BEREA, Ohio — The Browns wide receiving corps has been in flux for much of the off-season and into training camp.
The Browns top three wide receivers in 2013 on paper were Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Davone Bess. Two of the three for sure are gone and possibly all three, if Gordon is suspended for the season.
The Browns didn’t draft a wide receiver and signed veterans Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins, Earl Bennett and Anthony Armstrong. Bennett was released before mini camp and Burleson has been nursing various injuries since joining the Browns.
That is why the Browns are hoping one of the younger, lesser-known receivers can step up. One of those candidates is Charles Johnson.
However, Johnson is currently listed with the fourth team behind Austin, Burleson and Armstrong. With Burleson slowed with a hamstring and Armstrong not doing anything spectacular to date, the door is still open for Johnson.
On Saturday, Johnson flashed across the middle in the back of the end zone and hauled in a pass from Johnny Manziel for a touchdown in the goal line offense.
Johnson (6-2, 215) started slowly but has started to make plays and has caught the coaches’ eyes in recent days.
"I think that Charles Johnson is starting to get a little more consistent," Mike Pettine said. "I think in the beginning, he was a little inconsistent. He’s starting to show improvement. He made a nice catch over the middle (Wednesday)."
Johnson, 25, was snatched off the Packers’ practice squad in 2013 after he was Green Bay’s top practice player several weeks in a row and on the verge of being promoted to the Packers’ active roster. However, when he arrived with the Browns, it was discovered he had been practicing with a torn ACL. Johnson had surgery and spent the remainder of 2013 on injured reserve.
After missing the OTAs and minicamp, Johnson was able to start training camp on time. He said he’s been able to pick up the system.
"It’s been pretty good," Johnson said. "I think I’m an intelligent guy. I pick up concepts pretty well. I come from a concept (based) system in Green Bay and also in college, so a concept (based) system really works for me. I’m able to learn things quickly."
Johnson is often seen after practicing taking extra reps on the JUGs machine and working on catching passes.
"Yeah, I’ve got to," he said. "I’m behind right now. I’m out here trying to catch up to the other guys because I’ve been out for a long time. I’m trying to rehab and get back to where I need to be. I need to catch up. I don’t think I’m at where I want to be right now so I have to put in that extra work."
Johnson caught three passes for 30 yards in the preseason opener, including a 15 yard reception. He was excited to have the opportunity.
"It was a blessing to be out there," Johnson said. "Just to be able to go back out there and be able to get in an NFL game and get my first NFL catch, even though it was the preseason, it was a great moment for me. All I want to do is cry because you never know when it could be your last day. Just for God to bless me here and be able to bless me on that field and get a catch — I could be gone tomorrow and I’ll still be happy with where I’m at."
Johnson played at Division II Grand Valley State and has been fighting the small school stigma that comes with it. He averaged 17.4 yards a catch and had 128 receptions for 2,229 yards and 31 touchdowns in just two seasons there.
"Guys always want to knock small school guys like we don’t have competition, but I think we come in and we’ve got a lot of competition at our level as well," he said. "Coming out here with these guys was really no jump for me when I came out as a rookie. The small school talk isn’t for me. You’ve got to come out here and work and compete."
Skrine Out; Gilbert In: CB Buster Skrine missed practice Saturday after leaving the field Friday with a thumb injury. Pettine said there is a possibility that he will need surgery.
Pettine said he thinks Skrine will be ready for the opening regular season game.
I’m not sure how long he’ll be (out), but we think he’ll be ready for Pittsburgh," he said. "We’re confident he’ll be ready."
Skrine has had a good training camp and was putting up a strong battle with top draft choice CB Justin Gilbert, who will make his debut against the Redskins.
"It’s been good to have Gilbert out there and it will be good to see him going up against some good receivers," Pettine said.
Gilbert sat out the first preseason game with a groin injury. He’s returned to practice this week and has been taking reps with the first team. On Saturday, Gilbert teamed up with CB Joe Haden and broke up a deep pass from QB Brian Hoyer intended for WR Travis Benjamin. Later, he broke up a pass for WR Jonathan Krause.
Pettine said that Skrine has had a great training camp.
