DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer: Justin Higdon
Midway through the preseason, the Cleveland Browns look like a different team – an expected result considering the turnover of nearly the entire coaching staff and front office. Some position battles are revealing clear winners. Others remain a bit muddled. While still others have been complicated by injuries – an inevitable consequence of a brutal sport. Here’s a look at how things are shaping up as the Browns prepare for their third preseason contest – a game in which projected starters from both teams should see extended playing time.
The only people who seem unsure of Brandon Weeden’s status as the team’s starting quarterback are media members insistent on Head Coach Rob Chudzinski declaring his starter’s name from on high. Actions speak louder than words, and Weeden has consistently seen all of the first team reps since minicamp. In game action, Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner has mixed in short, crossing routes and easy passes to the running backs with shots down the field, and Weeden has shown confidence in his receivers’ ability to go get the ball. Weeden’s arm looks live, he’s avoided taking silly chances, and he has generally placed the ball where only his receiver can get it. Through two games, he has completed 72% of his passes and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt; and he has not been intercepted or sacked. Against the Lions last Thursday Weeden did miss on a couple of swing passes to running backs, and he still has a tendency to lock onto his receivers, but early returns suggest he is a good fit for this new offensive system.
Weeden’s backup Jason Campbell has been excellent with the second team. He has completed 18 of his 21 pass attempts, though he has not gone downfield nearly as often as Weeden. Campbell has shown his athleticism on a couple of scrambles, but he needs to slide at the end of his runs to avoid big hits. Third stringer Brian Hoyer has also been solid. He only attempted three passes against Detroit, but hit rookie Cordell Roberson for a 19-yard gain. Hoyer and Roberson also hooked up for a touchdown in the opener against the Rams.
Trent Richardson saw his first game action of the preseason on Thursday, and gained 33 yards on six carries. The second-year back looked healthy and decisive. He showed speed to turn the corner on a toss left, and displayed impressive burst on a 17-yard gain. On the play, Richardson saw that the middle was clogged and bounced to his right when he spied an open lane.
The Browns were dealt a tough blow when change-of-pace back Dion Lewis suffered a broken fibula in the third quarter Thursday. Lewis had appeared valuable as a receiver and in the return game, and he showed off his open field speed on a 31-yard run prior to being injured. It seemed as though the team had big plans for Lewis on offense, so his injury will shake things up a bit. With Montario Hardesty already on the shelf after arthroscopic knee surgery, and Lewis out indefinitely, Chris Ogbonnaya figures to see his role increase. The Browns also have Brandon Jackson – a decent enough receiver, but a painfully average ball carrier – and rookies Miguel Maysonet and Jamaine Cook (re-signed Sunday), but they may scour the waiver wire in the coming days. Two unexciting names to remember, should they be cut by their current teams, are Curtis Brinkley of the Bears, and Jacob Hester of the Broncos. Both played under Turner in San Diego. The injuries could also open the door for Owen Marecic to cling to a roster spot.
19 of the Browns 47 preseason completions have gone to running backs. Soon-to-be-suspended Josh Gordon leads all receivers with six catches through two games. Gordon will be sorely missed during the first two games of the regular season, as he has show terrific speed and body control. He took a crossing route around the corner against the Lions and turned it into a big gain; and hauled in a pretty, over-the-shoulder deep pass from Weeden down the left sideline. When Gordon returns for Week Three of the regular season against the Vikings, he will immediately resume his role as Cleveland’s primary big play threat.
Greg Little has drawn praise for his work ethic, but his play thus far has been uneven. He’s picked up two first downs on his three receptions, but he has also had a couple of catchable passes glance off his hands. Little remains a superior run blocker but the Browns need him to step his game up, especially while Gordon is suspended. Slot receiver Davone Bess has been quiet, but the veteran’s role is expected to increase once real games begin. His lone catch came on third down against the Rams, and he gained seven yards to move the chains. Travis Benjamin has been electrifying, returning one punt for a touchdown in the first game, and having another called back due to a holding call. However, he does need to be careful not to splay the ball out away from his body on returns. This will often result in fumbles. Benjamin could see increased reps on offense next week against Indianapolis.
A spirited battle is taking shape at the bottom of the receiver depth chart. Aside from Roberson’s budding friendship with Hoyer, rookie Dominique Croom made a terrific leaping catch against the Rams, and fellow rook Mike Edwards has made a few nice plays on special teams, downing a punt inside the five, recovering an onside kick, and a making a tackle following a 54-yard punt. Fourth-year man Naaman Roosevelt made a spectacular sideline grab against St. Louis (though Hoyer’s pass made it impossible to stay in bounds), and he may get additional looks as a kick returner with Lewis on the shelf. Second year receiver Josh Cooper, who had a nice fingertip catch against Detroit, remains in the mix as well.
