For the third time in four years a new head coach will lead the Cleveland Browns into training camp. In other words, last year doesn't matter.
Mike Pettine will have open competition at several positions. Minicamp and the OTAs that preceded it convinced Pettine that Brian Hoyer is ahead of rookie Johnny Manziel at quarterback, but he added "the lead isn't insurmountable."
Running back will also be watched closely. The Browns signed Ben Tate in free agency, but he'll be challenged by rookie Terrance West. Tate had a minor injury during the minicamp in early June and West took advantage of an opportunity to run with the starters.
As the Browns await word on a likely suspension for wide receiver Josh Gordon for reportedly testing positive for marijuana, Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are looking at a wide-open competition at wide receiver.
Andrew Hawkins and Anthony Armstrong were the standout receivers in minicamp. Hawkins is the slot receiver. He proved to be quick and difficult to cover. Armstrong was comfortable because he played for Shanahan when Shanahan was offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins.
Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Travis Benjamin and Chandler Jones are in the mix.
Whoever wins the starting jobs will have difficulty replacing Gordon. Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013.
Finding two starting guards will be another mission of training camp. Rookie Joel Bitonio, second-year player Garrett Gilkey and seventh-year veteran John Greco will jockey for the starting jobs. Gilkey was the right guard and Greco the left guard in minicamp while Bitonio was sidelined with an ankle injury. He is expected to be ready for training camp. All three are capable of playing both positions.
Fewer battles are expected on defense. Craig Robertson and Christian Kirksey are wrestling to start next to Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker.
This is an important training camp for second-year linebacker Barkevious Mingo. Mingo had a sack in each of his first three games after missing the opener last year, but only two in the last 12 games. The new 3-4 defense the Browns are playing will give Mingo, Paul Kruger and defensive end Jabaal Sheard more freedom to rush the quarterback.
When Ray Farmer moved down to nine and then up to eight so he could take cornerback Justin Gilbert with his first pick as a general manager, it was assumed Gilbert would win the starting job at right cornerback. But Gilbert did not take command during OTAs and minicamp. Buster Skrine is determined to hold onto the job. If he does not he will likely be the nickel back.
Rookies and injured veterans report: July 23
Healthy veterans report: July 25
First practice: July 26
Camp ends: Aug. 15
Coach Mike Pettine and the Browns are not ready to give up on troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Pettine told The Plain Dealer in Cleveland this week that Gordon is expected to show up for the start of training camp on Friday.
"We have no plans to cut him," Pettine said, according to The Plain Dealer. "I know there's been a lot of debate over that, but I don't see us having that debate.
"I think we need to find the middle ground of what's best for Josh and what's best for the organization. I know (former NFL receiver) Cris Carter came out and said that (the Browns should release Gordon), but we think you can find that middle ground of what's best for our players and best for the organization. It worked for Cris, but cutting Josh might be the worst thing for him and the worst thing for us."
Gordon faces a possible one-year suspension for multiple violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Pettine thinks an announcement on the length of Gordon's punishment will come down from the league offices in the next 10-14 days.
"If any of our players are in need of help, we'll do our best to provide it for them and also that we're going to do what we feel is best for the organization," Pettine said. "By league guidelines, whatever help we can provide him, we're going to do it. A Cleveland Brown is a Cleveland Brown. If we feel we can help him, let's help him.
"Sometimes you're handcuffed by the situation, so until it plays out then there's really nothing tangible we can do at this point."
Gordon was arrested for driving while impaired earlier this month in Raleigh, N.C.
Despite serving a two-game suspension last year for a previous failed drug test, Gordon finished with 87 catches for an NFL-best 1,676 yards and had nine touchdown receptions.
The 23-year-old Gordon also pleaded not guilty to a speeding ticket in June. He was pulled over for driving 74 mph in a 60 mph zone on May 25 and fined $187. His passenger was cited for possessing less than 200 grams of marijuana.
--The interest in quarterback Johnny Manziel has made the Browns alter their training camp plans. Practice is still free to the public, but management is encouraging fans to register online by going to clevelandbrowns.com/training camp 14 in order to be guaranteed admission.
