Things to Watch for in Training Camp:
Part Three – Overall Team:
1) – Which long shot(s) has/have a chance to make the roster and which rookies seem to pick up the game quickly?
The obvious starting point would have to be undrafted rookie free agents – currently the Browns have a couple of players that fall into this category. Josh Cooper, Matt Cleveland, Emanuel Davis, and Bert Reed are a few of the members whom will be competing for roster spots or to possibly be a member of the practice squad. With the perceived lack of productive wide receivers (even with the acquisition of Josh Gordon), the odds of Cooper or Reed ending up on the team may be stronger than in other positional groups; being Brandon Weeden’s second favorite target in college helps Cooper. Cleveland will have a tougher time to become a member of the franchise with his namesake – the Browns drafted two offensive linemen this year (and already have one of the youngest units in the league). He will have to be close to dominant in camp to have a shot. Davis plays in the secondary and could help with special teams; the fact that last season the Browns kept James Dockery, an undrafted rookie free agent cornerback, in 2011 could work for or against Emanuel Davis. It shows the team is willing to keep these players, however it is another member that will be in competition to remain on the roster.
The Browns selected several members in the 2012 NFL Draft; a few are expected to be opening day starters against the Philadelphia Eagles. In training camp, the development of Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, and Mitchell Schwartz should be noted. The playbooks should have been studied and if the three begin to master their techniques in July, the team’s season will begin to look promising. The Josh Gordon supplemental draft selection is intriguing, as he comes into the same scenario as Greg Little did the year prior (missing the previous season); how quickly he learns the game could help determine the wide receiver depth chart. As previously mentioned, the combination of Billy Winn and John Hughes could be the option for a starting defensive tackle spot – their competition with a few veterans will include a lot of eyes by both fans and coaches. Owen Marecic is only a second year veteran, but his starting fullback job could be in jeopardy should rookie Brad Smelley outperform him in training camp and preseason.
2) – How healthy can the roster stay throughout the offseason?
Football, one of the most violent games, naturally includes players sustaining injuries and missing playing time. This is the case for all NFL franchises – the rosters with more talent will be able to withstand these setbacks. For the Browns, the team already will be without the services of defensive tackle Phil Taylor for several months. It will be crucial; if they want to remain competitive, that no other starters get severely injured before the regular season commences. There will be the usual bumps and bruises (especially in training camp), but the team cannot afford these to exacerbate.
The other side of injuries is that the team will be able to see the team’s overall talent level and depth should a major player miss time. Although this will give way to a player’s opportunity, it reduces the option for rotating players and weakens the team’s depth should the new starter get sidelined for a long period of time. One thing to watch with the Browns is how cautious the coaching staff is with players getting hurt – they may hold players out for injuries deemed to be not as serious in an attempt to prevent additional harm. Stemming from the Colt McCoy concussion last season (and the resulting league-wide concussion talk), it’s more than likely that the team will err on the side of caution in training camp.
3) – Is there noticeable improvement (in all 3 parts of the team)?
In the OTAs and mini camp, many outlets – both locally and nationally – have praised the Browns offense and mentioned the progression from last season. Yes, there have been perceived improvements (especially with the rookie draft selections). However, training camp will provide another test for the unit to see if the new players are an upgrade and whether the group can lessen their mistakes. Will we see larger gains and the ability to move the football downfield with ease in practice? That will definitely be the key; if onlookers can see this is not the same offense that took the field in 2011, then the faith and confidence seen this offseason will continue. Everyone will agree that the offense will not be perfect in training camp, but expectations should center around the steady learning of the West Coast Offense while getting timing and rhythm down.
The defensive unit made strides in 2011 but struggled mightily against the run – this area should be the main gauge of whether they have improved in the offseason. If the front seven can get off their blocks and force the offense to shorter gains, supporters could have a bit more of comfort heading into the preseason. Compound this with the fact that rookie of the year hopeful Trent Richardson will be the main target for the defense in practice (I do not expect the defense to shut him down entirely), surrendering runs of just a few yards would definitely merit improvement. Additionally, the abilities of the secondary to blanket the receivers and the pass rush to get to the quarterback should be monitored. Worst-case scenario (to still be considered an improving defense) is that these areas maintain status quo; a step back in either area – on a consistent basis – could be cause for concern in the 2012 season.
The special teams for the Cleveland Browns were extremely ineffective last season; this unit must improve if the franchise wants a chance to pull out close games. Punter Reggie Hodges will return from his season-long Achilles tendon injury – one would have to assume we will see a similar performance to what he did in 2010 (which was solid for the most part). Likewise, the team should expect kicker Phil Dawson to have fine performances on a weekly basis. Therefore, where the team needs to be better is in the coverage and return units. The new kickoff rules have crippled returns for NFL teams; so the team must make the most of these opportunities when they arrive. The new rookie class and younger veterans (i.e. Emmanuel Acho, James Michael-Johnson, and Travis Benjamin, etc.) need to step in right away and improve the Browns special teams. Where the unit’s improvement will be noticeable is in overall speed and the ability to flip the field (creating a positive gain on returns and reducing the gain on coverage).