In Game One against the Rams, Jordan Cameron took a short pass from Weeden and turned it into a 30-yard gain. However, he also had a pass go through his hands, and had to be bailed out by Little when the ball ricocheted high into the air. Thursday against the Lions, Cameron was outstanding. He leaped high and extended to haul in two high throws from Weeden, and finished the game with two touchdowns. Cameron is trying to prove that he can be a big play threat in this offense, and through two games he is averaging 18 yards per reception. He is a work in progress as a blocker, but his athleticism could make him a dangerous weapon if he can stay consistent.
Cameron’s backup Gray Barnidge left Thursday’s game with a shoulder injury. He was about as average as could be in the win over the Rams. Third stringer Kellen Davis, sold during the offseason as a “blocking tight end” has been routinely shoved around and ineffective as a blocker. He did have a strong catch Thursday where he ripped the ball away from the defender, but he has a history of drops. With subpar options behind him, it’s even more important for Cameron to build off of his performance against Lions.
Jason Pinkston was handed the starting right guard job after Shawn Lauvao was lost to an ankle injury. Pinkston promptly suffered his own injury when left guard John Greco was pancaked and landed on Pinkston’s leg. Now, with Pinkston expected to be out for up to six weeks, rookie seventh round draft choice Garrett Gilkey will be given the first crack at winning the right guard job. Gilkey performed admirably Thursday against a talented defensive line. Other in-house candidates who could see some time at right guard include Oniel Cousins, who has primarily played right tackle during his NFL career; Jarrod Shaw, who has played well as the backup center; and Ryan Miller, who has missed the first two preseason games after suffering a concussion in practice three weeks ago. The Browns will consider adding another lineman to provide depth, but with the first round of cuts set to follow the third preseason game, this is not a necessity.
Greco struggled mightily with the Lions athletic defensive lineman. After signing him to a five-year contract extension, the Browns are certainly counting on him to provide stability at left guard while they sort through the candidates on the other side. Every player can be afforded the occasional bad game, and Greco has been publicly remorseful for the role he played in Pinkston’s injury. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back next Saturday against the Colts.
Play from the starting tackles has been steady as expected, but backup Rashad Butler was flagged for a false start Thursday night. This followed a performance against the Rams in which Butler got away with at least two instances that could have been flagged. Butler has been outplayed by undrafted rookie Martin Wallace, and frankly, it would be somewhat surprising to see either player make the final roster.
Browns coaches are thrilled with the depth they have on the defensive line. Starting nose tackle Phil Taylor forced a fumble in Game One against the Rams, and swatted a Matthew Stafford pass at the line of scrimmage on Thursday. Free agent signee Desmond Bryant was in on a pair of run stops early against Detroit. The team saw high-energy play from reserve Ishmaa’ily Kitchen against the Rams. Kitchen is an impressive athlete for his build. He is a stout run-stuffer with excellent short-area speed (relatively speaking, of course). He would be a starter for many teams. Kitchen and fellow backup John Hughes provided interior pressure against Detroit, forcing backup quarterback Shaun Hill to run for his life toward the sideline. Also on Thursday, backup end Billy Winn stuffed a run on one play, and nearly came away with a sack on the next. Still another backup, Brian Sanford, showed why he has drawn praise from coaches when he recorded a sack and a third down stop in the second half of the Rams game.
The Browns may have uncovered another gem in seventh round draft pick Armonty Bryant. The rookie got a hit on Rams backup Kellen Clemens in the fourth quarter of that win, and tallied a sack late against Detroit. Bryant has flashed impressive pass rush potential with a sack and three hurries in just 28 pass rush snaps in the first two games. Granted, he’s accomplished this against second and third string offensive linemen, but he is winning the battles nonetheless. Bryant gives Cleveland eight defensive linemen worth keeping on the final 53. It’s possible they keep all eight, or maybe entertain a trade offer. But as injuries at running back and offensive line have shown, teams can never really have enough depth.
Inside linebacker Craig Robertson looks like the real deal. Against St. Louis he managed to cover speedy slot receiver Tavon Austin well down the field. Against the Lions, Robertson covered running back Reggie Bush out of the backfield, and broke up a pass intended for receiver Nate Burleson. A linebacker who can cover speedy backs and receivers without help is a defensive coordinator’s best friend, and a player as rare as a new mom without a Facebook page. People are starting to find out why Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton has been effusive in praising the third-year linebacker. Robertson has been far more impressive thus far that his more heralded teammate D’Qwell Jackson.
