmond Bryant (wrist) and offensive lineman Paul McQuistan (ankle) did not practice. Pettine said Bryant could be classified “day to day” – though he hasn’t practiced in a while. McQuistan was seen wearing a walking boot on his left foot. Pettine wouldn’t give a timetable on his return, saying, “He’s a tough kid, I’ll leave it at that.”

 

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

 

 

 

After a twisted path to Browns QB job, it's now the Steelers -- not Johnny Manziel -- standing in Brian Hoyer's way

Sep 01, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

The Morning Kickoff …

It’s Hoyer time: Born in Northeast Ohio on the very day Bernie Kosar made his first NFL start in 1985.

If that isn’t a birthright for Brian Hoyer to lead the Browns into Pittsburgh for a season opener …

Johnny Manziel can wait. This week is all about Hoyer.

It’s about realizing a dream. It’s about taking your hometown team to that stinking place. To Pittsburgh. Or as legendary Cleveland sports talk pioneer Pete Franklin famously coined in the ‘70s, to Pitts-PUKE.

To the confluence of the three rivers. Where the streets reek of stale beer and the women wear babushkas. Or where the women reek of stale beer and wear babushkas, too.  

Where the Browns lost 16 games in a row from 1970 to 1985.

Where they also won, 51-0, the last time they opened a season there in 1989.

If anyone on this newest edition of a Browns team can convey the depths of the hatred Cleveland has of the Steelers, then surely Hoyer, the starting quarterback with the birthright can do that. Right?

And yet, there was Hoyer on the first work day of the regular season, standing in front of cameras after Browns practice and saying, “As bitter as this rivalry is and being a Cleveland boy, I will always have a place in my heart for Pittsburgh because they gave me a job at a time when no one else would.”

What in the name of Bill Nelsen and Dick Shiner is going on here?

Behind enemy lines: Please excuse Hoyer’s indulgence of the Steelers. Because before he wore the uniform of his hometown Browns, he wore the black and gold of the hated Steelers.

Before he stepped on the field of FirstEnergy Stadium in a Browns uniform, Hoyer did so in a Steelers uniform. It is one of the weirdest twists in a local boy-makes-good story ever in the 64-year history of the Browns-Steelers rivalry.

It was 2012. Hoyer had understudied Tom Brady with New England for three years, including the Patriots’ 2011 Super Bowl season. But he was nearing the completion of his cheap rookie contract. So Bill Belichick cut him, which is what Belichick does when you’ve outlived his usefulness.

Hoyer was out of work for nine weeks. He’d work out at St. Ignatius in the morning and wait for the phone to ring. Eventually, the Steelers called. Ben Roethlisberger was going through one of those years and then backup Byron Leftwich got hurt, too. The Steelers called Hoyer to serve as an emergency quarterback.

“I was just grateful to have a job,” Hoyer said. “I couldn’t be (happier) to be a Cleveland Brown, but I think that there will always be a spot in my heart for those guys because they gave me a job when 31 other teams wouldn’t. I will always be thankful for that, but at the same time I think I’m on the right side of this rivalry now.”

Hoyer suited up for the Steelers for two games -- against the Browns in Cleveland and the Ravens in Baltimore, bizarrely – but didn’t appear in either game and, thus, has no official record with them.  

When Roethlisberger and Leftwich healed, the Steelers let Hoyer go, but didn’t lose his phone number. Hoyer was then signed by Arizona, which had its own emergency at quarterback, and Hoyer started a game for the Cardinals before the season played out.

After the 2012 season, the Steelers wanted to re-sign Hoyer as a full-time backup to Roethlisberger. But a technicality involving his time spent on an active roster kept Hoyer from qualifying as an unrestricted free agent.

He was deemed restricted and the Cardinals, now with Steelers-hater Bruce Arians as their new head coach, blocked Hoyer from returning to Pittsburgh by giving him a second-round contract tender that the Steelers would not match.

Arians waited for the Steelers to sign Bruce Gradkowski as Roethlisberger’s backup before rescinding the second-round tender to Hoyer. That’s when agent Joe Linta and then-Browns GM Mike Lombardi teamed up to steer Hoyer to the Browns.

Hoyer had the misfortune of being pegged “Lombardi’s boy” by the coaches because Lombardi used his pulpit as NFL Network analyst to try to find Belichick a trade partner for Hoyer prior to getting the Browns’ GM job.

