Five major storylines to follow as the Cleveland Browns open training camp this weekend…
1. It’s Johnny Manziel vs. Brian Hoyer as the headliner, but there are lots of other intriguing battles, too.
New coach, new general manager, new systems, new opening day quarterback, new hope. It’s almost like the Browns have done this before.
They have, it’s new coach Mike Pettine’s turn to oversee thing. It looks like Hoyer’s turn, too, though history says the highly-drafted rookies eventually win these battles. It will probably be evident early whether or not Manziel snuck in any conditioning or playbook work between tropical vacations over the last four weeks; it should be evident, too, if Hoyer is as fully healthy and confident as he’s said he is after spending nine months rehabbing a torn ACL.
As far as other position battles, Ben Tate came to the Browns via free agency but will have to hold off a crowd of less-recognizable runners, including a rookie the Browns traded up to get in Terrance West. Somebody has to play wide receiver with Josh Gordon expected to be suspended, and there are both jobs to won and new names/faces in the mix to win them at guard, linebacker and cornerback.
Just as important to the development of these Browns are the old names in new roles and/or on the hot seat. When there are new coaches and new ideas, players the previous administration invested in had better produce, and of those Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin come to mind. Hoyer, Jordan Cameron and Jabaal Sheard are among those entering the final year of their contracts, upping the sense of urgency and potentially the stakes in the quarterback derby.
2. What’s the offense going to look like — and who is it going to feature?
It’s a tricky question with the quarterback situation unsettled. New coordinator Kyle Shanahan has a history of using multiple running backs, of running the read option and of using multiple tight ends. Here, has a mobile quarterback in Manziel and a mobile enough but not a threat to run quarterback in Hoyer. He has a Pro Bowl tight end in Jordan Cameron but questions behind him and throughout the receiving corps, and the Browns have dumped enough money into the offensive line that they have to be able to run the ball to open up other avenues of attack.
We don’t know what the Browns offense will look like schematically, and it’s not likely a few weeks of camp and four preseason games will provide much of an answer. But these are important weeks for the offense’s development, comfort level and chemistry, and that’s part of the reason Pettine wants to name a quarterback before the third preseason game. All that’s clear now is that the offense will be a work in progress and that the running game will have to be productive to help the quarterback and keep the defense off the field. If this team can’t run, it’s really going to struggle to win.
3. The Browns have to thrive in camp, not just survive.
Camp is important. Getting to the season with your best players healthy and playing well at the right time are more important. Though Pettine said through the spring the Browns will be healthy going to camp and that’s certainly importamt, here the Browns are, again, in a spot with new coaches and new systems and plenty of jobs to be won (including one at the game’s most important position), making their camp probably more important than the camps more established teams are holding. So, the Browns have to find a way to get a bunch of work done while saving gas in the tank for a very long season ahead, especially given that their lone bye week comes in the fourth week of a 17-week season.
The good news on the fresh legs and upside front is that the Browns are again a young team — just eight players on the camp roster are 30 or over, and only kicker Billy Cundiff is over 32 — with plenty of room to grow. When it comes to camp, Joe Thomas deserves some days off. Ditto Alex Mack, Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby, Joe Haden and others. But with the new training camp rules cutting down on the number of practices and requiring a day off every week — and the goofy preseason schedule calling for nine days between preseason game No. 1 and No. 2, then three games in 10 days — Pettine is inevitably going to have difficult decisions to make in distributing days off and allowing players to heal from minor nicks and bruises while still trying to maximize limited opportunities to gel with a new staff and create a new identity.
4. The Browns are better. How much better? And will it be evident early?
The Browns are still chasing the rest of the AFC North but seem more prepared for that chase and more talented top to bottom than they’ve been. An aggressive free agency period and the maturation of the young talent on hand should lead to a camp that’s noticeably better than previous editions. Better management helps, too; last year, the Browns didn’t even bring 50 NFL players to camp. The question of how much better this Browns team can and will be won’t be answered for a while, and whether this team can be the first since 2007 to crack five wins remains in question, too. But an overall look at this camp past the quarterback battle should show a strong defense looking for chemistry and depth, a strong offensive line looking for the same and better overall players and competition looking first to make the roster, then to make the roster better.
5. The Josh Gordon problem looms, even if Gordon gets suspended and sent home from camp.
There’s still no official NFL resolution to what Gordon is facing after reportedly violating the league’s substance abuse policy and getting a July DUI. Assuming some sort of ruling comes down and Gordon is suspended, the Browns will be without their most explosive playmaker. That could and should make for an interesting camp battle as the quarterbacks continue to develop a rapport with Andrew Hawkins and Cameron, and the team’s decision makers see if something can be salvaged from the 30 and up club of Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Anthony Armstrong. But missing Gordon means missing a true every-down threat and puts extra pressure not just on Hawkins and Cameron but on Travis Benjamin and Charles Johnson, and in the long run it both makes the Browns easier to defend and means the team has to keep either answering questions about or keep hoping for answers to questions about Gordon’s long-term status. Coaches hate distractions and quarterbacks hate having limited weapons. Gordon has put the Browns in a really bad spot.