DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer: Justin Higdon
Browns players are breaking from OTAs for the holiday weekend, and things will pick back up Tuesday. But there is never a dull moment for this franchise, as we’ve already been treated to the national media pouting about being left off the rookie minicamp invite list, and of course, the phony baloney (or Vienna Sausage?) lawsuit against rookie QB Johnny Manziel. Fun times. Amid all of this excitement, I have been trying to predict who will make the team when the preseason ends – a futile, but fun exercise in clairvoyance. if I’m right, then I’m a genius. If I’m wrong? Well, it’s May, so get off my back. I started with the defense, since that figures to be the strength of Cleveland’s football team this year, and worked my way all the way down to long snapper. Oh, and I’ve predicted 54 names. Thank you, Josh Gordon. Here’s a look…
Safe: Joe Haden, Justin Gilbert, Pierre Desir
Competition: Buster Skrine, Leon McFadden, Julian Posey, Isaiah Trufant (ST)
Long Shot: K’Waun Williams, T.J. Heath
Over the last five seasons, Pettine-coached defenses have kept an average of about 11 defensive backs on the opening day roster. If the trend continues, the question becomes, will the Browns keep five corners and six safeties, or vice versa? Haden has the big, new contract, so he’s locked in for the foreseeable future. Gilbert and Desir are highly-regarded rookies – only injuries could keep them off the final, 53-man roster. As things stand now, safety looks like a more talented, albeit less battle-tested positional group. That leaves room for two more cornerbacks. The early money is on Skrine to fill one spot, but he’s no sure thing considering the current coaching staff and front office has never invested in the former fifth round pick. If Skrine hangs on, Posey and McFadden will duke it out for the last spot, unless the coaching staff truly values Trufant’s experience and special teams contributions. And yes, I get the sense that the Browns may pull the plug on the 2013 third rounder McFadden, unless he makes significant strides during training camp and the preseason.
Prediction: Haden, Gilbert, Desir, Skrine, Posey
Safe: Donte Whitner
Competition: Tashaun Gipson, Johnson Bademosi (ST), Jordan Poyer, Josh Aubrey, Jamoris Slaughter, Darwin Cook
Long Shot: Robert Nelson, Royce Adams
Whitner is the only no-brainer in what promises to be a heated competition for playing time at safety. Gipson will make the team, but he may wind up having to fend off Poyer, Aubrey or Slaughter for a starting job. Cook probably belongs in the “long shot” category, but I just have a feeling he will emerge as a pleasant surprise, as Aubrey did last summer. Bademosi doesn’t offer much in the defensive backfield, but he is still a valuable special teamer, and should find his way onto the roster once again.
Prediction: Whitner, Gipson, Poyer, Aubrey, Slaughter, Bademosi
Defensive Line (7)
Safe: Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Armonty Bryant
Competition: Ahtyba Rubin (trade?), Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Calvin Barnett
Long Shot: Cam Henderson, Jacobbi McDaniel
D-line will be one of the toughest nuts to crack for an outsider. Pettine tends to keep seven on his opening day rosters, and five are virtual locks. A sixth, Rubin, would be in that boat, but I believe the team will make a trade from this group. Now in the final year of his contract, Rubin seems most likely to be shopped. Then again, the Browns would probably get better value by dangling a younger, cheaper player like Winn or Hughes. It’s just tough to imagine Pettine being willing to part with either of those two players. If Rubin is retained, Kitchen and the undrafted rookie Barnett will fight for the final slot, with the edge going to Kitchen.
Prediction: Desmond Bryant, Taylor, Winn, Hughes, Armonty Bryant, Rubin, Kitchen
Outside Linebacker (4)
Safe: Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo
Competition: Quentin Groves, Eric Martin
Long Shot: Justin Staples
Pettine will use multiple fronts, so it’s somewhat difficult to sort exactly who is an outside linebacker versus inside linebacker. Much like Ray Horton last year, Pettine figures to look for ways to get Kruger Sheard and Mingo on the field at the same time. Groves missed much of last season with an injury, but if he can stay healthy through the summer months he will find his way onto the team.
Prediction: Kruger, Sheard, Mingo, Groves
Inside Linebacker (4)
Safe: Karlos Dansby, Christian Kirksey
Competition: Craig Robertson, Darius Eubanks, Brandon Magee
Long Shot: Tank Carder, Larry Grant, Zac Diles
Kirksey and Robertson will compete for playing time alongside the veteran Dansby, and Kirksey has the edge once he gets his feet wet. Robertson’s turn as a starter last season was a mess, but he’s still likely to hang onto a spot as a backup. That leaves one spot for Eubanks or Magee, so whichever player shines brightest on special teams will win out. Carder was miserable in limited action last season, and falls into the “long shot” column with veterans Grant and Diles, who have earned spots on the 90-man roster via tryouts.
