Things to Watch for in Training Camp:
Part One – Defense:
1) – Who steps up at defensive tackle and how will the defensive line rotation look?
The injury to the 2011 starter Phil Taylor opens up a job, at least for a half of the season, for one member of the Cleveland Browns. In a press conference following the free agent period, general manager Tom Heckert stated newly acquired defensive lineman Frostee Rucker will start and play primarily opposite Jabaal Sheard at end and would likely move inside to tackle on passing downs. Juqua Parker, the other 2012 pickup, will fill Rucker’s primary spot while being a pass rusher. That rotation helps with the newly vacant position of defensive tackle part of the time, but who fills in for the remainder of downs?
Currently, Brian Schaefering and Scott Paxon, both veterans of two seasons, have a leg up in the experience department regarding playing time as an NFL defensive tackle. Couple these athletes with the 2012 rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn (among a few under the radar veterans) and there will likely be good competition for that fourth spot on the defensive line. It will be interesting to see who is able to stand out in training camp regularly – being in shape, shedding blocks, making tackles, and disrupting the offense. When the rotation occurs in passing situations, it will be very likely that the other starting defensive tackle (Aythba Rubin) will come off the field, as the Browns will want to employ quicker players with fresh legs. Therefore, two of these players (previously reserves) will likely see a fair amount of playing time before Taylor returns. For a positional group that does not receive as much fanfare, constructing the best defensive line possible is imperative for success in 2012.
2) – How do the defensive players look coming back from injury?
Each of the three players that fall into this category face different situations regarding possible playing time, a guaranteed roster spot, and how they will hold up physically in 2012.
Let’s first examine third-year veteran T.J. Ward who overcame a foot injury. The strong safety has been in the starting lineup for all twenty-four games he has participated in. He is a second round selection by the current front office who has played rather well when healthy. Ward, whom has expressed that he has healed completely from his 2011 injury, will get starting repetitions in training camp. The expectation is that the safety will recover well and improve on his prior two seasons – especially in pass coverage where he has not been as strong. His play early on in camp may be an indication on where he is physically and how hard he has worked since rehabbing his injury.
Next is eleven year linebacker Scott Fujita, who broke his hand last season (and is currently suspended the first three games for being a member of the Saints’ bounty scandal). Being an aging veteran who will not participate for the entire 2012 season, Fujita’s roster spot may not be guaranteed. In April, the Browns drafted James Michael-Johnson and Emmanuel Acho, both linebackers, with the intention of them becoming potential starters one day. His hand is back to one-hundred percent, but there are more angles to this circumstance. The Browns have to decide whether keeping Fujita is worth the potential problems and negative press surrounding the team (resulting from Scott challenging his ban to the commissioner). Assuming the veteran remains with the Browns in 2012, I expect him to be a situation player with a reduced role.
Finally, Marcus Benard is entering his fourth season after he missed twelve games last year with a broken hand (which the completion of healing process has also been confirmed) resulting from a motorcycle crash. Like Fujita, Benard’s roster spot is not going to be guaranteed in 2012, but instead of age it is due to his roster position and how he entered the league. Breaking onto the scene in 2009, Benard came from the practice squad to the active roster while recording three and a half sacks in his first six games. This increased to seven and a half sacks over fifteen games in 2010. The undrafted free agent will have to compete with drafted players, whom are usually given more time to prove their worth; his track record will give Benard a shot.
Being a defensive end could be troublesome – especially with the additions of Jabaal Sheard, Frostee Rucker, and Juqua Parker who will figure heavily in playing time. #58 will be one player to keep an eye on in training camp to prove whether he belongs.
3) – Will the defense look like a unit or 11 guys on the field?
Last season, the Browns defense was up and down in the NFL overall rankings (top ten in fewest points allowed, second fewest passing yards, third most rushing yards per game). The end result is that there still is room for improvement in 2012 – to see if this occurs, we should focus on the eleven individuals who comprise the group. Are there missed assignments, and if so, are they corrected quickly? Does one teammate know where the remaining ten players are on the field each snap? Along those lines, can one athlete anticipate another member on the Browns’ actions in a given situation? In order for the defense to improve from 2011 and become dominant, every single player must be on the same page every down. This starts with leadership – both the coaches and veterans have to get the message across, especially in training camp. Communication is also important among teammates, which can be enhanced here as well. No success is guaranteed if the defense, as a whole, appears to be in sync; however if they exhibit cohesion early on there is reason to feel optimistic that opposing teams’ offenses will be on the field less in 2012.