There are some fairly obvious position battles and position groups you'll want to keep your eye on during the upcoming weeks. With the expected loss of Josh Gordon, the wide receiver position has certainly fetched a lot of attention from the coaches, the media and the fans. But there are other position battles that will be key to the progress of the Cleveland Browns roster. This article features the position battles that I feel are very important to the Browns success in 2014. Be sure to vote at the end of the article and then back up your 6 picks in the comment section.
One thing to keep in mind through camp and pre-season is that the Browns aren't done adding to the roster via trade or waivers. They also won't be focused on saving face or ensuring their guys start. They are focused on creating competition; a wining culture; and setting expectations and accountabilities that support the "Play Like a Brown" mentality and that players will buy into moving forward. Training camp will be our first real glance into what this looks like in action from both the coaches and the players.
The Browns plan is to create as much competition at every single roster spot as possible. This isn't just a trendy slogan, this is part of their philosophy. They will create an atmosphere and a roster where players will push each other at every position. While this doesn't seem like rocket science, and may even seem like a very basic premise, the dynamic isn't always easy to accomplish. However, by all accounts, things are going very well in Berea. There's a lot to be excited about. And the plan to allow the best player to play creates excitement for me. There will be no favorites except those players that help us win and those that Play like a Brown.
Let's go down my list.
1. QB - Brian Hoyer; Johnny Manziel; Tyler Thigpen; Connor Shaw
Vic Carucci is one of the most respected football writers out there. In one of his recent articles he offered some great insight into the QB situation. He also expounded upon coach Pettine's words regarding the state of the QB battle leading into training camp:
"Hoyer was clearly ahead at the end of offseason workouts, but coach Mike Pettine made a point to say that the lead wasn't "insurmountable." That served as a not-so-subtle reminder that Manziel would have every opportunity to close the gap in training camp. As much as many of us have espoused the theory that it makes the most sense to have the more experienced Hoyer start the Sept. 7 season-opener at Pittsburgh, Pettine isn't remotely close to reaching such a decision. He is going to allow the competition to play out through practices and preseason games, and make a determination accordingly. Manziel was drafted in the first round to start as soon as the people involved with selecting him - and that includes Pettine - are confident he's ready."
Johnny Manziel is by far and away the more athletic in this battle. By now you guys know where I stand on Johnny, but to clarify, I think he can be an elite NFL QB if his understanding and decision making on the field catch up to his physical talent. The Browns drafted him in the first round for a reason and Manziel's accuracy and ability to make key, big plays is phenomenal, especially down field. But can he be consistent? Can he lead the huddle? Can he execute all the nuances of the position? Can he consistently make the right decision both with the ball and his body? Can he stay out of trouble off the field? We're about to find out if he's put the work in or not.
The quote from Mike Pettine above suggests Manziel has a chance to win the job if he's the better QB. This has been my stance all along: the best QB should start regardless of who that is. We all know how important QB is, I won't revisit history, but this coaching staff wants to win now. That being said, Pettine has also been on record saying that he doesn't like to start rookie QB's because of their penchant for mistakes. Hence why I feel this is going to be the story of camp until a decision is made. And not in a bad way, it's just what it is.
Meanwhile, Brian Hoyer - the local favorite, the journeyman turned starter - is coming off an ACL surgery and getting back into form. Plenty of QB's have done so, but can he? And can he consistently play at the level he played at last season during his 2.1 game showcase where he led us to victories vs. the Bengals and the Vikings? While the Bengals game on paper seems great, the Bengals were missing most their starting secondary. So let's be honest, his level of play was good, but not great. He tossed 5 TD's and 3 INT's in those games and was able to move the ball, sometimes during critical times.
Lastly I wouldn't be surprised to see the talented rookie playmaker, Connor Shaw, turn some heads in camp. While Tyler Thigpen is a veteran, there's nothing he really brings to the table that the young Connor Shaw doesn't. If you missed it, Shaw made some great throws last season and his style of play is much like Manziel's in that he's a mobile playmaker. Also noteworthy is that he had the fastest 40 time among all the QB's in this year's draft - 4.58 seconds (Manziel ran a 4.68; Thigpen 4.78; and Hoyer 5.05)
2. OG - John Greco; Jason Pinkston; Joel Bitonio; Paul McQuistan; Garrett Gilkey
This is a position group (especially given all the changes) that is going to be absolutely vital to the success of Kyle Shanahan's new zone blocking scheme and the Cleveland Browns offense. I can't wait to see how they look in pads and how well they have absorbed the new playbook and can execute it.
Brent Sobleski (SOBO) talks about the application of a "Bitonio Standard" for our O-Line moving forward and then discusses how our line compares to a few of Washington's players in the forum here. I highly recommend you take a look, I think it's interesting concept.
That being said, my favorite lineman going into camp, hands down, is Joel Bitonio. I was very impressed while scouting the games that are available on draftbreakdown. We drafted a tough, mean, strong, athletic, and fast big man who is technically sound and is going to really be called upon to pull and move from his LG spot in this zone-blocking scheme. Eventually, I think he can be pushed outside to RT and will compete with Mitchell Schwartz but this year, he will learn the ropes inside along Joe Thomas and Alex Mack and should be a huge addition for our offensive line.