The training facility has a capacity of about 5,000 fans. The Browns are pushing the registration idea so fans do not make the trek to Berea only to find out the place is packed.
The Browns are considering holding training camp at a different site next year.
--Tackle Joe Thomas is the only player still on the roster from the last time the Browns had a winning season. Thomas was a rookie when the Browns were 10-6 in 2007. Since then they have gone 5-11 three times and 4-12 three times.
--While at the NFL Combine in February, Manziel said he would change his lifestyle once he got to the NFL. That has not happened. He has been photographed numerous times guzzling champagne including one episode while riding an inflatable swan.
"That lifestyle is going to be a short lifestyle -- a short career lifestyle -- if he continues that," Hall-of-Fame running back Emmitt Smith told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas recently. "As we used to say, you can't keep burning the candle at both ends of the stick. The candle gets small fairly quick. Johnny is going to have to figure it out."
--Team strength: Linebackers.
Coach Mike Pettine, as a former defensive coordinator, is trying to model his team after the Seahawks and 49ers. He is expecting the defense to carry the load this season, particularly the pass rushing linebackers -- Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard, who at times will line up as an end.
Sheard led the Browns in sacks each of his first three years in the league. He is excited about the season ahead because he is playing the role of Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills. Pettine was the Bills defensive coordinator last year.
--Breakout player: Safety Donte Whitner.
Whitner is entering his ninth season and he has been to the Pro Bowl three times, so why would he be considered a breakout player? Because the Browns have never had an impact player like him.
Whitner has already proven he is a strong leader. He can change a game by a bone-jarring hit or an interception, as he proved during his three seasons with the 49ers. Whitner has extra motivation to succeed because he went to Glenville High School in Cleveland.
--Fantasy football reality check: Running back Terrance West.
The rookie might not wrest the starting job from Ben Tate, but when it comes to third-and-1 or a goal-line situation you can expect offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to dial West's number.
West scored 41 rushing touchdowns at Towson. That isn't a career number. That is his production from 2013. Certainly the level of competition is going to be different in the NFL and he'll probably get a wake-up call in preseason, but he is worth a mid-round to late-round fantasy draft pick if he scores just one fourth of the touchdowns he scored last season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Brian Hoyer. Backups - Johnny Manziel, Tyler Thigpen, Connor Shaw.
Hoyer is in his sixth season and that gives him the edge over Manziel heading to training camp. Coach Mike Pettine vows to make the competition between Hoyer and Manziel even so the deck isn't stacked. Manziel has made more news for partying hardy whenever the Browns weren't practicing. He won't be able to do that in the prison-like situation of training camp. The scheme of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is new to both players, though Hoyer said there are some elements of it in what the Patriots ran when he was in New England from 2009-11. Hoyer is a pocket passer. Manziel makes his living with his feet as well as his arm. Shanahan can adapt the offense for both. Thigpen, a seven-year veteran, and Shaw, an undrafted rookie, will battle to be the third quarterback.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Ben Tate. Backups - Chris Ogbonnaya, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell, Edwin Baker, Dion Lewis, FB Ray Agnew.
Running back is one of the most wide-open positions on the roster and an important position in Shanahan's offense. Ogbonnaya and Baker are the only holdovers from last year and neither is likely to start. Tate signed in free agency after backing up Arian Foster in Houston where he averaged 4.7 yards a carry in three years. Tate said no other back on the roster can match what he can do. West, a powerful runner between the tackles, will give him a run for his money. Crowell, 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, is the wild card. NFLDraftScout.com said Crowell had as much talent as any back in the draft, but he has a checkered past and durability issues so he was not drafted. Lewis broke his leg in training camp last year and might not get the chance to win a job. He did not participate in minicamp. Ogbonnaya is listed as a fullback on the roster, but was used as a running back in minicamp. He is a better runner than blocker and last year was second on the team with 240 yards rushing.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Jordan Cameron, Jim Dray. Backups - MarQueis Gray, Gary Barnidge, James Oboh.