Prediction: Dansby, Kirksey, Robertson, Magee
Safe: Johnny Manziel, Brian Hoyer
Competition: Tyler Thigpen, Connor Shaw
The quarterback position features two battles: Hoyer is the apparent favorite to start, but Manziel will have an opportunity to win the job if the Browns continue to follow Seattle’s blueprint. As for the third string quarterback spot, Pettine seems to favor a veteran presence on the roster, so the undrafted rookie Shaw will have his work cut out for him. If Shaw doesn’t make the team, there’s still an excellent chance that he lands on the practice squad.
Prediction: Manziel, Hoyer, Thigpen
Running Back (3)
Safe: Ben Tate, Terrance West
Competition: Isaiah Crowell, Edwin Baker
Long Shot: Dion Lewis
The running backs should be the “rags to riches” positional group this year. If Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan is on the same page as Pettine, the Browns will run frequently, with plenty of carries to go around. If West is half as productive as he was at Towson, he will be a rookie of the year candidate (I know. He’s probably not going to score 20+ touchdowns), and a healthy Tate is a strong fit for the zone blocking that Shanahan employs. Crowell is a draft analyst and fantasy footballer favorite, but he’s still the third option here, and as an undrafted rookie, he will need to show that he has overcome the immaturity he displayed during his college years. He’s a talented player, but won’t simply be handed a roster spot over Baker. Lewis offered exciting possibilities at this time last year, but he is coming off a season-killing injury, and has not been considered a fit for the zone blocking scheme in the past. Hence the “long shot” designation.
Prediction: Tate, West, Crowell
Competition: Ray Agnew, Chris Ogbonnaya
Long Shot: Jourdan Brooks
Unlike last season, this coaching staff values a traditional, blocking fullback. However, every player currently on the roster at this position could be considered a “long shot.” Last year’s starter, Ogbonnaya, doesn’t seem like a fit. Brooks is a journeyman and is officially listed as a running back. Right now the undrafted rookie Agnew is the favorite, but it’s hard for me to imagine that he will basically be handed the job. I fully expect the team to search for, and add a veteran fullback or two at some point before the season begins. The eventual starter could very well be on another team’s roster at the moment. Another option would be to move one of the tight ends to fullback, but that seems more like a “last resort” than a solution.
Prediction: Free Agent Signing
Wide Receiver (7)
Safe: Josh Gordon (suspended?), Andrew Hawkins
Competition: Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett, Charles Johnson, Connor Vernon, Willie Snead, Chandler Jones, Travis Benjamin (ST)
Long Shot: Kenny Shaw, Jonathan Krause, Anthony Armstrong, Tyler Gabriel
Assuming Gordon’s suspension is upheld by the league, the Browns will be given a roster exemption for the duration of the ban. Shanahan-coached offenses average about six receivers on the opening day roster, and without Gordon, the only sure bet is Hawkins. That leaves five more spots to sort out between some bruised up veterans, and a number of unproven rookie and second-year players. I believe the Browns will ultimately keep two of three from the group of Austin, Burleson and Bennett, and there’s an excellent chance that health will drive the decision. That will leave three spots for the young guns. If Benjamin is recovered from his ACL injury, he is likely to stick as a return man, if for no other reason. Johnson is coming off of his own torn ACL, and is a complete wild card at this point. He has speed and explosiveness for days…if healthy. The Browns currently have five undrafted rookie receivers on the roster, and as many as two could remain when the dust settles.
Prediction: Gordon (suspended), Hawkins, Austin, Burleson, Benjamin, Snead, Jones
Tight End (3)
Safe: Jordan Cameron
Competition: Jim Dray, Gary Barnidge, MarQueis Gray
Long Shot: James Oboh
Cameron is in a contract year, and will be relied upon heavily in the passing game. Dray was brought in as a free agent and has a reputation as a reliable pass catcher. He could get the edge over Barnidge, who was a free agent signee of the previous regime. Gray saw snaps at fullback and as the wildcat quarterback last season, so his versatility may pique the interests of the new staff.
Prediction: Cameron, Dray, Gray
Offensive Line (8)
Safe: Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Joel Bitonio, John Greco
Long Shot: Martin Wallace, Randall Harris, Keavon Milton, Jeremiah Warren
Thomas, Mack, Schwartz and Bitonio will be starters, and Greco is a safe bet to make the team thanks to his overall steady play and versatility. The battle for the remaining three spots promises to be heated and unpredictable. Faulk hasn’t seen game action in nearly two years, and Pinkston has had his own injury problems. Fragel was a tight end three years ago. Gilkey had a hard time breaking into a lineup that struggled mightily last season. And one of the players I’ve listed as a “long shot” could prove to be better suited for the zone blocking scheme than I’ve imagined. Beyond those first five, and probably the veteran McQuistian, it’s anybody’s guess right now.
Prediction: Thomas, Mack, Schwartz, Bitonio, Greco, McQuistian, Pinkston, Fragel
Safe: Billy Cundiff
Competition: Spencer Lanning
Long Snapper (1)
Safe: Christian Yount
All three specialists appear safe, though I’m surprised that the team hasn’t added a challenger for Lanning. They still may at some point, but for now it looks like the job is his.
Prediction: Cundiff, Lanning, Yount