"I think if you were ranking guys for how good of a camp they’ve had, he would be right up there at the top," Pettine said. "He’s a guy that loves to compete and didn’t want to just hand the job over to Justin Gilbert."
Pettine said that he’s counting on Skrine this season.
"Buster is a guy who is going to have an important role for us."
Concern for Bryant’s Wrist: DL Desmond Bryant missed practice Saturday once again and won’t play against the Redskins. Pettine admitted that surgery hasn’t been ruled out.
"That’s a possibility," Pettine said. "He’s had some issues with his wrist that has bothered him."
Pettine said Bryant has had it looked at by doctors to determine what the best move is.
For Starters: Pettine said he still plans on playing the starters for most of the first half, even if the Redskins play their starters just a quarter.
Pettine said he would call Redskins coach Jay Gruden about the plans for the game. Pettine said that RB Terrance West would get some work with the ones, in addition to QB Johnny Manziel.
Fighting Words: Practice was stopped for several moments as OL Mitchell Schwartz and LB Justin Staples seemed to start a shoving match. Quickly the whole team was in the middle of a pile. After the players were separated, Pettine stopped practice and sent the troops to run sprints for the next five minutes.
"I thought it went a little too far," Pettine said. "I understand it’s going to happen and that’s the price of doing business."
Pettine said up until that point, the practice was sloppy anyway.
"It was a culmination of the sloppiness and the length of the fight," he said. "I was pleased with how they responded after the fight. I told them we don’t need a traumatic event to snap us back."
Gordon Back: WR Josh Gordon was back at practice and there’s a chance he will play in the preseason game on Monday.
"We’re hopeful we’ll see how he responds to the practice. I talked to him he said he was a little bit sore."
As the ruling on Gordon’s possible suspension drags into the third week of the preseason, Pettine admitted it is frustrating for the Browns.
"I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it was frustrating," he said. "We’re just patiently waiting, maybe not so patiently, but it’s out of our control."
There was a report by ESPN that the ruling might linger into the end of next week.
On the Side: The following Browns did not participate in today’s practice due to injury: DB Aaron Berry (groin), OL Michael Bowie (shoulder), DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), WR Nate Burleson (hamstring), DB Pierre Desir (knee), LB Darius Eubanks (shoulder), OL Randall Harris (knee), LB Eric Martin (concussion), OL Paul McQuistan (ankle), LB Keith Pough (ankle), DB Isaiah Trufant (knee). – NFI: OL Nick McDonald (wrist).
Johnny with Jon: Browns QB Johnny Manziel sat down with ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden Friday afternoon at the Brown’s facility.
The interview will be featured as this week’s SportCenter "Sunday Conversation" debuting on the Sunday 8 a.m. ET edition.
Nice Turnout: The total attendance for Browns 2014 training camp was 43,740, the third-highest attendance since 2005, when figurers were first recorded. The team only hosted more people at training camp in 2008 (58,100) and 2006 (43,898), when there were 26 and 29 sessions, respectively.The Browns average attendance this year was 3,364, the highest mark since at least 2005.
"It’s been tremendous," Pettine said. "I came here and the fans had a certain reputation. You kind of sense it from the outside — the passion, the loyalty. They just proved it over the course of training camp. I think we averaged the most fans the Browns have ever had for training camp. You can just sense the enthusiasm.
"It’s something I think is going to be huge for our guys," he said. "We want the Dawg Pound to bring back the days of old when home-field advantage will truly be a home-field advantage. You look at what Seattle has been able to do with the 12th man. If we go out there and are playing good football and give our fans something to cheer about, they’ll be among the loudest in the league."
Quick Hits: QB Brian Hoyer hooked up with WR Miles Austin on several crossing routes as did QB Johnny Manziel…Hoyer threw a deep ball to WR Travis Benjamin for a touchdown in 11-on-11 when Benjamin got behind DB Leon McFadden and DB Robert Nelson…Hoyer had two touchdowns in the red zone…Manziel hit WR Charles Johnson in the back of the end zone in the red zone…DB Royce Adams intercepted a pass from Manziel.
Next Up: The Browns will travel to Washington to take on the Redskins on Monday Night Football at 8 pm. After an off day on Tuesday, the Browns will return to practice on Wednesday to start preparation for their first preseason game at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sat. Aug. 23.