The fact is that during former CEO Joe Banner’s coaching search in 2012, three candidates lauded Hoyer in interviews with the Browns. But Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner weren’t among them, and Hoyer was a virtual outcast in the 2013 training camp.

By the time Hoyer took over in Week 3, Lombardi’s knife was twisting in the backs of Chudzinski and Turner both. Hoyer’s shocking two wins as the starter energized the team. But after Hoyer suffered a torn ACL in Week 5, the Browns’ season went down the tubes.

Ultimately, Hoyer survived while Chudzinski and Turner, and then Banner and Lombardi, were fired. And then Hoyer survived Manziel Mania and lived to open this season against, of all teams, the Steelers.

The short leash: Conventional wisdom is that Hoyer is merely keeping the seat warm until Manziel is ready to take over the team. Hoyer’s career path as undrafted free agent and career backup has helped him deal with the natural skepticism that he can hold off Manziel over the long haul.

“I honestly feel more secure today than I ever have,” Hoyer said. “I just think that it’s always good to have that chip on your shoulder and know that you’re always trying to prove people wrong and prove yourself right.”

It’s Pittsburgh week. Hoyer is in the huddle, not Manziel. And Hoyer doesn’t intend to give it up anytime soon.

 

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

 

 

 

Browns roster moves continue, with more to come

Aug 31, 2014 -- 5:23pm

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

LaRon Byrd (Photo/Getty via ESPN)

Updated at 6:50 p.m.

In the NFL, there’s no such thing as a final roster.

Which was proved again Sunday when the Browns made four changes to the bottom of theirs.

They were awarded via waivers: receiver LaRon Byrd (from the Cowboys), offensive lineman Caylin Hauptmann (Seahawks), offensive lineman Ryan Seymour (49ers) and running back Glenn Wilson (49ers).

None of the waiver pickups was in attendance Sunday as the Browns' work week for the opener officially began.

To accommodate space on the 53-player roster, the Browns waived receiver Charles Johnson, offensive lineman Karim Barton, and offensive lineman Martin Wallace; and terminated the contract of veteran quarterback Rex Grossman.

So this is how these additions change the respective position groups:

Wide receiver: Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, LaRon Byrd.

Offensive line: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, John Greco, Mitchell Schwartz, Paul McQuistan, Caylin Hauptmann, Ryan Seymour.

Quarterback: Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.

But don’t get comfortable with the roster, because it will change again, said coach Mike Pettine.

“I wouldn’t read too much into where it stands right now,” he said after Sunday’s practice. “There are some guys that aren’t here that potentially can come back. Some guys that are here that won’t be here. The roster situation right now is very fluid.

“I would think it would be the most part settled by the time we take the field on Wednesday.”

The Browns also signed five players to their practice squad: Offensive lineman James Brown, formerly with the Bears; and four players previously waived by the Browns – nose tackle Jacobbi McDaniel, tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi, linebacker Justin Staples, and linebacker Keith Pough.

A report that the Browns signed fullback Kiero Small (Seahawks) to their practice squad has not been confirmed by the club.

Brownie bits: Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine, who both missed the last two practice games with injuries, were back at practice Suunday and are expected to be ready to play in the opener in Pittsburgh.

 

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

 

 

 

Let's hear it for the newest Browns undrafted rookie class of six

Aug 31, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/AP via ESPN

Updated at 9:12 a.m.

The Morning Kickoff …

Chosen few: Undrafted free agents who make a team’s 53-man roster as rookies carry that chip on their shoulder the rest of their careers. Josh Cribbs always did. Tashaun Gipson still has it. Miles Austin, too.

So welcome the Browns undrafted Class of 2014. These are the six undrafted rookies who made the initial – not necessarily final – 53-man roster:

* Fullback Ray Agnew: The 5-10, 247-pound lead-blocker from Southern Illinois is the first traditional fullback kept by the Browns since Lawrence Vickers. He was able to bump hybrid H-back MarQueis Gray for the spot because of his superior blocking and his ability to run the peel-off pass route required of the position.

* Running back Isaiah Crowell: He showed what a beast he can be running the ball with a 102-yard second half in the fourth preseason game, including a 48-yard TD blast. He was undrafted after being dismissed from Georgia following an SEC freshman-of-the-year season and finishing his college career at Alabama State. A perceived lax attitude also helped to lower his draft status despite blue-chip talent. Now he may challenge third-round rookie Terrance West for the No. 2 spot.