The Browns are likely to open in a two-tight end set because of Shanahan's commitment to run the ball. Dray would be the second tight end in such formations because he is a better blocker than the backups. Shanahan is experimenting with Gray as a fullback, so Gray could end up as an H-back and Dray would become a backup. Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He caught 16 passes and three touchdown passes in the two games Hoyer started and finished. He will be a focal point of the offense again.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Josh Gordon, Nate Burleson. Backups - Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Anthony Armstrong, Travis Benjamin, Kenny Shaw, Taylor Gabriel, Charles Johnson, Willie Snead, Chandler Jones, Jonathan Krause.
Until the Browns hear otherwise, Gordon is on the active roster. He reportedly tested positive for marijuana, but so far the Browns have not heard from the league. They expect to know Gordon's fate before the start of training camp. He faces an indefinite ban for a third offense. It would be a huge loss to the offense because he led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards last year. The battle for starting jobs will be closely watched in training camp if Gordon, as expected, is banished. Austin, Burleson and Hawkins all figure to play prominent roles, yet all three are coming off injury-plagued seasons in 2013. Ditto for Benjamin, who might begin camp on PUP as he continues his recovery from a torn ACL. Johnson is also recovering from a knee injury. Armstrong was out of football last year, but he has an advantage because he played in Shanahan's offense with the Redskins. Jones showed in minicamp he can catch the deep pass. The Browns could have a decent receiving corps if each player lives up to his potential, but that might be a lot to ask.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C Alex Mack, RG John Greco, RT Mitchell Schwartz. Backups - G Garrett Gilkey, G Jason Pinkston, G/T Paul McQuistan, T Reid Fragel, T Jeremiah Warren, G Chris Faulk, T Keavon Milton, T Randall Harris, C Alex Parsons, T Martin Wallace.
Shanahan is a big believer in zone blocking. The Browns' offensive line is built with athletic players more than bulldozers, which is a reason general manager Ray Farmer used the 35th pick on Bitonio. Thomas is in his eighth season. Mack is in his sixth and though he has been to the Pro Bowl twice he has yet to play on a winning team. Pettine is his fourth head coach. The Browns have depth on the offensive line, particularly inside with McQuistan and Gilkey. One year ago, the Browns scored four rushing touchdowns. That number should increase greatly with better running backs and better blocking.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Ahtyba Rubin, RDE Desmond Bryant, NT Phil Taylor. Backups -- T Calvin Barnett, E Armonty Bryant, E Cam Henderson, T John Hughes, NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, T Jacobbi McDaniel, E Billy Winn.
The Browns will use a 3-4 base defense, but also play 4-3 alignments, depending on what the opposition shows. Jabaal Sheard, a linebacker, will line up as a defensive end in some 4-3 formations. This is an important camp for Desmond Bryant, who underwent a heart procedure in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's scheme depends on a heavy pass rush. He usually rushes four, but could drop his inside linemen into coverage and blitz a cornerback. Armonty Bryant and Winn will be part of the rotation at end. Rubin is one of the most athletic players on defense. He weighs 330 pounds, but can chase a running back like a linebacker. The Browns showed faith in Taylor by picking up his option for next year.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Barkevious Mingo, ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Christian Kirksey, SLB Paul Kruger. Backups -- OLB Jabaal Sheard, ILB Craig Robertson, OLB Tank Carder, ILB Zac Diles, ILB Darius Eubanks, OLB Eric Martin, OLB Justin Staples.
Coach Mike Pettine wants the linebackers to be the most improved segment of the team. Mingo, Kruger and Sheard won't be asked to drop into coverage as often as they were in the defense they used last season. Sheard in particular is excited about that. He led the Browns in sacks for the third straight year, but his totals steadily declined -- 8.5 sacks in 2011, seven in 2012 and 5.5 a year ago. Dansby is the big addition to the defense. He replaces D'Qwell Jackson. Dansby made impact plays with the Cardinals last season -- 6.5 sacks and four interceptions -- and the Browns are counting on a similar output. Sheard, Kruger and Mingo will rotate.
