Cameron just getting started?
The Cincinnati Bengals come to Cleveland Sunday with two blue-chip tight ends, a first-round rookie who's bigger than most linebackers and faster than some safeties, and a former first-rounder who's gone to the Pro Bowl in both previous seasons in which he's been a full-time player.
That the best tight end in Sunday's game just might be on the Browns roster says a whole lot about how far Jordan Cameron has come.
Miles and miles isn't a totally accurate way to measure it. The way the 6'5 Cameron has been jumping over defenders to haul in clutch passes this season, it's more like leaps and bounds. He tied a franchise record last week with three touchdown catches in the Browns first win of the season, and through three games his 20 catches for 269 yards and four touchdowns rank among the top seven across the NFL. The only more productive tight end at this early stage of the NFL season has been another former basketball player, Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints.
Besides giving the Browns a much-needed weapon with unique skills to make plays down the field and in the red zone, his sizzling start has given Cameron the chance to authoritatively say that he, too, is a former basketball player.
"Frankly, I'm tired of hearing about basketball," Cameron said. "I'm not a basketball player. I'm a football player now. I guess it helps. These tight ends nowadays have basketball backgrounds but I don't want to be known as a basketball player.
"It's one of those things that I've been working for I don't know how long. It just feels like forever. You have to be patient and I just put my head down and kept grinding every day. I'm just trying to focus on the little things and sometimes you can get caught up in hearing everyone else say, 'You're not going to make it. You're not good enough. You're just a basketball player.'"
Cameron's 20 receptions through three games this season match his total from all of last year and surpass the 16 he caught in his entire college career, all of which came in 2010. After starting his college career as a basketball player at BYU, he had a short junior-college detour, then was a wide receiver at USC in 2008-09 before moving to tight end for his senior year.
It's not just the numbers that show up in the box score that mark Cameron's progress. He'd never played this much football, period, before the season opener earlier this month. First by necessity and now by his production, Cameron went from a role player -- he made eight starts in 20 games over his first two seasons -- to a guy that never leaves the field. Cameron played 64 of the Browns 77 snaps against the Dolphins, 58 of 63 against the Ravens and 65 of 73 last week against the Vikings.
Even after the Vikings decided to start finding him in the offensive formation last week, he caught the game-winner on a fade route from Brian Hoyer that no defender had a chance to get and many receivers might not have.
"He gets better every day out there," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "He's a talented guy. You could see that physical part of it right from the beginning. It's just a matter of him playing more, understanding the game better. He's really worked at it to make those strides. He's made plays. That's the bottom line in this league at any position is when you have the opportunity, you make plays, and he's been able to do that."
Chudzinski was a tight end at the University of Miami and a longtime tight ends coach at the college and NFL levels. He's coached some of the game's best in previous stops at the University of Miami and with the Browns and San Diego Chargers, and in Cameron he sees a lot of the same traits he saw in other players who enjoyed very successful careers.
"They're all different. As far as Jordan goes, he's very athletic; he's very smooth; he runs faster than what it appears he's running and moving; he has tremendous hands and ball skills; and he can jump and get up and get balls," Chudzinski said. "He's just learning the nuances of the game and the position. As he continues to do that and get more reps with the attitude he's taking and growing as a player, he'll continue to get better and better."
Drafting well and having patience haven't been staples of the Browns organization, but Cameron looks capable of continuing to climb. He'll need to now that the word is out and defenses will be keying on No. 84 coming out of the huddle.
"You see he's really grown," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence now. He can really separate and move and has the athleticism to go up there and compete against defensive backs. He obivously is going to out-athlete most linebackers as a receiver. You have to be conscious of where he is at all points."
The Bengals have injury issues in the secondary and this week signed safety Chris Crocker, a Browns draft pick before Cameron had his driver's license. The Browns continue to be a team in transition as Hoyer makes his second start this week and top receiver Josh Gordon plays in his second game, but it's safe to say feeding Cameron will be a part of the Browns attack Sunday.
The Bengals drafted tight end Tyler Eifert to be able to complement Jermaine Gresham and keep defenses honest in the middle of the field, potentially making defenses pay for devoting too much attention to A.J. Green. Three games into 2013, Gresham and Eifert have combined for 24 catches for 248 yards; neither has scored.
The Bengals have more offensive weapons than the Browns have, and their offensive goals (and results) have been different. Just become Cameron has essentially outperformed the Bengals tight ends thus far doesn't mean he'll continue to do so, but he has arrived. And he may just be getting started.
"I haven't made it by (any) means," Cameron said. "I have a lot of work to do and I've got to keep progressing each week, but this is one of those things where I'm just happy that I was there for my teammates (last week)."