Staring down a season without Josh Gordon, does it really matter who is the starting quarterback in Cleveland?
Mike Pettine said it at least three times on the eve of his team’s first training camp practice: “It’s time for football.” A turbulent offseason tested the new head coach’s patience, with news of top receiver Josh Gordon facing a one-year suspension after a failed drug test, Gordon’s subsequent DWI arrest and photos of Johnny Manziel’s summer partying. Did any team want to get back to football more than the Browns? They were welcomed back by fans who haven’t been this riled up in a decade—the attendance on opening day was nearly 4,000, the highest since at least 2005—but a team that hasn’t won more than five games since ’07 has a lot of work to do to maintain that enthusiasm. “Right now, we’re undefeated,” Pettine said. “But as my dad likes to remind me, we haven’t won a game yet, either.”
One vivid memory from watching practice
Just as important as who will be throwing the football on Sundays—Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel—is who will be on the receiving end. Josh Gordon, the NFL’s leading wideout last season, is waiting to hear the result of his suspension appeal, but the team is preparing to move on without him. He began the first practice working with the third team, and took no more than a handful of reps with the starting offense. Tight end Jordan Cameron is a bright young talent, but with Gordon out, who will stretch the field? Miles Austin, the former Cowboys Pro Bowler, started camp off well, but the team is gambling that he’s overcome his chronic hamstring issues. Andrew Hawkins adds speed but not size.
“There’s not a huge difference from the first guy to the last guy,” Pettine said of his receiving corps. He meant that as a positive, but that can easily be interpreted as mediocrity.
How this team can go 12–4
Brian Hoyer starts 16 games. The hometown boy isn’t expected to hold off Johnny Manziel all season—I think Manziel will be starting by midseason—but Cleveland’s best chance for success in 2014 is having Hoyer take hold of the job with smart, steady play. That could be a big ask; Hoyer has never started more than three games in a row in the NFL, and he’s coming back from ACL surgery—something that is usually more challenging than players want to admit. But we’ve seen this formula work before: An attacking defense, paired with a game-managing quarterback who has enough moxie to win a few games on his own.
How this team can go 4–12
The scenario we see all too often in the NFL: Brian Hoyer starts a few games and the team struggles. Seeking a spark, the coaches turn to Johnny Manziel, who’s not quite ready to lead an NFL offense. The defense plays well but has no margin for error, and grows frustrated that its effort isn’t turning into wins.
Now, from Fantasyland …
1. Other than tight end Jordan Cameron, steer clear of Browns pass-catchers.
2. Look for rookie running back Terrance West in the later rounds. He’ll push Ben Tate for playing time in an offense that will run the ball with regularity.
3. You might prefer the approach of picking up defenses based on the weekly matchup, but the Browns’ D could be one worth holding onto all season. AFC North games are often low-scoring, and Pettine’s scheme and personnel should produce a lot of sacks and turnovers.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|RG||John Greco / Garrett Gilkey|
|3rd WR||Nate Burleson / Anthony Armstrong / Travis Benjamin / Charles Johnson|
|QB||Brian Hoyer / Johnny Manziel|
|RB||Ben Tate / Terrance West|
|OLB||Paul Kruger / Barkevious Mingo|
|ILB||Craig Robertson / Chris Kirksey|
|OLB||Jabaal Sheard / Barkevious Mingo|
|CB||Buster Skrine / Justin Gilbert|
|3rd CB||Buster Skrine / Justin Gilbert|
Joel Bitonio, the team’s second-round pick out of Nevada, should be ready to start at left guard. Garrett Gilkey is taking the first-team reps at right guard while John Greco is on the non-football injury list, and Gilkey will challenge Greco for the job. With Gordon facing a yearlong ban, the Browns are taking a thorough look at their receivers. They spent the first practice sending players in and out with the first-team offense. Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick, is expected to move into a starting role opposite cornerback Joe Haden, but he began camp on the second team.
Best new player in camp
His one-handed catches were spectacular—I saw at least two during Saturday morning’s practice—and that’s the kind of skill that will earn rookie running back Terrance West playing time. The third-round pick from Towson also has the right attitude: He isn’t fazed by having veteran Ben Tate ahead of him on the depth chart, and considers it a competition, even if Tate doesn’t agree. Pettine admitted that Tate has an important advantage, being trusted in pass protection, but the coaches were rotating in West with the first-teamers during 11-on-11 drills.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Barkevious Mingo will lead the team in sacks. Mingo, the sixth overall pick in 2013, hit some speed bumps in his rookie season, but Pettine hopes “the switch has been flipped.” You hear coaches say that a lot, but there are reasons this will be the year Mingo harnesses his natural ability—a second year at outside linebacker, and a new defensive scheme that thrives on exploiting matchups.
Something I’ve never seen before
The conditioning test for the veterans was open to the media on Friday night, the first time it has been so in the memories of all the Browns beat writers. It was an insightful window into a part of training camp that is often hidden behind the scenes (though the Giants, where new Browns PR boss Peter John-Baptiste spent 17 seasons, have opened it, too). Blazing cornerback Buster Skrine was the MVP.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
The Browns have a Week 4 bye. It could be when they install Johnny Football into the offense.