With a three-day, full-squad minicamp in the books, the Browns’ offseason work is officially all but done. Here’s a recap of what took place and what to watch as the Browns go forward…
TOP STORYLINES: Let’s go ahead and count to four with these…
1. The quarterback play. Jake Delhomme is trying to revive his career and brings a great amount of experience and leadership to the huddle. But Eric Mangini came out of minicamp saying he isn’t ready to declare Delhomme the starter — the LAST thing this team needs is another QB competition/controversy — and will make sure Seneca Wallace gets his share of reps, too. Wallace got chances through the spring in a variety of Wildcat-type packages with Joshua Cribbs also in the backfield, and it’s clear the Browns will use such things to keep defenses guessing. But if this season is going to be any type of success the Browns need Delhomme to command the huddle and be able to complete passes and move the chains on third and 5.
2. Run to win. Jerome Harrison did last December what he spent two-plus years telling people he could do, and with a solid offensive line and fullback in front of him he says he’s ready to do so again. The Browns are going to have to run the ball, and they’re going to have to do it against eight (or maybe even nine) man fronts. Second-rounder Montario Hardesty seems to be a Mangini favorite and is off to an impressive start, and second-year man James Davis is getting back to health. There’s enough depth and talent here to believe the Browns will be able to run successfully.
3. The rookies are on call. Mangini’s track record says he’s not afraid to play rookies, and the Browns didn’t draft Joe Haden seventh overall to sit and watch. There’s even a possibility that two rookies — second-rounder T.J. Ward and fifth-rounder Larry Asante — could start at safety with a strong summer showing. Hardesty is very much in the mix, and third-rounder Shaun Lauvao will at least be given a shot to win the right guard job. Maybe part of the talent upgrade this team needs comes from this class? At very least, the Browns need these guys to get big-stage experience and show signs of growth going forward.
4. At full strength, how good can this team be? Shaun Rogers is a game-changer, but he’s coming off injury, probably facing a short suspension and isn’t exactly the head coach’s favorite. If David Bowens, Scott Fujita and Ben Watson (among a few others) can stay healthy, the Browns will at least compete. Offensively there are lots of questions but there also is room for improvement and a pretty good offensive line in place, and the special teams should again be among the league’s best. Signs point to improvement and improved comfort level with the coaching and schemes, but time will tell if these team has the manpower to go toe-to-toe with the AFC North’s best.
WEIGHING IN: There’s improved depth and experience at quarterback, tight end, linebacker and in the secondary, where the Browns paid a lot of money to Sheldon Brown not only to be a tutor but to be a playmaker. The young receivers are improving but still have tons to prove. The safety position remains a huge question mark, and the Browns have lots of smart and versatile linebackers but do they have enough true impact linebackers? The Browns need to make strides and stay healthy through the preseason because they open with winnable games — and true chances to evaluate on a pretty level playing field — against Tampa Bay and Kansas City.
UP AND DOWN: The minicamp was a lot like the open OTA practices in May and early June. On some days the quarterback play was vastly and noticeably improved; on other days it was dreadful. The experience level Delhomme and Wallace have, though, is evident and should help every facet of the offense in training camp. The Browns hope that will carry over into the season as well. If the running game succeeds and Delhomme doesn’t throw it to the other team, they’ll have a chance to get some early wins and build some confidence. If the offense doesn’t click early it might be another very long season. Second-year receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie look to be on the improve and the tight end position appears significantly upgraded with Watson and Alex Smith and Evan Moore’s progression, so maybe there’s more hope for the passing game than may appear.
WITH RESTRICTIONS: As is too often the case with the Browns, the real news of this week is due Tuesday when the June 15 deadline hits and teams can rescind or lower tender offers made to their unsigned restricted free agents, of which the Browns have five — all basically starters. Harrison and Lawrence Vickers were the only ones of the group to show up for any of the spring work, and it seems D’Qwell Jackson and Abe Elam have the most to lose in terms of money and potential playing time. The smart play for these guys is to sign the tender and move ahead, but strange things happen in this league. Matt Roth figures to be a starting outside linebacker and a big part of what could be an improved defense — and Jackson certainly thinks he should be a starter, too — but he has to show up for that to happen.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Based strictly on what was seen over the last four weeks and not meant to jump to conclusions…
1. Hardesty — It’s clear that he’s going to have a chance to win a role (if not the starting job) and make an immediate impact. Impressed Mangini with his classroom work, and his college resume that he’s ready for the field, too. The most intriguing guy in a crowded backfield.
2. Chris Gocong — He’s playing 3-4 outside linebacker for the first time in his career, but he has the size and smarts Mangini loves. He seemed to be catching on to the coverage aspect, and the team hopes he’ll help in getting to the quarterback as well.
3. Carlton Mitchell — Sixth-round receiver out of South Florida made some impressive plays — mostly against the third-team defense, but he made plays. He has a nice size-speed combo and doesn’t exactly have Jerry Rice in front of him as he pushes for early playing time.
GET TO KNOW: Five guys you probably don’t know a lot about but look to have a real shot to make the roster coming out of the spring work…
Chris Chancellor, undrafted rookie CB out of Clemson; Brian Schaefering, a well-traveled but still young defensive lineman who played well at the end of last year; second-year linebacker Marcus Benard (ditto Schaefering; he also benefited this spring from Roth’s absence), undrafted rookie WR Johnathan Haggerty of Southwestern Oklahoma; and Bubba Ventrone, an undersized safety and special teams demon.
IN SUMMATION: I think Cribbs is going to make the team. Ditto Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. Eric Wright, Robaire Smith and Scott Fujita probably have a job, too. Oh, you wanted a serious summary? There’s still little certainty in terms of long-term answers, but there is upgraded depth and competition at most every position. There are ingredients for a successful run game and an improved run defense. It’s still not a very fast or overly talented roster, but it is one that seems to have a good mix of upside and leadership — better than last year’s, anyway. The stage is set for an interesting and important training camp.
ON DECK: Summer vacation for the veterans and coaches. The rookies will be around a few more weeks. Look for the draft pick negotiations to really begin in mid-July, with reporting dates set for late July and a likely (but not yet announced) start date of July 31 for full-squad, open-to-the-public training camp.