* Receiver Taylor Gabriel: The smallest player on the roster – 5-8 and 167 pounds – took advantage of every opportunity at a position of dire need. He led the team in preseason with 10 receptions for 128 yards and also had a 68-yard kickoff return. The pride of Abilene Christian.

* Cornerback Robert Nelson: Not big (5-9, 175), he made it on instincts and good hands – the rarest of all cornerback attributes. He co-led the PAC-12 with six interceptions at Arizona State last year. Defensive secondary coach Aaron Glenn is a huge advocate of his.

* Cornerback K’Waun Williams: He played four years and started the last three at Pitt. He was one of seven cornerbacks kept by the cornerback-centric coaching staff.

* Guard Karim Barton: Originally signed by the Philadelphia Eagles out of Morgan State, he was waived on the first cut Aug. 23 and claimed by the Bowns. The 6-3, 313-pound guard played in three preseason games for the Eagles.

Roster breakdown: The initial 53 players breaks down with 27 on defense, 23 on offense and three specialists.

Quarterbacks (3): Rex Grossman, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel (r).

Running backs (4): Ray Agnew (r), Isaiah Crowell (r), Ben Tate, Terrance West (r).

Receivers (5): Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel (r), Andrew Hawkins, Charles Johnson.

Tight ends (3): Gary Barnidge, Jordan Cameron, Jim Dray.

Offensive linemen (8): Karim Barton (r), Joel Bitonio (r), John Greco, Alex Mack, Paul McQuistan, Mitchell Schwartz, Joe Thomas, Martin Wallace,

Defensive linemen (7): Armonty Bryant, Desmond Bryant, John Hughes, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, Billy Winn.

Linebackers (8): Tank Carder, Karlos Dansby, Eric Martin, Chris Kirksey (r), Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Craig Robertson, Jabaal Sheard.

Defensive backs (12): Johnson Bademosi, Aaron Berry, Pierre Desir (r), Justin Gilbert (r), Tashaun Gipson, Joe Haden, Jim Leonhard, Robert Nelson (r), Jordan Poyer, Buster Skrine, Donte Whitner, K’waun Williams (r).

Specialists (3): Billy Cundiff, Spencer Lanning, Christian Yount.

Random thoughts: I made these points about the preseason on the WKYC-TV3 pre-game show on Thursday night – 1. Best drafted rookie was linebacker Chris Kirksey. 2. Biggest surprise among returning players was defensive Armonty Bryant. 3. Biggest disappointment was the play of Brian Hoyer.

* I’ll go on record as labeling it a mistake to release receiver Nate Burleson. I know he didn’t show much and talked of retiring. I also know a 33-year-old lame duck with aspirations of a network TV analyst career may go south soon as the losses mount. He may just retire now. I just thought his energy exceeded that of Miles Austin, the other veteran wideout kept. By the way, the Browns paid Burleson a $65,000 signing bonus and also guaranteed $285,000 of his salary. So that’s $350,000 down the tubes.

* I was surprised with the release of running back Dion Lewis only because coach Mike Pettine had talked him up the last week, saying that Lewis had taken the lead as the No. 3 back. Originally, I had Lewis as one of the first cuts. The curious thing now is that none of the backs kept – Tate, West and Crowell – are typical third-down backs.

* The likeliest candidates to return to the Browns’ practice squad are: safety Josh Aubrey, cornerback Leon McFadden, defensive end Calvin Barnett, nose tackle Jaccobi McDaniel, offensive linemen Donald Hawkins and Garrett Gilkey, receiver Willie Snead and quarterback Connor Shaw. The Browns can sign as many as 10 to the practice squad, with two spots reserved for players with two years NFL experience.

* I expect a lot of transactions in the coming three days that may reconfigure the last spots on the roster. I would expect a receiver and two offensive linemen to be added.

* Trades? With Desmond Bryant (wrist) hurt and possibly unavailable for the opener, I don’t see a defensive lineman leaving.

* Some notable receivers who didn’t make their team’s roster cut on Saturday: Stephen Hill (Jets), T.J. Graham (Bills), Josh Boyce (Patriots), Brian Robiskie (Titans), Greg Little (Raiders), Vincent Brown (Chargers), Josh Bellamy (Bears), Kris Durham (Lions).

 

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

 

 

 

How a Johnny Package might work, and other Browns' notes heading into roster cut to 53

Aug 30, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty via ESPN

The Morning Kickoff …

QB competition, phase two: Brian Hoyer won the battle, but the Browns’ QB debate will only intensify now that the practice games are over.