Behind the starters is a hotly contested battle for two, possibly three, backup spots at inside linebacker. Justin Cole, signed in late July, got off to the best start of any candidate with an impressive showing against St. Louis. Cole managed four quarterback hurries and a couple of run stops, and picked off the Hail Mary on the Rams’ final play. Justin Staples, an undrafted rookie who is being converted from defensive end to inside linebacker, and Tommy Smith, undrafted out of Boise State, also had strong showings against St. Louis.
While Cole, Staples, and Smith returned to earth against Detroit, second-year ‘backer L.J. Fort injected himself back into the mix. After a brutal showing in the first preseason game, Fort made an impressive run stop and looked solid in pass coverage. He and James-Michael Johnson, also competing for a backup job, teamed up last Thursday to stop a kickoff return shy of the 20-yard line. Johnson also made a key block on Benjamin’s punt return touchdown against the Rams. In the end, special teams play can make all the difference when determining a roster spot.
On the outside, Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger have looked the part of every-down starters. Both look incredibly strong and difficult to block, and have been impressive in run defense. First rounder Barkevious Mingo displayed the pass rush ability that had been advertised, but a bruised lung knocked him out of the Lions game. It will not be surprising if Mingo sits out the remainder of the preseason. Second-year player Kendrick Adams, who has managed three hurries in 33 pass rushes, may now see some increased opportunities on defense.
Joe Haden has looked aggressive, and Chris Owens was solid in his preseason debut. Buster Skrine showed his toughness Thursday when he made a strong, open field tackle on big tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and later made another solo stop on Bush. Second-year man Tashaun Gipson has shown good instincts in coverage, and has done nothing to lose his hold on the starting free safety job. Johnson Bademosi has filled in for T.J. Ward at strong safety and has held his own. Bademosi, who is making the conversion from corner to safety, made an outstanding run stop in the red zone against St. Louis. Now, with Lewis out, it appears Bademosi will serve as the Browns’ primary kickoff returner in addition to his defensive duties. He has terrific straight-line speed, and even showed off a couple of nice cutback moves on a return in the fourth quarter Thursday night. Without any other appealing in-house options, the team needs Bademosi to take command of this role. Benjamin is simply too slight to handle both punts and kickoffs in addition to his snaps on offense.
Undrafted rookie Josh Aubrey, out of Stephen F. Austin, has seen significant playing time on defense through two games. Against the Lions he was on the field for more than two-thirds of the defensive snaps. He and Johnson teamed to make a third down tackle shy of the marker late in the game; and earlier Aubrey had maintained tight coverage on speedy receiver Patrick Edwards, also stopping him shy of a first down. He later managed to get pressure on a safety blitz, and had shown value on special teams the previous week, making a tackle on a kickoff return short of the 20-yard line. At this point, Aubrey seems to have played his way onto the 53-man roster.
An intriguing competition is shaping up between second-year corner Trevin Wade and undrafted rookie Akeem Auguste. In the opener, Wade made a late block on Benjamin’s return TD, but was also flagged for a defensive pass interference penalty. Meanwhile, Auguste made four tackles and broke up a pass. Last week, Wade broke up a pass, while Auguste was flagged for holding. Both players have been up and down, but Wade has been slightly better and his experience should give him the edge. However, he sat out Sunday’s practice with a shoulder injury, and it’s not yet clear how long he’ll be out. It’s possible that the Browns keep only four cornerbacks, but with Leon McFadden hampered by an injury for most of the summer, it is more likely that the team will hang on to either Wade or Auguste as well.
Undrafted rookie Abdul Kanneh looked completely overmatched against the Rams, but rebounded with a pass breakup last week. He, Vernon Kearney and Kent Richardson all remain extreme long shots to make the team. Undrafted rookie Kenronte Walker of Missouri had actually outplayed all three in game action, but was waived to make room on the roster for Cook.
The Browns are likely happy that kicker Brandon Bogotay is back in action after leaving Thursday’s game with a groin injury. Bogotay’s booming leg gives him the edge over veteran Shayne Graham despite missing a field goal from 50 plus yards against the Rams. So far, the team has not publicly shown interest in bringing in another veteran to compete.
Spencer Lanning is in the driver’s seat for the punting job. His competition, T.J. Conley, missed the Lions game with an injury, and Lanning responded by dropping three of his six punts inside the 20-yard line. Conley needs to hurry back if he is going to get back into the mix.