Little working hard to improve upon rookie year

A year ago the Browns weren’t sure what to expect from rookie wide receiver Greg Little because he was banned by the NCAA from playing his senior year at North Carolina and like everyone else he had no offseason program because of the lockout.

Now Little is the wide receiver they are counting on. He did not play his final year with the Tar Heels because he accepted gifts from an agent. Naturally, part of 2011 was about feeling comfortable as a receiver again. But all that is behind him. He is looking smooth in the Browns minicamp this week.

“I’ve seen him look a lot quicker, a lot more sudden,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “To this point he’s caught the ball at a much more consistent rate. He just looks like a different guy to me – a guy who’s been through it once.”

At their exit meeting after last season, Shurmur advised Little how to take care of his body better. Little listened. He worked out at Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami. Fla., before the Browns’ offseason conditioning program began in April. He changed his diet and lost 11 pounds without losing strength.

Little said linebacker Chris Gocong’s wife Mandy made cupcakes every Thursday last season. They were so tasty Little would eat seven to 10 of them. They were good on the taste buds but not so good for his budding career.

Little played at 230 pounds last year. He weighed a sleek 219 Wednesday.

“That’s one of the things the guys got on me about,” Little, 23, said. “If you’re not as light as you need to be, you’re not going to be as swift on the field as you need to be. I feel just as strong and even faster and feel better on my feet as well.”

The emergence of Little is about more than just saying no to cupcakes. He dropped a team-high 12 passes in 2011 and dedicated the offseason program to catching the football better and running better routes. He studied DVD cutups of his plays to recreate what he did right and change what he did wrong as a rookie.

“We try to avoid saying, when a ball is dropped, ‘Hey, catch the ball.'” Shurmur said. “It’s about focusing on a small point. It’s about your eyes and your fingers and catching the tip and all of those things.

“We have an increased number of drills that we do and I think you’ll find in coaching and teaching that you get what you emphasize and we’ve emphasized it a great deal. He’s (Little) embraced working at it and we’re hopeful it will show up that way once we start playing for real.”

Little is working at catching the football with his hands and not his body. He said he watches plays from last year and shakes his head about how sloppy some of his routes were.

There were times last year when Little started running before he secured the ball. He caught one in practice during minicamp, did secure it, but lost it after two steps when defensive back Dimitri Patterson whacked it from his grasp. Those are the mistakes he is determined not to repeat.

“I just wasn’t focusing,” Little said of last year. “I was trying to do too much. Defenses are taught to swipe at it and get it out when they can. That’s why you practice – to be perfect in a game.”

Little and Mohamed Massaquoi will likely be the starting receivers. Rookie Travis Benjamin, Jordan Norwood and Joshua Cribbs will battle to be the third receiver.

NOTES, QUOTES

Browns want to be better in the red zone

–The Browns hope to be more productive in the red zone this season by using Greg Little and Evan Moore as possible targets on fade routes. Rookie Brandon Weeden has shown the touch to make those passes.

“We tried to throw fades early in the year (2011) and we didn’t hit on them a percentage high enough,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think the slant means a lot more if the defender has to defend the fade and of course in our offense we like to throw slants.

“(Weeden) does have good touch on a lot of his throws and we saw yesterday he made some very accurate throws way down the field. That’s really just like throwing a short go route in my opinion.”

–Former Ravens and Browns running back Jamal Lewis has filed for bankruptcy. He claimed to have $14.5 million in debts and $10.5 million in assets. Lewis invested in a trucking company, hotels, theme parks and resorts, according to reports.

Lewis played seven seasons with the Ravens before playing his final three with the Browns. He retired after the 2009 season.

–Scott Paxson continues to work alongside Ahtyba Rubin at tackle with the first team defensive line in place of injured Phil Taylor. Rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes are also contending for the job.

–Phil Dawson is participating in the mandatory minicamp and not looking like a 37-year-old kicker in his 14th season. He barely missed a 70-yard field goal attempt with a wind at his back.

Dawson did not attend the voluntary OTAs. Instead, the player the Browns franchised two years in a row stayed at home in Austin, Tex., with his wife and three children.

“I think the world of Phil,” Shurmur said. “He’s one of those guys that I know is going to do outstanding work for us.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: I look like two totally different quarterbacks in my footwork. You can tell I’m processing stuff a little bit faster and I’m not thinking quite as much.” – Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

All indications are Brandon Weeden is winning the battle with Colt McCoy to be the starting quarterback.

Coach Pat Shurmur could announce Weeden as the starter after OTAs next week, he could wait until the start of training camp or he could continue splitting reps with the first team between Weeden and McCoy into the preseason.

“Ideally, we’d have a starter now,” Shurmur said before practice Wednesday. “When you have new players you really like – that’s why you picked them – you need to see them come in and do it before you make that move.

“I think once we’ve made the decision, that’s the deal. If you know that he’s going to be your guy, then make it happen so everybody gets comfortable working with that guy all the time.”

Shurmur likened the situation with the Browns to 2010 when he was offensive coordinator in St. Louis and the Rams took quarterback Sam Bradford with the first pick in the draft that year. The Browns took Weeden 22nd overall in 2012.

Veteran A.J. Feeley was given the chance to compete for the job by former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, even though Bradford was the presumed starter from the beginning.

As it turned out Spagnuolo dragged out his decision. Spagnuolo did not name Bradford the starter until eight days before the 2010 season began.