One of the better battles of training camp will be between Kirksey and Robertson to start inside. Dansby is experienced enough to help cover mistakes by the rookie Kirksey.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Joe Haden, RCB Justin Gilbert, FS Tashaun Gipson, SS Donte Whitner. Backups -- CB Buster Skrine, S Johnson Bademosi, S Josh Aubrey, CB Aaron Berry, S Darwin Cook, CB Pierre Desir, DB T.J. Heath, CB Leon McFadden, CB Robert Nelson, S Jordan Poyer, CB Isaiah Trufant.
After quarterback, coach Mike Pettine considers cornerback the most important position on a football team. To that end, the Browns took Gilbert with their first draft pick. Gilbert enters training camp backing up Skrine but is expected to win the starting job. Whitner along with Dansby was a big score in free agency. Changing half the starting secondary is a reflection of the coaching change. Depth in the secondary is a strength. Aubrey and Bademosi can sub for Whitner and Gipson. Berry is trying to restart his stalled career. Desir will battle for playing time as a dime back.
Haden is happy with a five-year contract extension and Gipson led the Browns with five interceptions in 2013. An improved pass rush working with an improved secondary should make defense a strength.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Billy Cundiff, P Spencer Lanning, LS Christian Yount, KR Justin Gilbert, PR Travis Benjamin.
Cundiff was 21 of 26 on field-goal tries a year ago. He is a weapon on kickoffs; not including onside kicks, 53 of his 62 kickoffs a year ago resulted in opponents starting at or inside the 20. Lanning will be working on his distance in training camp. His net average last year was 37.9 yards. Finding two returners is an important project in minicamp. Benjamin is coming off a torn ACL. Special teams coach Chris Tabor is wary of using a first-round draft pick as a kick returner. Dion Lewis, a running back, could land a roster spot by winning the job. Yount is automatic as a long snapper.
TRANSITION PLAYER: C Alex Mack (tendered at $10.039M; Browns matched Jaguars offer April 11).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--RB Willis McGahee (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHT FREE AGENTS: None.
UNSIGNED DRAFT CHOICES
--CB Justin Gilbert (1/8).
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--QB Johnny Manziel (1/22): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--G Joel Bitonio (2/35): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Christian Kirksey (3/71): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Terrance West (3/94): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Pierre Desir (4/127): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--K Billy Cundiff: Potential UFA; $1.02M/1 yr.
--C Alex Mack: Transition FA (Browns matched Jaguars offer); $42M/5 yrs, $26M guaranteed.
--LB Craig Robertson: ERFA; $570,000/1 yr.
--WR Anthony Armstrong: FA; terms unknown.
--WR Miles Austin: FA Cowboys; terms unknown.
--CB Aaron Berry: UFA Jets; terms unknown.
--WR Nate Burleson: FA Lions; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Karlos Dansby: UFA Cardinals; $24M/4 yrs, $14M guaranteed.
--LB Zac Diles: FA; terms unknown.
--TE Jim Dray: UFA Cardinals; $5.625M/3 yrs, $2.25M guaranteed.
--WR Andrew Hawkins: RFA Bengals (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); Bengals didn't match offer of $13.6M/4 yrs.
--T/G Paul McQuistan: UFA Seahawks; $3M/2 yrs, $750,000 guaranteed.
--RB Ben Tate: UFA Texans; $4.7M/2 yrs, $1.5M SB/$2.5M guaranteed ($1.5M total potential per-game RB).
--QB Tyler Thigpen: FA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Isaiah Trufant: Not tendered as RFA by Jets; $1.54M/2 yrs, $1M guaranteed.
--S Donte Whitner: UFA 49ers; $28M/4 yrs, $13M guaranteed.
--WR Davone Bess (released).
--QB Jason Campbell (released).
--WR Josh Cooper (released).
--G/T Oneil Cousins: UFA Buccaneers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Quentin Groves (released).
--LB D'Qwell Jackson (released).
--G Shawn Lauvao: UFA Redskins; $17M/4 yrs.
--WR Greg Little (released).
--DT Brian Sanford (released).
--QB Alex Tanney (released).
--S T.J. Ward: UFA Broncos; $22.5M/4 yrs, $14M guaranteed.
--QB Brandon Weeden (released).
--RB Fozzy Whittaker (released).
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Johnny Manziel
- Cleveland Browns
- Brian Hoyer