Preseason ended with Hoyer getting better. And with Johnny Manziel getting better, too.

Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Chicago Bears put the stark contrast of both quarterbacks on display.

Hoyer was efficient, workmanlike, productive. The offense with Hoyer at QB was, for lack of a better word, boring.

Manziel was erratic, improvisational, unpredictable. The offense with Manziel at QB was, well, exciting.

I asked coach Mike Pettine if felt the offense had a different energy with Manziel at the helm.

“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “They both have unique skill sets, and certainly when a play gets extended by Manziel that will tend to get the crowd on its feet. There are different ways to move the football and be efficient.”

Now here is the quote to clip and save:

“To me, our offense doesn’t have to be exciting. It can be real boring as long as we’re gaining yards and scoring points. I think their styles more lend itself maybe to what you’re trying to say, but I don’t really see that as potentially an issue.”

There continues to be a lot of talk about the Johnny Package – a set of plays with which Manziel, and the team, would be comfortable taking into a real game. Something for, say, Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s septuagenarian defensive coordinator, to lose sleep over.

Pettine has said he and his offensive staff talk about when to use the Johnny Package and whether it’s necessary. Do you get it ready for the Pittsburgh game? If so, at which point do you introduce it? Is it a down-and-distance decision? A specific situation? Or not at all?

I think what that means is this: If Hoyer has the offense humming efficiently, there is no need for a Johnny Package.

But if the offense is sluggish – a three-and-out, four-and-out, three-and-out quarter, for instance – the Johnny Package can be a wake-up call, a jolt of energy to get things moving.

My question is this: If the Johnny Package does its job for one series, how do you not keep Manziel in for more?

Roster update: The Browns will announce their cutdown to 53 players on Saturday. It won’t be a true final cut because several waiver claims could alter the bottom 7 to 10 spots on the roster right up through the Pittsburgh game.

Some thoughts on the roster moves:

* Not only did rookie running back Isaiah Crowell lock up a roster spot with his 102-yard rushing performance in the second half against Bears backups, I believe he should be considered for the backup job behind starter Ben Tate. Crowell’s blitz pickups are a work in progress, so his use on third downs is restricted. But he looks like a beast in that No. 34 jersey and could be the second-best back on the team. Rookie Terrance West, who early on challenged Tate for first-team reps, may have ball security and

* Considering his lengthy time away from practice, I thought Nate Burleson looked surprisingly sharp in his limited time against the Bears. If Burleson has a good practice week for Pittsburgh, I wouldn’t be surprised if he supplants Miles Austin as the No. 1 receiver with Josh Gordon suspended. Burleson brings an energy to the field that is lacking in Austin’s game.

* Don’t be surprised if one of the keepers is Robert Nelson. Who? He’s an undrafted rookie cornerback from Arizona State, No. 42. He hasn’t gotten a lot of media hype. But the coaches like him a lot. WKYC-TV 3 preseason game analyst Solomon Wilcots has quoted defensive secondary coach Aaron Glenn lauding Nelson quite a bit. He’s only 5-9 and 175 pounds, but may have the best pair of hands in the secondary. He was the PAC-12 co-leader with six interceptions last year. Nelson had an interception of Chicago’s David Fales on Thursday night. Nelson hasn’t gotten nearly the play time of Leon McFadden in this preseason, but he may be the one to oust the 2013 third-round pick from the roster. The fact Nelson has taken some reps at punt returner means coaches are trying to utilize him any way they can.

* One of the lengthier debates on the back end of the roster may come down to tight end/fullback MarQueis Gray v. fullback Ray Agnew. Gray has gotten extensive play time in the four games but has lost the ball on a couple of occasions. Agnew, 5-10 and 247 pounds, is a more natural lead-blocker and has shown the ability to peel off into a pass route.

* I was surprised at how well Rex Grossman threw the ball in his first action in a Browns uniform in the fourth quarter. He wasn’t shy about pushing the ball downfield.

* Quick hitters: I’m getting the feeling the Browns have at least one trade in the works. Perhaps not one that will nudge the buzz meter. But I’m not ruling out a surprise deal. Pettine said, “I would think any of those options are available to us at this point. I wouldn’t preclude any of it.” … The Browns listened to fan and media complaints and implemented a more visible down-and-distance board in the second game of newly renovated FirstEnergy Stadium. It worked.

 

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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