McQuistan, Pinkston, Greco, and Gilkey (mostly solid, experienced veterans) will all be fighting for the starting RG spot and back up roles along the line. I am assuming that Fragel and Faulk will not be moved inside to compete, but I could be wrong. If Shanahan does that (and given Fragel's athleticism I could see him wanting to at least take a peek at him there) things could get very interesting.
I like the talent on paper, I need to see mauling in the trenches to be happy though.
3. ILB2 - Craig Robertson, Christian Kirksey; Darius Eubanks; Tank Carder; Justin Staples
ILB is crucial position in Mike Pettine's 3-4 defense. With the performance in the middle last season, and lots of new, young players in the fold today, it's going to be fun to watch this battle. Aside from Karlos Dansby, I think rookie LB, Christian Kirksey is going to come in and really turn some heads. I think Kirksey will mostly play ILB but I also think you see him moved outside with frequency due to his ability to cover, press, and rush. This versatility will create a competitive rotation at ILB during camp.
I had been working on, but was never able to finish on account of my wedding, an in depth film breakdown based on the 4 games available on draftbreakdown. The kid is extremely fast (4.52 sec 40 at his pro day) with a 36" vertical and a 10' broad jump. While watching his tape, it was evident he can cover the slot and that he's naturally a speed player; he can play press man vs. bigger WR/TE; has ability to turn his hips and use his speed to run with receivers and backs; he can blitz off the edge; he's relentless and was always around the ball, playing all the way through the whistle. Kirksey was a 2 year captain and leader of the Iowa Hawkeyes defense where he was a consistent tackler combining for 199 tackles during his junior and senior year with 8.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. He'll need to add strength and continue to improve getting off blocks, but the foundation is there. He's wired the right way.
2013 UDFA, Darius Eubanks (listed as LB on team page but played safety in college) will essentially compete at ILB with Kirksey. Eubanks is a tremendous athlete, very similar to Kirksey, and he flashed some great things when called up from the practice squad last year. Keep an eye out for his performance in camp. He's fast (4.48 sec 40) and has decent change of direction (6.95 sec) and explosion (35" vertical) for his height and size - 6'1' / 215lbs. It would be exciting to see him really emerge this season.
Craig Robertson flashed "starting ILB ability" during his rookie season in 2012, especially in pass coverage. However, last season, the 2nd year ILB was often and badly exposed in coverage as the year went along. Was his poor performance a function of the entire defensive decline under coach Horton, or was this because he is just a mediocre at best ILB? Again, this will be something to watch in camp. His story is a great one, but can he adapt and compete with the younger guys and deliver results for coach Mike Pettine?
Tank Carder and Justin Staples will need to show a lot to stand out. Not sure they will provide much to look for during camp but their contributions on special teams will prove key to their earning a roster spot.
4. RB - Ben Tate; Dion Lewis; Terrance West; Isaiah Crowell; Edwin Baker
For me, this position battle is going to be nearly as important and exciting as the offensive line. We are going to run the ball often in Kyle Shanahan system and chances are it will be by committee. If successful, our RB's can help set the tone for this offense and open up the play action attack.
The veteran free agent signing of Ben Tate excited many fans because of his fit in the new ZBS scheme and his speed. While our running game last season was abysmal, Ben Tate is a talented north south / one cut runner who has had success in the ZBS in Houston. He very well could step in and be the starter, but there are two extremely talented rookies behind him who I feel will eventually gobble up the majority of the snaps for the Browns. It's going to be fun to watch.
Terrance West WAS Towson University. He single handedly made that program relevant. His senior year he scored 38 touchdowns and ran for 2295 yards on 364 touches. Let that sink in for a minute. At 5-9, 225lbs, Terrance West racked up 4640 yards rushing and 81 touchdowns on 753 carries - that's 6.16 YPC and 1 TD every 9 touches! Not to mention he runs a 4.54 sec 40 and his hard nosed, strong, north south style will help set the tone in the AFC North. Moreover, his style highlights the "Play Like a Brown" mentality that the team will not only hope to talk about, but execute on Sundays.
Isaiah Crowell has had off the field troubles while at Georgia that impacted his move to Alabama State to finish off his collegiate career. There were also reports that he carried a negative attitude while at Alabama State and that he wasn't exactly a team player. These concerns caused him slide in the draft.
Having the chance to prove himself might be just what he needs. As an UDFA, he represents no risk, but the reward could be huge. He arguably was one of the most talented RB in the class this year so if he can change how he approaches the game on the field and his decisions off it, he is going to be a valuable asset to this team and has the talent to dominate the AFC North.
Depending on how many RB's we keep on the roster, I think Dion Lewis and Edwin Baker are long shots. Dion Lewis, a Joe Banner signing (and a good one at that) did showcase some extremely explosive ability last year in camp and preseason before fracturing his fibula and injuring ligaments in his left leg. If he comes back healthy as he vowed last November, this could set him apart should an injury or a character concern hold back one of the other aforementioned RB's.
5. WR - Andrew Hawkins; Miles Austin; Nate Burleson; Travis Benjamin; Anthony Armstrong; Charles Johnson; Willie Snead; Chandler Jones
This is the position battle that has drawn the most attention over the last few months on account of Josh Gordon's looming suspension. It's impossible to replace his production, but more than one guy from this group has to emerge, right? That's why we'll need to watch.
One of the Browns biggest splashes this off-season felt like a big ole double dip! We were able to add the speedy receiving talent of Andrew Hawkins to our roster and did so at the expense of our AFC North division opponent Cincinnati Bengals.
Hawkins is going to be fun to watch. His past usage, size and speed suggest that he will be our slot receiver, but I expect him to be used all over the field. I expect him to be a chain mover for us with plenty of explosivenees and shiftiness in the open field to be a playmaker. He executes excellent routes and his route timing will go a long way towards helping our QBs develop trust and confidence in him.
The next biggest splash among our receivers was bringing in the talented veteran, but often injured, Miles Austin. If Austin's hamstrings can hold up (and that's a big if) he has the ability to play a big role for this team. He has the speed to sneak behind the defense but also has the ability to win battles and move the chains along the sideline and underneath. If Austin can step up and return to his past form with the Cowboys, he would essentially fill the role (not necessarily the production) of the #1 receiver while Josh Gordon is out.
Assuming Austin can stay healthy, Nate Burleson and Anthony Armstrong are another somewhat dependable group of veteran receivers who will battle it out for the WR2 role opposite Austin during camp. Armstrong will need to prove he can get behind the defense consistently. Burleson needs to show consistent route running and the ability to create space to make the catch. Burleson also needs to show that he's fully recovered from his broken arm.
Travis Benjamin will also compete for the WR2 role but is coming off knee surgery that ended his season last year. His speed electrified the crowd on kick offs and punt returns, but his inconsistent hands will need to be improved if he hopes to impress as a receiver. He represents a real vertical threat, but he needs to show he is a complete receiver.
Lastly, Charles Johnson, Willie Snead and Chandler Jones will battle it out to fill out the depth chart and hopefully surpass some of the aforementioned veterans. Talent development at the WR position is going to be important for the Browns. If one or two of these young kids can really set themselves apart from the veterans - who are mostly average NFL receivers - we'll be in good shape at the position.
The hope is that Charles Johnson's on the filed performance can match his impressive physical traits. Johnson stands 6'2" and weighs 215lbs. He clocked a 4.38 sec 40, 39.5" vertical, 11'1" broad jump and a 6.96 3 cone. Those are eye-popping numbers. Johnson was signed from Green Bay's practice squad last October but during his physical learned that he had a torn ACL. This camp will be his first real look at a roster spot (Green Bay's WR were essentially set) and he has the opportunity to earn a significant role on this team and in it's future if he can translate his physical gifts to the NFL.
Both Snead and Jones are very dependable pass catchers with Snead being more of the possession guy and Jones being the speed guy. Snead ran a 4.5 sec 40 at his pro day, but what gives him a good chance is his production and dependability in college: 2nd in school history with 214 receptions, 2940 receiving yards, 25 TD's and (13) 100 yard games.
Jones ran a pair of 4.38 sec 40 at his pro day and was often found getting behind defense and in end zone while playing at San Jose State. Even with all the talent at the WR position this year, it was somewhat surprising that he wasn't drafted.
6. CB2/3 - Buster Skrine; Justin Gilbert; Leon McFadden; Pierre DeSir; Isaiah Truffant; Aaron Berry; TJ Heath; Royce Adams; K'waun Williams
OK, moving on. The competition between Justin Gilbert and Buster Skrine for CB2 should actually be a pretty good one at first. Cornerback is, in my opinion, the 2nd hardest position to transition to in the NFL, so I think there will be a learning curve for Gilbert. That being said, given his tremendous physical ability, I expect Gilbert to be able to secure the CB2 job at some point early this season, which will allow Skrine to move inside and play to his strengths. PFF advanced stats confirm that Skrine is a much better DB when he plays from the slot, in fact he's among the best in the NFL.
That leaves the rest of the group to battle it out for the CB4 / depth roles. Pierre DeSir is a very intriguing, athletic, long, rangy, raw playmaker who stepped up when facing better competition at the Senior Bowl. He showed great instincts and the ability to locate the ball in coverage and he can close quickly. He will need to get stronger and learn to play more physically in both the pass and run game. Once he does this, and refines he footwork, he could easily push Skrine for the CB3 spot and provide Mike Pettine another versatile, tall, physical corner to utilize as he desires.
Leon McFadden was drafted by Joe Banner in the 3rd round even though some scouts in the building had him rated much lower. I had high hopes for McFadden last season and I thought his ability to play one on one in college would translate better than it did to the NFL as a rookie. I wasn't expecting a starter, but I was looking for a lot more. While he still may be able to emerge in his sophomore season, he and all the rest of the defensive backs in the hunt will need to play extremely well and then contribute on special teams to secure a roster spot and fill out the depth at the CB position.